By Stu Hackel
The Sharks jumped into first place in the Pacific Division on Monday night -- and good for them, because, as we pointed out last week, they are making the most of their stretch run during which they play almost all of their games head-to-head against the teams they are fighting for a playoff spot. Of course, finishing first in the division will make San Jose's points total moot, because that guarantees the Sharks a playoff spot.
Another thing that first place will give the Sharks -- as it does all division-winners -- is home ice advantage in the first round. And that provision in the NHL playoff format can handicap other teams that have a better record but a lower playoff seed.
That inequity is most pronounced this season with the relative mediocrity of the Pacific and the even weaker Southeast compared to the league's strongest divisions, the Central and Atlantic. The way things are shaping up, the winners of the Pacific and Southeast will finish with fewer points than three teams in each of the two powerhouse divisions, but have a higher first round seed.
If the playoffs started today (Tuesday, March 27), the Sharks, with 88 points, would be a higher seed in the first round than the Red Wings (97), Predators (96) and Blackhawks (92). As a result, San Jose would bump the Preds into a first round matchup against the Wings in which Nashville would not have home ice advantage because it would be seeded fifth. And the Sharks would get home ice advantage in their first round series against Chicago, even though the Hawks have a better record. Of course, it's mathematically possible for things to change, but it's more likely that they won't, and this inequity will persist when the playoffs begin next month.
It's the same in the Eastern Conference. In fact, it's even more of the same because the Southeast leader (today, that's the Panthers) will bump three Atlantic teams down in the seedings. So will the Northeast leader. The Bruins also have fewer points than any of the Atlantic clubs. That means the Panthers, with 87 points, could have home ice advantage over the Devils (90).
It also means that the reward a team should theoretically receive in the playoffs for having a strong regular season is gone for three of the four clubs with the best records in the East. The Penguins have 100 points, the second-best total in the conference, but rather than being seeded second and playing against the club with the second-worst record, they would be seeded fourth and play the Flyers -- who should be third, but instead would be fifth and without home ice advantage in their series against Pittsburgh.
This is not a new situation, nor is it unprecedented. Something similar happened in 2007-08, for example, when the Southeast division-winning Capitals got the third seed in the East with 94 points while none of the seven other qualifiers in the Eastern Conference had fewer. It also happened the first year of this format when the Hurricanes got the third seed although every playoff team had a better record. It's rare, but it's happening again and the fact that it's taking place in both conferences this season makes the flaw in the system more pronounced.
This playoff format went into place for the 1998-99 season with the creation of the NHL's current alignment. It could have disappeared with the proposed (and rejected by the NHLPA) realignment that reverted to the pre-Gary Bettman days of the old Adams, Patrick, Smythe and Norris Divisions, in which the first two rounds were played within the divisions and seedings throughout were based on actual points accrued during the regular season. It was somewhat telling that Mr. Bettman's new realignment would restore the playoff system he scrapped when he first became commissioner. He replaced it then with a 1-8 conference-based format that mimicked the NBA's in 1993. It lasted for five seasons. But when the current alignment went into effect, there was a need to make the three-division-per-conference setup meaningful and that was done primarily by awarding each division winner one of the top three seeds.
The most troubling aspect of this was raised in a Monday column on The Hockey News website by Ken Campbell. He looks at a possible scenario in which Detroit plays Chicago on the last day of this season and the loser ends up in sixth place. That would mean a first round matchup against the weaker third seed instead of the fourth-seeded Predators, who neither of those clubs would like to draw as a first round foe. The implications are obvious: this could be a game that each team would want to lose.
"It’s this kind of recipe for disaster the NHL creates with its ridiculous rule that stipulates the winner of each division takes one of the top three seeds in each conference," Campbell writes. "If that does come to pass, you can bet the Red Wings will sit out Pavel Datsyuk, Nicklas Lidstrom and Henrik Zetterberg and the Blackhawks will give the day off to Jonathan Toews (assuming he has returned from his concussion by then), Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp. And they’ll be able to use the excuse they’re resting their stars for the playoffs when really all they’re trying to do is lose the game.
"How would you like to pay top dollar for prime tickets for that game? Chances are if you’re at that game, you’re attending it cheering for your team to lose."
Campbell also sees the same potential in the Eastern Conference, "where the New Jersey Devils might be sitting prettier than any other team. That’s because if they can hang onto the sixth seed, they stand an excellent chance of drawing the Florida Panthers in the first round." Meanwhile, the Penguins would draw the Flyers, a series in which a very good team gets knocked out in the first round and the winner could be weakened going into the second round.
The league has long maintained that no playoff system is perfect, and that they all have their flaws. This is probably true. Playing the first two rounds exclusively within the divisions had its critics, too, because the same teams met so frequently over the years. But that was also how the great division rivalries we still celebrate today were fueled.
Perhaps future NHL alignments will do away with the current flaw, but right now, there's nothing that can be done about it.
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