Last time there was an NHL lockout, fans at least had something to look forward to when NHL hockey returned: a more open, less cluttered neutral-zone; referees on alert to call any and all infractions and as a result, more power plays and thus, high-scoring, much more entertaining games.
We also had the inclusion of the newly-instituted shootout (which I loathe, but we can debate that another time) which most fans seemed to love. All in all, it was supposed to be the “new” NHL, and for a while, it sort of was. However, I feel we have kind of seen the game morph back into what it was pre-2005—by the end of last season, we had more clutching and grabbing and defensive hockey was the watchword everywhere. Referees were back to calling the games differently and letting things go.
But whatever, they gave it a good shot. Unfortunately, we still have too much dull, low-scoring hockey, in part because the goalies are a) very good b) those goalies are allowed to dress like the Michelin Man and c) coaches like Ken Hitchcock make sure to keep the game as dull as possible. (Hey, if you're a mediocre, low-talent team, what better way to compete than just checking the other team to death...)
This time, after yet another lockout, what do we have to get excited about if and when NHL hockey comes back? It will be, as some wise posters have said here recently, the same old, same old. It’s not like, after another year’s absence, the league will be unveiling some exciting new changes to make the game better for fans—who will no doubt be paying even more over time for the privilege of watching NHL hockey.
I do believe, however, there are some things that can (could?) be done to make the product even better and make the sport even more global in reach. (My apologies if some of these ideas may have been triggered by posters here over the past few week!)
- Shorten the regular season. 82 games is too much, given the size and speed of players nowadays. I’m no expert on rest and recovery, but my intuition tells me a 70-72 game regular-season would be just fine.
- The regular-season should start in the last week of September. The regular season should end at the end of March (when it still feels like winter where people care a lot about hockey), which should be entirely do-able with a 70-game regular-season. The playoffs need to be finished by the end of May.
- Yes, revenues and therefore salaries will drop somewhat with a shorter schedule, but isn’t the health of the players—and the quality of play—more important? The smart teams in legitimate hockey markets will still make money . The owners who are “losing” money will lose less. Players will still make their millions.
- The above point about player health is important. Rest and recovery supposed to be a part of the regimen for elite athletes. These guys are pushed to the max too often. (It's silly, by the way, that the AHL plays three games in three nights—same with junior hockey. It cannot be good for the players in an age where the speed of the game, the size of the equipment, etc. make hockey a dangerous sport. Our awareness of head injuries, for example, is higher than ever before. Players would be less vulnerable to injury if they had more rest time between games.) Bottom line: NHL players need rest and recovery time—for their health, and to make the game better. Less is more.
- We need to introduce, finally, no-touch icing. I love tough hockey as much as the next guy, but Don Cherry has been right for years: guys lose their careers over this and it’s just plain silly. We don’t need the old-style icing any more.
- Make penalties really hurt. Go back to the way it was in the early 1950s. If you get a penalty, you stay in the box until the two minutes is up, regardless of if the other team scores. In addition to opening up the game offensively, it will kill off goons who hurt their teams with stupid penalties. Real toughness will come out through playing like John Tonnelli, Bob Gainey, Terry O'Reilly, Gary Roberts or Kris Draper.
- Get rid of shootouts. My own distaste for them aside, the standings nowadays are meaningless. What’s wrong with a tie? In fact, I would argue that, many nights, a tie is what two teams deserve. Why do we give an extra point for something (a shootout) that is a skill competition and not part of a real game? (By the way, I’m not one of those who hates the so-called “loser” point. I think if you get a tie in the 60-minute game, you deserve a point, full stop. If we have to keep the five-minute overtime then yes, the winner should get the “extra” point. But if it was up to me, I’d get rid of OT in the regular season altogether. A tie is what it is—one point for both teams. Suddenly, the NHL standings would make sense again, and getting 90 points in a season, or 100, would actually mean something.
- I’d like to cut out one round of the playoffs (as much as I love the round of 16, because the first round of the playoffs every spring is tremendous hockey), but I realize that playoff revenue is important for teams. It's just the games in June, when teams are exhausted and interest in hockey as dwindled, is not ideal. But if the NHL followed a version of the new baseball playoff format, maybe we cut back a bit on the number of games in the preliminary round series. I hate losing the tradition on the one hand, but how about this: Go back to Conference standings only—East and West. First six teams make the playoffs in each Conference, instead of 8. But the next four teams in the overall standings teams get a wild card spot and play a mini two-out-of- three series to see who advances.
- Under this new playoff format, the top 12 teams get a few days off at the end of the regular season to rest. As in baseball, the “wildcard” teams have to fight through a preliminary round just to advance.
- At the end of the Stanley Cup playoffs, we launch a “Super Cup” challenge every year in late May—Stanley Cup winner takes on the winner of the KHL championship in Russia. This would give the KHL winner a chance at something bigger. The Stanley Cup champions would never lose the Cup. They’d simply be playing for a different championship.
If it was up to me, I'd cut the NHL back to 24 teams in hockey-mad markets, but we know that won't happen for a host of reasons. But the above suggestions, to me, would help invigorate our sport.
I don’t expect readers will agree with all of the above. But maybe there are some points you’d like to discuss the pros and cons of a bit further.
Let me know.