The NHL’s Board of Governors on Monday approved a radical realignment plan championed by Commissioner Gary Bettman that eliminates the current set up of two conference with three divisions each. The new configuration calls for four conferences, based largely in geography — two with seven teams, two with eight — and a new playoff format.
The Canadiens will be in a conference with Boston, Toronto, Ottawa, Buffalo, Florida and Tampa Bay. That’s the current Northeast Division plus the two Florida teams.
Each team in the league will play a home-and-home series against every non-conference team and the rest of their schedule will be within the conference.
The top four teams in each conference will make the playoffs. The postseason format calls for a 1-4, 2-3 first round within the conference, with the winners facing each other in the second round. In the third round, the remaining four teams will be re-seeded according to their regular season standings using the 1-4, 2-3 format in the semi final round. The winners would then play for the Stanley Cup.
UPDATE: There has not been a final decision made on what happens after the conference champions have been decided. How the third round matchups will be determined will be on the agenda for the GMs meeting in March.
The other conferences, none of which have yet been named, are:
* New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Washington and Carolina
* Detroit, Columbus, Nashville, St. Louis, Chicago, Minnesota, Dallas and Winnipeg
* Los Angeles, Anaheim, Phoenix, San Jose, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Colorado
There will, apparently, no longer be an Eastern or Western Conference for the first time since the NHL’s original post-WWII expansion of 1967.
The driving idea for this set-up was to group the teams more geographically and to preserve existing rivalries. But the Canadiens’ new conference — with the five current Northeast teams plus two Florida clubs — is perhaps the oddest grouping of the four.
This came about because earlier versions of the set up had divided the Flyers and Penguins, putting them in different conferences. That was not acceptable to those clubs. So some juggling began and both Pennsylvania teams were then united in the conference with the Canadiens and their Northeast brethren.
But that was apparently not to the liking of the Flyers and the Penguins, who have strong rivalries with the three New York-area teams. Most likely, Ed Snider, the Flyers powerful owner, lobbied Bettman to preserve those rivalries.
So the swap was made — the Pennsylvania teams for the Florida teams.
This will increase the travel for the Panthers and Lightning, but the trade-off is they will get more visits from the Canadian teams, who draw very well in Tampa Bay and Sunrise during the winter because of the large Snowbird populations there. Anyone who has ever seen the Panthers and Lightning host the Canadiens knows that these arenas are packed — and the visitors get much more of the fan support for those games than the home teams.
And for the Canadiens and the other teams in their conference, it means a few extra trips south during the winter. Not a bad thing.
With only seven teams in the Habs conference, there is room for the addition of a club from Quebec City, should a team relocate or an expansion franchise be granted there.
NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly outlined the changes on the NHL Network Monday night:
This new alignment won’t be implemented until Bettman meets with NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr to hear the concerns the Players Association might have about the new set up. Some of those concerns were relayed to Larry Brooks of the New York Post who published them in Sunday’s editions of his paper. UPDATE: Brooks wrote the Players Association does not have veto power over the plan, but Bettman will meet with them nonetheless. But the NHLPA maintains it does. TSN’s Darren Dreger tweeted Monday night that NHLPA spokesman Jonathan Weatherdon told him, “Realignment requires an agreement between the league and the NHLPA.”
Next order of business? Naming the conferences. They can’t really call the Canadiens’ group the Northeast Conference now, can they? The Jean Beliveau Conference sounds pretty good.