The second round of the WHL playoffs begins in full swing Friday.
In the Western Conference, the Everett Silvertips face the Portland Winterhawks in a series that pits the team that finished with the best record in both the U.S. Division and the conference (Everett with 99 points) against the team that finished with the second-best record in both (Portland, with 94 points). Meanwhile the Tri-City Americans, who finished fourth in the U.S. Division and fifth in the conference (85 points), face the Victoria Royals (84 points), who finished sixth in the conference, for the other berth in the conference finals.
The story is the same in the Eastern Conference. The Moose Jaw Warriors (109 points) and Swift Current Broncos (103 points), which finished with the best records in both the East Division and the league, will start slugging it out in a heavyweight second-round series. Meanwhile the Brandon Wheat Kings (85 points), who finished fourth in the East Division, face a Lethbridge Hurricanes team (72 points) that had the second-worst record among the 16 teams that advanced to the postseason.
Is it just me, or is something wrong with this picture?
This imbalance is the result of the WHL’s unusual playoff format, and that format means there’s a greater chance the league will crown a team that isn’t actually its best.
The WHL instituted its current playoff system beginning in the 2014-15 season. Two pods are created in each conference, one for each division. The top three teams from the division are placed in a pod together, then a wild-card team is added from the remaining conference teams with the two best records — the best wild-card record goes into the pod with the division champion with the worse record, and the second-best record goes into the pod with the conference’s best record. The pods play themselves out, with the pod winners squaring off for the conference title.
The league’s rationale for the current system is that it mirrors the NHL’s system, enhances division rivalries and cuts down on travel.
“We think that this formula and this particular format is real good for our league,” WHL commissioner Ron Robison said when he stopped through Kent during the first-round playoff series between the Tips and the Seattle Thunderbirds. “First of all, when you consider the travel demands on players, we really want to have those games in the first round within the division because travel is limited. At the same time it’s great rivalries.
“There’s pros and cons, and one of the concerns is you’re going to lose some good teams in the first round,” Robison continued. “But generally speaking we think this format makes a lot of sense for our league.”
The problem is the whole point of playoff seeding is to reward the teams that performed during the regular season. What this format has done this year is render regular season success meaningless.
Moose Jaw and Swift Current had the league’s two best records the entire season. They both loaded up at the trade deadline specifically to keep pace with one another. Their reward? One is going home after the second round and left wondering if it was worth it to have mortgaged its future.
Then there’s the case of the Wheat Kings, who were essentially rewarded for tanking. Brandon had the league’s third-best record at the January trade deadline. However, the two best records just happened to be in the same division. Therefore, the Wheat Kings traded away two of their best players, slipped into fourth place in the division, and ended up in the Central Division pod, where they had the best record. That’s right, the team that finished fourth in the East Division — and waved the white flag at the trade deadline — ended up with a considerably easier path to the conference finals than the three teams that finished ahead of it.
The league will argue that this year is unusual circumstances, that it’s rare for the balance of power in a conference to be weighted so heavily toward one division. But is that really the case? I went back and looked at the years since Everett entered the league in 2003 and found the following:
— This is the fourth time the league’s top two teams in the regular season resided in the same division: Kootenay and Kelowna in the B.C. in 2005, Medicine Hat and Calgary in the Central in 2006 and Tri-City and Spokane in the U.S. in 2008. Had the current playoff format been in place those years, at least one of those teams would have been out by the end of the second round.
— In 2010 we would have had the same situation as Brandon this year, as Portland finished fourth in the U.S. and would have switched over to the B.C. pod, where it would have had the best record. It would have been close in 2014, too, as Kootenay finished fourth in the Central Division and would have been placed in the East pod, where the Ice would have had just two fewer points than East champion Regina.
So six times in 15 years these problems cropped up. Once every two or three years. It’s actually not a rare occurrence at all.
And the league’s claim that the system cuts down on travel in the first round doesn’t float when Brandon plays Medicine Hat (514 miles apart) this year, Portland faces Prince George (727 miles apart) last year and Spokane meets Victoria (421 miles plus a ferry ride) in 2016.
I get the business angle. First-round playoff attendance figures usually take a dive from the regular season as teams lose their group sales and some of their season-ticket holders. One need only look at the relatively-full buildings for the first-round series between Everett and Seattle and compare them to the sparse crowds in previous first rounds to understand that.
But from a competitive standpoint — and isn’t that the whole purpose of sports? — it just doesn’t make sense.
So enjoy the Everett-Portland playoff series when it begins Friday, it should be a good one. It’s just a shame that the playoff format means that instead of being for the Western Conference title, it’ll send one team home prematurely.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.
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