How to fix the playo≠ sys­tem

The Washington Post Sunday - - HOCKEY - BY NEIL GREEN­BERG­berg@wash­

The NHL’s heart may have been in the right place when it de­cided to change the play­off for­mat to get more di­vi­sion ri­vals to match up against each other in the post­sea­son. But its head is in a place only the most ex­pe­ri­enced yogi would be able to put it.

Since the 2013-14 sea­son, the top three teams in each di­vi­sion — At­lantic, Metropoli­tan, Cen­tral, Pa­cific — earn au­to­matic post­sea­son berths, while the fi­nal spots in each con­fer­ence are given to two wild-card teams based on point to­tals. The di­vi­sion win­ners face the wild cards, while the teams that fin­ish sec­ond in their di­vi­sion bat­tle the team that fin­ishes right be­hind them.

The for­mat was meant to pro­duce more ri­val­ries, but this sea­son it’s sim­ply shat­ter­ing logic be­cause the teams that seem set to fin­ish with the best records are not be­ing re­warded. Or, to be more di­rect . . .

“It’s stupid,” Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals’ for­ward Daniel Win­nik told re­porters Mon­day. “It’s the stu­pid­est thing ever.”

Here’s why the cur­rent for­mat is, um, less than ideal. The Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals, the NHL’s top team (49-17-8, 106 points), should have the eas­i­est road to the Stan­ley Cup fi­nals — based on fac­ing the team with the low­est point to­tal in the East­ern Con­fer­ence play­offs. But con­sid­er­ing over­time losses are just losses in the play­offs, look­ing at the road to the Cup by win­ning per­cent­age makes more sense. And in that light, the team with the eas­i­est path is the Ot­tawa Se­na­tors, the No. 2 seed from the At­lantic be­hind the di­vi­sion-lead­ing Cana­di­ens. The Colum­bus Blue Jack­ets, the No. 2 team in the Metropoli­tan di­vi­sion and all of the con­fer­ence with a 48-19-7 record (103 points), will be forced to play the No. 3 Pitts­burgh Pen­guins (46-17-11 record, 103 points) in the first round, giv­ing them the tough­est path.

An­other ex­am­ple that shows the il­log­i­cal na­ture of the sys­tem: The re­cent in­jury to Rangers goal­tender Hen­rik Lundqvist, a for­mer Vez­ina Tro­phy win­ner, could be a bless­ing in dis­guise for New York. With a record of 45-25-4 and 94 points, the Rangers nor­mally would be in a bat­tle to en­sure home ice in the first round as the con­fer­ence’s No. 4 seed. In­stead, it’s all but cer­tain they will start the Stan­ley Cup play­offs with an eas­ier path to the fi­nals than the Cap­i­tals de­spite be­ing a wild-card team.

As part of the last col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment, the NHL and NHLPA have set­tled on the for­mat through the 2018-19 sea­son, al­though they could change it ear­lier if they both agreed to do so. And they should, per­haps us­ing a ver­sion of the old sys­tem (in which No. 1 plays No. 8, No. 2 plays No. 7, etc.) but us­ing win­ning per­cent­age in­stead of points. Again, win­ning per­cent­age is a bet­ter gauge of team strength, es­pe­cially when there are no shootout points awarded in the play­offs. Points would be used as the pri­mary tiebreaker.

Un­der that for­mat, the Cap­i­tals and Blue Jack­ets would have the eas­i­est road to the fi­nal, with the Maple Leafs fall­ing to the eighth seed and fac­ing the tough­est road be­cause their point to­tal is in­flated by 15 over­time losses rather than earned through straight-up wins over their op­po­nent. A sys­tem like that would more prop­erly align reg­u­lar sea­son achieve­ment with a post­sea­son re­ward.


An­dre Bu­rakovsky’s Cap­i­tals and Jack John­son’s Blue Jack­ets are among the top three teams in the NHL but could meet early in the post­sea­son.


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