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After weeks, even months, of chatter, the league’s Board of Governors has apparently agreed on realignment for next season. Given the Atlanta Thrashers’ move to Winnipeg, changes were obviously forthcoming. Starting next year, Montreal will play in a division with Buffalo, Toronto, Boston, Ottawa, Florida and Tampa Bay. Three others conferences of either seven or eight teams will be formed and the top-four in each will qualify for the post season. Also, the scheduling matrix will be changed accordingly and every team will, at a minimum, play a home-and-away series against each other.
Given the significance of these changes, our writers were asked what they thought of the league's four conference format and how they believed it would impact the Canadiens.
Jonathan Rebelo: Not much will change. The Canadiens and Bruins will play each other in the playoffs seven or eight times every decade. Good for Tampa and Florida though, as they get two extra sell outs every year with the added visits from the Canadiens and Leafs. I am a fan of visiting every building and if it helps the schedule having fewer long stretches between games everyone will be happy about that.
Ultimately, the Canadiens should benefit from the change as they are in one of the smaller, seven team conferences. That said, they will have more traveling to do as they will surely make an extra five or six more trips out of the Eastern Time zone.
Brian La Rose: I'm a big fan of getting to see every team at least twice during the season. The 'secondary rivalries' the league was hoping would come as a result of having non-division but in-conference opponents play four times didn't really come to fruition. It's nice to throw the fans a bone by giving them more variety in their opponents. I'm a little leery with there being no crossover option though. It may benefit the Habs but that's not exactly fair. As the structure is still being finalized, this could change. The league isn't resting on their laurels which is always a good thing; it's better to be proactive than reactive in most instances.
The change should also have a significant impact on the goalie scheduling. Carey Price will need to start an overwhelming majority of the 36 in-conference games due to their increased importance. It also should help shape how the team is built. The Habs, and other teams, will be assembling their rosters to best counter those of their conference opponents with a lot less regard to other out-of-conference teams. There appears to be two methods to go there - bulk up or build through skill.
I also think in-conference offer sheets will be a much bigger option, the chance to steal a core piece from a conference rival, or hit them with a big contract, could be much more tantalizing. With Price and Subban both pending RFA's, management should be pondering this possibility as well.
Matt Dilworth: To be honest, I'm rather indifferent to the conference format change. On one hand, the possibility for increased rivalries exists (imagine playing Boston every year! *wink*). On the other hand, due to potentially weak conferences, one has to wonder if the best teams will be represented in the playoffs. I'm sure that, like with every other format, there will be issues, and it won't be long before the league is discussing yet another proposed alignment at a Board of Governor’s meeting.
Numerically speaking, it should now be easier to for the Habs to make the playoffs, as they only have to do better than three teams. That being said, a tough division and increased games against the former Western conference foes may not bode well for the Canadiens. It is fortunate that Montreal seems to have recently retired their tendency to tank in Florida, or else I'd be downright pessimistic. Still, as Montreal was reportedly one of the four teams to oppose the new alignment, one must wonder what rationale management was considering.
Norm Szcyrek: I like the upcoming change. Intra conference games will really mean more because an extra point gained or denied could mean a move up or down in the standings amongst immediate rivals.
The Habs current division rivals Buffalo, Boston and Toronto are off to strong starts, and Ottawa, while a young squad, have shown improvement. The two teams added to the conference are also more than decent. Florida is off to an outstanding start while Tampa Bay is struggling but are much team than their record indicates. If the new division were in place now, and the playoffs were to start now, the Habs would not make the post season. 'Nuff said !
Louis Moustakas: Looking past the confusion of having Montreal in a Conference with the two Floridian teams, this format makes much more sense for the league as a whole. Markets misplaced in the West will no longer be shortchanged by constant travel and time changes. Meanwhile, each market will be afforded an opportunity to see every team. There is something to be said about having the Stanley Cup champion and various league superstars guaranteed to play in your building every year.
As my colleagues point out above, this change clearly benefits the Canadiens, at least from a probability perspective. With four teams out of seven making the playoffs, it is simple math really. Having said that, with the Phoenix situation up in the air and murmurs of a team potentially headed to Markham or Quebec City, this statistical advantage could prove to be short lived.