By: David Alter
NEWARK — While more details of the NHL’s realignment plan are still to come, the radical change of format seems like a fair compromise to most teams in order to provide a balanced and minimised-travel schedule. The plan does seem a little complex though, with some major flaws.
1. Imbalance of 2nd round playoff matches
While going back to a divisional (or in this case conference? I know I’m a little confused of the wording as well) format looks like a good idea on the surface, Imagine what would happen if the Conference Final in one of the 2nd round playoff matches features the two teams with highest point total in the league. At the same time, you have two teams from a weak conference skate by with a much easier route to the final 4. The theory is with schedules being so conference heavy, you shouldn’t see the same kind of imbalance of points. But thanks to the OT/Shootout loss point, there is no doubt you will still see stronger conferences over others. In addition, proportion of intra-conference matches decreases, a point I explain later in further detail.
2. 7 and 8-team conferences with the same amount of playoff spots up for grabs.
Each conference has just four playoff spots up for grabs. If a 5th place team in an eight-team conference has several points more than a 4th place team in a seven-team conference, it hardly seems fair that the fifth place team has to sit out of the post-season. One of the ideas I heard floating around was the possibility of a ‘crossover steal’. If a 5th place team in an eight-team conference had a better record than a 4th place team in another, both of those teams would meet in a one-off game before the playoffs where the fifth place team would essentially have a shot of ‘stealing’ the playoff spot, rather than just automatically giving it to them.
3. Potential for anti-climactic end to regular season.
With fewer spots up for grabs for teams to go after, you will likely see conference playoff spots locked up at an earlier point in the season. This will cut down the intense chase that we tend to see towards the end of the regular season like we have right now with the current 15-team conferences.
While I like the four conferences format for scheduling, it shouldn’t be the basis for changing the playoff structure. Under the current 15-team conference format, that playoff structure makes sense since 64 out of 82 games in a season are currently played within your conference. In this new format, teams will meet their conference opponent only 36-38 times, a dramatic difference from 64. If you play more than half of your games outside of your ‘conference,’ why should you be limited in terms of potential playoff opponents? Why not have a 15-team conference with divisions used for scheduling purposes only? This way, you don’t lose the drama we normally have towards the end of the season. Better yet, I’d like to see the best 16-teams advance, and reward conference winners by automatically seeding them as 1-2-3-4 with your next best 12 teams advancing.
Details will continue to be hammered down when it comes to playoff structure. Don’t be surprised if you see this format adjusted as the seasons go by and the competitive flaws start to show.