Stanley Cup Playoffs: How the NHL Should Format the Postseason

Shane LambertAnalyst IIJuly 17, 2012

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 14:  Head Coach Darryl Sutter of the Los Angeles Kings addresses the fans during the rally in Staples Center after the Los Angeles Kings Stanley Cup Victory Parade on June 14, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

NHL fans and commentators have stated over the years that the regular season is not all that important when it comes to winning the Stanley Cup. Provided that a team can make the postseason, the results from the regular season are not considered all that insightful for predicting who will win the conference and league championships.

That opinion is supported by the fact that the NHL has had its fair share of low-seeded conference champions in the last couple of decades.

The Los Angeles Kings, winners of both the 2012 Western Conference championship and the Stanley Cup, are a case in point. The Kings, despite finishing eighth in the regular season, ran the tables in the postseason. They started with a quick series win over the Vancouver Canucks, a team that was the best in the league—if you took the results from the regular season at face value.

But, given that the complexion of a team can change drastically from October to April, what reason is there to take the regular season at face value when considering the implications on the playoffs?

It is definitely a mistake to say that the regular season has no meaning. The results affect home ice advantage in the playoffs and that is certainly an edge. Additionally just because teams can change over the course of the season, that doesn't mean they always do—a low-seeded team is often one with lesser talent.

However with low-seed teams frequently making the Stanley Cup finals, I think the current method of determining first-round playoff matches should be scrapped. Currently, there is not a large enough advantage provided to the teams that do the best during the 82-game regular season.

Part of the problem has to do with the length of the season. The playoff seeds are at least partly determined by results from October. Yet, results from that point in the NHL's schedule can often be considered meaningless when the playoffs come around.

Teams suffer injuries to key players, key players return from injuries, teams make changes to their lineups with trades and signings, some teams improve more than others during the season and coaching changes can make huge impacts. All those factors can make a seeding nothing but fluff.

Let's take the 2006 Edmonton Oilers as a case in point.

Here's a team that was mediocre through much of the regular season. Then, at the trade deadline, they made numerous upgrades—most notably between the pipes as they acquired Dwayne Roloson.

However the Oilers also added other more than solid players during the course of the season. Sergei Samsonov, Dick Tarnstrom and Jaroslav Spacek were not part of the Oilers during the early months of the campaign, but they were part of the team during the latter stages.

The reason the Oilers were an eighth seed had a lot to do with the early months of the season. But, given the upgrades they made to their lineup, they were hardly a mediocre team come playoff time. Therefore, it was not a great surprise to see them play well in every series they contested that postseason.

If you accept that teams should be rewarded in the first round of the postseason for doing well in the regular season, then I ask you this: was it really fair to the top-seeded 2006 Detroit Red Wings that they should have to play in the first round of the playoffs against—what was by then—the best team in the conference?

The LA Kings from this past season are another case in point.

They were the eighth seed in the playoffs because of a lackluster regular season. But, they upgraded their head coach during the season to Darryl Sutter. That made a big difference.

Was it really fair to the Vancouver Canucks, the best team according to the regular season record, to have to face an eighth seed that was actually the best team in the entire league?

Many might say that such circumstances are simply bad luck and freak occurrences. However given the relatively high number of seventh and eighth seeds that make it to the finals—or at least out of the first round—I don't think it can be called a freak occurrence at all.

As for it being bad luck, it could certainly be framed that way. My point of view is that attempts should be made to help avoid it.

I think the solution is to allow the top seeds in the Stanley Cup playoffs to pick their first-round opponents. In this manner, the highest seed would be awarded a significant competitive advantage based on their consistent high level of play for several months.

The management of the No. 1 seed could avoid playing an eighth seed that did little all season, but then beefed up when it counted.

The best model would be to allow the top seed to pick their first-round opponent from the fifth, sixth, seventh or eighth seed. The No. 2 seed should then pick one of the teams of the remaining three. The three seed picks from the remaining two and the fourth seed matches up to whoever is left over.

Following that procedure would allow the management of a top-seeded franchise to use their intuition to avoid playing these teams that look mediocre on paper but are actually championship caliber on ice.

I think some might point out that this procedure wouldn't help the top seed in the long run. Eventually, the 2012 Canucks would have had to play the Kings in the postseason anyways, whether in the first round or in the later rounds.

The bottom line, it could be argued, is that the Canucks weren't up to par. Who cares if they went out in the first round or in the conference finals?

However, I think this position is wrong. There's definitely value for franchises in making a run, even if they ultimately end up falling. The revenue generated from advancing through the first or second round is significant, even if no banner comes out of it.

The way things are right now, you could watch a regular season game before New Year's if you're a hockey fan. But, if you watch those games thinking they have something to do with the Stanley Cup, the implications are quite minimal.

If it's the Stanley Cup that you're interested in, you might be better off tuning in after the trade deadline—skipping the first four months of the regular season entirely.

The ways things are right now, the top seeds are being robbed. They are working hard to put together a team for the whole season in part so that they can have what should be weaker competition in the first round.

But, instead of arm-wrestling with Pee Wee Herman, these top seeds often end up staring at Arnold.