In general, I really like the new conference format. Well, really, I didn’t like the previous conference format so I am glad that is gone. First off, let me mention a few things that I don’t like about the current setup.
1. Reduces chances of rivalries forming/developing. Essentially under the current system if you make the playoffs you could meet any one of 14 other teams in the first round. Rivalries are primarily built through competing for playoff spots and meeting in the playoffs. Under the current system you are far less likely to meet the same team in the playoffs in back to back years and you are less likely to meet your natural geographical rivals in the playoffs (Toronto vs Montreal, Anaheim vs Los Angeles, Pittsburgh vs Philadelphia, etc.). This, in my opinion, is bad for the NHL.
2. Unbalanced schedule. The current schedule isn’t quite as unbalanced as a few years back but it is still unbalanced and that means two teams competing for the same playoff position do so by playing different schedules with different strengths of difficulty. This has generally favoured teams in weaker divisions, particularly the generally very weak southeast division. Just look at the standings right now. Four of the top eight and five of the top 10 teams are north east division teams while just one of the top eight teams is from the southeast and three of the bottom five teams are from the southeast. With an unbalanced schedule that sees teams play a heavier within-division schedule, all the teams in the southeast have a much easier schedule than the teams in the northeast and yet those teams are competing for the same playoff spots.
The new conference set up fixes both of these problems. The mini-conference playoff structure means a greater chance of rivalries developing and geographical rivals meeting in the playoffs. Also, while the schedule is still unbalanced between conferences you are only competing for a playoff spot with your conference rivals who all more or less play an equal schedule.
Some people have raised some concerns though. First and foremost they don’t like that some conferences have 7 teams and some have 8 meaning some teams have a 4 in 7 chance of making the playoffs and other teams have a 4 in 8 chance. There is some validity to this, but fear not, I am certain Bettman and the owners have a plan to address this in the upcoming years. Expansion to 32 teams making each conference having 8 teams. Or, we could dream and they contract to 28 teams, but that is unlikely.
The second concern people have is that a 5th place team in one conference will be better than a 4th place team in another conference but the 5th place team misses the playoffs and the 4th place team makes the playoffs. This too is a valid concern, but is more or less equivalent to the unbalanced schedule issues I pointed out above not to mention the 9th place team in the west has generally been better than the 8th place (and sometimes 7th and 6th place) team in the east for the past several years. Nothing is perfect.
To me, the greater development of rivalries far outweighs any negatives with the new system. Rivalries are what can turn casual fans into enthusiastic fans and anything that can be done to enhance rivalries. I thought going to the conference playoff system was a mistake so I am glad they fixed that.