The playoffs are unfair in hockey, and that’s okay

The Stanley Cup Playoffs have been wacky this year. Don’t believe me? Go take a look at your bracket. If you’re like everyone else, it’s already been shattered, with more to come.

The first overall Tampa Bay Lightning, who finished the season with one of the best records in NHL history? Swept in four by the Columbus Blue Jackets. The second overall, West-leading Calgary Flames? Bounced in five by the Colorado Avalanche. The Winnipeg Jets, who most had as the favourite to win the conference at the start of the season, were beaten in six by the St. Louis Blues, who were in the basement less than four months ago. With Dallas, Vegas, and Toronto up 3-2 in their respective series, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that we get a few more underdog upsets by the end of the first round.

It’s different. It’s jarring. It’s the first time in NHL history that both 1-seeds have been defeated in Round 1, and they have a combined 1-8 record to show for it. There’s a good chance that six or seven underdogs win the first eight series, with the only victorious overdog so far being the New York Islanders, a team who many saw as the team most likely to get upset. There is no semblance of predictability in this postseason, which has many, mostly in the media, wondering if there is something we can do to give the top teams a further advantage in the playoffs.

But do we need to do that?

The NHL is the major professional sports league most susceptible to talent being overruled by luck. The combination of fewer scoring plays, more roster players to go hot and cold at any given time, the sheer importance of the team’s goaltender in a small sample, and the hard salary cap preventing long-term super teams makes it hard for a club to turn into a runaway freight train, that sweeps through the regular season and playoffs.

The Lightning were the closest we’ve seen to that as a regular season team in the salary cap era this year, and even they relied on insane special teams numbers (and gaming the system to get the units on the ice more) to get there. Even still, they weren’t a lopsided favourite in the way that, say, the NBA’s Golden State Warriors are, and we probably haven’t seen a team that can lay claim to similar odds of victory since the 1970’s Montreal Canadiens, if at all.

The point being, it’s a tremendously lucky sport by nature, and in the playoffs, the luck factor gets even more severe. You have no time for a cold streak; if you struggle for a week and a half, you’re out. The team that hoists the Stanley Cup is usually a good one – most teams that make the playoffs are – but they are rarely the best. It’s not because they “wanted it more” or whatever the mainstream analysts sell you either; everyone wants it come the postseason, but unless you’ve got a consistently hot goaltender and a few scorers on percentage benders, you’re not going anywhere in the playoffs.

With that said, playoff hockey isn’t entirely an even coin toss. There is an imbalance of weight on that quarter (or loonie, or toonie), and the top-seeded team will, in fact, win their series more often than not. The fact that the weight never gets heavier than 80/20 and usually stands around 60/40 is why upsets are still common, but the top teams have big years too. Last season, 11 of 15 series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs went to the team with home ice, including 7 of 8 in the first round.

That’s a pretty solid margin of dominance for the “better teams”, and it makes you wonder why we’re suddenly pushing for solutions to parity. The league didn’t suddenly close up in talent over the past 12 months, and if it did, we wouldn’t be trying to help a team that was the most statistically dominant in 23 years find a way to win a playoff game.

Ideas like play-ins for the later seeds, even more games of home ice advantage, and others all seem like a drastic over-correction for a once-in-a-lifetime postseason. Again, this is the first time that both 1-seeds have dropped in the first round in NHL history. Between 2011 and 2018, 1-seeds won 14 of 16 first-round series (Vancouver in 2012 and Chicago in 2017 were the exceptions). As unpredictable as the sport is, and as unlikely as it is that the best team will survive a full playoff run, the best teams usually escape the first round, and still remain the favourites – for example, we call the Presidents Trophy a curse and claim that it leaves teams bored by the time April comes, but first overall still has the highest percentage of cup victories by a considerable margin historically (about 1 in every 4).

There isn’t a crisis of parity at the moment. Even if there was, though, why are we trying to break it? The unpredictability of the playoffs, the feeling that anything can happen at any given time, that a new hero can emerge out of a corner you never expected is what makes the postseason in any sport, but especially an abnormally random one like hockey, so exciting. To take that away for the sake of giving the “best team” an easier path to victory strips out the fun and excitement, which sounds great for an analyst, but hurts the entertainment value of what is ultimately an entertainment product.

As we dissect professional sports more and more, I think we lose sight of that last point. It’s the job of front offices, analysts, broadcasters, and the like to pick apart the sport and attempt to find answers of objectivity within the chaos, and that will never change. Personally, that is what I seek the most out of the game, and what keeps my love for it burning bright. But at the same time, these leagues exist to give the paying fans and customers a show, not as science experiments to decide who the best hockey team is. We should do what we can to pull these experiments out of the product, but we shouldn’t dull the product to make the experiment easier. The fans want upsets. They want crazy finishes. They want close games, they want excitement. No one wants to watch the objective best team win a bunch of systematically optimized, uncreative 4-1 games.

Instead of trying to make the playoffs easier for the best teams, maybe what we need to do as reporters, analysts, and team-builders is look in the mirror a little bit. Instead of trying to make the playoffs into a better reflection of who the best team is, maybe we should accept that it isn’t that, and stop putting as much decision-making weight into those eight or so weeks of hockey, focus on sustained success, and not make irrational decisions based on a few extra games. On the media side of things, maybe we need to look at our repeatedly spoiled brackets and, instead of trying to shape the league to make it easier to pick the winners, admit that even those who have the most “expertise” don’t have all the answers, or even close to them.

Maybe it’s best to accept that we have educated guesses and that some of those guesses may be better or more logical than others, but that fate, coin tosses, and weird bounces will make fools of us all. It’s like a mechanical bull; some of us may have some guidance on how to ride one, some of us might have experience doing so, but we’re all about ten seconds away from being sent on our ass.

In short – instead of trying to make the playoffs more straightforward, let’s embrace the chaos for what it is. As for this year, let’s appreciate that it’s even more chaotic than usual, and look at it as a once-in-a-lifetime ride, rather than the broken rule that must be fixed.

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