Merits of Championships Part 2: the NHL

Having started by looking at the travesty that is the NCAA Hockey Tournament (and yeah, I forgot to mention that that the incompetence of NCAA hockey refs in general makes it more likely for them to determine who wins a game…[COUGH] Miami [COUGH]), it seems fitting to move on to the NHL playoffs. The NHL playoffs, much unlike the NCAA Hockey Tournament, are very well suited to the sport. This is not entirely fair to the NCAA Hockey Tournament, which has to acknowledge that it involves student-athletes, not professionals, and thus cannot have a playoff as long as the NHL’s is. That said, the NHL playoffs do very well at accomplishing the primary three goals of a championship system: crowning the most-deserving team, crowning the best team, and being entertaining.

To begin with, let’s look at the structure of the NHL playoffs. Eight teams are selected from each of the two fifteen team conferences. This means that the majority of the teams in the NHL make it to the playoffs every year. Now, taking the majority of teams from the NHL and putting them in the playoffs certainly serves to devalue the regular season. However, the effect of this devaluation is significantly reduced because of the inherent advantages that come through the seeding structure. In every playoff series, the higher seeded team gets the extra home game if the series goes all seven. More importantly, the teams are reseeded every round, meaning that the higher seeded team will always get the lowest remaining seed. Thus, an 8-seed will often have to play the 1, 2, and 3 seeds to make it to the Stanley Cup, while a 1-seed’s worst possible draw is an 8-seed, a 4-seed, and a 2-seed. Another advantage to having a larger playoff means that the better teams in a conference can rest players with minor injuries, which means that the better teams will be able to play their best players at 100% when playoff time comes around.

This leads to the best part of the NHL playoffs, namely that it features a higher quality of play than the regular season. This is important for two reasons. First of all, it makes the NHL playoffs a lot more entertaining than the regular season. Second of all, it means that the winning team won when most teams are playing their best hockey, so there is always a fair argument that the Stanley Cup winner is the best team in the NHL no matter what happened during the regular season.

The structure of the NHL playoffs also means that the Stanley Cup winner can always argue that they are the most deserving team. Winning the Stanley Cup requires a team to win 16 games against the upper tier of the NHL. Teams that were mediocre during the regular season have to do this against the best teams, while teams that were great get a comparatively easier draw. At any rate, winning the Stanley Cup will generally show that the winning team had a good record against a tough schedule and won head-to-head against the other really good teams in the NHL.

To conclude this entry, I will look at a couple other important elements in the NHL playoffs. First of all, there is that there is a lot of parity in the NHL as compared to the NBA and NFL, which means that lower seeds can beat the higher seeds and legitimately argue to be better teams when they win a seven game series against higher seeds. Second of all, the biggest problem with the NHL playoffs is that the officiating is noticeably different from the regular season. The reason for this is that referees do not want to make a call that might determine the outcome of the series and thus attempt to simply let the teams play. I have sympathy with this sentiment, but it is highly flawed because it makes officiating even more subjective than it already is and thus leads playoff officiating to become even less consistent than during regular season.

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