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Inside the NHL: It's time to dump terrible playoff format

We can argue ad nauseam about goalie interference or toenail challenges, or about the inconsistency of the Department of Player Safety (Credit Due Dept: They nailed it with that 10-game suspension for Alex Burrows' dirtbag attack of Taylor Hall). You can say skipping the Olympics is a disaster, I can say I'd rather watch the NHL season continue to play out.

Those debates get constant chatter, but one topic that doesn't get enough play is starting to percolate in NHL circles. It's likely some general managers will want to talk about it at their March meetings. The bet here is it gets hugely discussed at the June gathering of the GMs after another postseason is in the books.

Here's the simple way to say it: This league's playoff format stinks.

And while we're apparently stuck with it through the 2018-19 season, the NHL should get rid of it as soon as humanly possible. We've seen it now since 2014 and it just makes no sense.

All you have to do is look at the Eastern Conference standings to see the disaster that is going to unfold come spring. Tampa Bay, Boston and Toronto entered the weekend as the top three teams in the East – but two of them will be eliminated by the end of the second round because they're all from the same division. That's just horrible. Same for the potential this year of the sixth-place team in the Central sitting home while the third-place team in the Pacific qualifies with fewer points.

The format, remember, was changed in 2014 to no longer seed the top eight teams from a conference in the 1-8, 2-7, 3-6, 4-5 fashion we grew accustomed to. Teams 2-3 in each division now play in the first round, regardless of their point totals or place in the conference standings, and the first-place team meets one of two-wild cards in the first round – before playing its 2-3 winner in round two.

The Atlantic race has been over for weeks, which is a terrible thing. The Leafs hit the weekend with a 17-point lead on No. 4 Florida and likely locked in at No. 3 because they were five points behind Boston while the Bruins still had four games in hand. If you had a conference format, the Leafs would be playing for their spot and their matchup all the way into April.

Those who say this is an unusual year are wrong. These kind of vagaries are happening every year under this format.

It happened last year in the Metropolitan Division. Columbus finished third with 108 points – fourth overall in the league. Its reward was a first-round series against 111-point Pittsburgh and a first-round exit. The Capitals won the division and the Presidents Trophy with 118 points and they got rewarded with a second-round loss to the Penguins.

In 2016, defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago had 103 points and was third in the Central but would have won the Pacific. The Hawks were eliminated in a first-round series by 107-point St. Louis.

The current format means you almost never pit the two best teams in the East or West in the conference final. If they're from the same division, they're going to meet in the second round.

Why does the NHL do this? Commissioner Gary Bettman said it's to promote rivalries. That's a sham when you consider teams only play divisional rivals four times a season now – and the schedule is so shoddy that "rivals" like Buffalo and Toronto don't have a single meeting until March 5.

You can't tell me there's not a huge marketing element to this. The format allows for a March Madness-style bracket to be formed and the league loves to push its bracket challenge contest through the spring on You can't have that under the 1-8/2-7 etc. format because teams are re-seeded after each round.

So do we want fairer hockey matchups on the ice or a bracket challenge on the league's website? Hmmmm.

The GMs should be pushing the league much harder for a change than they have been. If the Leafs are first-round losers with say, 103 points, bet on GM Lou Lamoriello and president Brendan Shanahan speaking their mind. And if Toronto has the influence we all think it does to press for change that Columbus doesn't, so be it.

Keep a division championship meaningful. Maybe even make first and second place have value. Two in each division and four wild cards would work. And if the Cup final pits the two conference champions, then the playoffs have to be held by conference. That means a first round of 1-8/2-7/3-6/4-5. Top teams don't get knocked out in round one. That's bad for the league. And it's bad for NBC and CBC, too.

Rangers run out public white flag

The Rangers beat the Sabres in the Winter Classic and then posted a second one-goal win over Buffalo Jan. 18 in Madison Square Garden. Since then, the Blueshirts' season has fallen apart.

The Rangers were just 1-7 in their previous eight games heading into Friday's matchup against Calgary and facing a four-game road trip that starts Sunday in Winnipeg. Henrik Lundqvist has been pulled from the net four times during that stretch, including Wednesday's 6-1 wipeout at the hands of the Bruins and back-to-back in the first time in his career in losses to the Maple Leafs and Sharks.

Said captain Ryan McDonagh after the Boston debacle: "That was one of the worst games of my career and one of the worst games I've ever been a part of in my Rangers career. That sums it up."

Then came Thursday, when president Glen Sather and GM Jeff Gorton summed it up with a stunningly frank letter to season-ticket holders that was posted on the team's Twitter account. In essence, they white-flagged the season. Said everything other than "it may require some suffering" (sorry, couldn't resist).

The highlights:

"As we approach the trade deadline later this month and into the summer, we will be focused on adding young, competitive players that combine speed, skill and character. This may mean we lose some familiar faces, guys we all care about and respect. While this is part of the game, it's never easy. Our promise to you is that our plans will be guided by our singular commitment: ensuring we are building the foundation for our next Stanley Cup contender.

"... We do not take your support for granted. We appreciate that you have always stood by us, and we ask you to remain by our side as we undertake this exciting new chapter filled with promise and change."

Translation: Asking Rick Nash for the 12 teams he would approve a trade to was just a start. Players with term left on their contracts like McDonagh and forward Mats Zuccarello are likely in play as well. Even fans who don't like that have to respect the transparency behind it. Other organizations would do well to learn from it (here's looking at you, One Seymour H. Knox III Plaza).

The interesting sidelight to the letter is how it will impact Lundqvist, who is 35 but only on the fourth year of a seven-year, $59.5 million contract extension that he signed in 2013. Just last week, he reaffirmed his commitment to the franchise no matter what direction it takes.

“The competitor in me wants us to have the best team possible right here and now. I’m not hoping we have a contending team in two or three years,” Lundqvist told the New York Post. “But at the same time, even though it’s hard to say because it kind of goes against myself, I feel so much for this organization, that whatever path they take, I’m in. I made a commitment to this organization a few years back. It was a big decision in my career. I hope they have the same commitment to me.

"... I want to be here. I want to play for one organization. This one. I love it here. I want to be here and battle through the ups and downs, the good and the bad. It’s important to me.”

Lundqvist is the face of the franchise. You have to believe he knew this kind of message was coming and got out in front of it.

Caps arena makeover applies here

Lots of Sabres season ticket-holders read with interest on Thursday when the Capitals announced a privately funded $40 million renovation of Capital One Arena will take place this summer and be ready for the 2018-19 season.

The entire seating bowl will be replaced with new padded seats with cupholders. There will be a new sound system, remodeled flooring lighting and decor on the concourses as well as new concession stands featuring local chefs' cuisine. Two new destination premium lounges will be added, including an upgraded area on the event level for glass row NHL and courtside NBA seat holders. The club level restaurant will be completely remodeled, as well as the Capitals/Wizards retail store. Technological advancements also will be made throughout the arena.

The downtown facility opened in Dec. 1997 – 15 months later than KeyBank Center. It's the latest extreme makeover of a '90s arena, much like we've seen in recent years at Scottrade Center in St. Louis and Amalie Arena in Tampa.

These are exactly the kinds of renovations needed at KeyBank, which has quickly become one of the shabbiest arenas in the league. Complaints about the facility probably increase when you have a losing team because the fans are already in a sour mood. But even with that as a backdrop, the griping to this corner and on social media has exploded this season about the condition of the seating bowl, fixtures not working in mostly dirty bathrooms and about overpriced and poor concession food.

The bet here is that what fans the Sabres have left will have to wait one more year before the team embarks upon its rebranding of the building for the 2019-20 celebration of the Sabres' 50th anniversary. The Pegulas have to know it's needed, and can't be sitting idly on their laurels of building HarborCenter when their flagship property is in such disrepair.

Around the boards

* You wonder how much the Penguins may ramp up pursuit of Sabres rental Evander Kane with forwards Patric Hornqvist and Conor Sheary both listed as week to week with lower-body injuries. The Penguins have been scouting the Sabres hard in recent weeks and it's well-known Kane is squarely on their radar. If you're looking for a team with a big need, it might make sense for Jason Botterill to make his first big deadline deal with mentor Jim Rutherford, the GM he knows best. And Botterill obviously knows the Pens' prospect pool too.

How to break Kane's slump? Sabres hope it's a return to Eichel's line

* After watching the Sabres on a nightly basis all season, Wednesday night's 3-2 shootout win by the Maple Leafs over the Predators looked like it was being played in a different league. What incredible pace. Then this realization struck: Buffalo plays Toronto and Nashville six times in a 14-game stretch from March 5-April 2. Yes, six times. Good luck with that.

* A smiling Sabres winger Kyle Okposo, when asked if he's hoping next year's road game against the Islanders is one of the 12 picked to be played in NYCB Live, the new Nassau Coliseum: "Yeah, I am. It would be a lot of fun to go back. When I heard they were going back it put a smile on my face. A lot of great memories in that barn and I would love to be a part of one of those games for sure."

Inside the NHL: Isles full of subplots with arena saga, Tavares' free agency

* From the Good Idea Department comes this nugget from Greg Wyshynski on Too many writers simply make their Lady Byng Award vote the player who combines the most points with the least penalty minutes and aren't really voting for the most gentlemanly player. Why not transfer voting of this award to the NHL Officials Association? Wouldn't they know best?

In addition, you would involve another segment of the hockey world in voting. The writers vote for the Hart (MVP), Norris (defenseman), Calder (rookie) and Selke (defensive forward) while broadcasters vote for the Jack Adams (coach of the year) and the general managers handle the Vezina (goalie)

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