The Washington Capitals’ second round loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins have left many feeling like it was soon. Literally.
The Caps and Penguins entered the playoffs as the top two teams in the conference in terms of record. Instead of a titanic conference finals clash, however, the two teams met one round early thanks to the NHL’s divisional playoff format.
Now in the wake of the Capitals’ loss, many are wondering if the new format is unfair.
“I think No. 1 and 2 in the Eastern Conference went head-to-head,” Barry Trotz said following Tuesday’s Game 6 loss. “We just met in the second round. Maybe if we went a different route or the standings were a little bit different in terms of how the format was, maybe we meet in the next round, but I think who knows?”
The Capitals were the best team in the NHL from start to finish, but once again fell in the second round thanks in large part to playing a team they were not supposed to play yet.
When the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg, the NHL was forced to shuffle its divisions. The league took that opportunity to completely change the divisional structure. Instead of six divisions, there are now only four. This also changed the playoff structure. Previously, the top eight teams from each conference were seeded with the top seed playing the lowest seed in each round. That is no longer the case. Now the top three teams in each division make the playoffs plus two wild cards from each conference.
Why did they do this? The main reason was to promote rivalries. With teams playing divisional opponents, the Caps are more likely to play teams like Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York in the postseason. Toronto is more likely to play other eastern Canadian teams, the California teams are more likely to face one another, etc., etc.
In some ways, this makes sense. There is certaiinly an argument to be made for leagues wanting great early round playoff matchups. Take March Madness, for instance. The best part of the tournament is the opening week when, from Thursday to Sunday, you have wall-to-wall action. It may seem strange, but those first two rounds are what make that tournament great, not the later rounds.
The NHL’s new format makes it more likely that we get compelling series in the early rounds and thus helps avoid the league from ever becoming like the NBA in which almost every series in the first two rounds feels meaningless.
These were the matchups we were given with this season:
1. Washington vs. WC Philadelphia
2. Pittsburgh vs. 3. New York Rangers
1. Florida vs. WC New York Islanders
2. Tampa Bay vs. 3. Detroit
1. Dallas Stars vs. WC Minnesota
2. St. Louis vs. 3. Chicago
1. Anaheim vs. WC Nashville
2. Los Angeles vs. 3. San Jose
But if you take a look at at how the playoffs would have looked under the old playoff format, you see the folly of the NHL’s reasoning:
(One thing to note, the three division winners were previously given the top three seeds. Those divisions, however, no longer exist so for the sake of argument these seeds are based just on the standings and not on divisions)
1. Washington vs. 8. Detroit
2. Pittsburgh vs. 7. Philadelphia
3. Florida vs. 6. Tampa Bay
4. New York Rangers vs. 5. New York Islanders
1. Dallas vs. 8. Minnesota
2. St. Louis vs. 7. Nashville
3. Chicago vs. 6. San Jose
4. Anaheim vs. Los Angeles
Look at those matchups: Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, Florida and Tampa, New York and New York, Anaheim and Los Angeles. There are a lot of rivals facing one another and we didn't get that in the divisional format.
This highlights the question the league should have asked itself before overhauling the system: was the NHL really lacking compelling playoff series in the first two rounds? Of course not. The NHL is known for its parity and the unpredictability of the playoffs, including in the first round. And it's not as if we never see rivals meet in the playoffs. Just ask the Rangers and New Jersey Devils.
In fact, when two teams play each other too many times, it can sometimes get stale. Did anyone really want to see another Caps-Rangers series this season?
Now let’s circle back to the original issue over whether this system is unfair and take a look at potential second round matchups:
(This assumes the same teams would have advanced in the East)
1. Washington vs. 6. Tampa Bay
2. Pittsburgh vs. 5. New York Islanders
With all due respect to Tampa Bay, a Lightning team without Steven Stamkos would have been a much easier matchup for the Caps than the Penguins. You can’t assume Washington would have won, but they certainly would have had a better chance of getting over that second round hurdle.
As we saw this year, it also can become pretty clear that one side of the bracket is much lighter than the other. The Islanders essetially dressed its B-team on the final day of the season, presumably so the team could lose its final game and avoid jumping the Rangers in the standings. That put the Islanders in the wild card in the Atlantic bracket instead of the loaded Metropolitan.
There is no system that can completely prevent teams from trying to position themselves for the best first round matchup, but the former system made it difficult to project who a team would play in the second and third round and also disincentivized teams dropping in the standings because it meant playing a higher seed in the second round.
So if the new system doesn't promote rivalries any more than previously did and in fact undercuts top teams, then what's the point?
Perhaps the Caps are not the best team to argue the system is unfair (I touched on this yesterday after Trotz’s press conference). For a team with Stanley Cup aspirations it shouldn’t matter when you play Pittsburgh, you still have to beat them. No one is going to feel sorry for a Washington team that has consistently underachieved in the postseason.
But that doesn’t mean Trotz doesn't have a point.