John Shipley: The NHL’s playoff system stinks
NHL teams should be rewarded for the points they earn, not where they finish in their divisions
There’s something uncomfortably Minnesota sports about the Wild’s first-round opponent in the 2021-22 NHL playoffs. As in, “Remember when the Wild had 113 points and had to play the Blues?”
The Minnesota Wild, with a franchise-record 113 points under their belts, kicked off that best-of-7-games series at Xcel Energy Center on Monday, and only fans of NHL hockey — and not, say the Wild or the Blues — could have been happy about it.
“Look, we’re playing who we’re playing,” Wild general manager Bill Guerin said after the matchup was set last week. “It’s going to be a great, great matchup.”
There’s little doubt it will be. The Blues entered with 109 regular-season points — 10 more than they amassed before winning the 2019 Stanley Cup — and three victories this season over the Wild, the second two by one goal and the last in overtime. But given the choice between a great series and lopsided one that the Wild win, well, there’s little doubt which one Wild fans would choose.
As it was on Monday afternoon, the Wild and Blues were trains barreling opposite ways down the same track. At series end, one will be out of commission, the other will go in for repairs and feel unbeatable the rest of the way.
As Wild defenseman Jacob Middleton said before Monday’s game, “You’ve still got to beat good teams to win the Stanley Cup, no matter where you’re at. So, if we can do that in the first round, I think that would give us a lot of confidence going to the rest of them.”
That’s true enough but the NHL has made the mistake of placing a premium on winning the division in an age in which a dozen or more teams make the playoffs. Winning the division is cool, and you get a banner to hang, but how many Wild fans can remember the year their team won its lone division title?
Under the NHL’s current format, previously used from 2013-18, only the division winners are really seeded, awarded matchups against the last two teams to squeak into the conference playoffs — the division winner with the most points playing the second wild-card team, the other playing the first. The rest of the postseason qualifiers are pitted against their closest division rival, which in the cases of the Wild and Blues is kind of a bummer. The Wild finished with the second-most points in the West, four behind Colorado, and should be playing the Los Angeles Kings, who finished third in the weaker Pacific Division. The Blues should be playing Edmonton.
“This matchup I’m excited for,” Blues center Ryan O’Reilly said, “and I think it’s a good one for us. But when you look at the standings and see the amount of points we’ve had with these two teams, I’d think we’d be in better positions.”
Certainly, lower-seeded NHL teams have won series; the sixth-seeded Wild knocked off No. 3 Colorado and No. 4 Vancouver on the way to the 2003 conference finals, and No. 8 seeds Edmonton (2006) and Los Angeles made it all the way to the Cup final — the Kings winning it all in 2012. But that’s not the norm; that’s why they were great stories.
But the NHL just isn’t about winning divisions, because it doesn’t matter (ask Bruce Boudreau). Points matter; they’re the true measure of a teams’ accomplishments.
When wondering about how an NHL team is doing, you ask, “How many points do they have?” Not, “What place are they in?” And when you do wonder about where a team sits in the standings, it’s in the conference standings, not division standings — because that’s how the playoffs used to, and still should, work. The teams with the most points earn it over 82 games.
Instead, the second- and third-place teams in the Central Division started the process of knocking the other out of the postseason despite the fact that they finished the regular season with more points than, and a combined 8-2-2 record against, the second- and third-place teams in the Pacific.
“It would be nice to see that change,” O’Reilly said.