When it comes to the NHL playoffs, the hockey is all-world, but the format is bush league. Only in the NHL could the No. 8 seed be favored in the first round over the conference champion.
The Nashville Predators have been one of the NHL’s biggest surprises this season, right alongside the New York Islanders. They’ve led the Central Division most of the way and have been going back-and-forth with the Anaheim Ducks for first in the Western Conference.
For all their hard work, however, the Predators could conceivably end up as the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and face the Los Angeles Kings as the No. 8 seed.
That’s right, in the NHL, the reward for finishing first in your conference could be the right to play the defending Stanley Cup champions in the first round.
Would anyone be surprised if the Kings “upset” the Predators in a seven-game series?
What if, however, Nashville got to play all seven games at home? Some might still take the Kings, because they're just that dominant in the post-season, but the smart money would be on the Predators.
And isn’t that how it should be? The higher seed should be the favorite. And when it’s a No. 1 seed against the No. 8 seed, it should be the overwhelming favorite.
As it stands now, however, the playoff format renders the regular season relatively useless. Nashville could finish as much as 20 points ahead of Los Angeles and get all of one extra home game to show for it after being by far the better team over an 82-game marathon.
And L.A. couldn't care less. The Kings can cruise through the first four or five months and then turn it on just in time to make the playoffs. After all, what incentive is there for a team like Los Angeles to go all-out for a higher seed anyway? The Kings don’t care about that additional game, because they know they don't need home-ice "advantage" to win. Rest is the greater reward.
If extra home games were on the line, however, you can bet your bottom dollar that teams like the Kings would be jockeying for position instead of just trying make the playoffs.
Imagine this: the number of home games increases with each higher seed and decreases with each lower seed (home splits in parentheses):
No. 1 vs. No. 8 (7-0)
No. 2 vs. No. 7 (6-1)
No. 3 vs. No. 6 (5-2)
No. 4 vs. No. 5 (4-3)
Teams would be rewarded accordingly, and the regular season would become far more intense instead of being a six-month long Kenny G concert followed by two months of Rage Against the Machine. The format would require going back to the No. 1 through No. 8 conference playoff format, and it'd only apply to the first round, after which the playoffs would revert to the current 4-3 structure.
As far as money is concerned, a revenue-sharing system would distribute playoff profit fairly among all 16 playoff teams. It could go in one big pot, and each team’s share would be based on the number of games played in the first round.
As far as fans are concerned, it’d be a good thing if owners were breathing down the necks of executives and players all season long to force them to go after a higher seeding so the people who pay to watch them during the regular season can see them in the playoffs.
If the Predators do end up facing the Kings in Round 1, they will lose. That’s what the NHL has come to. And so an eighth seed will “upset” a first seed, and no one will be surprised.