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Metropolitan Division headed towards another spring of NHL playoff groans

Jarmo Kekalainen isn’t interested in starting a public campaign over the potentially harsh nature of the NHL's divisional playoff format.
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Jarmo Kekalainen isn’t interested in starting a public campaign over the potentially harsh nature of the NHL's divisional playoff format.

The general manger of the Columbus Blue Jackets does, however, have a strong personal preference that only crystallized further when his team's franchise-record season came to an abrupt end last spring.

"I'm part of the old school that likes (teams seeded) one to eight," Kekalainen said in a recent phone interview. "Let's just leave it at that."

The current playoff setup caused a lot of Metropolitan Division grumbles towards the end of the 2016-17 campaign as two of the league's top teams careened towards an inevitable first-round playoff matchup.

Despite finishing fourth in the overall standings with 108 points, the Blue Jackets wound up as the division's No. 3 seed, a spot that booked them a date with the Pittsburgh Penguins, who earned 111 points to grab second in the Metropolitan, Eastern Conference and entire NHL.

Columbus bowed out to Pittsburgh in five games, the victim of a format that sees the top three teams in each of the league's four divisions make the post-season — along with two wild cards from the East and West — to create one-versus-four, two-versus-three brackets aimed at emphasizing rivalries before the conference finals.

The Blue Jackets would have faced the 98-point Ottawa Senators in the first round had teams instead been lined up one through eight.

"It's the system that's in place," Kekalainen added matter of factly. 

While not quite as top heavy in 2017-18, the Metropolitan is the league's most competitive division through two months of the schedule, and that could cause more playoff-related groans come April.

Heading into Tuesday night's action, six of the NHL's top 14 teams hailed from the division, with Metropolitan clubs in five of the East's eight playoff spots.

Columbus sat first with 35 points through 27 games, while the New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils were right behind with 34 points from 26 contests. The Penguins and Washington Capitals — who collected 118 points last season to win the Presidents' Trophy, but lost out to Pittsburgh in the second round — both had 33 from 28 games to occupy the wild-card berths.

The Blue Jackets, Devils and Islanders are all on pace to finish with 106 points or more, meaning there could be another situation where two of the league's elite clubs meet in the first round.

"It's tough," Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby, whose team has won the Stanley Cup the last two seasons, said of the current format at an event in Toronto last week. "It goes in cycles, it's not always like that."

But in many ways it has been since the NHL tried to rekindle division rivalries when it changed the playoff format from the No. 1 through No. 8 conference seedings that existed from 1993-94 until 2012-13.

"A few years ago it was the Central Division," Kekalainen said. "Now everybody's talking about Metro. It could be the Atlantic Division two years from now, who knows?"

The Rangers finished behind the Blue Jackets in the Metropolitan with 102 points last season, but earned a more favourable first-round matchup as a wild card against the Canadiens, who had 103 points to top the Atlantic and were beaten by New York in six games.

Penguins GM Jim Rutherford doesn't have a problem with the current system — Pittsburgh won the Cup the last two years, after all — because the parity of the salary cap era means every playoff participant is so close in calibre.

"You can play around with it in several different ways and run into the same issue," he said. "The 16 teams that makes the playoffs can all win the Stanley Cup, and there's not going to be one easy game."

There could also be some grousing about the format in the Central come spring with Winnipeg, St. Louis and Nashville all on pace to top 109 points, while there are issues looming at the bottom of the East playoff picture.

Save for Tampa Bay and Toronto, the Atlantic has been the league's doormat. Montreal sat third in the division entering Tuesday, but had one less point than the Rangers, who owned two games in hand and were on the outside looking in behind Pittsburgh and Washington in the wild-card chase.

The current post-season setup will run until at least the end of 2018-19, but that doesn't mean there aren't conversations among the league's decision makers.

"We're always looking for ways to improve the product you see on the ice," said Kekalainen. "If we as a group see that something should be fixed, it's going to get discussed.

"I'm confident that the group of people who decide those things will always look for the best way."

-With files from John Chidley-Hill in Toronto

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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press