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Therien's Take: The Toughest Division in Hockey

by Chris Therien @ctherien6 /

There probably is no such thing as a "perfect" format for the Stanley Cup playoffs. The format has been tinkered with many times over the years. Since the most recent realignment of the divisions and the additions of a 31st (Vegas) and eventual 32nd (Seattle) franchise in the league, the NHL has gone with the current format.

Presently, the top three teams in the standings in each division automatically make the playoffs. Beyond that, there are two wildcard teams from each conference. The second-place team in division plays the third-place team in the first round of the playoffs, and the division winner plays a wildcard team. The lower wildcard team playing the top division winner and upper wildcard team playing the other. 

The objective of this structure is to stoke the flames of divisional rivalries wherever possible. Here's the thing: I don't think the current format is meeting its goals. 

First and foremost, I don't think the format is fair to the teams that play in the league's toughest divisions. Currently, the Metropolitan Division is the toughest one of the four in the NHL. 

The Flyers entered Thursday's game in fifth place in the Metro with 65 points, holding the lower wildcard spot. They slipped below the cutoff at the end of the night due to tiebreaker with Carolina. In every other NHL division except the Metro, 65 points would represent either sole possession of third place -- automatic playoff position, in other words -- or no worse than a points tie for third place. Solely due to the format, the Flyers are penalized for the division in which they play.  

This is not the first time it's happened since realignment and the creation of the current format (which started in the 2013-14 season). It has already happened in past seasons that the third place team in a weaker division has finished with fewer points than another team in the same conference who fell just below the wildcard cutoff because they play in the conference's more stacked division.

It's nonsensical. What is benefit, in an 82-game schedule, to have a playoff qualification format in which having one of the top eight records in your conference matters less than which division you're in. Finish third in your division and it makes zero difference what any of the teams in the conference's other division do, even if you finish with fewer points. 

At the same time, I get that there's a flip side argument to this, Don't want to take your chances competing with the rest of the conference for one of two wildcard spots? OK, then don't leave winnable points on the table and you won't have to worry about it. Win the games that are in front of you, and the rest will take of itself.

Even this leads back, however, to the disparity in the relative strength of the four divisions. This fluctuates. The balance of power can shift every few years as teams' fortunes rise and fall. However, relative to a specific season or a range of a few seasons, placing in the top three in some divisions is much easier than others. 

This season to date, Edmonton is in third place in the Pacific with 62 points. You know what that would get the Oilers in the Metro? It'd have the team in seventh place, and three points (not factoring the tiebreaker) below the wildcard race. In the Atlantic, 62 points would equal fifth place. In the Central, it would be 4th place.

The second main reason why I am not a fan of the current playoff format: I don't think intra-divison rivalries are automatically more heated nowadays than other rivalries that develop on their own. For example, the Flyers and Bruins do not play in the same division -- and never have -- but they've had a good rivalry over the years.

How do rivalries develop? It's not through your divisional alignment. First and foremost, they come through playoff meetings. At bare minimum, the emotions of a playoff series carry over to the next season. A second way is through confrontations that arise in the course of a regular season series -- but that can happen in a two-game, or three-game season series just as easily as a four.

Back when I was playing -- and I think many people have forgotten this -- the Pittsburgh Peguins were not in our division until 1998-99. Before that, we were in the Atlantic Division and the Pens were in the Northeast Division. It didn't stop up from having a pretty intense rivalry with Pittsburgh.

Why did we have a good rivalry if we weren't in the same division? We had it because the Penguins had Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Ron Francis and we had the Legion of Doom. We had it because the Penguins had players like Darius Kasparaitis and, later, Matthew Barnaby that the Philly fans could hate. The Penguins fans could hate on Eric Lindros or the Dan Line or whoever else was their Flyers villain of choose. 

Lastly, we had it because we met in the playoffs in 1997 and then again in 2000. The Penguins were not in our division in '97 but were in 2000. The reason why the 2000 series was a better one had nothing to do with divisional alignment and everything to do with the drama within the series, especially the five overtime game in Game 4. 

What is the best rivalry in hockey right now, or at least the most heated one? My vote would be Edmonton vs. Calgary. Yes, it's a traditional arch-rivalry that has ebbed and flowed. There were playoff wars in the past. But the rivalry right now has nothing to do with the past and, honestly, not much to do with the playoff chase, either. It's been the emotion and animosity that arose within games (see Kassian vs. Tkachuk). 

It's about the physicality and genuine dislike of each other's team. You don't need line brawls every game or to go back to the 70s-style bench clearers. I'm talking about clean physicality and honest but raw emotion where the thought of losing to a certain team isn't just two points and stake, but bragging rights til the next meeting. It can't be created artificially.

That is an element that's missing too much from today's game: genuine animosity between teams. There's plenty of it between fan bases, especially on social media. But not nearly as much of it on the ice as there used to be, and the division-reliant playoff format and season series format has not inherently spurred better rivalries.  

This current playoff format with the automatic "two vs. three" matchups in the first round, would have been great in the 1980s at 1990s, but it doesn't work today. All it does in the top divisions is to guarantee that a very good team will one-and-done in the playoffs.

How can the format be improved? My recommendation is a simple one. Scrap the current format and go back to the one we had in the mid-90s. Each division winner gets an automatic spot. Seed them 1st and 2nd. From there, there go by record, regardless of division, and the cutoff is number eight. 

Would it be great this spring if the Flyers play the Penguins again in the playoffs, and the Flyers fans get to scream at Public Enemy No. 1 (Sidney Crosby)? Sure, it would. That's the fun of hockey. But let me ask you this: Would a Flyers-Penguins series be any less anticipated if the playoff format went back to 1-through-8? I don't think so.

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