Early in the spring NHL fans were in debate about the playoff format. There was the risk of the NY Rangers finishing higher than the Montreal Canadiens in the standings, but being seeded as a wild card team.
“We should go back to 1-8!” people cried. “It’s fine as is!” Others shouted. Well, there’s one place we could take a look at all three big playoff formats in one: The Canadian Hockey League.
The CHL is split into three leagues that it oversees: The Western Hockey League covers an area from BC to Manitoba and dips south into Washington and Oregon. The Ontario Hockey League is, well, mostly in Ontario but also has teams in Michigan and Pennsylvania. The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League covers ground from Quebec to Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia.
These leagues have all three of the popular playoff formats in use: WHL is divisional, the OHL is conference based, and the QMJHL uses a 1-16 format, giving conference winners the top three seeds.
Let’s start out east.
The QMJHL is split into three conferences: Telus East, Telus West, and Telus Maritimes. Yes, they’re named after the telecommunications company - East and West are all teams that are based in Quebec.
The final standings in the QMJHL were:
With the conference winners seeding 1-3, only one team was lower than they could have been; the Charlottetown Islanders dropped from 2nd seed to 4th.
The playoffs went as expected in this format, with the top seed winning each series except for #3 Shawinigan losing to #14 Val d’Or. To compare this to how the NHL would have worked out in 1-16, it would have been the Toronto Maple Leafs eliminating the Pittsburgh Penguins in round one. The rest of the upsets were smaller in scale each round, #8 Chicoutimi eliminated Martins Dzierkals and the #2 Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in round two, and in the semi-finals the #5 Blainsville-Broisband Armada took out the #4 Charlottetown Islanders.
Overall however, the best teams in the league mostly all made it to the semi-finals, which is what you’d expect and what most fans want. It gives reporters and coverage a good underdog story as well when a low seed punches up and takes out a top dog.
The OHL has their playoff format set up as the NHL used to, each conference has it’s own playoff on the way to the OHL Championship Series, and the teams in the conference are seeded 1-8, with the division leaders as first and second seeds.
There was a lot of talk this year of the format not being fair to the best teams, as we heard in NHL circles. I covered this in a bit more depth over at The Bloggers Tribune, but the London Knights and Windsor Spitfires both finished with better records than any Eastern Conference team and had to face each other in the first round of the playoffs. It isn’t great to see either the reigning OHL and Memorial Cup champs or the Memorial Cup host team be eliminated so early. Fans (mostly out west) have wanted a change to 1-16 for a few years, but nothing has been indicated by the league that it will change any time soon. OHL President David Branch spoke with the OHL Fanboys Podcast about the current format:
Well, this year you’re absolutely right, actually the past few years you’re right. I know in the Quebec league, in five years the 16th place team hasn’t won a game and that’s not fair either. I think there’s value in preserving, as much as you can, the divisional rivalries that you develop, I think as well you have to respect the student athlete and not put too much unnecessary travel early on in the playoffs. The NHL has an interesting playoff format, but still, when you look at some of the top teams that went out in the first and second round of their league as well, there’s no guarantees. Now, that’s not to suggest we won’t challenge ourselves, and see if there’s some tweaking we can do. I think it’s important always to look and reflect at all the things you do, and the playoff structure is one of them, to see if there’s something that might be a little bit better but not lose some of the values and principles that I alluded to is why we currently do it the way we do.
The WHL mimics the NHL playoff format. The league is split into four divisions, and the top three teams from each division get a playoff spot, and two wild card teams from each conference are made up of the best two teams not in their divisions top three.
We’re all familiar with the set up, and in a league as spread out as the WHL is, a divisional playoff format is best to keep travel times down from 25 hours each way to a standard 3. I exaggerate, but it’s a lot of bus riding out west.
I spoke with someone from the WHL (whose name I didn’t write down, sorry) about the playoff format and if they found any disadvantages with it.
Our format is almost identical to the NHL, it’s very beneficial to teams 2 and 3 [in each division] because they know they’ll have good travel and a divisional rival to play. The disadvantage is that if two wildcards come from the two divisions, you could have the first place team with lots of travel - as we saw with Prince George, BC versus Portland, Oregon. We really like the format for our fans who get to see a rival more often. Our next challenge is to make sure the first place team doesn’t have a disadvantage in travel or opponent not being as exciting as the second and third place teams.
So, with all of these different formats, did any one of the representative teams get an easy path to their leagues championship?
Saint John’s opponents:
#16 seed Rimouski Oceanic - 43 points back - Won in 4 games
#14 seed Val d’Or Foureurs - 41 points back - Won in 4 game
#8 seed Chicoutimi Sagueens - 21 points back - Won in 6 games
#5 seed Blainville-Boisbriand Armada - 10 points back - Win in 4 games
Erie’s opponents, number in brackets is their overall standing:
#8 seed (13th) Sarnia Sting - 34 points back - Won in 4 games
#4 seed (4th) London Knights - 4 points back - Won in 7 game
#3 seed (2nd) Owen Sound Attack - 1 point back - Won in 6 games
#2 seed East (8th) Mississauga Steelheads - 22 points back - Won in 5 games
Seattle’s opponents, number in brackets is their overall standing:
#2 seed (11th) Tri-City Americans - 13 points back - Won in 4 games
#1 seed (3rd) Everett Silvertips - 2 points ahead - Won in 4 games
#2 seed BC Div (6th) Kelowna Rockets - 5 points back - Won in 6 games
#1 seed East Div (1st) Regina Pats - 14 points ahead - Won in 6 games
If we look at point differentials, Saint John had by far the easiest path to the Memorial Cup, sweeping two teams that stood no chance against them by the numbers, and they didn’t play a team in their power bracket until the finals, and that still was a sweep.
Erie played two of the best teams in the OHL, and needed 13 games to get out of the weeds and into an easy final vs the Mississauga Steelheads, who finished the season 11 wins back of the Otters.
Seattle’s climb out of the US Division got harder as the playoffs went on, and had their biggest challenge in the finals, but they persevered an got past the first overall Regina Pats team.
I didn’t want to go all on my own here, or just listen to the league reps as they’re in the business of promoting their leagues, so I bothered Jeff Marek from Sportsnet on his lone day off about the issue.
Me: How do you feel about the different playoffs in the CHL? Is there anyone that stands out?
Marek: I can’t figure out why it is the way they do it. I understand you want to reward your top teams, and build to have your top teams in the finals, but that first round is painful,. It’s quick, but it’s almost like “Let’s get the first round out of the way.” I guess philosophically it makes sense, hey if you’re the worst team you shouldn’t get any breaks and if you earned the top spot, you shouldn’t get the toughest competition in the league. I don’t think it makes for entertaining hockey in the first round.
Me: So they may as well just take the top 8 to get it competitive.
Marek: Yeah, but they’re in the money making business here. They’d like a chance to break even. In the rest, I’m fine the way the OHL does it. For competitive point of view, it’s good and out [in the WHL] you have to do it divisional, with the way they’re spread out.
So what does all of this tell us? Does any one league have it right? Looking it all up, and speaking with different people, I think each format has it’s merits and it’s drawbacks. Divisional is great for the WHL because of travel, which you want to keep to a minimum, they would be best served to drop the wild cards and be straight divisional. If this was the case the same teams would have played in the playoffs, but there wouldn’t have been divisional cross overs for the first seed.
The Q has more travel than the OHL and does 1-16. Since the league is split into the three divisions, and 1-8 seeding is hard and would require a complete redesign of how the league is set up. They like the 1-16 for it’s gift to the top teams, but the travel is longer for most of the series.
The OHL, which could do 1-16 the easiest because it has the least amount of travel, but could also have the best divisional formats because rival teams are so close together (except you Sault Ste Marie) that it would be easy to have road trips for each round of the playoffs. However imbalanced things are now, it may not be how things are in the future.
There’s no one perfect playoff format, you need to take many things into account depending on your league. For the CHL there are two big factors that should be taken into account: Travel and school. Does anyone have it perfectly? No, but at least the WHL is open to admitting there’s things they could do better.
What about the NHL? What can we take away from these leagues and apply to them? Well, honestly not much. The NHL’s biggest concern isn’t travel, isn’t school, it’s TV. The NHL builds their schedule around divisions right now to get ratings and attention when there’s the best chance and that’s the first round.
So, have spent almost 2,000 words to summarize things with a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ?
Seems like it.
Which playoff format do you think is best?
This poll is closed
1-8 Conference seeding
1-4 Division seeding
Divisional + Wild Card