With the General Managers of NHL teams meeting in March, it is time to consider what they might discuss to make the league better and help the sport continue to grow. There are a number of issues to consider. Let’s get started.
10. Clarify Goalie Interference
It seems as though nearly every night this year there is another controversial ruling on a goaltender interference review. This occurred last year as well. This week Nick Schmaltz scored a game-tying goal for the Blackhawks. It came as Artem Anisimov toppled over Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen. The call on the ice (a good goal) was upheld. Did it amount to less “obstruction” then when a recent Auston Mathews goal was overturned for what seemed to be far less contact?
As NBC Sports highlighted, no one seems to know what the rule is. We need to sort this out. Now.
9. Address the Offside Rule
Determining what is and what isn’t offside was embarrassing in last June’s Stanley Cup final. It has gotten progressively worse. When soft-spoken Connor McDavid feels compelled to speak it is time to rethink the rule and its purpose. According to Pierre LeBrun while the NHL GMs tackled this last March at GM meetings, they couldn’t find consensus on the skate off the ice, over the blue-line. They need to.
NHL Director of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell suggested this week in the Athletic that he intends to bring up tweaking the offside rule at the next GM meetings in March (The Athletic 1/10/2018).
“I think I’ll try to buy the managers over again as a group,” he explained. “…I think it’s an adjustment to this rule that we experienced. This is our third year with it where I think we’ve experienced it enough where you can put some goals back on the board. The basis of it is, the player is still onside because he hasn’t crossed the blue-line. I don’t think you need to be touching the ice.”
8. Commit to the Olympic Games
It is still hard to believe that the NHL pulled out of the 2018 Olympics. When the “Olympic Athletes from Russia” takes the Gold this year with a team of former NHLers, hockey fans around the rest of the world will get angry all over again. Yes, it is a pain. Yes, it stinks to shut the league down for two weeks. Yes, it can be a giant hassle. Yes, players could get injured. No, GMs and the NHL itself make little money on the deal.
Still, this should be a no-brainer.
During the winter Olympics, hockey gets highlighted in ways it doesn’t at any other time. It boggles the mind that the GM’s refused to double down and expose an international audience the best possible product. GMs should decide this is the last year they miss this chance to expand the game by allowing players to go to the Olympics.
7. Shorten the Season
Most people agree the NHL season is too long. With the 82-game schedule, there are just too many nights where the players go through the motions, plus there is no reason to have the Stanley Cup finals in mid-June. There are a number of benefits to shortening the season. Coaching would be assisted, fatigue would be reduced, hype would increased, and viewers would stay engaged longer. Even P.K. Subban agrees.
A shortened season would also make each game matter more. It would reduce injuries and get us to the play off race sooner. Of course, most NHL owners will worry about revenue. This year, 14 teams are currently averaging 100% or higher stadium capacity per game. For those teams, owners could look to raise ticket prices. In the majority of markets, however, fewer games would mean more sell outs.
6. Make Goalie Equipment Smaller
Scoring is up this year in the NHL. Teams are averaging 2.95 goals per game this season, the highest rate for this span since 2006-07 (2.95 per game). This is a good thing. It means continuing changes that began in 2015 and were rolled out halfway through the 2016-17 NHL season. These changes were designed to address the ever expanding size of equipment.
This year every NHL goalie has to wear tighter, rounder, form-fitting goalie pants. Kay Whitmore, the NHL’s senior director of hockey operations and goaltender equipment, said the new pants now have a defined thigh guard that has been reduced in width from 10 inches to nine inches. The new pant leg maintains a constant curve that wraps the leg and doesn’t flare out, as it has in the past. Making chest protectors more uniform is another area of interest. If a player is caught breaking the rules regarding equipment, he is subject to a two-game suspension and a $25,000 fine.
5. No Head Shots, No Exceptions
In Ken Dryden’s new book Game Change he levels a direct challenge to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. Dryden identifies him by name as the only person who can actually draw this troubled chapter in hockey’s history to a close. Bettman is celebrating 25 years as NHL Commissioner and has overseen both successes and controversies. Dryden identifies what some may see as an existential threat to the game. “Two small changes,” Dryden writes in the book. “No hits to the head; no finishing your check.”
For Bob McKenzie, any hit to the head is a bad hit to the head; any hit to the head should be a penalty. The reason? The fallout from hits to the head can be so severe and life-altering that whatever impact the new rule would have on how the game is played simply pales in comparison. It is hard to deny Dryden’s powerful warning that by delaying taking action “we waste careers and lives.”
4. Race to the Draft
The draft at present is based on a lottery. The worse you do in the previous season the better your chances of getting a high draft pick. This creates perverse incentives for teams to try and tank. This isn’t good for the game. What if instead the last 20 games of the season non-playoff teams would race to determine draft position. The team with the most points in the last 20 games would pick first overall, the team with the second-most points would pick second, and so on. Teams that ultimately qualify for the playoffs would be automatically eliminated.
This is James Gordon’s suggestion (The Athletic 1/9/2018) and is worth discussing. The problem would be that a team could get caught in a perpetual spiral of losing. Losing in the regular season. Losing in the last 20 games and never drafting good enough players to rebuild. However, this occurs now. The hope of a great race to the finish would keep fans interested longer, even when their teams struggle.
3. Wild Card Week
Another idea by Gordon (The Athletic 1/9/2018) is what he calls Wild Card Week. The idea here is to keep more teams in the playoff hunt. The bottom two teams from each division (except the short-handed Central) would play each other to enter the bracket, and then the remaining four teams would play single-elimination games to see who qualifies for the playoffs.
Top teams would still want to secure one of the top three divisional spots so they could enjoy home ice advantage and enjoy a week off to rest up and prepare for the play off battle to come. Meantime, the rest of the NHL’s teams would get enter a one and done match designed to ramp up the playoff atmosphere, sell-out arenas, and keep fans glued to their TVs anticipating first round match ups.
2. Grow the Game Abroad (and at Home)
In 2017, for the first time in league history, the Kings and Canucks played two preseason games in China. The Kings defeated the Canucks 5-2 at Mercedes-Benz Arena in front of 10,088 fans in Shanghai. They won again in a shootout in front of 12,759 in Beijing. While the NHL does not have firm plans to return to China, it seems like a harbinger of things to come. This should continue, this year’s Olympics error to one side.
The NHL should continue to fund youth programs, USA Hockey, Hockey Canada, junior hockey league, high school leagues, and college teams. This includes the National Women’s Hockey League. This year, the New Jersey Devils took the initial steps to helping promote the development and growth of women’s hockey by announcing a partnership with Metropolitan Riveters through the 2019-20 season. These sorts of alliances should be fostered and supported by the NHL.
1. Expand the League
This year the Seattle City Council approved the Memorandum of Understanding between the city and the Oak View Group that would allow the completion of renovation on KeyArena for the use of both an NHL and NBA franchise. The council voted 7-1 in favor and the renovation is expected to be completed as early as October in 2020 and will cost at least $600 million. While there are a number of possible team names, the Seattle Reign should be a leading option. In case you don’t know, it rains in Seattle. A lot.
Expansion would bring the league to 32 teams and better balance the conferences and divisions. After the success of the Vegas Golden Knights this year, it is possible some GMs may want to revisit the terms of the expansion draft.
So what do you think? Which of these ideas would make things better? What have I missed?