This time next season, Monday's matchup between expansion cousins Tampa Bay and Ottawa will become much more meaningful and frequent.
The NHL Board of Governors on Monday approved a realignment plan beginning next season that eliminates the current East-West divisional format, instead creating four conferences with eight teams in two of the conferences and seven teams in the other two. The changes must also be approved by the NHL Player's Association before the plan is made official.
The format was approved by 26 members of the league's board of governors, while four teams voted against the change. The proposal needed 20 votes to pass. The Lightning, represented by owner Jeff Vinik at the meetings in Pebble Beach, Calif., did not comment on which way they voted and general manager Steve Yzerman, an alternate governor, declined to comment on the changes.
The new set up, if approved, would place Tampa Bay in a yet-to-be-named conference with Florida, Toronto, Montreal, Buffalo, Boston and Ottawa. The Lightning would play each of their conference rivals six times (36 games) while playing a home-and-home with the other 23 teams in the league (46 games). The top four teams in each conference would then qualify for the playoffs with the first two rounds being played within each conference. The league semifinal format is yet to be determined, but the final four teams being reseeded has been discussed heavily, according to several reports.
With Tampa Bay in the midst of a four-game losing streak following Monday's loss to the Senators, Lightning head coach Guy Boucher wasn't initially thrilled upon hearing the news of the team's new conference rivals..
"Can't say that right now, with all the positives we have been getting that this makes me feel great,'' Boucher said. "But we'll see. Sometimes things that don't look so good end up being the best.''
The Lightning, already with a difficult travel schedule, will now have to cross the Canadian border for 13 games per season as well as guaranteeing games against every team out west. This season Tampa Bay plays nine games in Canada – including three with "division'' rival Winnipeg – and does not travel to Los Angeles, Anaheim, Vancouver, Edmonton or Calgary.
"That definitely is not something I thought about going in, so it's definitely a curveball,'' Lightning forward Ryan Malone said. "I don't even know what to say, that's crazy. But (travel) is just part of the game nowadays, so you just have to find ways to make sure you are sharp and your legs are ready.''