In the 1970s and 1980s, the NHL held an extended sequence of exhibition games from October to March; it used to call this "the regular season." It was an exhibition league because the games were meaningless: More than 75 percent of the teams were guaranteed entrance into the playoffs, and, with the disparity in talent between strong and weak teams, there were always a few hopeless cases, such as the Colorado Rockies, Hartford Whalers, Toronto Maple Leafs or Pittsburgh Penguins, to fill the few slots that finished out of the playoffs. In effect, the league ran an 80-game season to determine playoff seeding among the decent teams. No wonder the NHL was the laughingstock of North American professional sports.
The only real playoff competition was in the Patrick Division, which had six teams instead of five. From 1988 to 1993, all of the teams in the Patrick were competitive, and out-of-the-playoffs teams in the Patrick averaged 74 points versus 58 for the rest of the league, an absurdly unfair handicap.
Average points of non-playoff teams.
Season Patrick Non-Patrick
1987-88 82 60
1988-89 64 62
1989-90 72 55
1990-91 68 55
1991-92 78 60
1992-93 83 57
Total 74 58
This situation was remedied unexpectedly by a pair of developments: expansion and parity. From 1992 to 2000, the NHL went from 21 to 30 teams but kept the number of playoff slots constant: The percentage of playoff teams went from 76 percent to 53 percent, making a playoff slot a real achievement rather than a birthright. Meanwhile, the league became more balanced: There were no more doormats, making competition for playoff slots fierce. Lastly, the allocation of playoff slots by conference rather than division eliminated the bad fortune of being in a more competitive division: Although the West has been stronger than the East in the past few years, the differential has not been colossal.
The upshot has been the great show we have experienced these past few years: competitive playoff races, important games in March and a regular season in which every game counts rather than being an insignificant footnote.
We must keep this in mind when analyzing the NHL's latest realignment plan. First, it should be noted that the regular-season arrangement is close to optimal. Organizing teams by time zone clearly makes sense, as does ensuring that every team visits every arena at least once per season. The league also has made an effort to preserve rivalries, an essential element of keeping the schedule interesting.
However, the playoff format has several faults. Simply put, the new system isn't fair. Particularly to the teams in the West.
The most obvious is that the unequal size of the four conferences means teams have an unequal chance of making the playoffs. All other things being equal, teams in the seven-team conferences will make the playoffs 14 percent more often than those in the eight-teamers. Put another way, this means they will have one extra playoff appearance every 14 seasons. Although this might not seem like much, a successful playoff run every few seasons is a major way that franchises connect with their fans. There's also the revenue component to consider. The average playoff run is about five-and-a-half home games, which is worth almost $4 million of profit to the host team.
The task facing members of the eight-team conferences is even greater because of the points that will be required to make the playoffs. The past few seasons, 91 points would have been enough to make the playoffs, on average, in a seven-team conference, but 94 points would have been required to make the cut in an eight-team conference. Putting team production into salary terms, it takes about $1 million to buy a standings point on the unrestricted free-agent market, so that means teams will have to spend about $3 million more to be as competitive in an eight-team conference.
Because conferences will be of varying strengths, that will make the playoff odds even more unequal. The past few seasons, the seven-team "Northeast" conference (consisting of the current Northeast Division, plus Tampa and Florida) would have been the weakest in the NHL, with an average of 88 points per team. In 2008-09, for example, only two of the eight Eastern playoff teams were from the new "Northeast," and six were from the new "Atlantic" (comprising the current Atlantic Division teams, plus Washington and Carolina).
Average points per team in new conferences 2009-11 (three seasons). Conferences labeled by geographic location of the majority of their teams.
Conference Avg Pts
In other words, the big winners of this realignment, at least in the short term, are all the midrange teams in the Northeast: Toronto, Buffalo, Montreal, Florida and Tampa Bay. The big losers, on the other hand, are all the teams in the two western conferences, in particular the teams fighting for a playoff spot in the new "Pacific": Anaheim, San Jose, Vancouver, Calgary, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Edmonton and Colorado. At least one of those teams likely will miss a playoff slot it deserves over the next several seasons.
There is one large benefit of the conference-based playoff system that we cannot neglect: encouraging rivalries in the playoffs. But we could still do this while improving the fairness of the system by borrowing the wild-card system from baseball and football. The NHL could pair eight-team and seven-team conferences into two 15-team "superconferences." The eight playoff teams from each superconference would be the top three teams from each conference as well as the next two best teams. The No. 2 and No. 3 team from each conference would face each other, and one wild card would face its division champion and the other wild card would face the other. This would yield, at most, one cross-conference playoff matchup out of four.
This system would give each team the same odds (8/15) of making the playoffs and would significantly reduce, but not eliminate, the impact of being in an overly strong or weak division. The current conference alignment doesn't really allow this, as the two Western conferences have eight teams each and the Eastern ones seven apiece; however, if one of the Western teams, such as Phoenix, were to relocate to the East, balance would be restored.
Overall, the NHL has done a good job with its realignment and schedule strategy. The league has leveled the playing field with regard to travel, made sure fans can watch more of their team's away games and guaranteed that every superstar visits every city at least once a year. It also has guaranteed that rivals will meet more often in the playoffs. If the NHL could only fix the injustice of the playoff seeding system, its achievement would be complete.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Tom Awad is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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