Whenever a team takes a lead in a playoff series, my son Ty follows with one of two comments.
“That’s good for my bracket,” or, “That’s not good for my bracket.”
The NHL’s new playoff system features bracket-style matchups from Round One through the Stanley Cup final. Previously, the league reseeded the teams after each round, so there was no way to forecast anything past the opening series.
While the NHL has a long way to go to match the popularity of NCAA’s March Madness, the league says more than 500,000 people filled out a bracket on NHL.com. Folks from Whoopi Goldberg to Wolfgang Van Halen have posted their picks, bringing attention to the postseason.
“Bracketing was never an ‘objective’ of the change, but it was a beneficial byproduct of the change,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said via email.
As the playoffs near the midway point, Daly and Commissioner Gary Bettman have found several benefits to the new divisional playoff format. The biggest is that long-standing rivalries such as Chicago-St. Louis and Rangers-Flyers have added another chapter, while neighbors such as Pittsburgh-Columbus and Los Angeles-Anaheim have had spirited debut matchups that are sure to increase the fan bases’ passion and animosity.
“I think it’s been spectacular,” Bettman told reporters during a second-round visit to Boston. “It emphasizes rivalries. We don’t have a team in the second round that has to travel 400 miles, which is nice in terms of the wear and tear of our athletes.”
The commissioner brought out the trumpet again in Anaheim, where the crosstown Kings were set to make their first playoff visit.
“If you’re looking at one of the byproducts of the realignment and the change of playoff format, you’re seeing it in this series, the first time that these two teams have actually faced off against each other in a playoff,” Bettman said.
One negative to the divisional format is it fails to reward the conferences’ top teams. The second round shows that. Under the previous system, No. 1 Anaheim would have gotten No. 7 Minnesota in the West, while No. 1 Boston would have been matched against No. 5 New York in the East.
Instead, Anaheim has the sixth-seeded Kings while No. 3 Chicago gets the “easier” matchup with nearby Minnesota. Boston is facing fourth-place Montreal, while No. 2 Pittsburgh gets the lowest-ranked Rangers.
While only two points separated the Kings and the Wild, and four points was the difference between Montreal and New York, there’s still a sense of imbalance.
“‘Fairness’ is a relative term,” Daly wrote in the email. “Every playoff format” including our old one “poses some element of ‘unfairness.’ ”
Daly illustrated his point by asking would it be fair if one conference final had the two teams with the best regular-season records meeting while the other conference had the teams with the four- and fifth-best records competing for a spot in the Stanley Cup final.
“The exercise really involves balancing the positives and negatives of the system you are contemplating and weighing them all and determining what is in the best long-term interests of the league and the game,” Daly wrote. “That was what was done here. ... Ultimately, we felt the current playoff format would be beneficial for the league.”
Salary cap could fall
Bettman can’t go anywhere without someone asking about expansion for his 30-team league, which features 16 teams in the Eastern Conference and 14 in the Western.
“We’re not considering expansion right now,” he said in Boston. “We don’t expand just for purposes of symmetry.”
Something that won’t expand as much as originally believed is the salary cap. The league estimated at the Board of Governors meetings in December that the cap would rise from $64.3 million to $71.1 million. The falling Loonie could instead bring the 2014-15 cap to $69 million or $70 million.
“Our system corrects for fluctuations in the Canadian dollar because all of our computations are done in U.S. dollars,” Bettman said. “If the Canadian comes down, as it has a little bit, then HRR, Hockey-Related Revenue, will be down, and the cap will be down.”
On the fly
• Jim Benning, the assistant general manager in Boston and longtime Buffalo scout who was on the Sabres’ list of GM candidates this year, is reportedly the front-runner to fill the GM opening in Vancouver.
• Detroit has been a training ground for front-office types (Tampa’s Steve Yzerman, Dallas’ Jim Nill) and coaches (Ottawa’s Paul MacLean, San Jose’s Todd McLellan), but it appears no one else will be leaving before his contract is up. “I don’t really want to be a development team for other teams,” Red Wings GM Jim Holland told the Detroit News in explaining why minor-league coach Jeff Blashill is off-limits until his contract ends after next season. “We’ve got to get this team going.”
• Sabres GM Tim Murray wrapped up the Amerks’ season with an open mind on the future of coach Chadd Cassidy – “Are there things I could nit-pick about? Sure,” Murray said in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. “I’ve disagreed on something with every coach I’ve worked with, but I thought the team played hard. They made a nice run to get in.” – and prospect Mikhail Grigorenko – “I think next year is when he shows us what he is: a top prospect, a good prospect or a middle prospect.”