NHL Realignment Approved; What Does It Mean For Buffalo?

Last night, the NHL Board of Governors approved a seismic shift in hockey by voting yes on a plan for a four-conference realignment of the NHL beginning in the 2012-2013 season.

The current six NHL divisions will be (partly) thrown out, and four conferences will emerge consisting of two conferences of seven teams each and two conferences of eight. The four new conferences will look like this:

Conference 1: Boston, Buffalo, Florida, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa Bay, Toronto

Conference 2: Carolina, New Jersey, NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington

Conference 3: Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis, Winnipeg

Conference 4: Anaheim, Calgary, Colorado, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose, Vancouver

Here's what you need to know about this realignment plan:

  • Every team in the NHL will play a home and home series with each other, but inter-conference teams will each play either six or five games against each other, depending on the number of teams in their conference.
  • The top four teams in each conference will make the playoffs, so there is a slight advantage for the two "Eastern Conference" conferences, since they each have seven teams instead of eight.
  • The first two rounds of the playoffs will be within each conference. So for example: if Buffalo's conference finishes with the Sabres #1, and then the Bruins #2, Leafs #3, and Lightning #4, then the the first two rounds of the playoffs would see Buffalo-TB, and Boston-Toronto, with the winners facing off against each other in Round 2.
  • After that, the NHL still isn't really sure how the four conference champions would be re-seeded, but depending on how it shakes out you could theoretically have a Buffalo-Pittsburgh or Vancouver-Detroit Stanley Cup Final.
  • We still don't know what the conferences will be called, but count on it being something completely boring (i.e. "Atlantic", "Northeast", etc.)
  • The proposal still has to be ratified by the NHLPA for any of this to take effect, so it's not a done deal just yet.

So there's the basics, but how does this realignment specifically affect the Sabres? Find out after the break.

The most obvious outcome of this realignment is that the Sabres will get more games against the Lightning and Panthers, as new division opponents. They'll also get two fewer games against the old Eastern Conference teams, but will gain an extra game against all former Western Conference teams. While it will be cool to gain an extra game against the old Western teams like Detroit and San Jose, the bad news is that Buffalo will lose some games to former Eastern Conference teams such as Philly, Pittsburgh, Carolina, Washington, and the Rangers (although that might be good news depending on how you feel about those teams).

The new conference setup will also mean more travel for Buffalo, as they now have to go down to Florida much more often, and will have guaranteed away games against each team on the left coast. Aside from the increased team costs and travel rigors, I would suspect that the more intense travel schedule next season could mean even fewer games announced by Rick Jeanerette, assuming he and Harry Neale stick around for another year.

Finally, once the playoffs start, Buffalo will be seeing a lot more of their old friends in the postseason - remember, the first two rounds of the playoffs all take place within you own division, meaning the Sabres will only have six possible playoffs opponents each year. But realistically, playoff teams will likely see the same 3-5 teams over the course of a few playoff years. While this will certainly lead to some intense rivalries (bring on Boston!) it could also lead to lots of deja vu moments (we lost to Boston again?!)

Just for kicks, let's take a look at how the playoffs would shake out for the "East" under this new format if the season ended today:

Conf. One: #1 Boston vs. #4 Buffalo ----- #2 Florida (really?) vs #3 Toronto (really?!)

Conf. Two: #1 Pittsburgh vs. #4 Washington ------ #2 NY Rangers vs. #3 Philadelphia

In this situation, Ottawa would get hosed as being the current #8 seed (in this year's playoff format) but missing the playoffs due to playing in the stronger conference.

So there you have it, Sabres fans. Let us know what you think of the realignment, schedule, and playoff format in the comments.