By Matthew Macaskill (@Habsology)
I came to a disappointing realization 16 games into the 2013-14 season: I had no idea how the playoff seeding worked with the new NHL realignment and Wild Card race. So I did some digging and let me tell you, it is bad for the Montreal Canadiens’ playoff chances and seeding.
In case you’re on the same ice as me with this, a quick rundown on the changes are in order:
The Winnipeg Jets finally switched to the Western Conference to avoid long flights as a member of the defunct Atlanta Thrasher’s Southeast Division. Also swapped were the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets to the Eastern Conference.
With the 2-for-1 trade, the old NHL divisions were kaput. The NHL created four divisions split between each conference. However, with fewer teams, the Western Conference has two divisions of seven teams while the Eastern Conference holds two divisions of eight teams.
This is where the Habs playoff chances start to take a hit.
With eight teams from each conference still advancing to the playoffs, the Canadiens’ conference will have more teams missing the playoffs (eight) than the Western Conference (six).
Some basic arithmetic will prove that the Habs’ chances of making the playoffs are lower than their counterparts in the West. While it’s not a huge disadvantage, it remains true until further reshuffling of the league, or more likely, expansion in the Western Conference (Seattle, for example).
NHL Realignment Features Division-Based Playoffs
And it’s going to hurt the Habs’ chances. Here’s why:
“The top three teams in each division will make up the first 12 teams in the playoffs. The remaining four spots will be filled by the next two highest-placed finishers in each conference, based on regular-season points and regardless of division. It will be possible, then, for one division to send five teams to the postseason while the other sends just three.
[…] The division winner with the most points in the conference will be matched against the wild-card team with the fewest points; the division winner with the second-most points in the conference will play the wild-card team with the second-fewest points.”
–NHL.com’s “Guide to 2013-14 NHL Realignment”
If the NHL realignment mumble jumble gives you a headache, you’re not alone. So let’s get to the crux of it.
Simply put, the Montreal Canadiens face disadvantages under the circumstances outlined above.
For one, the Atlantic Division is presently much tougher than the Metropolitan Division. With the likes of the Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings, the resurgent Toronto Maple Leafs, and the surprising Tampa Bay Lightning, the Habs currently sit in fifth place in their division. If they were in the Metropolitan Division, their record would be good for second behind the Penguins.
With the Metropolitan Division likely sending only three teams to the postseason, the Habs will aim to be one of five clubs from the Atlantic Division to advance.
Given the competition, if they’re regulated to one of the Wild Card positions, the Montreal Canadiens would face one of the first place teams in either division. Not exactly an easy task if you consider that at the time of writing this article, the Canadiens sit in the last available playoff spot, which would see them matched up with the East’s best Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round.
This is particularly frustrating if you consider that under the NHL’s old conference standings, the Habs would be in sixth place (as opposed to “last”) and face the third place Maple Leafs in the opening round.
Even before the NHL realignment, the days of an easy first opponent were dwindling. Those days have been all but exterminated now. Tough match-ups will follow for teams that finish second and third in the division as they’ll have to face each other. So too will it be tough on the first place teams of each division as they will potentially have to face more talented opponents that were regulated to the Wild Card positions because of one division’s dominance over the other.
If there’s any consolation from the NHL realignment, its that it improves the chances of the long awaited and well overdue Habs vs. Leafs playoff series.