We are entering the final week of the NHL’s regular season, which means that the 2017 playoff bracket is just a few days away from achieving its final form—as I am writing this, thirteen of the sixteen playoff spots have already been locked down, and two teams have clinched a division title (with a third, the Washington Capitals, right on the cusp). Since we have a pretty good idea of what the first round is going to look like, now is a good time to take stock of where the various playoff squads stand as the season comes to a close. And as it turns out, digging into the NHL’s playoff picture brings to mind the well-worn motto of pessimists everywhere (commonly known as Murphy’s Law): “Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.”
The NHL has caught plenty of grief about the weird quirks in its playoff format already in the past few years, and this year’s bracket is perhaps the strangest we’ve seen since the league’s first expansion era back in the late ‘60s, when they inexplicably gave all six expansion teams a conference of their own. But before we get into this year’s weirdness, let’s review how the system works. The NHL standings are based on a point system, with a win worth two points, a regulation loss worth zero, and an overtime loss worth one; thus, a team with a lot of overtime losses may end up finishing the season higher in the standings than a team that had a better win-loss record. There are eight playoff spots in each conference—six of them go to the top three teams in each division, and the two “wild card” spots go to the best remaining teams regardless of conference. The division winner with the most points plays the wildcard team with the fewest, and vice versa, while the second and third seeds in each conference play each other. If a wild card team draws a division winner from the other division, then they effectively cross over into that division for the remainder of the playoffs—if that wild card team makes it out of the first round, they will play the remaining seed from that division, not their own.
Although this may all seem complicated (and many NHL fans hate this system), there is actually a reason to structure the playoffs this way—the divisional format is designed to foster intra divisional rivalries by making teams from the same division more likely to see each other in the postseason (and two teams in the same division that are good for a long time are likely going to see each other in the playoffs a lot, which is a great way to stir up some bad blood). As for the overtime loser point (also known as the “Bettman” point—either because it was NHL commissioner Gary Bettman who pushed to institute that rule in the 1990s, or because hockey fans consider the words “Bettman” and “loser” to be more or less synonymous)…actually, that was originally instituted to discourage teams from playing for a tie in overtime. Tie games, as you may be aware, don’t actually exist in the NHL anymore, so there’s really no reason to keep this rule except that the NHL hates changing things for any reason whatsoever.
Whatever the arguments in favor, the aforementioned rules can often throw a wrinkle or two in the playoff seeding, and this year is a particularly extreme example of that—basically every unfair/just plain weird possibility is on display as we head towards the 2017 postseason.
Let’s start in the Pacific Division. As I am writing this, the Ducks are clinging to the number one seed in the Pacific, although they have yet to wrap it up (the Oilers are just two points behind them). That must be somewhat frustrating for the other three playoff-bound teams in the Pacific, seeing as all of them have tallied more wins than Anaheim. Unfortunately for the Oilers, Sharks and Flames, they just haven’t been able to match the Ducks’ propensity to lose in overtime—Anaheim has tallied thirteen OTLs (overtime losses), the most in the Western Conference. As I mentioned above, it’s hardly unheard of for a team to finish in the standings ahead of a team that had more wins…but if Anaheim does end up winning the division over three teams with better records, you can bet that there will be some ruffled feathers on the west coast.
Over in the East, meanwhile, the situation is even weirder, due mainly to a massive imbalance of power between the two divisions. The four best teams in the conference for most of the year have been Washington, Pittsburgh, Columbus and the Rangers, who all play in the Metro division. Over in the Atlantic, the division winning Montreal Canadiens are the only team that has even eclipsed 100 points, and none of the others in the division seem likely to get there. This is where the wildcard crossover system can get pretty confusing—the team that finishes fourth in the Metro (which is almost certainly going to be the Rangers) will draw the first wild card spot and face the lower-ranked division winner, which is going to be Montreal. As it stands right now, the Canadiens have 101 points and the Rangers have tallied an even century, with three games remaining for each team. That means that the first-seed Canadiens might get a first round matchup with a team that had a better regular season than they did. And for the Rangers, it means they will have a very good chance of becoming the Atlantic Division champion in spite of the fact that they aren’t, you know, in the Atlantic Division.
Obviously, this is not the way the system is supposed to work—drawing a wild card team in the first round is supposed to be a perk of winning your division, but I doubt the Canadiens are going to be too pleased about drawing the Rangers in the first round instead of one of the significantly weaker clubs in their own division. In the last few weeks this has created a weird dynamic in both divisions—while the Senators and Maple Leafs hung around in striking distance of Montreal in the Atlantic for most of the season, there wasn’t much incentive for them to catch the Habs considering that they’d feel much more comfortable playing each other in the first round than the Rangers. New York, by turn, had little reason to want to catch up to Columbus or Pittsburgh in the Metro, as it would mean a tougher opening round matchup. And indeed, when star Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist suffered a minor injury near the end of March, the team elected to hold him out for several days even after medical staff had cleared him to return; that would be a pretty odd decision for a team in striking distance of the second seed in their division if it weren’t for this season’s unique set of circumstances.
So is the NHL going to reexamine its playoff format? Probably not. They only introduced the current system in the 2013-2014 season, and Gary Bettman isn’t known for letting go of ideas that don’t work—see the aforementioned loser point, which the NHL has stood by for years even though most fans don’t like it and the problem it was created to solve doesn’t even exist anymore. And it’s not even clear if this is really a problem, or just a random one-year outlier. It can’t be denied, though, that we’re seeing basically every weird outcome that could happen under this system crop up in the same season.