The 2020-21 NHL season has been unlike any other, to say the least. With all the COVID-19 rules and protocols, the game itself has been hindered in multiple ways. The negative changes are clear and will hopefully not remain (an All-Canada division, a taxi squad) but there are some changes that can be great additions for future NHL seasons. Some of the gems from this season are more obvious and some are hidden but can be great to keep for the seasons to come.
This season, travel must be kept to a minimum considering the COVID-19 protocols. One of the best ways the NHL has minimized travel is with the “mini-series” or simply teams playing two games in the same location against the same opponent. Aside from reducing travel, a bonus that is preferred for any hockey player, the “mini-series” allows teams to acclimate themselves to their opponents.
Similar to baseball and the MLB’s scheduling series play, the NHL should strongly consider keeping the “mini-series” or even playing three games in a row as they allow teams to adjust to the prior game and adapt their style of play. We see countless times teams adjust their lineup and strategy for a series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the later games not only tend to be exciting but the coaching is superb as both teams are able to continuously adjust. Needless to say, the quality of the games would improve if teams had the ability to play each other in a short number of days.
More Divisional Play
This season there is only divisional play until the final four teams in the Stanley Cup Playoffs as part of the COVID-19 protocols. The main reason for this change was the inability of the teams located in Canada to cross the border and by default can only play teams within the country. While the divisions will return to normal in future seasons, there are plenty of reasons to want more divisional play.
In a normal season, teams face their divisional opponent six times where this season, they face eight or nine times. As a result, there is less travel, more familiarity with the opponent, and more importantly, the ability for rivalries to intensify. It’s understandable for the NHL to want to market some teams or players that can’t always be seen by some markets (it is exciting for a hockey fan in New York to see Connor McDavid come to town). However, more divisional play can create better rivalries for the growing game and invigorate fanbases as a result.
More Outdoor Games
The NHL announced that two games will take place at Lake Tahoe this season with the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights playing on the 20th and the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers playing on the 21st. While the Winter Classic and the Stadium Series had to be canceled this season, the urge to play outdoor hockey is still prevalent. There are a handful of teams that have been looking for outdoor options for games this season as there would be a strong likelihood to allow fans to attend those games with COVID-19 protocols. Even in future years, the NHL should embrace outdoor games and alternate sites for games.
There is a fear of oversaturation of outdoor games and the Stadium Series already providing more than enough games of the variety. That being said, there is a golden opportunity to expand the interest in hockey with games in stadiums throughout the season. Aside from the outdoor games generally being the ones with the highest attendances (the 2014 and 2020 Winters Classics had the highest attendance of any NHL games) they also give the NHL the opportunity to bring the game to alternate sites and possibly expand the popularity of the game.
Keep Sponsors on Helmets
This one might be surprising considering that many sports purists hat the constant bombardment of advertisement in our sports. The ads on the helmets are a new addition for this season in hopes that the money made can cover up the lost costs for playing the season without fans in attendance. It tends to be annoying to see sponsors on the ice or on the glass during games but frankly, the helmet sponsors are hard to notice. Only when they zoom in on a player is it noticeable that a team is being sponsored by a specific company. With this in mind, the NHL should keep something that is inevitable for all sports.
Will the NHL Implement These Changes?
It’s hard to predict the future and anything can happen from now until the end of the season. It’s also important to keep in mind whether some of the changes from this season will ultimately benefit the game this season or not. However, the NHL is constantly looking to improve. While this season has given us some unusual consequences that we hope won’t have to be a part of future seasons, there are some changes that can ultimately benefit the game.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November but has been a journalist for multiple blogs since the end of the 2019-2020 NHL season. While not following any specific team, Mike covers the New York Islanders for The Hockey Writers, a team that has turned themselves into legitimate cup contenders with Barry Trotz as the head coach.