The Elitserien in Sweden has the most interesting hockey playoff system in the world, because of a delicious twist that permits its top regular-season achievers to hand-pick their opening-round opponents. This is how it works in Sweden: If you finish atop the standings, you can elect to play any of the teams that finished fifth through eighth in the standings.
Maybe you tailor your selection to minimize the effects of travel. Maybe you opt for a favourable match-up, or alternatively, avoid a team that historically has your number. Maybe you pick a team limping into the playoffs, or one undermined by injuries. The point is, there are all sorts of factors to consider beyond points in the standings that add a level of intrigue to the playoff selection process.
The Swedish alternative comes to mind in the aftermath of yet another year when the Presidents’ Trophy winner in the NHL was a one-and-done playoff flop. The Vancouver Canucks were eliminated by the eighth-seeded team in the Western Conference, the Los Angeles Kings, in five games Sunday night.
In theory, there should be some sort of meaningful reward for the October-to-April excellence required to finish atop the NHL’s 30-team heap. Instead, it’s almost as if winning the regular season can hamper playoff success, by adding pressure, raising expectations and permitting your opponent to play that tired old underdog card. It happened to the Washington Capitals in 2010 (ousted by the Montreal Canadiens), to the San Jose Sharks in 2009 (eliminated by the Anaheim Ducks) and to the Detroit Red Wings in 2006 (upset by the Edmonton Oilers). They all had tantalizing playoff opportunity fizzle away in a fortnight or less of uninspired playoff hockey against teams that barely qualified for postseason play.
Now, it’s hard to imagine that the Canucks, two weeks ago, would have picked anyone other than the Kings. The options for Vancouver were: the Detroit Red Wings (too scary a pedigree, terrible travel); the Chicago Blackhawks (their top rival, a guaranteed free-for-all, but a team with question marks in goal); or the San Jose Sharks (a perennial regular-season achiever that won their first-round playoff series in six of the seven previous years).
Anybody see a more attractive opponent than the Kings? That’s the problem in the age of parity – that if a team is good enough to make the playoffs, it’s also good enough to win a round or two or more.
“You don’t really see it as an eight-versus-one series,” said Los Angeles Kings centre Jarrett Stoll, who was also on the winning side for Edmonton over Detroit in 2006. “At the end of the regular season, everyone is seeded and that’s what it is at that time.
“Once that Game 1 starts, it’s 0-0 and anybody can beat anybody. So you take that one game, and play Game 1 and Game 2 and you go through the series and you adjust and you make reads and you figure out ways to beat that team. And it can happen – any year, any series.”
There is also a theory that Presidents’ Trophy winners tend to coast to the finish line most years and then ultimately run into a team peaking at just the right time in the opening round. How do you switch it off for a while, and then turn it back on?
But this year, even without the injured Daniel Sedin, the Canucks were the hottest team in the final 10 games of the season, going 8-1-1. The Sharks had a big finish, too (7-3-0), fifth-best over that stretch. Meanwhile, the Kings were a so-so 5-2-3 in that same span and dropped a pair of games to the Sharks in the final 48 hours of the regular season that cost them a shot at a division title. The Philadelphia Flyers had the 17th best record in the league over the final 10 games (5-4-1), the St. Louis Blues were 19th (4-3-3) and the Nashville Predators 12th (6-4-0). All four are through to the second round, with a chance to win it all, even after playing less-than-inspired hockey down the stretch.
It proves, among other things, that parity isn’t just a meaningless catch phrase in the NHL’s salary-cap era, but a reality that every team faces. Recently, the difference between an eighth-place team and a first-place team can be as little as one victory a month. When you factor in the vagaries of the season – the slumps, the injuries – it isn’t much of a gap, not the way it was in the 21-team NHL when some truly awful teams made the playoffs. If a bottom feeder took out a top squad in the 1980s, it was an upset of massive and unexpected proportions.
Nowadays, it isn’t the exception any more. It’s becoming the rule.