NHL PLAYOFF MAKEOVER TIME! aka Requiem For The 2019 Lightning
Pity the Tampa Bay Lightning. After tearing up the league this season and finishing twenty one points clear of the next best thing, they are now awaiting a (way to early) tee-off time and hopefully a beer cart overflowing with mind-numbing and memory-clearing alcohol. At least they can tan their blues away.
Say all you want about a team "not being ready to take it to the next level" but the Bolts won 62 freaking games. I think it's safe to say that they'd established "how to win" but unfortunately that didn't translate to the playoffs.
Winning The Presidents' Trophy - the impotent and unimportant talisman that proclaims your regular season domination - means very little these days. In fact, it's often a curse. In the last ten years only one team has gone wire to wire and converted regular season domination into a Stanley Cup win. In the last five years Presidents' Trophy winners have exited in the first or second round, four times. Tampa upped that ante this year.
The main problem is two fold. Expending all your energy early leaves little left for the playoffs. You're also a sitting duck for teams that might have squeezed in. You have everything to lose and they have nothing. In essence the so-called "advantage" for finishing first overall is not really an advantage at all. It's more a bullseye on your back.
Don't tell that to the NHL though. To call them pig-headed about things like this seriously insults pigs. A while back we had what I would call logical but random playoffs. Teams were simply seeded best to worst, #1 to #16, regardless of the conference The best played the least, 1 vs 16, 2 vs 15 and so on. This provided random matchups. Two teams with sometimes no history between them would square off. The NHL looked at this as bad. Travel time notwithstanding, in their eyes these took away from natural divisional rivalries so why not force teams to meet in a divisional showdown (right off the bat, stick rather. It's hockey) which (tried to harken) back to the rivalries of old, only back then minimal player movement meant that you could actually hate specific opponents consistently year after year. By and large you faced the exact same guys every season. That's not the case anymore.
What the NHL has failed to realize in all of this is how much better the previous format worked, the biggest benefit being that the Presidents' Trophy winner actually played the statistically weakest team in the playoffs. It didn't ensure victory but it was certainly provided a much bigger advantage than there is now.
On top of that obvious benefit it also meant that the sixteen teams in the playoffs were actually the sixteen (statistically) best teams in the league. This year pity the Montreal Canadiens for being in the wrong conference and the wrong division. The Habs had more points than both Dallas and Las Vegas but that kind of easy math doesn't compute with a league tone deaf to actual logic. Better to have a subsidized program to keep geographical balance as if the earth would tilt off its axis without eight teams on either side of the Mississippi.
By reverting back to the old playoff format you (read: fans) win on so many levels. Besides the obvious ones already mentioned you also turn more late season games into meaningful ones. Instead of being locked into a collision course with a specific team with eight games to go (and thus resting your players because there's essentially nothing left to play for) you make more games mean much more. A win here and a win there and suddenly you like your playoff matchup a lot more. Late season results change your potential opponent daily, adding the random excitement of Who Knows Who We'll Play to the mix. Of course this would require the NHL to put fan appreciation at the top of the list, rather than the mandated "This Works. Trust Us" proclamation they currently live by.
The traditional rivalries would still factor in (Montreal and Boston would have met in the first round this year by the way) but they wouldn't all be jammed into the first couple of rounds. Beyond that the cross continent randomness would eventually develop rich rivalries that are currently non-existent. Nothing makes you hate another team more than facing them without something substantial on the line.
Look, every sport worth watching bases their formats this way, rewarding teams for regular season success by making their paths theoretically easier thus allowing the actual best teams to meet when it means the most, regardless of how they may be aligned during the season. And isn't it all about having the real best teams last the longest. It may not have saved the Lightning this year but it certainly takes away most if not all of the barriers and excuses when they don't.