16 teams make it to the playoffs each season, 8 from each conference. Until a few years ago, within a conference the number 1 seed would face the number 8, number 2 would face number 7, 6 vs 3, and 4 vs 5.

Under the current format, teams face division opponents. Each conference get 2 wild cards. The top seed of the divisions play the wild cards, and the 2nd and 3rd ranked team within each division play a series. Then there will be a division championship followed by the conference championship.

Eventhough the current format promotes divisional rivalry, it seems very unfair. As of March 27 2017, the top 3 teams of the NHL - Washington Capitals, Columbus Blue Jackets, Pittsburgh Penguins - are all in the same division. This means that one of the top 3 teams is guaranteed to be eliminated after the first round of the playoffs when the 2nd and 3rd rank teams of this division face in the first round. This also allows for lower quality teams to enter the playoffs in the weaker division.

So given the above argument, I'm wondering why the NHL has stuck to this format? I can understand they wanted a change and came up with this system. But the system is clearly flawed. So why doesn't the NHL come up with another scheme or revert back to the old format?

Note: I say "clearly flawed" since there is a huge difference in the strength of the teams playing in the postseason. The league is trying the maximize the parity of the teams getting and moving forward in the postseason. But the current format benefits weak divisions and disfavours strong divisions. Back to my example, with a very high probability one of the 2nd or 3rd best teams in the NHL is guaranteed to exit the playoffs in the first round. There has been a long discussion whether any team in the Atlantic division really wants the 1st position. The division winner will most likely face New York Rangers, the Wild Card from the Metropolitan division who have more points than any team in the Atlantic. Hence finishing 2nd in the Atlantic division gives the division champion a much easier road to get to the Stanley Cup final.

  • Why is 'clearly flawed'? That is your value judgment, for a situation that was clearly foreseeable to the framers of the system.
    – Jon Custer
    Mar 27, 2017 at 23:03
  • Please read the part marked as "Note" in the question. My response to your questions was far longer than the limit of a comment. Also I think it's more suitable to discuss my reasoning in the question itself than in the comments.
    – alamoot
    Mar 27, 2017 at 23:51

1 Answer 1


The logic behind the new system is that it means more teams are in the playoff race down the stretch, which increases attendance and fan engagement.

In the old system you have one playoff boundary: 9th vs 8th in a conference. This means that the only playoff race in each conference is between teams that surround that boundary. The games that are played by teams who are safely in front of it or behind it down the stretch, end up being largely irrelevant.

But in the new system you can either make the playoffs by winning your division, or by winning a wild card. If you're in a division whose record is well below a wild card spot, you can still make the playoffs via your division. OTOH, if you're well out of the playoffs in a strong division, you may be able to fight for a wild card.

The sum effect is that more teams are in contention for a playoff spot at the end of the year, and the fans of lesser quality teams win by having more reason to care at that period of the season.

Another side-effect, but with more of a neutral impact, is that team strategy has to change too. With divisional play being more important, teams need to focus their efforts on their own division.

  • But I recall in the old format a lot of the teams in the middle of the 1st to 8th position would play many high intensity meaningful games to get home advantage. But I do agree the current format could produce more revenue. But at the same time I believe that it lowers the quality of the match ups. Imagine if the same trend continues in the Eastern Conference. Then the Washington, Columbus, Pittsburgh and Rangers will care less about the making it to the playoffs since making the playoffs means that there is a good chance they won't make it to the next round.
    – alamoot
    Mar 28, 2017 at 0:33
  • I'm not trying to suggest it's 'fair' or not, just what the logic behind the move is. The point that a team may not make it to the next round is moot, because there is only one left standing regardless. If a team faces a better team in the first round and wins, their odds in subsequent rounds increase. (edited comment)
    – Cdn_Dev
    Mar 31, 2017 at 16:42
  • i have to disagree. I think it actually lowers fan engagement. Specifically in a stacked division. Where its the same teams playing year in year out. As mentioned, those good teams are weeded out by the 2nd round. Again, bad for fan engagement/revenue. IMO, the solution, Have those boundaries as you describe them, but reseed the teams in conference. Imagine the rivalries/fan engagement/revenue if the 2 power house teams in division went head to head for a spot in the final. Nov 19, 2017 at 21:46

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