When the National Hockey League first announced that the 2020-21 regular season’s format would consist of 56 games and be limited to divisional opponents only, many fans (myself included) were ecstatic at the prospect of renewed rivalries and an increased emphasis on performance – after all, who wouldn’t want to see the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers, two of the fiercest rivals in league history, play each other ten times in a single season?
For me, at least, the hype died very quickly.
Familiarity Breeds Boredom
As the saying goes, familiarity normally breeds contempt. Meaning that, in a perfect world, the more two teams play each other, the better chances a rivalry develops out of the matchup. Unfortunately, some of the National Hockey League’s scheduling decisions take the proverb extremely literally; the schedule lines up in such a way that some teams have played each other SEVEN times in a row. Earlier this season, COVID-19 protocols within the Arizona Coyotes and St. Louis Blues organizations forced schedule changes to meet this exact criterion: the Yotes and Notes played seven games in a row.
In a playoff context, seven games in a row are normal. Seven games in a row are direct. Seven games in a row are immediate. In the playoffs, there’s energy. There’s something on the line. In the regular season, it’s strange. It’s awkward. It’s predictable. Normally, when division opponents play each other, there’s a modicum of space between them before and after in which teams can change their game plans, playing styles, and rosters, if need be, to fit the opponents that are upcoming. Additionally, playing other teams in between rivalry matchups make them more exciting.
This season, the same adaptation, unpredictability, and excitement is taken away. Certain teams have very specific and predictable game plans – Flames’ fans would argue that the entire Oilers’ game plan is “give the puck to either Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl,” and changes that are made are very quickly adapted to, especially with the limited roster sizes.
Not only is the repetitive nature of 2021 division play increasingly boring, but it’s also robbed us all of what had previously been must-see matchups in seasons past. Everybody gets excited when the Montréal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins face-off, just as they do when the Bruins match up against the Leafs. Especially this year, a traditional matchup like Boston-Montréal is deeply missed. At least temporarily, gone are the days of Bruins and Habs’ fans getting on each other’s nerves about “the game last night”, who got burned on a bad penalty, or whether or not a goal should’ve counted.
Another thing missing in this COVID-19 altered season is the presence of a true comparison for the league’s best teams. How can we truly be sure that the Toronto Maple Leafs, first overall in the league and with the most wins of any team, would be the best in the league if they played Boston, Pittsburgh, New York, or Tampa as often as they used to? The traditional metrics used to measure how good a team is are still there, but they come with an asterisk. The fact that the best team in the league is limited to the same six opponents means it’s not easy to tell if they truly are the best.
The geographic isolation of the NHL this year also means fans may not be keeping up with league-wide developments, and might be shocked to find that certain players, coaches, or team personnel have changed roles or moved on (from “NHL’s division-only format results in tunnel vision.” Kevin Paul Dupont, Boston Globe, 13/02/21).
I know this may seem like nitpicking, and I should just be happy there’s hockey to watch at all, but the enclosed format of the NHL’s 2021 season has made it increasingly difficult to get excited about and invested in the games I watch.
Who’s ready for the Leafs to play the Winnipeg Jets three times in a row beginning next week?
Covering the Pittsburgh Penguins and other topics for The Hockey Writers. Also a big fan of the Chicago Cubs and progressive rock music.