Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sunday . . .

The WHL will re-examine its playoff format at its annual meeting in June in Vancouver.
Which doesn’t mean the format will change. It only means that there will be some discussion about it.
At present, the WHL’s 22 teams are split among four divisions for regular-season play. But that doesn’t mean a thing when it comes to sorting out playoff positions, all of which depend on where teams finish in the two conferences.
After playing 72 games — and conference schedules are unbalanced — teams are seeded within their conferences with the top eight advancing to the playoffs. In the first round, its No. 1 vs. No. 8, No. 2 vs. No. 7, No. 3 vs. No. 6, and No. 4 vs. No. 5.
(The WHL changed this format after the 2006-07 season, going from a divisional playoff format — four teams in each division qualified and teams played in their divisions in the first round — to the present conference-based format.
(At the time, teams were trying to find a solution to poor attendance for first-round playoff games. It was felt in some corners that perhaps fans were tired of watching divisional rivals and that going to a conference-based format would add some variety to everybody’s lives. Check the turnstile counts and see how that went.)
The problem with this conference-based format is that the WHL runs the risk of ending up with a first-round series between teams that are anything but geographical rivals, like, say, the Brandon Wheat Kings and Kootenay Ice.
As sports editor James Shewaga pointed out in Saturday’s Brandon Sun:
“The Brandon Wheat Kings battled through 72 games to post their best record in 13 years and earn home-ice advantage in the first round of the WHL playoffs.
“Their reward? By far the worst travel schedule of any of the league’s top eight teams in the opening round.”
Shewaga reports that it’s a 2,600-kilometre round trip between Brandon and Cranbrook. Meanwhile, the Medicine Hat Tigers and Swift Current Broncos, two other first-round combatants, are separated by 225 kilometres, while the Calgary Hitmen and Edmonton Oil Kings are faced with 300-km road trips.
“For all the supposed benefits of using a one-through-eight conference playoff system over battling in your own division first,” Shewaga wrote, “there is something horribly wrong with any format that forces a team from Manitoba to face a team from B.C. in the first round of the playoffs.”
And, furthermore, it seems that WHL commissioner Ron Robison agrees with Shewaga.
“You are bang on,” Robison told Shewaga. “Your point is well taken. It’s been a source of real debate.”
Robison, it should be pointed out, is a fan of divisional play, which fosters divisional rivalries. (Of course, check out the Western Conference this time around because the way things worked out there are only divisional matchups in the first round.)
This whole playoff thing, I’m thinking, is one of those problems for which there isn’t a perfect solution. The WHL, however, is prepared to spend more time talking about it.
“We’ve had lots of debate on this over the years and quite frankly I
would say the league is very split on it,” Robison told Shewaga. “Having said that, we will be debating the future playoff format at this year’s (annual) meeting in June.”
That meeting, by the way, will take place in Vancouver, rather than Calgary, where the head office is located and where it usually is held. This all is part of the WHL’s plan to move some of its events around.
For example, this year’s awards luncheon and the bantam draft will be held in Edmonton, April 29 and 30.
In Calgary, Edmonton G Torrie Jung stopped 54 shots but it wasn’t quite enough as his Oil Kings lost, 2-1, in OT to the Hitmen. . . . F Carson McMillan scored the winner at 9:04 of OT. . . . The Hitmen hold a 2-0 edge in the series which continues in Edmonton with games on Monday, Wednesday and, if necessary, Friday. . . . McMillan scored the winner when he tipped in out of midair a point shot by D Paul Postma. . . . The Hitmen had nine shots in OT. . . . Edmonton F Shayne Neigum scored a PP goal at 7:07 of the second period. . . . Calgary wasn’t able to pull even until 15:42 of the third when F Kris Foucault scored. . . . Calgary G Martin Jones stopped 24 shots.

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