Derek Stepan and Sidney Crosby. Image by: Getty Images
The three best teams in the NHL right now all reside in the Metropolitan Division. And thanks to the NHL's playoff format, two of them are sure to be eliminated before the conference final.
As it stands right now, the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets have the three best records in the NHL. And if the playoffs were to start today, one of the three would definitely be out after the first round and at least two of them would be destined to be on the sidelines before the Eastern Conference final.
And the New York Rangers, who currently sit fourth in the Metropolitan Division, would, on paper, have the easiest path of the four to the conference final because they’d be guaranteed to play the first two rounds against teams with fewer points than they have in the standings. Yes, much can happen between now and when the regular season ends, but that’s the way things sit right here and right now.
Why are things skewed so badly this season? Well, you could attribute it all to the vagaries of the system and take it as a one-off, or at least a statistical anomaly. Indeed, this is the first time in the four seasons the NHL has gone to a wildcard system that a wildcard team could end up with more points than a division winner. So perhaps it’s just to be chalked up as a rare occurrence. But the fact is it wouldn’t have happened even this year if the parity-obsessed National House League – with its trumped up and misleading playoff races fuelled by loser points – had simply kept things the way they should be.
Apparently the playoffs are not exciting enough to stand on their own – but anyone who watches the first two rounds of the playoffs knows that’s not the case - so the league has to make sure that it pits division rivals who play each other four or five times a season against each other early in the post-season tournament. It’s a line of thinking that’s almost as flawed as the one where the league publicly clucks its tongue at headshots and other on-ice garbage, but quietly and tacitly condones and encourages that kind of behavior by not penalizing it seriously. You know, sometimes, like in the playoffs, you don’t really have to hate each other to have an intense and competitive series.
And the league thinks it’s helping its own cause, but it’s actually hurting the product in the long run. Take this year’s playoffs in the Eastern Conference as an example. If they were to start today the Capitals would take on the Toronto Maple Leafs; the Montreal Canadiens would play the Rangers; the Penguins would play the Blue Jackets and the Ottawa Senators would play the Boston Bruins.
So let’s say for argument’s sake that all the teams with better records as of now would win their first-round series. That would set up a second-round of Washington-Pittsburgh and Rangers-Ottawa.
But if the league had not gone with the wildcard system, the first round would look like this: No. 1 Washington vs. No. 8 Toronto; No. 2 Pittsburgh vs. No. 7 Boston; No. 3 Columbus vs. No. 6 Ottawa; No. 4 Rangers vs. No. 5 Montreal. And if the better teams prevailed in all of those series, it would set up a second round of Washington-Rangers and Pittsburgh-Columbus.
What hockey fan without a dog in the race would not want to see those matchups in the second round of the playoffs? By guaranteeing that two of the top three teams in the league would be out after the second round, the league would have unwittingly seen its desire for rivalries wipe out what would be two second-round series between division rivals, three of whom just happen to be the best teams in the NHL. (Curiously, the playoff bracket in the Western Conference would look exactly the same under either format.)
Worse than that, though, it incentivizes teams to lose games. I wouldn’t suggest for a minute that the Rangers would lose games down the stretch in order to gerrymander the standings to get a better opponent, but I would suggest that they’re probably not terribly upset that they have a 5-5-0 record in their past 10 games. The Rangers are in a perfect spot – they’re 14 points up on the Leafs for the first wildcard so nothing short of a collapse of biblical proportions would knock them out of that spot and they stand to have a less arduous road to the conference final.
If you think players and coaches don’t have that on their minds, you’re kidding yourself. It’s impossible to convince players and coaches to tank for a better draft pick because they’re not wired that way. They want to win as often as they can and their pride simply would not allow it. But this is something completely different. This affects them directly and it has a very real impact on their chances of winning a Stanley Cup.
“You think players don’t look at the standings every day and figure out what they need to do?” said one former NHL coach. “They absolutely do. They know exactly what’s going on.”
Let’s imagine that Columbus finishes third in the Metropolitan and knocks off either Pittsburgh or the Capitals in the first round, then upsets either the Penguins or Capitals in Round 2. They’d go into the conference final having defeated the top two teams in the league. They’d almost certainly be seven-game series, one against one of the fastest teams in the NHL and the other against a big, powerful and menacing opponent. They’d be lucky to get to the Eastern Conference final still able to stand up. And there’s a chance they’d face a Rangers team that would have faced Montreal and Ottawa.
So if you see the Ranges in the Stanley Cup final this year, don’t be surprised. They’re a very good, very mature team. And there’s a chance they’ll have a built-in advantage handed to them by the NHL.
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