RandBall: Michael Rand
We’re entering Year 5 of the NHL’s playoff format that focuses more on divisions than conferences. The Wild entered the weekend with the fifth most points in the West, and in a conventional system that would pair it with No. 4 San Jose in the first round.
Instead, the most likely matchup is Winnipeg-Wild — second vs. third in the Central Division. Minnesota is 1-3 this season against Winnipeg, which could finish with the second-most points in the conference and looks every bit like the most dangerous team in the West ahead of even Nashville and Vegas.
By contrast, the Wild is 2-0 against San Jose. Not only would that be a fairer matchup (and better for the Wild), but it would get the Wild out of (yet another) first-round matchup against a foe from its division. Minnesota hasn’t played a team outside the Central Division in the postseason since the format changed.
The theory is that pitting division teams against each other should build rivalries. The more teams face each other, the more the history, drama and bad blood will build. When the playoffs come around, that only intensifies.
It’s not bad logic, but it does miss this point: You can’t manufacture a rivalry. It has to grow organically. In trying to go with a gimmick, the NHL cuts down on potential playoff opponents and creates first-round matchups that are less than fair.
Sometimes the simple way is the best way. Seed the teams 1-8 according to point totals. It’s not that hard.
Michael Rand is the senior digital writer for Star Tribune sports and keeper of the RandBall blog at startribune.com/RandBall.
The NHL’s playoff system can be confusing to figure out — and it can punish teams for being in the wrong division.
The format requires the second- and third-place teams from each division to square off in the first round. But there’s a flaw in that system that can render a team’s regular-season success useless. Consider last season. The Blue Jackets finished third in the Eastern Conference with 108 points.
The problem for them was that the Penguins and Capitals finished ahead of them — and both were in their division. Instead of being the No. 3 seed and having home ice in a traditional matchup, they had to play the Penguins in the first round without home ice. Meanwhile, the Senators and Bruins, who would’ve been the No. 6 and 7 seeds, faced off in the first round, with the Senators using that series win to skate their way to the conference finals.
So while the NHL is trying to encourage rivalries in this new format, it has rendered regular-season success somewhat meaningless for half of its playoff-bound teams, and it could be the Wild’s turn to be on the short end of the stick.
If it finishes third in the Central, it may have to face the Jets, who could finish with the second-most points in the Western Conference. Meanwhile, whoever finishes third in the Pacific Division will likely get to play the second-place Sharks, who are in line to have the fourth-most points in the West.
Once you’ve secured your place in the playoffs, why even bother trying?