NHL Fantasy Hockey Pool Strategy Guide

The New NHL Playoff Format Explained

While hardcore fantasy GMs may be aware of the changes to the NHL's playoff format in 2014, more casual hockey poolers may not fully understand the adjustments.  Yet, knowing which teams will face each other in the first round, and which are the favourites, is vital information when projecting the players and match-ups for the second round.  And, it's in these two rounds where the significant changes to the postseason exist.  So, here’s a rundown of the NHL’s new playoff format.

Whereas previously the NHL simply pitted the top eight teams in each conference against one another based on their final point totals (with the first seed playing the eighth, the second playing the seventh, and so forth), this season there’s a significant divisional component, which harkens back to the days of the old Patrick, Adams, Norris and Smythe Divisions.  That configuration ended after the 1992-93 season, when the old Prince of Whales and Campbell Conferences were shelved in favor of the updated Eastern and Western Conference alignments – expansion had made the conferences uneven.

What made this old configuration similar to the NHL's new playoff format is that teams had to win their divisions in the playoffs.  Meaning the first two rounds were spent within each division, and then the Conference Finals was a match-up between the two teams winning their way out of each division.  

While there are plusses to both playoff formats, it’s clear that the latter makes divisional games more meaningful.  The extensive time spent playing divisional opponents - both in the regular season and in the playoffs – enhances the intensity of the rivalries within each division.

In 2014, the NHL has once again returned to a more division-focused playoff format, however they've also added a wildcard component.  And, in the end, the new system is more like a hybrid format between the previous two systems.  Here's how the new format works in each conference:

1. The top three teams in each division qualify for the playoffs, while the two next best teams in the conference overall also qualify as wildcards.

2. The two division winners play the two wildcard teams, with the division winner with the best record playing the wildcard team with the least points.  This is where crossover may occur between the divisions, which is akin to the playoff format that was just abandoned.

3. The second and third place teams in each division face each other in Round One.

4. In Round Two, the two remaining teams from each division face one another.  If the division winner eliminates the wildcard team, then the division winner faces the winner of the 2-3 match-up in the division.  However, if there's an upset, and the wildcard team comes out on top, then that wildcard team plays the winner of the 2-3 match-up from that division – even if the wildcard team is not from that division. 

This means there’s a wrinkle to the playoffs that we haven’t seen in a long time. Should a wildcard team pull a first round upset, it’s possible that both teams in that Division Final could have finished the season with fewer points than both teams in the other Division Final within the Conference.  Under the old format, the two teams with worse records would've been split up and played the two better teams within the Conference.  Some might call this a flaw to the new format.   

5. The Conference Finals then consist of the two teams that come out of the Division Finals.

6. And of course, the Stanley Cup will be contested between the Conference winners.

It's not the most straightforward playoff format, and it's easy to see where it's not perfect.  With the conferences currently uneven, we wonder if the NHL will stick with this format, especially after the scenario mentioned in #4 plays out, and a losing franchise (with a better regular season record than both teams in the other Division Final) feels short-changed.

Nonetheless, it makes for an interesting first couple of rounds, with division rivalries meaning more than they have in 21 years!  And, it makes it a little easier on fantasy owners when it comes to playoff pool strategy.  Everyone understands the idea of loading up on players from a handful of teams and hoping they make it deep, and it's now possible to pick four teams (one from each division) that are guaranteed not to face each other until the Conference Final.



Baicer, Sarah. A guide to the NHL’s new playoff format, CSN Philly.

NHL. History: Final Standings 1990s.




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