The NHL is in year number five of the wild-card system, and this year, just like the ones before it, the playoff system is facing some scrutiny. And rightfully so.
The NHL playoffs are soon to be upon us. Sixteen teams will battle for the right to play another two months of hockey, grow ridiculous beards, and, hopefully, hoist the Stanley Cup over their heads.
The wild-card system plots the two fourth place teams from each division within the conference against the two top teams in the conference. Regardless of their division. This was supposed to create rivalries for the NHL. But it hasn’t. Like at all.
Washington Capitals vs. Toronto Maple Leafs isn’t a rivalry. These are teams that will see each other a maximum of three times in the regular season. Now, Montréal Canadiens vs. Toronto Maple Leafs. Now that’s a series. One that hasn’t seen the light of day since 1978-79. Almost 40 years.
Because of the way the wild-card seeding works this series won’t happen unless the Maple Leafs and the Canadiens win their first two series and meet in the Conference finals.
It’s possible, but we all know it’s not going to happen. The Capitals are going to run over the Maple Leafs in five games.
NHL Bracket Challenge
If anything NHL fans are stuck with a byproduct of this new playoff format. The bracket. It’s the single most important export from the NCAA since Werner ladders.
The NHL is hoping to tap into bracket hype by making one of their own. Forgetting that the hype surrounding the NCAA bracket is based primarily on how difficult it is. A total of 64 teams make the NCAA March Madness bracket. Compared to the 16 that make it for the NHL.
The possibilities are endless! That’s why there’s a bracketology course offered by the University of Cincinnati. (What else is there to do in Cincinnati but study brackets?)
And unlike the NHL the NCAA actually divides the teams up based on region – South, East, West, and Mid-West- and then has them go 1v16, 2v15, etc…
Brackets are fun. I don’t want to pretend like I didn’t fill one out (WASvEDM final is my call). But they do nothing to add relevance to the actual games. There’s nothing that brings in casual fans like a good product.
Bring in the Casuals
And that’s the problem here. The NHL, in it’s constant bid ti bring in casual fans has put more importance on a peripheral of the game than the actual game.
I get the idea of trying to placate the fan that just wants simple and consumable goods and filling a bracket can do that. It also arms the NHL with a treasure trove of consumer information thanks to the mandatory sign-up in order to complete the bracket.
But this information is only useful in the context of a great on-ice product.
How many fans can the NHL attract when the on-ice product lacks everything that playoff hockey is supposed to be? Clutch, tough, meaningful, and borderline (if not inherently) violent. Drama.
That’s what rivalries do. They create drama. The NHL knows this. That’s why they have Wednesday Rivalry nights on NBC. So why not make the playoffs, the pinnacle of the NHL product, filled with as many rivalries as possible?
The NHL tried something with the wild-card seeding and, to me it failed. The best option is to have 1v4 in interdivisional play. Divisional winners then play for the conference championship, who then move on to the finals.