Schedule may be a Leafs-killer

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:18 AM ET

July 22, 2005. A fateful date.

The day the governors ratified the new collective bargaining agreement. The day the new rules were unveiled. The day National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman announced he had just stacked the deck against the Maple Leafs making the playoffs.

You missed that last one? Perhaps that's because it wasn't said in those words. But it was there. It was the revelation that in My Game, the schedule would be highly unbalanced.

Now, each team plays its divisional opponents eight times a season and the rest of its conference opponents four times.

Had life gone on as normal in the NHL, it probably wouldn't have mattered much. But life changed. Some of the perennial also-rans decided to change their status.

Whether they were successful or not remains to be seen. After all, this is the Year of Uncertainty in the NHL calendar. No one knows what will happen, but even so, there are certain unassailable facts which must be considered.

The Atlanta Thrashers loaded up with Bobby Holik and Peter Bondra. Then they shipped out the underperforming Dany Heatley in return for Marian Hossa.

Down the road in Florida, the Panthers also were making moves, acquiring Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts, Jozef Stumpel and Martin Gelinas, and bringing in Jacques Martin to coach.

So now, with the stage set, let's look at the playoff picture.

The Leafs almost certainly won't finish ahead of Ottawa, New Jersey, Philadelphia or Tampa Bay. They probably won't finish ahead of Boston. Pittsburgh and Montreal are much improved, so the Leafs may have their hands full there.

Even so, that still leaves them in the top eight and puts them in the playoffs. But what if Atlanta and Florida are so improved that they're also battling for a playoff spot?

If that's the case, the Leafs are suddenly underdogs, if for no other reason than the unbalanced schedule.

The Panthers and Thrashers play both the Washington Capitals and the Carolina Hurricanes eight times, whereas the Leafs, being in a different division, play them only four times.

Considering the state of the Caps, that should be at least seven extra points for the two southern teams. The Hurricanes are almost as bad. Let's say five points out of eight when the Panthers and Thrashers play the Caps and 'Canes in those four extra games.

The weakest team in the Leafs' division is probably the Buffalo Sabres but, because of the regional rivalry, that's never an easy game for Toronto.

The Leafs' other three divisional opponents -- Boston, Montreal and Ottawa -- have been identified as likely high-level competition.

The Leafs will play 32 divisional games, and not a single one of them is likely to yield easy points.

So when you throw in those projected 12 extra points that Atlanta and Florida should gain by playing the patsies in their conference, that should give them a monstrous advantage in the hunt for a playoff position.

The most recent time the NHL was in business, the difference between first place and sixth place was six points. The difference between eight and ninth was six points. Obviously, the hypothetical 12-point advantage the league has given Atlanta and Florida can have a major impact on the standings.

Perhaps none of this will happen. Perhaps teams such as Ottawa, with suspect goaltending, or New Jersey, with gaping holes, will be the ones who have to worry about Atlanta and Florida. Perhaps the Leafs will run away with their division and be able to sit back and watch the others scramble.

But if the Leafs do indeed find themselves battling for a playoff spot, this new divisional imbalance does them no good at all.


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