If the league standings hold through the final three weeks of the regular season, the NHL could very well have two of the three top teams (points-wise) in the Eastern Conference out golfing by the first week of May.
Rather than opt for the traditional, conference-based format (No. 1 seed vs. No. 8 seed, No. 2 seed vs. No. 7 seed, etc.), the league has rolled out a division-focused system with wild cards added since 2014 — with the top three teams in each division making up the first 12 teams in the playoffs. The remaining four spots are filled by the next two highest-placed finishers in each conference, based on regular-season record and regardless of division.
What causes the headaches are when two or three of the best teams in the conference — or even the entire league — are sandwiched in the same division.
It’s left the NHL with egg on its face ever since this new format was adopted, with the Penguins and Capitals meeting in lesser rounds on a nearly annual basis, including the 2016-17 season in which both clubs had the two best records in the league.
Last season, the two top point-getters in the NHL in Nashville (117 points) and Winnipeg (114 points) met in just the second round of the postseason, while a 112-point Bruins team was trounced by a 113-point Lighting club in the same round — just a couple of weeks after Boston had to slug its way through a seven-game series with the third-place Maple Leafs.
As Rust Cohle once said — Time is a flat circle — and the league’s broken playoff format is once again set to chip away some of the most skilled and entertaining teams in the NHL before the conference finals can even get underway. And unsurprisingly, it’s a top-heavy Atlantic Division that’s set to take most of the flak.
While home-ice advantage could certainly switch between the Bruins and Maple Leafs given the fact that just four points separate them between second and third place within the division, it’s all but a given at this point that both Original Six clubs are set for a rematch in the first round — with a major-market club and likely 100-point team set to get sent packing in the early going of the postseason.
Just what we need, right?
At this point, the Tampa Bay Lightning don’t have much to fret when it comes to seeding, obliterating the competition with a ridiculous 114 points so far this season — 19 more points than the next closest team in the NHL (San Jose).
Still, when speaking with the Toronto Star earlier this week, Lightning captain Steven Stamkos was vocal in his displeasure of the current playoff format — not only because it will pit a pair of strong teams in Boston and Toronto against each other in the early going, but it will also set Tampa Bay up for what could be its most daunting opponent in the following round.
“I understand where (the NHL) is coming from, (from) a marketing perspective, wanting to get some rivalries early on,” Stamkos said. “From a perspective of what you’re grinding 82 games for during a season is to finish as high as you can so you can have an advantage come playoffs.
“I don’t think it’s an advantage to Toronto or Boston. What could be the top three teams in the whole league from one division, and have to play that team in the first round — I don’t think that’s right.”
While Maple Leafs center John Tavares was a bit more diplomatic when giving his take on the playoff formatting — he did add that the emphasis on home-ice advantage could put the Leafs behind the eight-ball if they are unable to climb out of their four-point deficit in the standings.
“It’s odd. It’s unusual,” Tavares said. “At the same time, if you want to get to the ultimate prize, you’ve got to beat some really good teams — the best teams in the league, the best players in the world. Whether that comes early or later on, you’ve got to find a way to do it.”
If the NHL playoff format was 1 vs 8 system, it would be Leafs versus Islanders in Round 1.
Which would be amazing.
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) March 15, 2019
Another matchup between the Bruins and Leafs seems destined to go the distance once again — although a surging Leafs franchise still riding the wave after inking the top free agent to switch teams in years in Tavares has to feel like the cards are stacked up against it with this system in place.
Boston has feasted against the Leafs’ porous D corps during the regular season — posting a 3-1-0 record against Toronto this year and outscoring its opponent, 16-10, during that stretch. The addition of Jake Muzzin has helped shore up some of Toronto’s defensive deficiencies, although Boston hasn't had a chance to match up against the Leafs' revamped roster and vice-versa, considering their regular-season series wrapped up allllllllll the way back on Jan. 12. January 12th. Brutal.
The NHL’s broken playoff format has pretty much locked Boston and Toronto into a first-round brawl once again, but Bruce Cassidy isn’t looking too far ahead — especially with 10 regular-season games remaining on the docket.
"I'll be honest. We play it game by game as a coach,” Cassidy said. “I think, three weeks ago, we didn't know who'd we get, because we got on a run to kind of separate ourselves from Montreal and Pittsburgh and those teams. We were right there, so we could have had Tampa, could have been the Wild Card going the other way, then we had our good run, so now it's kind of put us up in the higher neighborhood with Toronto.
“It sure looks that way, I'm not going to lie to you. But I haven't thought about it down the road. We played them four times this year, we feel like we're comfortable playing against them. We played them seven last year in the spring. Went our way, barely. So I think we'll worry about that as we get closer. We're trying to integrate news guys in the lineup, win games going into the playoff and we've done a good job with that till this week."
Early 2019 NHL Draft observations
After using up their first-round pick in 2018 NHL Draft to pry Rick Nash away from the Rangers last February, the Bruins will once again major capital to spend at the 2019 Draft up in Vancouver this June — with Boston holding onto five picks, including that valuable first-rounder.
If Boston maintains its current point pace, it will likely settle in with other Cup contenders around picks 27-31 in the first round, with plenty of talent still available at that point in the draft. Expect these rankings and projects to fluctuate weekly from now until June, but here are a few names that Bruins fans should keep tabs on as potential options for the Bruins in the first round.
Brett Leason, Center
Weight: 198 pounds
Team: Prince Albert Raiders (WHL)
Stats: 54 Games Played — 36 goals, 89 points
Based on his production this season with the Prince Albert Raiders, Leason might already be off the boards by the time the Bruins get to their pick in the lower 20s, but if the large center is still available, he presents great value in the tail end of the first round.
He might project as a power forward with his 6-foot-5 frame, but Leason already has plenty of skill in the offensive zone with 89 points over 54 games played. However, Leason is a bit of an interesting case, as he was passed over in the previous two NHL drafts that he was eligible for and will be 20 by the time June’s draft arrives.
His age might be what allows Leason to sink a bit in the draft, but the pivot’s progression into pro hockey will likely be accelerated, considering that he will not be able to return to the CHL for the 2019-20 season.
Cole Caulfield, Center/Wing
Weight: 157 pounds
Team: USNTDP - U-18
Stats: 49 Games Played — 45 Goals, 67 Points
Caulfield is another player who will likely be out of Boston’s reach in the lower stages of the first round, but much like another proven goal scorer in Alex DeBrincat, Caulfield could also slip out of picks 10-19 due to his 5-foot-7 frame.
However, given the success that DeBrincat has found in the NHL (66 goals in 153 games with Chicago), other NHL clubs may be more willing to take a gamble on a smaller forward with a knack for finding the back of the net.
But if he does happen to fall down to the Bruins, Boston can’t let that opportunity slip past it again.
Jakob Pelletier, Wing
Weight: 161 pounds
Team: Moncton Wildcats (QMJHL)
Stats: 64 Games Played — 38 Goals, 88 Points
Another undersized forward, what Pelletier lacks in profile, he more than makes up for in terms of offensive production — with the 18-year-old winger now up to 88 points in his second season with the QMJHL.
A versatile skater who's a natural play-maker, Pelletier would be a nice addition to a Bruins prospect pipeline that will need to start making contributions to help this current core set in place. Considering his already impressive showing down in the Q, Pelletier could make the jump up to the AHL in just a year or two.