We're one round and a weekend in to the NHL's new playoff way. And while it's somewhat similar to the old way, there is much to look forward to.
The league announced its new divisional alignment and playoff structure a long time ago. The new seven- and eight-team divisions were one part of the plan, but the new way the league planned on drawing up its playoff field every year was a significant move.
People could easily predict the impact of new divisional alignments. Getting Detroit in with Boston, Montreal, Toronto, and Florida (I'm kidding) was a huge move, as was the move that placed San Jose, Anaheim, and Los Angeles in the same division as perennial West power Vancouver, and -- to a lesser extent -- the reunion of Chicago and Minnesota-based franchises.
Division-based playoffs were an NHL staple for many years, but went away in favor of a straight one through eight structure for each conference in the 1990s. While the 2013-14 season changes didn't return the league to the old division setup, the moves absolutely went far enough to reignite old playoff rivalries while potentially creating new ones.
What we see now is another vehicle for NHL growth in 2014, and more importantly, for years to come.
We're already seeing some of it. Thursday's series opener between Montreal and Boston was the most-watched second-round game ever that involved a Canadian team. While part of that is the underrated pull Montreal has on American television, there is also an increased interest league-wide. Ratings are up, and at least a little piece of that has to be credited to the NHL's ability to restructure the playoffs and create more compelling television.
That's a short-term win. But let's think for a moment.
Better matchups for the here and now in the second round probably would have involved Philadelphia advancing to face Pittsburgh, and maybe Colorado getting by Minnesota to face the Chicago Blackhawks. Those didn't happen, but now the league gets to showcase teams like the New York Rangers, who have never had a real storybook rivalry with Pittsburgh. Flyers-Penguins already resonates, but now we might see something special build with the Pens and Blueshirts.
The more legitimate rivalries this league can lean on, the better. Then maybe it won't be forced to manufacture them for its NBCSN-branded "Wednesday Night Rivalry" bit. (Sorry, but they featured the Rangers and Blackhawks one night. Outside of them both being Original Six teams, is there anything really there?)
I'm sure that from a short-term ratings standpoint, NHL/NBC folks would much prefer old-guard matchups to showcase. But you can't keep leaning on the same six or seven teams all the time. The perception among many fans is that only Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Pittsburgh, and maybe a few others (Philly, the Rangers, and Washington, most notably) matter from a TV standpoint. Buffalo gets more NBCSN exposure than San Jose. What's wrong with that statement?
The franchises that don't draw nationally aren't going away. The league either needs to figure out ways to make them more relevant nationally, or the TV numbers will eventually become stagnant, no matter how entertaining the product may be.
The Pacific Division's national relevance
Ten years from now, where will we be? The league has to hope that entertaining playoff matchups help increase the national notoriety of at least a few franchises, especially in the Pacific Division, where there is going to be some awesome hockey played among the likes of the Ducks, Kings, and Sharks -- not to mention the Canucks once they figure things out and the Coyotes as they gain better footing in the desert.
It increases options for showcase events, which will placate many fans who are sick of seeing the same teams getting the big moments every year.
It also builds up national interest in the NHL. The NBA is still not direct competition, in my opinion, but even a smaller-market West Coast team like Golden State is able to resonate nationally. The NHL is not at that level, and it would be wise to find a way there.
(It's a good target to shoot at if you're the NHL. The NBA still survives -- and might thrive -- without cornerstone superstar players in the Finals. The NHL still needs its big markets and stars in the Stanley Cup Final, and it needs to grow to a point where that is not necessary for successful TV ratings.)
Division-based playoffs are one way to get closer. As the intensity ramps up, hopefully the eyeballs follow.