The head coach and general manager of the Virden Oil Capitals doesn’t see the Manitoba Junior Hockey League’s new format making a big difference for his team.
The MJHL is dropping its two-division format, with all 11 teams to play in one unified league, competing for 10 spots in the post-season. The teams will play a balanced 60-game schedule, facing the other 10 squads six times each (three at home and three away). The new format could mean some more travel, but Leslie sees benefits to it as well.
"I don’t think it affects us as much as it does some other teams, but yeah I think that would be a concern for some teams," said Leslie, whose Oil Capitals wrapped up their sophomore season in second place in the MJHL’s Sher-Wood Division before losing in the second round of the playoffs to the Dauphin Kings.
"But at the same time I think when you do the math there isn’t a ton of difference, for us especially. Our fans are fairly new to the league still; it will be nice for them to see some of these other teams a little bit more in the year."
While the Oil Capitals are in the southwest corner of the league, the MJHL’s layout — across the southern portion of the province and up the west side — makes for fairly short trips in either direction, with the exception of visits to the OCN Blizzard, who are stationed in the league’s most remote outpost. It’s teams like the Blizzard and the Swan Valley Stampeders who will see the biggest differences in their travel logs.
The new playoff format is the change with the widest-reaching impact. Last season four of the league’s top six teams played in the Addison Division, resulting in a highly competitive first round that eliminated two of the MJHL’s top four clubs. Now the top 10 teams will qualify regardless of geography, with the top six clubs getting a bye, while teams seven through 10 will compete in a best-of-three survivor series, similar to the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s format. The winners of those sets would join the top six in the quarter-finals.
"It puts more teams in the running and sometimes that affects the amount of moves that get made close to the trade deadline," Leslie said. "But you know what, I think it’s good for teams to get some extra playoff dates as well."
And while it could be suggested that a 60-game campaign to eliminate a single team devalues the regular season, Leslie points out that it also places a premium on finishing in the top six.
"I think everybody, especially near the end of the year, could use the extra rest and I guess that’s the prize for finishing higher up in the league," he said. "Just with the way its structured in a survivor series, you have one bad game and all of a sudden you’re behind the 8-ball. Or maybe you run into a hot goaltender and then even though you finished ahead of the team in the regular season, if a lucky bounce or good goaltending gets you, you could be out of the series."