I’m a diehard New York Rangers fan and I am nervous. In fairness, this is a feeling I’ve grown accustomed to around this time every year. The end of March is usually when my Blueshirts struggle to qualify for the NHL’s playoffs, at best clawing into a 7th or 8th seed (hey, maybe even 6th!) after yet another season of inconsistency and, on occasion, rank mediocrity.
But this year has been different — the Rangers, currently five points clear at the top of the Eastern Conference and tied for top of the NHL overall — have been one of the surprise stories of the season. Buoyed by arguably the best goaltender in the league as well as its best corps of young defensemen, New York blossomed into an elite squad. The Rangers’ style — hard-working, relentless, lightning quick — is maddening to play against and a delight to support. The Rangers’ identity, a mix of home-grown prospects and marquis free agents that has been carefully assembled over half-a-decade, is a rarity in a city where franchises aren’t often allowed to build through youth. And, under the fire-and-brimstone leadership of coach John Tortorella, the Rangers should be a top-tier competitor for years to come.
So why am I jittery? Because, with just a week left in a superlative season, things may end up altogether middling. If the Rangers don’t finish with the top record in the East — given the exceptional form of a returned Sidney Crosby, the Pittsburgh Penguins are nipping at their skates — they will be seeded fourth for the playoffs, behind the leaders of the Northeast and Southeast divisions (the Rangers and Penguins are in the Atlantic). No matter that the Rangers’ record will be far superior to that of both the Boston Bruins and Florida Panthers: the NHL favors divisional heads in the playoffs, guaranteeing them the top three seeds in each of the conference’s brackets.
So, rather than getting matched up against the seventh place team in the conference, we would likely have to play a bruising first-round series against the hated Philadelphia Flyers, a clash neither team would welcome at such an early stage in the playoffs. In the present system, the happiest Eastern team has to be the sixth place New Jersey Devils — only the fourth best team in the Atlantic division — who, based on current standings, would face the top team from the ever-hapless Southeast.
It’s taken a particularly lopsided season to illustrate the absurdity of rewarding NHL division winners. For most of the year, the four best teams in both conferences have been clustered in two divisions — the East’s Atlantic and the West’s Central. In the Western conference, were it not for the practice of rewarding mediocre division winners, likely no team from the Pacific division would even make the playoffs.
The rationale behind divisional seedings revolves around achieving some level of geographic diversity and parity. But in a league where every team plays each other at least once, and where most divisions don’t represent real geographic regions — the Rangers, for example, are closer to Boston (Northeast) and Washington (Southeast) than they are to Pittsburgh; a team from Manitoba is in the same division as two teams in Florida — it seems silly to give division winners a clear advantage. Better to scrap the divisional seeds and shape the playoffs through a simple bracket of 1 through 8 in a conference or even, as Hockey News columnist Ken Campbell writes, 1 through 16 in the league:
The league could get really bold and go back to the days when it simply seeded teams from one through 16 based on their point totals… most importantly, a move to a points-for-seeding format would make things more equitable and stop giving a free pass to teams that don’t deserve to get it. And it might prevent sixth place from developing into the most desired spot in the conference.
I agree wholeheartedly, and not just because I loathe the Devils — ever an opportunistic, lucky side. The NHL is struggling now with a contentious plan over realignment, not to mention upcoming collective bargaining negotiations that could paralyze the league next season. So don’t expect the league to address this fundamental unfairness any time soon. If the Rangers do get eclipsed by Pittsburgh, and falter early on in the playoffs, at least I’ll have my excuse.