As you no doubt have heard, the NHL will look radically different starting next season. Â Originally, the Board of Governors were considering a simple interconference swap of Detroit or Columbus with Winnipeg. Â Instead, they largely voted in favour of a much grander realignment that has created four separate conferences. Â Let’s take a look at some of the ramifications of this realignment that apply directly to the Maple Leafs.
1. While the format of the final two rounds of the playoffs have not yet been clarified (the GMs will decide the matter in March), it is quite likely that Toronto could end up playing a team from the former Eastern Conference for the Stanley Cup. Â While this will not include anyone directly within our new unnamed “conference”, the possibilities of a seven game series with the likes of the Penguins, Rangers or Flyers is certainly exciting. Â The Penguins, Flyers, and even the Capitals are successful new-era teams stacked with young talent. Â On the other hand, facing off against New York for the Stanley Cup is an original six matchup that most never thought we’d see in this day and age.
2. On that note, it’s unfortunate that we will only be facing some of the “ex-Eastern Conference” teams just twice a year. Â While I personally won’t be losing any sleep over seeing less of the Islanders or Hurricanes, it is a pity that some of the greatest stars in today’s game (Crosby, Malkin, Giroux, Ovechkin, etc.) will only be in Toronto once a season. Â Also, our recent stretch of surprising dominance at MSG will be forcibly halted.
3. Unless the GMs work some magic with the details of the final two rounds, it will be easier to make the playoffs in the two eastern conferences. Â That’s a simple numbers game that will make many fans of western teams unhappy. Â I find the imbalance in numbers to be inherently unsettling, a feeling that I’ve often associated with the off kilter arrangement of divisions in the MLB. Â Some speculate that this may imply an eventual expansion to 32 teams that would see two new clubs in the east, but that is currently unfounded in fact and unlikely to happen in the near future.
4. An obvious implication of this rearrangement is that we’ll see more of Tampa and Florida. Â Two more games per season against each club, to be exact. Â The Leafs players (and coach Wilson) immediately warmed up to the idea because of the favourable climate in the southern state. Â I think most fans of the club harbour a similar sentiment, albeit for different reasons. Â Generally speaking, the two Florida franchises have struggled to put forth consistently successful seasons. Â One would think that with the possible exceptions of the Islanders and the Hurricanes, there was no other pair of Eastern Conference clubs that would have represented a more favourable draw for Toronto.
5. The first two rounds of the playoff will always be against one the other six teams in our conference. Â Talk about creating a sense of rivalry. Â Provided Toronto does make the Stanley Cup dance, we are guaranteed to have a heated battle against one or two of these specific clubs. Â It’s been a while, but we all can certainly remember how repeated encounters in the playoffs can fuel a rivalry not only in a general sense, but within the regular season itself. Â It has been a while since the heat of defeats at the hands of the Flyers, or underdog successes over the Senators have carried over into seasonal play. Â That fire has all but dissipated from most of our matchups, and it will be a treat to see it stoked once again.