The NHL schedule has been jumbled by the league’s latest COVID-19 outbreaks, resulting not only in games being postponed now, but the withdrawal of the game’s top players from the upcoming Olympics.
It’s a lousy situation, one that will reverberate into the spring, especially if the necessary shuffle in scheduling results in playoff spots being determined by who gets extra games against the dog-butt Montreal Canadiens or the garbagolic Arizona Coyotes. It’s going to be unfair, but also a situation where there isn’t much the NHL can do but throw up its hands.
Perhaps an NBA-style expansion of the postseason would work, moving from two wild-card teams in each conference to four, then having those teams square off in one-game play-ins to reach the main bracket. Given how exciting a one-and-done is, in any situation, there’s a decent case to do this anyway.
That’s an issue to tackle once this coronavirus wave has ebbed and the NHL gets a chance to sort things out. What this third consecutive pandemic-affected season should spark is a greater reflection about how the NHL’s season is conducted.
What we’re looking at now, after a week’s pause, is five more games scrubbed on Wednesday night, three New Year’s Eve postponements, and more scheduling headaches into 2022.
But for what? Aside from keeping everyone on track for a relatively balanced 82-game schedule to fill out a playoff field in another four months, and a bit of hockey entertainment on a winter’s evening, we’re in the part of the NHL’s regular season that can most generously be described as a grind.
The solution isn’t really pandemic-related. It’s more that the COVID scheduling alterations show just how much this part of the year is the NHL’s doldrums. That’s what can and should be fixed.
At this point, every team in the NHL has played somewhere between 26 and 33 games. That’s perfect for what the league should do, which is rededicating the generally shunned Presidents’ Trophy to a fall competition among all the teams, then start focusing on the Stanley Cup at the turn of the new year.
Here’s how it would work:
From October through December, everyone would play a 31-game sprint: one game against each team in the league: 15 at home, 15 on the road, and one neutral site. That could be international, it could be in a “Hockeyville” type of spot, or it could be in a North American market to help expand the league’s footprint – think Avalanche-Golden Knights in Salt Lake City or Bruins-Hurricanes in Hartford. The conclusion to Presidents’ Trophy season would be simultaneously scheduled games on the Saturday before Christmas – unabated by most college football and the NFL – with the idea being the same kind of drama seen on the final day of a Premier League soccer season.
After a holiday break, Stanley Cup season would begin with the Winter Classic. This would be 44 games: two home-and-homes against each team in your own division, plus one home-and-home with each team from your conference’s other division. Simple enough, and balanced.
The regular season going from 82 games to 75 would be offset by an expansion of the playoffs to include every team in the NHL. The top two teams in each division would receive byes into the main bracket and the chance to get about a week for a crucial physical refresh. The No. 3 and 4 teams would get the early part of the first playoff week off, as 5-8 and 6-7 one-game eliminations decide who faces them in the “preliminary round.” Those winners would play best-of-three series against the No. 3 and 4 seeds, with the winners of those clashes advancing to the main bracket, which would be the familiar best-of-sevens with divisional semifinals and finals, conference finals, and culminating with the Stanley Cup.
Under this system, every team would carry a chance to win the Cup into the spring, the bottom half of the standings would have meaning, the top teams would gain an advantage heading into the playoffs, and the split regular season would heighten interest through the fall and early winter. Plus, travel would be easier in the later part of the campaign, with teams staying in-division or in-conference as they begin Cup season.
The past two seasons have shown, and this one will too, that hockey’s regular season is mostly forgettable and other than die-hards, people really get into it at playoff time. Until at least February, a lot of people just think, “Oh, is there a game on tonight? Cool.” Coming out of the pandemic, the NHL can change that, giving real stakes to hockey in late December, where it usually means so little that rescheduling games for virus outbreaks is only a mild annoyance because this part of the hockey year means so little.