Understanding the new WHL playoff format

If you listened to this year’s first edition of the US Division podcast with Scott Sepich, you heard a discussion about the new WHL playoff format. He and Larry Fisher of the Kelowna Daily Courier covered it fairly well.  We’ll take a little bit of a deeper dive and see how it would affect matchups.

First, a description of the new format from the league website:

The new format will see the top three teams in each Division make up the first 12 teams in the playoffs. The remaining four spots will be filled by the next two highest-placed teams in each Conference, based on their regular-season record and regardless of Division. It is possible for one Division in each Conference to send five teams to the postseason while the other Division sends just three.

The teams finishing second and third in each Division will meet in the First Round within the bracket headed by their respective division winners. First-round winners within each bracket play one another in the Second Round

That first paragraph makes it sound like a lot is changing but in reality, the same 8 teams will make the playoffs that would have in the past playoff format. This past season, all 5 US Division teams made the playoffs while Kelowna, Victoria and Vancouver were the only B.C. Division representatives. The only time the new format may make a difference would be if the 6th place East or Central Division team had a better record than the 3rd place team in the opposite division. The chances of the Eastern Conference being that imbalanced are virtually nil.

Here’s how the Western Conference would have looked last season under the new format:

C1/BC1 Kelowna
BC2 Victoria
BC3 Vancouver
WC2 Tri-City

C2/US1 Portland
US2 Seattle
US3 Everett
WC1 Spokane

The two Wild Card teams (WC) are ranked based by point total. The two conference champions (C) are also ranked by point total. The top conference team (C1) will play the lower-ranked of the Wild Card teams (WC2) regardless of division. The second place conference team (C2, which would be the other division winner) plays the higher-ranked of the Wild Card teams (WC1) regardless of division. BC2-BC3 and US2-US3 will always be first round matchups.

So, assuming the same teams advanced to the second round, you would end up with Kelowna vs Victoria and Portland vs Seattle in what essentially becomes a playoff division championship. And then finally, you would get the Western Conference final that we had last season, Kelowna vs Portland. (Note that once a Wild Card team changes divisions, it stays there for the remainder of the playoffs. It would have been possible, in this example, for the Americans to be the B.C. Division representative in the Western Conference final.)

What does this mean? Well, it theoretically means more games in the playoffs against your division opponents. It makes those games you play in the regular season a little more important as your division seeding determines your matchup. It means less travel for the teams, bigger rivalries, and larger crowds, which is what the league is hoping happens.

However, you could end up burning fans out on seeing the same team so much. In the NHL, where they went to this format last season, you play all teams in your division 6 times. In the WHL, where there are fewer teams, you are going to play your division teams more often. In Seattle’s case, this means 12 games vs Portland. So it’s possible that the Thunderbirds and Winterhawks could face each other 19 times in one season. I love the rivalry as much as the next fan but, assuming that’s a first round series, it’s 25% of regular season and playoff games against one team. Do that over multiple seasons and you can see where it might lose the luster quick.

There’s one other big drawback to this and that is the possibility that the two best teams in the conference will meet in the second round. Take last season in the Eastern Conference for example:

Central Division

C1/CD1 Edmonton 103
CD2 Calgary 103
CD3 Medicine Hat 92
WC2 Prince Albert 75

East Division

C2/ED1 Regina 85
ED2 Swift Current 85
ED3 Brandon 77
WC1 Kootenay 83

With the old format, assuming all teams with higher point totals win, the only way Edmonton and Calgary could meet would be in the conference final. Now, however, Edmonton and Calgary would meet in the second round and a weak division winner in Regina gets rewarded with a much easier path to the conference final. Besides one of the top two teams not making the conference final, the 4th place team in the conference by points, Medicine Hat, is going to be out in the first round! Also, Kootenay gets an odd gift with a group of teams that have similar point totals. You can see how this new format could be greatly unfair when one division is more dominant than the other in a given year.

It will be interesting to see how it works this season. The NHL was rewarded with some great series this past season and made the decision to change formats look like a success. Hopefully that can carry over to the WHL. First step for the Thunderbirds will be to make the playoffs for the third year in a row, something they haven’t done since 06-09.