A case for a better playoff system

If you’ve been following me on Twitter, you may have noticed that I think the NHL should just copy anything the NBA does, particularly when it comes to its draft and playoff formats. I had a bit of a written argument with Shayna Goldman in The Athletic earlier this season about the drawbacks of the current format, and while we agreed that the current divisional setup is not good for either drama or fairness, I wanted to take it a step further and implement a play-in.

Note this does NOT mean that I think that all of Calgary, Nashville, Winnipeg, Pittsburgh, the Islanders, Florida, and Buffalo deserve to be in the playoffs. We’ll get to what those teams deserve later, but it seems strange to me that Boston’s reward for destroying the league this year is to run into a Florida team that won the Presidents’ Trophy last season, one of a handful of goalies that can steal a playoff series in Ilya Sorokin, or Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

This isn’t about what’s fair to the bottom teams, but rather what’s fair to the teams at the top of the standings. Boston, for one, should get to face a tired team (and potentially a worse one, if the play-in results fall their way) while Carolina, New Jersey, NY Rangers, and Toronto should get to fight to clinch at least a third seed which would automatically avoid Boston in the second round (which would also be true under a Conference style playoff system).

But mainly, why I want a play-in system is because it keeps the games interesting down the stretch. Right now, outside the Bedard chase and 6 teams chasing 3 Wild Card spots in the Western and Eastern Conferences, there isn’t a whole lot to play for.

There are 16 games on the schedule on April 8, and I wanted to go through each game individually to determine what, if anything, those teams have to play for and how it would change under a better playoff format.

Just so we’re clear, here are the current formats:

Divisional Playoff (current system): The top three teams in each division make the postseason, along with two Wild Cards in each Conference. The best of the division winning teams faces the lower-seeded Wild Card, and the worst of the division winning teams faces the higher-seeded Wild Card. The 2nd and 3rd place teams in each division face one another. There is no re-seeding in the second round.

Conference Playoff (old system): Conference teams are seeded 1st through 8th. The 1st seed plays the 8th seed, 2nd plays 7th, and so on. The NBA re-seeds after the 1st round (the winner of the 1v8 matchup plays the winner of 4v5, regardless of any upsets) but we’ll keep it like the NHL’s old system, where the top seed in the second round plays the low seed.

Play-in format (NBA system): The first round doesn’t begin for a few days after the season. During that time, a mini tournament is played to determine the final two playoff teams. The first 6 seeds (1 through 6) make the playoffs, while the 7th seed and 8th seeded teams play one another. The winner of that game is the 7th seed, and the loser plays the winner of a game between the 9th and 10th seeded teams. The winner becomes the 8th seed.

The play-in format, unlike what Gary Bettman suggests, doesn’t actually change anything about the first round of the playoffs, which is the NHL’s bread and butter. Fans love having four games one day and four days the next. Nothing changes about that. In addition, the teams losing the play-in round are considered, for draft lottery purposes, to have missed the playoffs.

Anyway, here’s how the games would change.

Eastern Conference

NY Rangers @ Columbus

The Jackets have nothing to play for outside of getting the best odds at Bedard, but the Rangers, in either Conference format, would have much more to play for. Currently, they’re playing for home ice in the first round, but one more win from New Jersey in regulation means the Rangers will be traveling across the Hudson for the first round. In a Conference or play-in system, they’re battling it out with the Leafs for the 4th-seed and home ice in Game 1.

Carolina @ Buffalo

The Canes are fighting to stay ahead of New Jersey and win the Division. Winning the Division means a 7th-seed and playing a team that had to play an 83rd game in a play-in system, but their first round opponent in either the current or old system would be determined by what the Panthers, Islanders, and Penguins do.

The Sabres, meanwhile, still have a chance to squeak in under a play-in format. They currently hold the #10 seed, two points ahead of Ottawa (though have two games in hand). A win, and losses by Ottawa and Detroit would clinch them that play-in berth, though they’d still need to win twice on the road to get the chance to play Boston.

Pittsburgh @ Detroit

The Wild Card chase would remain just as interesting in a play-in format, since the 7th, 8th, and 9th seeds are all guaranteed home games, and the 7th seed gets two home dates if they lose the first game.

The Wings, out of it in a Conference or Divisional system, still have an outside chance of landing that final play-in spot and scratching and clawing their way to a date with the Bruins in the first round.

Tampa Bay @ Ottawa

The Bolts have nothing to play for: they’re locked into the 3rd seed in the current system, and the 6th seed in any Conference system.

Ottawa, as covered above, can still catch the Sabres, but it would be a tall order, and then would have to win twice on the road to have the chance to face Boston.

Montreal @ Toronto

We love to see a Montreal-Toronto matchup on the last Saturday of the season mean nothing, right? The Habs are locked into the Bedard chase, and the Leafs have nothing to play for in the current system (and haven’t for some time) and are locked into the 2nd seed in the Atlantic.

In a Conference format, they’re still fighting to earn home ice over the Rangers in the first round, or possibly move above the Devils or Hurricanes to avoid the Bruins in the second round.

Florida @ Washington

Washington is out of it in either playoff format. Florida would be playing for home-ice in the play-in.

Philadelphia @ NY Islanders

The Flyers are toast. The Islanders are in the same position as the Panthers and Penguins. Remember, those teams are all playing at a 103-point pace or better at home, and an 82-point pace or below on the road, so that’s not just a trivial concern. The other thing they’re playing for is the right to have to win just one game (if they make it to the 8th seed) versus two games (9th seed).

New Jersey @ Boston

Boston has been coasting for six months and still winning, so whatever they do doesn’t matter. The Devils have a shot at catching Carolina in both formats, though the chase for home ice (and the third seed) means a little more under a Conference format since it means

Games with standings implications under the current system:


Additional games that would matter under a Conference system:


Games that would not matter under a Conference or play-in system:


Western Conference

Vegas @ Dallas

The Golden Knights haven’t quite clinched the Pacific, but it’s close. They’re not going to be caught for one of the top two seeds in the Conference. The Stars, on the other hand, are in a dogfight not only for the Central Division crown, but also home ice under all three systems. This is a rare game on Saturday with standings implications for both teams, between two quality teams.

Edmonton @ San Jose

The Oilers are still theoretically within striking distance of Vegas for the top seed in the Pacific (3 points back with 3 games remaining, hold the tiebreakers) with the Knights magic number being 4. They are also attempting to hold off the Kings for home ice in the first round (3 up with 3 games remaining, hold the tiebreakers). They might be stuck where they are, but nothing’s assured yet. They finish the season with games against the Sharks, Avalanche, and Sharks, so picking up 3 more points than the Knights feels within reach.

Anaheim @ Arizona


Nashville @ Winnipeg

Like in the Eastern race, this game would go a long way for determining which team gets that 8th seed and only needs to win one play-in game as opposed to two (plus get a free trip to Seattle and guarantee a home date if you lose that first one). The Jets and Predators are both much better at home (105-point pace and 97-point pace, respectively) than on the road (82 and 88) so that’s no small consideration.

But, this game also has a lot of leverage in the current divisional format as well. I still think whoever wins this stumble to the finish line should have to win another game to prove they belong in the playoffs, though.

St. Louis @ Minnesota

The Blues are out of it completely, 7 points back with 3 games to play, so they couldn’t make that 10-seed even with a miracle.

The Wild, though, are interesting. They’re not only in a race for the Central Division crown, but it isn’t a foregone conclusion that they’d even make the playoffs in a play-in system. They’re only two up on the Seattle Kraken, don’t hold the tiebreakers, and both teams still have 4 games left. There’s some room for them to fall out of that 6th-seed and wind up having to earn their way in. So the Wild are a team that has a lot to play for, not having the same cushion over the Kraken as the three 100-point teams do.

Chicago @ Seattle

As noted, in the current system, the Kraken aren’t really playing for much. They can conceivably catch the Kings (4 back, 4 to play), especially when they end the year against the Golden Knights who may not have a lot left to play for when those teams meet up for two games on the final three days of the season, but the prospect of moving ahead of Minnesota means a lot more than the prospect of moving ahead of Los Angeles:

If you move ahead of Los Angeles, you get to play Connor McDavid in Round One, during the one round of the playoffs that officials actually call penalties. If you move ahead of Minnesota, you don’t have to play in the play-in.

Calgary @ Vancouver

Don’t worry, the Canucks are far enough back that they have no chance of squeaking into the play-in. This game doesn’t matter for them. It obviously means a lot to Calgary, though. They’re better on the road than at home, so maybe home ice advantage in the play-in doesn’t matter to them, but finishing 8th means you only need to win one play-in game.

Colorado @ LA Kings

Both teams at 100 points and solidly in the playoffs whether it’s a Divisional or Conference system. They’d be fighting for home ice under a Conference system, though, and this game would take on a lot more meaning.

Games with standings implications under the current system:


*weak standings implications

Games that would matter (way more) under a Conference system:


Games that would not matter under a Conference or play-in system:


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