It’s been suggested the NHL’s current playoff system rewards mediocrity, but that’s simply not the case. Read on to find out why.

The presence of the New Jersey Devils (the sixth overall seed in the Eastern Conference) and the Los Angeles Kings (the eighth overall seed in the Western Conference) marked the first time since the NHL adopted the current playoff format in 1994 that two teams seeded so low advanced to the Stanley Cup Final.

It also marked the first time an eighth overall seed won the Cup, going one better than the 2006 Edmonton Oilers, the last eighth overall seed to reach the Final.

The fact two low playoff seeds reached the Final sparked two critical articles suggesting the NHL playoff system rewarded mediocrity, claiming the competitiveness among NHL teams was more parody than parity.

To be fair, the complaint in one of the pieces over the length of an 82-game season, and of the four-round, best-of-seven playoff rounds, is a fair one.

It’s a considerable slog for NHL teams to be playing from early-October through to early-April, followed by a two-month forced march for the eventual Stanley Cup finalists, making it very difficult for champions to repeat.

That being said, there’s little to support the theory the current system rewards mediocrity.

It’s true that five times in the last nine years a Stanley Cup Final featured a team seeded sixth or lower, but those teams – the 2003 Anaheim Ducks, 2004 Calgary Flames, 2006 Edmonton Oilers, 2010 Philadelphia Flyers, and this year’s Finalists – were strong contenders who deserved to be in the Final, having in most cases upset teams considered stronger than themselves along the way.

In the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Flyers became only the third team in NHL history to rally from a 3-0 series deficit and win a series. Apart from their thrilling Cup Final series against Chicago, that was the most exciting story of that post-season. I don’t recall many complaints about how their performance made a parody of the playoff system.

The Kings upset the top three seeds in their Conference advancing to this year’s Final, proving to be a much better team than their regular season record indicated.

As more than a few observers pointed out, the Kings weren’t some plucky underdog lacking star talent somehow overcoming the odds to win it all. They were actually a very good team, deep in star power, which uncharacteristically struggled this season but rallied at the right time to march to a championship. As one pundit observed, they may have squeaked into the playoffs, but in the regular season, they had the second-best goals-against average, and gave up on average the fifth-fewest shots.

In the 17 NHL seasons since the league adopted the current Conference and playoff format, only seven Cup Finals (including this year’s) featured a Finalist seeded sixth or less, which is a pretty good average. Of those lower seeds, the Kings were the first to win the Cup, as all  previous lower-seeded Finalists lost to their higher-seeded opponent.

Some of the most exciting Stanley Cup Finals in recent memory involved a lower-seeded team. Many hockey fans consider the 1994 Final between the NY Rangers and Vancouver Canucks to be the best of the past twenty years, yet that series involved the Western Conference’s seventh-seeded Canucks, who had the third-worst regular season record of all that year’s playoff teams. No one was complaining about mediocrity or suggesting parity was a parody back then.

In the 2006 Stanley Cup Final, the first following a season-killing lockout, the Western Conference’s eighth seeded Oilers squared off against the Eastern Conference’s second-seeded Carolina Hurricanes in what was an exciting seven-game tilt.More than a few observers felt that series helped restore the faith of fans disillusioned by the labor strife of the previous year.

The Oilers, who had the second-worst regular season record of the playoff teams, weren’t singled out for being mediocre, but instead heralded as plucky underdogs defying the odds and nearly pulling off a great upset in the Final.

In the 2010 Stanley Cup Final, the Eastern Conference’s seventh-seeded Flyers certainly gave the Western Conference’s second-seeded Blackhawks all they could handle, which produced some of the highest ratings for a Cup Final in years.

The Flyers had the second-worst record of that season’s playoff clubs, needing a shootout in the final game of the regular season with the Rangers to clinch a playoff berth. Funny how no one was complaining about seedings and mediocrity during their run to the Final.

I might be wrong, but it appears the complaining about the NHL’s playoff system this year seemed to have more to do with the participants than seedings.

The Kings play in one of America’s biggest media markets, but were ignored for decades by most of the eastern-based media, except when Wayne Gretzky played for them, and then the excitement had more to do with Gretzky than with the Kings themselves.

The Devils, meanwhile, have been among the NHL’s most successful teams over the past twenty years (five Finals performances, three Stanley Cups), but weren’t considered a “sexy” opponent compared to the vanquished NY Rangers, Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins.

That’s probably due to the fact they had few exciting standout stars. I also feel they’re still tarred with the reputation of being the first NHL team to have great success playing the now-hated defensive trap, despite the fact they haven’t played that system in years.

If it were the Rangers, Flyers, Penguins, Capitals or Bruins that were the lower-seeded Eastern team, and the Blackhawks, Vancouver Canucks, or Detroit Red Wings the Western low seed, it’s unlikely the whining about parity rewarding mediocrity would’ve been an issue.

Some complain the current system, especially the salary cap, makes it impossible for teams to become Stanley Cup “dynasties” – teams winning three or more consecutive Stanley Cups, like the 1960s Toronto Maple Leafs, the 1970s Montreal Canadiens, or the 1980s New York Islanders – or those which dominate for years, like the 1960s Canadiens (four Cups in five years) and the 1980s Oilers (five Cups in eight years).

It’s probably a good thing for the league dynasties no longer exist.

I’m old enough to remember those dynasties of the 1970s and 80s, and while it was good times if you were a fan of the Canadiens, Islanders or Oilers, it sucked for supporters of the other NHL teams, because it always seemed the same teams were making the Finals and winning the Cup. Believing it’s a foregone conclusion only one or two dominant teams are going to win the Stanley Cup each year sucks all the suspense and excitement out of the playoffs.

Better to have a system where the table isn’t tilted in favor of a small handful of clubs at the expense of the majority. It leads to better management, especially in a salary cap world, as it’s a true test of a general manager’s skills to build and maintain a Cup contender.

The current system gives hope to fans of lower-seeded clubs that anything can happen in the playoffs, that they won’t automatically be “first round and out” clubs. Though the Kings are a much better club than their regular season record, the fact they’re the first eighth seed in NHL history to win the Stanley Cup  stokes the hope of fans of future lower-seeded teams that, like the Kings, their club can beat the odds and win it all.

It’s unlikely, given how infrequently lower-seeded clubs advance to the Final, let alone winning the Cup, but having that hope is better than the expectation they’ll be road kill in the early rounds.

So relax, critics of the current NHL playoff system. The Kings championship isn’t indicative of a future where marginal playoff teams march to Stanley Cup glory more frequently than the “more deserving” higher seeds.

 

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2 Responses to Parity or Parody in NHL?

  1. Neil says:

    It seems that once again, non-hockey fans are finding any excuse to slag the NHL.

    When you must beat “better” teams 4 out of 7 seven games a number of times such as this year’s Kings squad, it demonstrates which team is actually a better club.

    When compared to the mighty NFL, how many wild card teams have been able to go all the way by eliminating teams in a one shot deal to gain entry, and then win the Super Bowl? How many complaints about parity or parody in these situations do we read about?

    We should all enjoy when this happens in both sports, which I enjoy, because anything can happen once a team believes that it can win.

  2. Dean Gilbert says:

    Here’s another data point for your thesis. From 1989 until 2011, only one team that placed below 8th overall won the Stanley Cup, and that was the 1995 Devils (10th) Only three times in that period has a team that placed below 5th overall.

    I think that LA’s victory can be explained by a few things:

    1. They’re a better team than their record indicated. With a couple extra wins they would have placed first in the Pacific and been the third seed. 2 wins is simply luck.

    2. Luck has a HUGE impact in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and it’s worse when the teams are pretty evenly matched. I can pretty much guarantee that LA won’t repeat. Not because they’re a good team, but they went on a tear like Pittsburgh and Boston did mid-season, but just did it at the exact right time.

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