Written by Jonathan Smith
The league is at a crucial period of its existence. It is as popular as ever in Canada and is more present than ever in the United States; nonetheless, that popularity is global and does not affect its North American mainstream existence. If something is not done to remove the negative atmosphere and impressions surrounding the NHL brand, then the league will begin to regress. The league must stop attempting to grow into another one of the big 4 team leagues, and begin to capitalize on its advantages, like the intensity, the speed and the general excitement that is generated in a good NHL game. Recent games between Toronto-Ottawa and the final game between Toronto-Philadelphia in the playoffs is outstanding NHL hockey. If the NHL aims at producing more of those games, then they will finally take a step forward.
The following is an 8-point NHL suggestion list that can be seen as a move toward innovation and improvement. Some of the ideas are subtle while others could be considered as outside the box. But all are indeed for the betterment of the NHL product. The ideas would not require a major overhaul in league operations, on or off the ice, nor do they demand extensive learning. They merely require an adaptation to current standards and expectations.
1- Changes to the League Alignment
New York (R)
New York (I)
A significant benefit for having a new league alignment such as this one would be a more competitively equal travel schedule for all 30 teams. The amount and distance of travel will, approximately, be equal among the teams. Further, for the NHL viewpoint, placing all 6 Canadian teams in the same conference will enable the league to ensure that a Stanley Cup Final will not consist of two Canadian teams; thereby, enabling the NHL to secure American marketing and television advertisements for American content in the Stanley Cup Final. Also, Canadian rivalry will be increased while American teams will be concentrated more on regional competition as well. These changes can shift the NHL and individual team marketing strategies to local, or nearby, regional competition, instead of a more broad focus as displayed recently.
2- Changes to the Schedule
Standardization of League Calendar
For long-term benefits, it would also be in the league’s best interest to stabilize the league’s schedules.
The league should aim at starting and ending the season at a standardized time. More specifically, the season should start the first weekend (Wednesday-Saturday) of October, striving for a start date on the first Thursday of every October. Also, the league should make it a point not to extend the regular season past the last weekend of March or the first weekend of April. These two modifications would allow the league to bring its number of season days to 180. (The 03-04 season, “this past season” had 180 days of regular season, as well.).
For example, this past season the league would have commenced on Thursday, October 2nd and would have concluded on
Besides advancing the playoff schedule by approximately one week, this standardization would help build consistency to the league’s plan and exposure in markets. Hard core fans know when hockey starts, but casual fans, over time, will become accustomed to the consistent calendar. Also, by attempting to limit the amount of months in a regular season, in conjunction with the following suggestion, the league can also formulate a regular, expected, number of playing dates per month for each team, further equalizing the scheduling. Teams won’t play 14 games a month during a critical stretch, as in March, while their closest rival is playing 11 or 12 games.
Reduction in Regular Season Games
The league should very well reduce its scheduling to a number less than 82 games per team. The ideal figure would be 70 games. The owners would lose 6 home dates, however with a more stretched out season, and a bigger emphasis on rivalries, it may very well be addition by subtraction. Fans would have more disposable income, theoretically, with fewer games to divide their income with, as well as more interest being generated with fewer games available. Fewer games could very well increase demand and will undoubtedly increase quality. Furthermore, currently with this season as a model, the average team plays a game every 2.15 days. Under my format that figure would be 2.57. Adding almost half a day in between games will most surely be a benefit to the on-ice product.
Under the current system teams play 82 games in a regular season, and it is broken down as follows:
· 24 Divisional Games (29% of the season)
· 40 Conference Games (49%)
· 18 Intra Conference Games. (22%)
The new scheduling format would be as followed:
· 32 Divisional Games (8 games vs. each division rival) (46% of a 70 game season)
· 30 Conference Games (3 games vs. each division rival) (43% of a 70 game season)
· 6 Categorical Games (3 vs. each category rival) (8% of a 70 game season) (1)
· 2 Season-ending Wildcard Games (back to back games vs. standings rival) (3%) (2)
(1)Teams shall be divided, for scheduling purposes only, into 10 3-team groupings according to the previous season’s final regular season standings. Teams in the groupings will play each other three times each, for a total of 6 games. This serves to provide a competitive edge to the lesser teams and a competitive challenge to the upper-echelon teams.
(2)Wild card games consist of the final two regular season games. Each team shall be allotted a home date and a road date on the final weekend of the regular season (Thursday-Sunday). Three weeks prior to the final week of the regular season, the league shall consider the standings and playoff/division races that are taking shape. The two final games will be among the two same teams and will be played in a home and home format. This system is to create the maximum interest for the final week, as well as ensuring all teams have the chance to “control their own destiny”. Further, teams will not have to watch their closest rival play an unmotivated “basement dweller” at the last leg of the race.
This format would allocate at least 64 regular season games (or 92% of the season) to conference rivalries, helping the playoff races. As well, the less talented teams will have a theoretically easier schedule than the more recent successful clubs by playing 6 games versus teams of the same calibre. All inter-conference games (in the form of categorical games, if any) shall be played between November 1st and February 1st; allowing the two final months of the regular season to be played against intra-conference teams.
Creation of Rivalry Weekends
The league should attempt to create a unique weekend once a month to create a buzz around the league, somewhat like inter-league play has done for MLB. Once a month, the league should schedule, league-wide, back to back, home and home series between teams in the same division (or conference) on a specified weekend (either Thursday-Friday, Friday-Saturday or Saturday-Sunday). This would generate interest that can be carried over throughout the season.
These scheduling changes as a whole will provide many benefits for the league. Firstly, as a 70-game season, it would bring the average game to approximately every 2.57 days; a vast increase compared to today’s standards (110 non-playing days as oppose to 98 this would-be season). Secondly, it would provide a balanced schedule in terms of travelling. Every team will travel out of its time zone and into the same time zones. Any discrepancy in the travelling will be minimal. Also, this format will greatly encourage rivalries to form and last; a strategy that should be employed by the league until it is capable to market its stars and the quality of play. Furthermore, the quality of hockey is greatly influenced by the intensity and energy of the teams playing, two variables that can be more consistent and regular with rivalries. The playoff races, theoretically, would become much more closely fought and teams will benefit from the additional non-playing days off. Finally, the playoffs would culminate at the end of May, or at the beginning of June at the absolute latest, benefiting from being away from the NBA playoffs and the beginning of MLB’s summer push.
3- Reduction to the playing roster
I would suggest a reduction to the number of players dressed per team. Currently, 20 players out of 23 are in the line-up every game. The fourth liner’s generally play 5-8 minutes on the average team and possess limited NHL skill. I would suggest the number of players in the game line-up to 18. This would presumably lead to the loss of 2 forwards; however, as an official rule teams would be mandated to dress 9 forwards, 6 defensemen and 2 goalies in addition to one extra player at any position. The virtual loss of the fourth line will immediately increase the skill level of each game, while not affecting dramatically the face of the game. Those two players would only be getting a minimal amount of ice time under normal circumstances, but the fact that teams will now be forced to rely more on their most talented forwards, it will eventually improve play. Obviously, the player’s association would step in and voice their concerns. However, a reduction to a 21-man active roster (18-man playing roster) would not be dramatic, union-wise, as mostly filler players, i.e. players on the low-end of the pay scale, would be eliminated.
Statistically, the league would bring the skill level back to where it was when there were only 26 teams. Teams dress twelve forwards for a game that, using a simple model, results in 360 game day players (12 X 30 teams). Back in 1996, when there were only 26 teams, there were 312 (12 forwards X 26 teams) game day players. Under this new rule, there will be up to 300 game day players (10 forwards X 30 teams).
The result would be that the pluggers and less skilled guys that the teams placed on the fourth line will not only lose their job but, career-wise, will be put into a position to improve their skill level. Teams will only play the players that can realistically contribute in the game, with only up to 10 forwards to divide the ice time with. With three forward lines, teams can decide to dress an extra defenseman or an extra forward, depending on the opponent and situation. It might not have a dramatic affect on the goal output, but it could very well improve the product.
Of course, during the playoffs, where the intensity and physical play is increased, depth is important. Therefore, the league should look into perhaps increasing the playing roster in the playoffs back to 20 players.
4- Elimination of Blueline Offside for Entries into Offensive Zone
The league should eliminate the offside rule for entries into the offensive zone and applying it only for when the puck leaves the zone. Here’s how it could theoretically go down:
Players are permitted to enter the offensive zone before the puck, assuming there is no two line pass being committed (there would be now two possible two-line offside pass scenarios: the traditional one when passing out of the defensive zone and the new one when passing into the offensive zone).
Going into the offensive zone can be done prior to the puck’s entrance, however once the puck leaves the offensive zone the linesmen holds his arm up indicating a delayed offside until all the offensive players clear the zone, at which point the process starts over again. If the puck re-enters the offensive zone before the linesmen waves off the delayed offside, then and only then would an offside infraction be called. With this alteration to the offside rule, defensemen are forced to follow forwards that rush past them, thus opening the neutral zone for the other players; meanwhile offering more creative and fast-paced plays. After all, how many times have we seen potentially exciting rushes come to an abrupt end because of a split-second advancement?
5- Penalty Administration Modifications
Increased Protection for Puckhandlers
Another change the league may take a look at is the way penalties are administered. Not only the calling of the infractions, but the severity of the calls. In an attempt to increase offense, the league should promote puck handling and puck possession.
Accordingly, the league should protect those with the puck more efficiently. Therefore, any penalty that occurs in the defensive half of the ice against an opponent who has the puck will result in a 3-minute penalty; looking at it in another way, a penalty on a puckhandler who is in the offensive half of the ice warrants a 3-minute penalty. An infraction on any other player and/or on the puckhandler on the defensive side results in the usual penalties.
The term puck control will need to be clearly defined, but this could open up space for the puckhandler, especially late in the game when teams are scared to incur a penalty. Of course, a general improvement in the calling of penalties will be required. This rule would be similar to the foul shot rule in the NBA or the roughing the passer rule in the NFL. Those leagues protects the players who temporarily control the offense, the NHL should attempt the same. Three-minute penalties would theoretically give more space to the talented players, especially towards the end of the game.
Increased Severity against Head Shots
Any blows to the head, including high-sticks and shoulder checks, are automatic double minors (4-minute penalties). A perceived vicious shoulder check making contact with the head or a high-stick resulting in blood results in a 5-minute major, without a game expulsion. Also, the offender is subject to a $1,000 fine. A second offense in the same game will result in a 5-minute major, game misconduct and subject to league review. This penalty applies to puckhandlers as well.
Any undeflected shot by a player from the defensive zone resulting in the puck leaving the ice surface will result in a 2-minute delay of game penalty.
All powerplays shall commence in the shorthanded teams zone, regardless where the penalty occurred or where the play stopped.
6- Re-configuration of Ice markings
Alter the dimensions of the ice surface to increase offensive room. Place the nets 10 feet from the end boards, the bluelines 62 feet from the nets and make the neutral zone 56 feet between each blueline.
7- Behind the Net Limitations
Limit Behind the Net coverage
To encourage creative passing and offensive vision, defensive teams can only place 1 player at a time behind their net, whether on a defensive assignment or otherwise. Any team violating this rule shall receive a 2-minute unsportsmanlike penalty on their second offense of the game. A third and any other subsequent offense will result in a double-minor.
Limit Goalie Puckhandling
Goalies may touch the puck anywhere on the defensive half of the ice surface whenever he chooses; however, if puck is behind the net (behind the icing line), the goalie cannot play it past the icing line. The penalties shall be the same for the limited coverage behind the net rule.
8- Regular Season Game Results
All league games will end with a declared winner and a declared loser. Games tied after 60 minutes of regulation will play a 10-minute 4-on-4 overtime period. If a tie remains, teams will partake in a shootout.
New Standings Format
· Regulation-format wins (60-min. regulation win, or 4-on-4 OT win) are worth 2 points.
· Shootout wins are worth 1 point.
· Losses of any kind are worth 0 points at all times.
· Team Record Format : W-L-SOW ; where SOW indicate Shootout Wins
The league is not in the same position as the other North American leagues, it does not have the player notoriety as the other three and it cannot gain it if it does not attract fans, and consequently more media attention. The only conceivable way to do this is to generate interest from the hardcore fans first, which can gradually rub off on the casual fans once the new schedule format is placed in and the NHL successfully capitalizes on the newly found rivals. As a result, the NHL will gain more interests from the media. Also, this calendar may be too standardized and programmed for the league’s current operations, however the bigger importance, I feel, is the conference re-alignment and 70-game season. The on-ice modifications are not dramatic in any stretch of the imagination. Changing the blueline offside, infractions against the puckhandlers and defensive clearing penalties are simple modifications that can be implemented without much confusion or heated debate. The goals, and subsequent outcomes, are obvious. The behind the net limitations, on the other hand, may require more convincing, but it can add an interesting dimension to offensive and defensive strategies. Creativity should be re-implemented into the NHL game.
Together, all ideas will lead to a better season-long performance from the teams and the players. That is the true goal.