With the realignment for next season and new playoff format, I decided it would be a good time to bring up the old playoff format that the new one resembled.
From 1981-81 to 1992-93, the Stanley Cup Playoffs were done divisionally (top 4 teams per division got in regardless of record, play down to division champ, they meet in conference finals, then conference champs play for Cup).
Looking back, it was a playoff format that had its positives and negatives
Built up intense rivalries- Battles of Alberta, Quebec, New York, plus all the intense Norris Division showdowns in the 80s
Unpredictability- at least one fourth-place team upset a division champ in round each year save for 1992 (and even that year, two of them had to come back from a 3-1 series deficit)
Divisional predictability- A lot of things didn't change year in and year out. Montreal and Boston met 9 straight years in the Adams Division (5 of them in the division finals), which made it hard for Sabre and Whaler fans back then. Also save for the '82 Canucks and '93 Kings, the Smythe Division participant in the conference finals came from the province of Alberta, which probably didn't set well with Winnipeg, which had good team's but was stuck in the wrong division for them way back when. Also, it led to conference final mismatches- only twice did the Norris Division make it to the Cup Finals in this era.
Mediocrity sometimes rewarded- unlike recently, some of the lower ranked playoff teams with win-loss records didn't have stellar win-loss records, which created interesting situations (1982 and 1991 Campbell Conference Finals were contested between teams that did not have a winning record), and some of them went deep into the playoffs (1982 Canucks, 1984 Habs, 1986 Rangers, 1991 North Stars all made it to round 3 even though they had less than stellar records.
I hated it. Mostly because of the disparity between the divisions. You'd have years like 1987 where every team in the Norris was under .500, yet one of them was guaranteed a spot in the conference final because of the format. It also bothered me that Edmonton always got the easy third round match against Detroit or Chicago. I really hope they decide to reseed the final four based on points rather than preset division champ vs. division champ matches.
I've never bought the whole "creating rivalries" argument. In a 7-game playoff series you're going to have intense passion and hatred regardless of whether the teams are in the same division or not. Detroit-Colorado and Vancouver-Chicago being prime examples.
I don't see this being the problem it once was - remember back in the day it was 5 teams per division (with an extra in the Patrick). When 80% of the division (75% in the Patrick) ends up in the playoffs, you'll see a lot of the same matchups from year to year. When drawing four teams out of seven or eight, there are enough permutations that you'll have a healthy balance of familiarity breeding contempt and matchups between teams that don't have much of a postseason history.
Originally Posted by SomerHimpson
Mediocrity sometimes rewarded
Again, remember that there's a big difference between 16 out of 21 teams advancing, compared to 16 out of 30, regardless of the playoff format. If you look at any season in the last decade and regroup the teams to the new alignment & playoff format, I'm sure in any given year at least 13 of the 16 playoff teams would be identical. You definitely wouldn't see any sub .500 teams in the playoffs.
Yeah, it would be different now as you have more teams in the league but the same number of teams making the playoffs. I'm looking forward to the league returning (Hopefully) to the divisional playoff format.
I'd say the 1980's playoff format was a mixed bag. One the one hand, as you mention, the increased opportunity for giant-killing was definitely a positive. But the way the system rewarded mediocrity was, at times, appalling. No team should be getting into the Stanley Cup playoffs with 51 points ('88 Leafs) at the expense of a team with 82 points ('88 NY Rangers) simply because the weaker team happened to be in a seperate division.