The NHL standings system has long awarded the top three playoff seeds in each conference to the division title winners. Seldom has that honor been so dubious as it is for this year's Southeast and Pacific Division winners, none of whom will be known until the final day of the regular season.
The Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals lead the race for infamy in the Southeast, as the division winner will have at most 94 points (if Florida wins) and possibly as few as 92 (if Washington wins) -- which would be a new low for a division winner in the shootout era.
In fact, this will be just the third season since the 2005 lockout and the advent of the shootout that divisions will be won by teams who could not even manage 100 points. The previous occasions of backing into banners also featured the notoriously weak Southeast, which the Atlanta Thrashers (now the Winnipeg Jets) won with 97 points in 2006-07 and the Capitals won with 94 points in 2007-08. (Also in 2007-08, the Minnesota Wild won the Northwest with just 98 points).
Out West, the Pacific Division title is still up for grabs between the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks -- who play each other on the final night of the season -- and the Phoenix Coyotes, who have two games remaining and could pass both playoff-bound division foes. That division could be won with as few as 96 points and no more than 97.
The particularly lopsided nature of the NHL this season means each of these division title winners will "earn" home-ice advantage to face first-round playoff opponents that have eclipsed or nearly eclipsed the 100-point mark (the Chicago Blackhawks have 99 points with one game remaining).
Rewarding Mediocrity, Or Making Division Titles Worth Something?
But the Southeast and Pacific's futility is the Atlantic and Central's bane: While the lesser divisions won't feature even one team with 100 points, the Atlantic and Central Divisions will send as many as four each to the postseason. Thanks to the NHL playoff seeding system that gives the first three spots to division winners, that means the first round in each conference will feature fourth vs. fifth seeds bludgeoning each other in bloody intra-divisional battles.
Which, truly, is just as the NHL intended.
Some fans and media complain that this setup rewards mediocrity, but in reality it was designed not to reward bad teams, but rather to make sure winning a division still means something.
The conference standings would otherwise render divisional lines meaningless, so this system ensures that beating out four divisional foes still carries a reward beyond a superficial arena banner: For the weakest division winners, it can mean the difference between home-ice advantage and starting on the road versus a dominant opponent. For even for the strongest division winners, it means the difference between an easier first-round opponent and one who is likely to extract a pound of flesh even in defeat.
It may in the end be a backhanded compliment, but whether with 111 points or with 94, every team likes home playoff dates and an excuse to raise a banner.
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