Monday, April 2, 2012

The Florida Panthers and Rewarding Mediocrity

First off, I want one thing to be clear: This is not sour grapes. I'm perfectly happy with the Flyers in the fourth or fifth seed facing the Penguins, because I believe that the Flyers would probably have to face the Pens at some point deeper in the playoffs anyway. I'm also looking forward to a potentially all-time classic first-round series.

But that doesn't mean it isn't completely ridiculous that the Florida Panthers are likely going to earn the third overall seed in the Eastern Conference.Now, I'm not the first to gripe about this. It's somewhat of a running joke (a really bad one for some Flyers and Penguins fans, and a really good one for the Devils). But I am surprised that there hasn't been more of an outcry for the complete elimination of division titles in the consideration of playoff seeding.

I know there's this knee-jerk reaction to say, "Well, if a team wins its division, then it should be guaranteed SOME kind of higher seed," but the next convincing explanation I hear for that argument will be the first.

Why? Why should they be guaranteed anything? When teams win their division with comparatively few points, it's rarely the case that they played in a tough division, which would be the only justification for granting them a higher seed. After all, the Atlantic and Central Divisions, hockey's toughest this year, boast seven of the top nine teams in the NHL, points-wise.

Instead, it usually just means all the teams in that division are mediocre. When we do see one clearly superior team in a mediocre division, they tend to earn more points. The Canucks this season, for example, have put themselves in position for the West's top seed by racking up a 17-4-1 record against division foes Colorado, Calgary, Minnesota, and Edmonton, none of which are currently in the playoff picture.

Frankly, when teams win mediocre divisions with comparatively few points, we should be tempted to punish those teams more for failing to capitalize despite playing more games against inferior competition all year.

Look at the Panthers, and think about their performance and their schedule. Right now, they have the seventh most points in the Eastern Conference, and are tied for the 13th most points in the NHL. They also have only 31 regulation wins, the fewest of any team currently ticketed for the playoffs, and are only in playoff position because they've earned a whopping 17 points through overtime and shootout losses.

Schedule-wise, the Panthers and Flyers have basically the same schedule (give or take a few Western Conference games), except that the Flyers play four more games against the Rangers, Penguins, Devils, and Islanders (combined 176 wins and 382 points), whereas the Panthers play four more games against the Capitals, Lightning, Jets, and Hurricanes (combined 144 wins and 328 points).

That means the Panthers have earned nine fewer wins and ten fewer points than the Flyers despite replacing four games against top-flight competition (on average, that is--I'm not implying the Islanders are top-flight), with four games against depressingly mediocre competition.

The Pacific Division is nearly as bad. The Dallas Stars are fourth in the Pacific, two points back of the division-leading Phoenix Coyotes...and would miss the playoffs if the season ended today. Meanwhile, the Blues, Red Wings, Predators, and Blackhawks have managed to secure four of the top five point totals in the Western Conference, despite playing each other repeatedly all season.

The Panthers' and Coyotes' performances don't exactly scream, "I deserve the benefit of a higher seed!" Literally everything about the Panthers' season, for example, tells us that they should logically be seeded seventh or eighth, and yet nobody is prepared to say that they should get anything less than a fourth or fifth seed, even with a re-tweaking of the seeding system.

Why? Because they barely topped a group of mediocre teams thrown together arbitrarily as a result of geographic convenience (Winnipeg formerly being from Atlanta)? What kind of ridiculous reason is that? Winning your division doesn't mean anything. At most, it should guarantee you entry into the playoffs. But we certainly shouldn't be using a division title to justify seeding clearly inferior teams above more deserving squads.

Think about it this way: Let's say you had two math classes covering the same content but taught by different teachers. One teacher is significantly tougher on his students, but they work hard and earn mostly A's. The other group of students has a significantly easier time, but slack off and earn mostly B's.

Would it be fair if the students from the second class got their grades curved up to A's, matching the students from the first class? Hardly. But that's what's happening here. And unfortunately, the Panthers are bumping some more deserving teams down in the class ranks.


  1. Interesting tidbits: The past nine years have yielded ZERO fifth-seeded teams in the Stanley Cup Finals, from either conference.

    Since the league first expanded from six to 12 teams in 1967, only two fifth-seeded teams have ever won the Stanley Cup: the 1980 Islanders and the 1995 Devils.

    In the same time frame, only two fourth-seeded teams have ever won the Stanley Cup: The 2000 Devils and the 2009 Penguins.

  2. Our first case of the message board washing over to the site. Did you get the idea from Arganbright or were you writing this before then?

  3. As excited as I am for the Flyers series, the fact that I'll have the means to purchase a $20 ticket and travel to a Devils @ Panthers playoff game and express my deep-rooted sentiments towards Marty Brodeur makes me appreciate this flawed system even more.