Sorry for the hyperbole in the title, dear Sabres fans, but you have to admit: the NHL didn’t do the Buffalo Sabres any favors when they finalized the new divisional alignment.
Let’s start with the Eastern Conference in general. I understand that the NHL is probably going to expand in a year or two, but to place 16 teams in the East, versus 14 in the West, is just idiotic. Each conference has the same amount of playoff spots up for grabs – eight – but if you play out West, you have a greater chance of grabbing one of those 8 spots. In the East, you better hope you finish in the top three in your division, because there are only two playoff positions being handed out to teams who did not finish in their division’s top three. Do the math: six teams in the east will win a spot in the playoffs through their divisional record, leaving 10 teams duking it out for the final two playoff spots. Out west, only 8 teams will fight for the remaining spots – not a huge difference, but a difference that doesn’t need to – and flat-out shouldn’t – exist. The two conferences should be evenly populated; worry about expansion teams when expansion actually, you know, occurs.
If Buffalo cannot finish among the division’s top three, then, the Sabres’ playoffs chances lie in their ability to finish with a better record than eight of the ten remaining Eastern Conference teams. Can it be done? Certainly. Will it be easy? Hell no! Especially when they play 14 games in March . . . 10 of which are on the road, including a span of 5 straight as the Sabres would be trying to make a late-season playoff push. And let’s not forget: since Detroit was added to the east, the Eastern Conference actually has nine teams in it that made the playoffs last year (the Western Conference now boasts only seven). If eight or even all nine of those teams enjoy the same level of success that they experienced in 2012-2013, the Sabres’ playoffs hopes are dashed before the season even begins, since the final two playoff spots will be gobbled up by teams who played extra hockey last year.
Hmm. Shooting for the wildcard playoff spots seems to be a longshot, but you can bet the farm – and all of your relatives who live on it – that the Sabres are not going to finish in the top three of the Atlantic Division next season, thanks to the way the NHL stacked the Atlantic Division. You want to argue with me? Tell me that the Sabres will be one of the three best teams in a division that includes Boston, Detroit, Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa (all of whom made the playoffs next year) AND Tampa Bay, whose offense is absolutely disgusting? Go right ahead; I’ll let the other readers argue for me.
The way the divisions and conference are currently aligned, there is very little chance that you will see new teams qualifying for the playoffs in the east next year – and we are already guaranteed that at least one team who did make the playoffs next year will be left out, as well. Meanwhile we’re guaranteed to see at least one new team make the playoffs out west next year. Way to throw a bone to the Western Conference, NHL! And why don’t you kick the Sabres while they’re down, too?
Look: I’m not seriously arguing that the NHL did any of this in a deliberate attempt to make life tougher for certain teams. Making the playoffs has always boiled down to a team’s ability to maintain a consistent level of good-to-excellent play, and that hasn’t changed . . . but when one conference is given a clear-cut competitive advantage, for no apparent reason other than an expansion that MAY occur, it is not hyperbole to say that an injustice has been done to the teams in the other conference. There is no other North American professional sports league that unevenly distributes its teams (except for MLS, who only has 19 teams): the NBA splits 30 teams into 15 and 15; MLB, the same; and the NFL splits 32 teams into conferences of – gasp! – 16 and 16. Gee – I wonder why they do that? Congratulations, Gary Bettman and company: you’ve screwed up AGAIN, and boned the Buffalo Sabres, and pretty much every other eastern team that didn’t make the playoffs last season, in the process.