The pros and cons of the 3 most likely NHL playoff formats


We may not know many of the specifics for the 2021 NHL season just yet, but we are starting to learn what the options are. The playoffs are a long way off, but figuring out the format is one of the myriad of issues left for the NHL and NHLPA to agree on.

Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic lays out the three most likely options for what the playoff format will be. Here's a breakdown of what they are and the pros and cons of each option.

Divisional playoffs

The format: The top four teams in each division make the playoffs with the first two rounds being played just within the division. No. 1 vs. No. 4 and No. 2 vs. 3. The division winners would then play in the semifinals.

Why it is a good idea: Follow the money. We expect the divisions to be realigned for the season geographically which means a divisional format would reduce travel costs. The expected Canadian division is a bit of an exception, obviously, as Toronto could potentially play Vancouver, as an example. But, for the most part, this would keep travel costs low.

We also do not know when the Canadian border will be open again. This format would allow as much time as possible for the border to open as Canadian teams would play each other throughout the regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs. This would only become an issue towards the very end of the season and, frankly, if the border is still closed by then we probably have some bigger issues to worry about.


Logically, this makes sense just because it pits the teams together that have been playing each other throughout the season. If teams are going to be limited to playing within their division for the entire season, it makes sense to keep those divisions together into the postseason.

This is easily the most realistic of the three postseason plans LeBrun presents.

Why it is a bad idea: You are going to get sick of seeing the same teams. If teams are limited to playing just within their division, one of two things will happen. Those matchups could build in intensity as the season goes along in which case a playoff series will be great. Conversely. those games might just get stale and fans will get bored of the same teams playing over and over again.

Admit it, when the Caps played the Rangers in 2015 you probably groaned when you saw the matchup because it was the fifth time in seven years they played. That felt stale after years. How much worse is it going to be when the Caps play a team like the Rangers seven times in a shortened regular season, then get ready for a seven-game series in the playoffs?  

Also, this would make the league very regional for the season. Whatever else is happening across the NHL almost doesn't matter because anything outside of the division has no bearing on the standings at all.

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Conference playoffs

The format: Two divisions form a conference, the teams are seeded 1 through 8 with No. 1 vs. No. 8, No. 2 vs. No. 7, etc.

Why it is a good idea: By the end of the regular season, you will want to see the Caps play someone else. Opening the playoffs by conference will allow teams to play someone new, thus adding a bit of a spark for the fans.

Why it is a bad idea: What conferences? There are conferences? Not this year. If the reported NHL divisions are accurate or at least in the ballpark, then it is going to be nearly impossible to organize the league in a way that will make sense. How do you make a conference out of a Canadian division that spans from Montreal to Vancouver, a Pacific division and two divisions that combine the East Coast with the Central? Any grouping to make a conference will feel artificial. When the goal is to cut costs this season, why would you open up the playoffs to a conference format that would combine divisions that literally span to both sides of the continent?

1 vs. 16

The format: Take the top 16 teams in the NHL and have a pure bracket-style tournament with No. 1 vs. No. 16, No. 2 vs. No. 15, etc.


Why it is a good idea: Who doesn't love a bracket?

Inevitably, the divisions are going to be imbalanced. One may be much together than the other three or one may be obviously terrible compared to the others. Either way, that will allow teams that may not deserve it to not only make the playoffs, but go deep. A divisional format, for example, would automatically give a team from a bad division a seat in the league semifinal. By seeding each team and just taking the 16 best, it ensures there is no easy path to the Cup.

Why it is a bad idea: I hope you enjoyed your trip to fantasy land because that's where this format belongs. Again, follow the money. You know what won't cut down costs for the season? A first-round match between Boston and Los Angeles, or Edmonton and Florida. And that's just the first-round. It's not as if that geographic circle will automatically tighen as the playoffs go along. It might, but it might not.

Also, let's not forget, the NHL operates under a 2-2-1-1-1 playoff format as opposed to baseball's 2-3-2, meaning the top seed gets the first two games at home, Game 5 and Game 7. This format adds an extra travel which would exacerbate the problem.

I know there are some advocates out there for this format, but clearly this is not the year.