NHL Betting and Handicapping: Navigating the New Hockey Playoff Format
by Trevor Whenham - 4/9/2014
The NHL has tweaked their playoff format this season. At first glance the changes aren't significant - there are still 16 teams, with eight coming from each conference, and the top eight records in each conference are very likely to advance. The more you think about the changes, though, the more you realize how significant they could be. Heading into these playoffs bettors should be familiar with what has changed and what those changes might mean.
From 1998 until last year the format had remained the same. Each conference was arranged into three divisions. The top team in each division qualified for the playoffs and earned one of the top three seeds. The next five best records advanced as well and were seeded below the top three according to their points. The top seed played the eighth seed, the second played the seventh, and so on. In subsequent rounds the teams were reseeded until one team from each conference was left standing.
Now, instead of three divisions, realignment has left us with two per conference. Whereas the divisions didn't used to mean much, now they are quite significant. The top three teams in each division now advance into the playoffs. That leaves two more spots, and those wild card positions are earned by the teams with the two best records that haven't already qualified. Where the big difference is, though, is that teams play within their divisions. In the first round the second-place team in the division hosts the third-place team, while the first-place team hosts a wild-card team.
In the second round the winners of the two series in each division play each other, and then the division champions will meet to fight for a berth in the Stanley Cup Finals.
So, what do the changes mean? Here are the biggest implications:
Tougher matchups: The Tampa Bay Lightning are a perfect example of how this new format can negatively impact teams. They currently have the fourth-best record in the East. Under the old format they would be in position to host a first-round series - likely against the Rangers. Because they sit third in Atlantic Division, though, they not only have to open against a better team in Montreal, but they will likely have to do it without the home-ice advantage. Their path is tougher than it would have been. Not all teams face tougher matchups, though - the Rangers are currently second in the Metropolitan despite being fifth in the conference, so they would open at home instead of on the road as they would under the old system. Before, then, we could rely on the number of points a team had to understand their path and what was ahead of them. Now it is much less clear, so bettors need to be more aware of what is ahead for teams.
Divisional imbalance: As it stands this year, the four divisions are reasonably balanced, so the eight teams that will make the playoffs are the same that would have made it before. The matchups are different, but the teams are the same. It is quite possible, though, that this format could see deserving teams left out because they play in a much stronger division. In the past we have seen teams in baseball's AL East struggle to make the postseason even though they have been much better than AL Central teams, and the same thing could happen in hockey.
Finishing first doesn't mean as much: Having the top record in the division isn't as rewarded as it used to be. It used to be that you were assured of playing the worst remaining team - at least by record - in each remaining series. In the first round that is still the case - the top seed gets the lowest-seeded wild-card team. In the second round, though, that isn't necessarily the case if they play in the tougher division.
Conference imbalance: There are now 16 teams in the Eastern conference and 14 in the West. That means that six Western teams will be left out of the postseason and eight from the East. At least theoretically, then, it is tougher to make the playoffs in the East.
Realignment: One thing not directly related to the format that bettors nonetheless need to consider is that the conferences were realigned along with the division this year. It meant that Winnipeg returned to the West where they belonged instead of the East where they had been when the franchise was in Atlanta. They are not a playoff team, though, so that has little impact. Detroit and Columbus both moved in the other direction, and they are likely both headed to the playoffs for the first time in their new conference this year. Columbus has never won a playoff game, so the impact is minimal. Detroit is a perennial contender, though, and the public has a strong opinion of them because of their history of success. They face a different challenge this year than they are used too, though - most notably less significant travel during the season and in the playoffs - and will face new playoff opponents. It will be very important to not let past experiences from Detroit cloud our expectations from them this year.
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