FanPost

Reflections on a Playoff Format Where the Rangers Catch Multiple Breaks, At Least For This Season

The Blueshirts' much improved play on the ice in 2014 has earned the team's current second place position in the division standings, but no Ranger fan would deny that the push for the playoffs has, so far, benefited from residing in the Metropolitan division. And, taking a deeper look at the road through the playoffs reveals that the benefits may not stop there.

As we all know, the NHL realigned its divisions this year, and along with that came a revamped playoff format for the 16 teams advancing to the postseason to compete for Lord Stanley's Cup. At the annual general managers meeting in Toronto in November, the NHL clarified the new divisional-based playoff structure -- the top three teams in each of its four divisions are joined by two wildcards from each of its Eastern and Western conferences, which could either result in 4 teams from each division making the playoffs or a 5-3 mix within a conference. Playoff teams are slotted into divisional four-team brackets that merge into the conference championships that serve as the Stanley Cup semi-final series.

The GM meeting highlighted that wildcard teams could crossover into the other division's playoff bracket even with a balanced 4-4 divisional split within a conference, due to the postseason framework being built around the regular season conference winner drawing the lower of the two wildcards.

While I won't endorse Larry Brooks's assertion shortly thereafter that "the playoff structure is ridiculous", his prediction that the format will attract growing scrutiny as the season develops is probably a pretty good call. If the NHL felt compelled to do so, there are several easy fixes that could be quickly implemented for the future, pretty much all of which chip away at today's tilt favoring the Rangers' chances of advancement through the postseason.

Outlined below are five potential marginal changes to the current format, in increasing order of complexity. These "proposals" are incremental, building off the current format, and then each other, in succession. As the league stands today, these are neutral to negative when considering the strength of Rangers' playoff opponent (at least based on regular season performance).

FIRST, killing the crossover for a 4-4 split. While the jury may still be out on the success of NHL's realignment, its most attractive attribute was the parsing of divisions by time zones to allow fans a better opportunity to watch live games against divisional opponents.

At one point in January, the Western conference standings would have seen Anaheim, as the conference's top team facing off against Minnesota, the second wildcard, while Vancouver, as the first wildcard, would have had as its opponent Chicago -- i.e., crossover, even with 4 teams from each division qualifying for the playoffs.

This particular scenario makes very little sense when the espoused goals of realignment were to cutdown on travel and develop divisional rivalries that would flourish in the playoffs. How crazy is it to "reward" division winners Anaheim and Chicago with a best-of-seven series two time zones away, especially when there is such a simple alternative solution -- i.e., letting Anaheim take on Vancouver and going with Chicago versus Minnesota? And while it may be less of an issue in the Eastern conference where all teams are in the same time zone, wouldn't the new division-focused league want to have divisional foes squaring off whenever possible? Wasn't that the point of shifting to a bracketed playoff based on divisions and away from the previous conference-focused seeding structure?

The rationale for 4-4 crossover may lie in the legacy of well-intentioned thoughts focused on 5-3 scenarios -- specifically, not blindly sending the fifth place team to play the other division's first place team. There is merit in figuring out which division winner earned the right to the weaker opponent, and, if the overall conference winner is in the division sending 5 teams to the postseason, it makes some sense to keep the fifth place team in its divisional bracket, sending the fourth place team to the other division's bracket. Still, it seems like an oversight to have let this thinking bleed through to the 4-4 scenario.

So, Potential Proposal #1 -- Keep the first round completely division-based for any 4-4 mix such that all teams face divisional opponents. (Generally, neutral for the Rangers).

SECOND, abandoning the fixed bracket for the second round when all divisional match-ups within the conference are not possible. This applies to the 5-3 mix scenario when the non-divisional first round winner comes from the division sending 5 teams to the postseason, resulting in a 3-1 split for the second round. In this specific scenario, an argument can be made for the remaining teams to be re-seeded rather than follow the shadowed path of a failed divisional format.

So, for example, earlier in the season when the Metropolitan division struggled, it looked like a given that the Atlantic division would have 5 playoff teams. Let's say for a moment that Detroit were to dispatch Pittsburgh in the non-divisional game, leaving 3 Atlantic teams and 1 Metropolitan (i.e., NYR, of course). It can be questioned as to why Detroit should automatically continue playing in the Metropolitan bracket. How difficult is it to lineup the four advancing teams by regular season results and have the top remaining seed take on the bottom remaining seed, since the playoff has through a Darwinian process transformed away from the divisional plan? Moreover, in the Western conference, disposing of the bracket rigidity would allow for the possibility of a team who played a non-divisional first round series outside of its time zone to fall back into a second round match-up in its division.

Yes, there is higher complexity with this approach but no more than existed in the Stanley Cup playoffs prior to this season. It is tough to see why this is any less of a no-brainer than Potential Proposal #1. The only rationale I can see is some misguided attempt to have skewed the odds towards a conference final that includes a team from each division (by keeping the advancing wildcard as the opponent for the lone team surviving from its division). That's not assured under the current format, and not at all a worthy goal, especially if one division has succeeded in advancing 3 teams that far.

To recap, Potential Proposal #2 -- When (and only when) 3 teams from a single division advance to the second round, determine the match-ups by re-seeding the remaining teams based on regular season results with highest playing lowest. (Negative for the Rangers as a Pittsburgh first round upset likely accelerates a match-up with Boston in the second round, or perhaps interjects Tampa Bay as an obstacle to the conference final.)

THIRD, giving division winners divisional match-ups when possible by bumping middle seeds into any needed non-divisional series. This means for the 5-3 scenario having the first place team in each division play the lowest place team in its division in the first round. Similarly, in the 5-team division, have the second place team draw the fourth place team and have the third place team bounce out to the non-divisional series against the second place team from the 3-team division. This format rewards regular season division winners with staying in the division -- a very meaningful result in the Western conference with respect to time zone. It also transfers the uncertainty of a non-divisional series to second and third place teams falling short of the divisional crown.

This "middle team bounce-out" would tend to pair teams with similar regular season records in something very close to the old 4-seed versus 5-seed conference-based format (not necessarily present in the current divisional playoff). Furthermore, this match-up structure has the potential to differentiate a second versus third place regular season finish (relative to the current system where these teams are locked into facing one another in the first round) -- that could have positive implications for competition levels in certain games at the end of the regular season.

True, the 3-team division winner does not draw a wildcard in the first round, however, there is a bit of strength-of-schedule reasoning available to rationalize this result. The structure of the regular season has 30+ divisional games, or 55-60% of a team's in-conference schedule. So, while ignoring the in-conference standings of the 8 playoff teams, the division sending 3 teams arguably had the easier strength of schedule than the 5-team division. Therefore, it is hard to be too flustered at the pairing of the first place team in the weaker division, whose opponent -- the third place team -- could well have a lower in-conference ranking than one or both of the wildcards from the stronger division (again, witness the Eastern conference standings early in the season when the 5 Atlantic teams in playoff position were higher in the conference standings than the third-place Metropolitan team, and at one point, higher than even the second place Metropolitan team).

So, Potential Proposal #3 -- For an odd number of teams from a division in the playoffs, create a non-divisional pairing out of the middle place finishing teams from each division and having the remaining teams play divisional match-ups -- highest versus lowest place finishers within the division. (Again, negative for the Rangers -- assuming the Metro is the most likely 3-team division and with the Blueshirts poised for second place, we would lose out on a non-Pittsburgh divisional opponent in exchange for a likely stronger one out of the Atlantic.)

If you have followed this far and consider the individual impacts of Proposals #1, #2 & #3, it is worth noting that they are relatively marginal to the current system and apply to separate specific scenarios. #1 cures an ill of the 4-4 scenario. #3 applies to the 5-3 scenario. #2 addresses only the contingency that the 5-3 scenario does not re-conform to the targeted divisional format and presents yet another unbalanced field of teams (3-1) in the second round.

Straightforward to implement, the proposals above just add some nuance to today's brute force four 4-team bracket format and only affect match-ups within the current system's 16-team playoff field. The following additional proposals outlined below, focused on sending the best regular season performers to the playoffs, are more far-reaching and therefore less likely to gain traction. This next proposal could get some consideration -- it recasts the selection criteria of the four wildcard teams. The final proposal is somewhat radical and probably does not see the light of day -- it revisits realignment.

FOURTH, lifting the two-wildcard-per-conference restriction, and by extension making it possible to take more teams to the playoffs from a stronger conference than a weaker one. This would remove the inequity of leaving a better performing regular season team out of the postseason.

Despite this phenomenon occurring in 5 out of the 7 years since the lockout, the NHL has not given this much attention. Instead, it has strived for symmetry in the playoffs at the conference, and now, division level. In the last two seasons, the 16-team playoff field coincided with the top 16 teams in the league standings. The last beneficiary of symmetry was the playoff-qualifying 2010-11 New York Rangers, league-ranked #18 behind non-playoff teams Dallas and Calgary, and who nevertheless made a first round exit in one of many exciting series since against the Washington Capitals. Far from first round automatic outs, the recent playoff record of non-top-16 teams is a greater testament to parity across the league than any glaring catalyst for playoff format change. In fact, in 2009-10, #19 Montreal advanced all way to the Eastern Conference final, falling to a #18 Philadelphia club that clawed its way into the Stanley Cup final.

So, what has changed to cause a new light to be shined on inequity? The unbalanced conferences that fell out of this year's realignment, that's what. The NHL put 14 teams in the West and 16 in the East, and perhaps the largest non-regional complaint on realignment (Florida and Tampa Bay having been folded into an Atlantic division with the East's northernmost teams) was that the raw chances of making the playoffs are better in the West. Thus far, the West's superiority has pushed this little blemish to the background, but if the tables turn and a more deserving Eastern conference team gets left out of the postseason, you can bet the inequity discussion will come storming to the fore.

A league-wide wildcard system would close the gap between today's 57% probability of getting to the playoffs in the West and the East's 50%. A selection of the next best four teams across the league (after the top-three place teams in each of the league's four divisions) would roughly halve that 7% differential.

With that introduction, Potential Proposal #4 -- make the wildcard standings a league-wide affair, taking the 4 highest league ranking fourth and fifth place teams into the playoffs, regardless of conference. This deserves some further explanation: each division could send a maximum of two wildcards, such that the playoff field could have an 8-8 conference split, a 9-7 split, or 10-6 split. The traditional 8-8 split has been addressed above and needs no further comment. The following discussion assumes divisional match-ups occur where possible between highest versus lowest place finishers from the regular season.

The 9-7 split scenario requires a single first round playoff series across conference lines and may require another single non-conference series in the second round. The 10-6 split scenario would not require conference lines to be crossed until the second round when a single non-conference series is required. The 9-7 split could converge to the traditional mix in the second round if the required first round non-conference series winner comes from the 7-team conference. This first round series non-conference match-up would derive from the "middle team bounce out" approach applicable to the 3-team division and 5-team division. If the 3-team division representative falls, it converges to the 10-6 split in the second round.

The 10-6 split would have no non-conference first round match-up. However, within the conferences "middle team bounce out" would apply to create a non-divisional pairing in each conference (between divisional second place teams in the 6-team conference and the divisional third place teams in the 10-team conference). The second round would have a non-conference pairing -- stay with me -- half of which is the middle seed of the division with 3 teams then remaining and the other being the lone team standing from the 3-team division. Now, from here, there is a contingency of a 3-1 conference mix in the Stanley Cup semi-final and therefore a chance that the final is played between two teams from the same conference (but not the same division).

The complexity alone is big turn-off despite the "middle team bounce out" being a relatively simple guiding principle. (If adopted, it could even override Proposal #2 in the traditional 8-8 mix.) If your skepticism relies on the potential lack of Eastern/Western conference symmetry, don't discount the NHL going retro and drawing inspiration from the playoff format of the 1974-1981 era (a league-wide re-seeded tournament that led to a Stanley Cup final of Montreal versus Boston, twice, as well as an Islanders-Flyers showdown). Think of the intrigue and buzz the league would create if such a unique scenario occurred so deep into the postseason. Nevermind that some team awards (Prince of Wales Trophy and Clarence S. Campbell Bowl) would be up for revamping.

FIFTH, and finally, the "middle team bounce out" could be even carried a step further to rethink realignment in a league design that provides complete equity in raw playoff probability for every one of the NHL's 30 teams. Ready? Try on a 3-conference structure (with 10 teams each) -- the top four teams in each of the three conferences plus four league-wide wildcards go to the playoffs.

Not to take too deep a dive here, but the 16-team playoff field could then have any one of the following conference mix scenarios, all of which channel the postseason down to a Stanley Cup final in which two of the three conferences are represented and would be preceded by a semifinal with participation from teams of all three conferences -- a guaranteed 2-1-1 split in the final four-team field. (Skip ahead if you are disinterested in the scenario detail.)

  • 8-4-4 -- This most lopsided mix of teams from the three conferences makes for the most straightforward path through the postseason. The 8-team strong conference plays a self-contained re-seeded tournament on one side while the two weaker 4-team conferences play their individual fixed brackets on the other. The surviving representatives from the 4-team conferences meet in the semifinal with the winner going on to face the 8-team survivor in the final.
  • 7-5-4 -- First round requires a single non-conference match-up of the 7-team's fourth place club versus the 5-team's third place club with all others playing in-conference. A 7-team rep victory in the non-conference series converges on the 8-4-4 scenario in the second round while a 5-team rep victory will converge to the 6-6-4 second round.
  • 6-6-4 -- Every team plays in-conference in the first round. The two 6-team conferences (each down to three survivors in the second round) send their re-seeded middle team to the single non-conference match-up in the second round. The victor of that non-conference series moves on to play its surviving fellow conference member in one semi-final while the other is comprised of the 4-team bracket winner and the other lone surviving conference representative.
  • 6-5-5 -- This most balanced mix requires a single non-conference pairing in each of the first and second rounds. The two 5-team conferences' third place clubs meet in the first round. The 5-team conference whose rep fell in that first round non-conference series winds up playing a self-contained bracket among its other four teams. Meanwhile, the second round non-conference match-up draws in the re-seeded middle team from the 6-team conference (now down to three survivors) as well as the re-seeded middle team from the 5-team conference whose rep advanced out of the first round non-conference series (also three survivors). Again, the final four-team field in the semifinal has a 2-1-1 split, where the teams from the same conference square off in one series and the lone survivors battle it out in the other.

The "middle team bounce out" principle could make it work. An enhancement, specifically for the potential in the 6-5-5 or the 7-5-4 scenarios where non-conference pairings can occur back-to-back in the first and second rounds, would be to protect (for travel reasons) the first round victor of that series from getting drawn into the non-conference match-up in the second round. The solution would be to push out the next lowest seed instead. In this structure, it is impossible for a regular season conference winner to play out of conference in the first two rounds of the postseason.

As far as drawing new conference lines, I would have leaned towards a Northeast, a West, and a Mid-South geographically framed by Washington, Columbus, Detroit, Dallas, and Florida (joined by Tampa Bay, Carolina, Nashville, St. Louis, and Chicago). These conferences are basically combinations of the six 5-team pre-realignment divisions with Dallas and Winnipeg flopped:

  • Northeast Conference = old northeast division + old atlantic division;
  • Mid-South Conference = old central division + old southeast division (include Dallas, exclude Winnipeg);
  • West Conference = old northwest division + old pacific division (include Winnipeg, exclude Dallas).

With apologies to Minnesota and Winnipeg for being put out west significantly outside of their time zones (and to a lesser extent Washington for falling out of the old Patrick division again), this setup seems best at preserving old rivalries (Chicago-Detroit is back on!) and laying the foundations for new competition centered around the site of the most recent league expansion -- the "southern states" region of the US -- where the sport has not taken off nearly as quickly as Southern California. How telling was Kevin Klein's response to Al Trautwig's final question during his intermission interview of the last Islander's game? A player who spent his entire career in Nashville struggled to name the Predators' biggest rival, grasping first for Dallas and then noting that Nashville had had Columbus as a foil for years until the Blue Jackets were moved out of the Western conference this season.

For regular season scheduling, home-and-home is great, so 40 of the 82-game docket would be out of conference. Each team could play the other teams in its conference four times (2 home, 2 away) for another 36 games, leaving the schedule-makers 6 games to spread around. In a nod to parity, you could earmark 2 of the 6 for the same place finishers from the prior season in the other two conferences (first vs. first, second vs. second, etc.) -- a third game against these "equal-strength" out-of-conference opponents -- and have the 4 remaining left for a fifth game against select in-conference foes. Again for parity, you could split the division in half by last season's results, so the fifth place team gets its 4 games against first, second, third and fourth while the sixth place team is grouped with seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth. A variant focused on travel would be to schedule these 4 regular season "fifth games" regionally (e.g., Los Angeles vs. each of Anaheim, Phoenix, San Jose, and Vancouver).

So, Potential Proposal #5 -- blow-up that realignment thing and take the top four finishers from each of 3 new 10-team conferences along with the league's next best 4 as wildcards. Then use "middle team bounce out" to deal with odd numbers of survivors in a conference, yielding no more than one non-conference pairing each round.

Below is a table comparing these alternative formats for the first round based on recent league standings, including the match-up for the Rangers. There's a column called the Inequity Index to measure how far the format falls from a league-wide seeded first round among the top 16 teams -- this statistic is a deviation metric for the sum of the league rankings in a pairing from 17 (a 17 sum for all pairings being "fully equitable"). For comparison, there is an additional row #-1, which is simply last year's conference-based seeded format (but with winners of the current divisions occupying the top two seeds -- that format yields a lot of non-divisional match-ups).

AS OF OLYMPIC BREAK

Playoff Proposal

Conf E/W

E Con Div M/A

Top16
NonPlayoff
Team

NonTop16
Playoff
Team

Non Divisional Pairings

Ineq
Indx

NYR (13)
Opponent

"#0" CURR

8/8

3/5

Phoenix (16)

Detroit (17)

Pittsburgh (4) v Detroit (17)
ANA (1) v Dallas (15)

4.96

PHI (14)

"#1" NO X-OVER

8/8

3/5

Phoenix (16)

Detroit (17)

Pittsburgh (4) v Detroit (17)
ANA (1) v Dallas (15)

4.96

PHI (14)

"#3"
MID OUT

8/8

3/5

Phoenix (16)

Detroit (17)

NYR (13) v Montréal (9)
Colorado (6) v San Jose (5)

4.14

Montréal (9)

"#4"
LEAG WC

7/9

3/4

NYR (13) v Colorado (6)

1.32

Colorado (6)

"#5"
3-CONF

NE/W/MS
6/6/4

Non Conference Pairing:
(none)

2.50

Boston (7)

"#-1"
CONF SD

8/8

3/5

Phoenix (16)

Detroit (17)

Total # of non-div pairings
out of 8): 6

3.66

TB (8)

The present system is pretty favorable for the Blueshirts' position this year. The Rangers could wind-up with one of the league's lowest "seeds" as their first round opponent and, with a first round upset of Pittsburgh, yet another in the second round. All other formats would present a more formidable path forward.

And here are the full first round match-ups under each proposal.

"#0" CURRENT FORMAT

"#1" NO X-OVER (for 4-4 divisional mix)

Pittsburgh

(4)

v

Detroit

(17)

Pittsburgh

(4)

v

Detroit

(17)

NY Rangers

(13)

v

Philadelphia

(14)

NY Rangers

(13)

v

Philadelphia

(14)

Boston

(7)

v

Toronto

(10)

Boston

(7)

v

Toronto

(10)

Tampa Bay

(8)

v

Montréal

(9)

Tampa Bay

(8)

v

Montréal

(9)

St. Louis

(2)

v

Minnesota

(11)

St. Louis

(2)

v

Minnesota

(11)

Chicago

(3)

v

Colorado

(6)

Chicago

(3)

v

Colorado

(6)

Anaheim

(1)

v

Dallas

(15)

Anaheim

(1)

v

Dallas

(15)

San Jose

(5)

v

Los Angeles

(12)

San Jose

(5)

v

Los Angeles

(12)

"#3" MIDDLE BOUNCE OUT

"#4" LEAGUE WIDE WILD CARDS

Pittsburgh

(4)

v

Philadelphia

(14)

Pittsburgh

(4)

v

Philadelphia

(14)

NY Rangers

(13)

v

Montréal

(9)

NY Rangers

(13)

v

Colorado

(6)

Boston

(7)

v

Detroit

(17)

Boston

(7)

v

Toronto

(10)

Tampa Bay

(8)

v

Toronto

(10)

Tampa Bay

(8)

v

Montréal

(11)

St. Louis

(2)

v

Dallas

(15)

St. Louis

(2)

v

Dallas

(16)

Chicago

(3)

v

Minnesota

(11)

Chicago

(3)

v

Minnesota

(12)

Anaheim

(1)

v

Los Angeles

(12)

Anaheim

(1)

v

Phoenix

(15)

Colorado

(6)

v

San Jose

(5)

San Jose

(5)

v

Los Angeles

(8)

"#5" 3-CONFERENCE REALIGNMENT

"#-1" CONFERENCE SEEDINGS

Pittsburgh

(4)

v

Philadelphia

(14)

Pittsburgh

(4)

v

Detroit

(17)

Boston

(7)

v

NY Rangers

(13)

Boston

(7)

v

Philadelphia

(14)

Montréal

(9)

v

Toronto

(10)

Tampa Bay

(8)

v

NY Rangers

(13)

Colorado

(6)

v

Minnesota

(11)

Montréal

(9)

v

Toronto

(10)

Anaheim

(1)

v

Phoenix

(16)

Anaheim

(1)

v

Dallas

(15)

San Jose

(5)

v

Los Angeles

(12)

St. Louis

(2)

v

Los Angeles

(12)

St. Louis

(2)

v

Dallas

(15)

Chicago

(3)

v

Minnesota

(11)

Chicago

(3)

v

Tampa Bay

(8)

San Jose

(5)

v

Colorado

(6)

Finally, here are snapshots of the alternative formats for the league standings as of a couple of other dates to illustrate further contrasts of the various structures.

AS OF 01/27/14 (last date of 4-4 crossover)

Playoff Proposal

Conf E/W

E Con Div M/A

Top16
NonPlayoff
Team

NonTop16
Playoff
Team

Non Divisional Pairings

Ineq
Indx

NYR (14)
Opponent

"#0" CURR

8/8

3/5

Phoenix (15)

CBJ (17)

Pittsburgh (4) v Detroit (16)
Chicago (2) v Vancouver (10)
ANA (1) v Minnesota (11)

6.58

CBJ (17)

"#1" NO X-OVER

8/8

3/5

Phoenix (15)

CBJ (17)

Pittsburgh (4) v Detroit (16)

6.60

CBJ (17)

"#3"
MID OUT

8/8

3/5

Phoenix (15)

CBJ (17)

NYR (14) v Toronto (12)

5.85

Toronto (12)

"#4"
LW WC

7/9

3/4

Detroit (16)

CBJ (17)

NYR (14) v LA (9)

4.40

LA (9)

"#5"
3-CONF

NE/W/MS
5/7/4

Non Conference Pairing:
Toronto (12) v LA (9)

2.87

Pittsburgh (4)

"#-1"
CONF SD

8/8

3/5

Phoenix (15)

CBJ (17)

Total # of non-div pairings
out of 8): 5

5.61

TB (8)

AS OF 11/19/14 (a relative high in inequity - West held top 8 in league rankings)

Playoff Proposal

Conf E/W

E Con Div M/A

Top16
NonPlayoff
Team

NonTop16
Playoff
Team

Non Divisional Pairings

Ineq
Indx

NYR (19)
Opponent

"#0" CURR

8/8

3/5

Vancouver (15)
Dallas (16)

Montréal (18)
NYR (19)

Pittsburgh (11) v Detroit (13)

9.31

WSH (14)

"#1" NO X-OVER

8/8

3/5

Vancouver (15)
Dallas (16)

Montréal (18)
NYR (19)

Pittsburgh (11) v Detroit (13)

9.31

WSH (14)

"#3"
MID OUT

8/8

3/5

Vancouver (15)
Dallas (16)

Montréal (18)
NYR (19)

WSH (14) v Toronto (12)

9.01

Pittsburgh (11)

"#4"
LW WC

7/9

3/4

Dallas (16)

NYR (19)

WSH (14) v Phoenix (4)

6.79

Pittsburgh (11)

"#5"
3-CONF

NE/W/MS
4/7/5

Dallas (16)

Montréal (18)

Non Conference Pairing:
Minnesota (5) v TB (9)

5.55

(none)

"#-1"
CONF SD

8/8

3/5

Vancouver (15)
Dallas (16)

Montréal (18)
NYR (19)

Total # of non-div pairings
out of 8): 5

8.90

TB (9)

It has been a really really long Olympic break... LGR!

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