The Tampa Bay Lightning are dominating the NHL this year. They are leading the league with a staggering 100 points, and the second-place team in the NHL, the Calgary Flames, are closer to the fourteenth-place Pittsburgh Penguins than the Lightning in first. Barring a major collapse, the Lightning are sure to have home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs and should have a relatively easy first round opponent. It is after the first-round, though, that the NHL playoff system creates for them a more challenging road to the Stanley Cup than they deserve. The Lightning would be playing against an extremely talented second-round opponent that finished very high in the final NHL standings. Whether this is the Boston Bruins, fourth in the NHL, or the Toronto Maple Leafs, fifth in the NHL, they would be playing against a top-five team in the second round of the playoffs, an incredibly unfair matchup for the number one team in the NHL.
This one example highlights the real problems in the playoff system in the National Hockey League. Because the system forces teams in the same division to play each other first in the playoffs, there are many great teams that are punished for being in the same division as other good teams. If the playoffs started today, the fifth-place team in the NHL, the Toronto Maple Leafs, would not have home-ice advantage in their first series. The Boston Bruins, who are fourth in the current league standings, would have to play this same Maple Leafs team, with the winner of this series earning the right to most likely face the first-place Lightning in the second round. As the standings are currently constructed, three of the league’s top five teams are guaranteed to be out of the playoffs before the conference finals, and in a system where the goal should be to reward the best teams in the regular season, instead, these best teams are handicapped for playing in a good division.
It is clear that changes must be made to fix this broken system as it stands today. I would propose that the NHL should go back to the system in practice before they split into the divisional system. The eight-team ranking per conference, similar to the one being used in the NBA today, would make things a lot simpler for the league. The Bruins and Leafs would be fighting for the two-seed in the Eastern Conference, not home-ice in a playoff series against each other. The Lightning wouldn’t have to see the Bruins or Leafs until the conference finals, and they would reap many more benefits for being the one-seed than they do now. If the NHL really wanted to be radical, though, they could get rid of conferences completely and allow the best sixteen teams to be in the playoffs regardless of their geographic location. This is a change that the NBA has been considering, and it would also make sense to implement this new system for the sport of hockey. With this format, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the fourteenth-place team in the league right now but a team not in the playoffs due to the better quality of the Eastern Conference, would deservedly make the playoffs with ease.
The NHL had good intentions when they implemented this divisional playoff system in 2013, but they must now face the fact that this system simply does not work. A change in the playoff format must be made, whether it is back to the eight seeded teams per conference or to a new sixteen team system, and it frankly needs to happen soon. Winning in the regular season should be rewarded, regardless of division or conference, and this is simply not happening at the moment.