The NHL is constantly evolving, always trying to better itself and the game of hockey. This is crucial, as hockey itself evolves and times change. Some of the rule alterations over the years have drastically changed the NHL, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.
Taking out the red line in the 2005-06 season is a great example of a change that worked out. Taking out the red line and removing the two-line pass sped up the game exponentially, and opened the ice up. With all of the speed in today’s NHL, this was a monumental change in the game. While the league has come leaps and bounds in its long history, there is still much to be done, and not just in rule changes.
With that being said, here are the top 10 ways to improve the NHL right now.
10. Take Away Icing on the Penalty Kill
When a team takes a penalty, they are to be penalized for two minutes. So why do they get to ignore one of the other rules of the game? By allowing the penalized team to ice the puck, it gives them the ability to get the play as far from their own net as possible, gives them a chance to change and then waste some time on the penalty kill. The time that the attacking team takes to go back and get the puck is really dead time in the game.
By eliminating icing the puck, teams on the penalty kill would be facing the same consequences as five on five hockey. The puck would come back to their own end for the faceoff and they wouldn’t be able to change the lines. This might also further deter players from taking penalties, or at least be more aware on the ice. This might even see scoring totals rise, which is a win for the NHL.
9. 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, the hype would increase, 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 playoff race sooner. Of course, most NHL owners will worry about revenue. For those teams, owners could look to raise ticket prices. In the majority of markets, however, fewer games would mean more sellouts.
8. Take Away Offside Video Review
There’s a lot of issues around offside in the NHL. Since adding video review to offsides when a goal is scored in the 2015-16, there have been multiple complaints about the rule, on whether the skate is above the blue line or touching, or being a sliver over the blueline. The process slows the game down with the reviews and takes away goals, which the NHL wants to increase, so why keep it?
It has gotten progressively worse since implementing it, the NHL has even admitted making the wrong call in the past. When soft-spoken Connor McDavid feels compelled to speak it is time to rethink the rule and its purpose.
“It’s obviously hard to not agree with the rule and the video challenge because obviously, it didn’t go our way,” McDavid said back in Jan. 2018. “But if we were on the other side we would obviously love the rule, so it’s tough to comment on it right now but ultimately I feel they should just take the rule out. I think the number of calls that are a millimetre offside 45 seconds before the play, it doesn’t have very much of an effect on the goal itself. I think the fans want to see offence and if that’s going to hold back from offence it’s obviously frustrating.”
7. Get Rid of TV Blackouts
The Hockey Writer’s own Kyle Gype described the scenario best, “Your local NHL team is playing a nationally-televised game. It’s on NBCSN, which you access through an app because you don’t have cable or satellite. You’re excited to watch it, but when you turn it on, you’re denied because of a tv blackout based on your location… A blackout of the communication variety is intentionally preventing certain audience members from receiving television or radio broadcasts. In sports, this manifests itself with games not airing due to regional sports networks or local channels having exclusive broadcasting rights.”
With more an more people cord-cutting, many fans don’t have access to the regional station that shows their favourite team’s games. In order to better serve fans, the NHL needs to find a way around this. While the television income for the NHL is huge for some clubs, this hurts the fan experience. The NHL needs to find a way to fix this, even if it means playing the NBCSN, TSN or other stations game on their NHL.tv app as part of the deal. Fans pay a lot of money for the NHL.tv packages and blackouts will end up costing the league revenue from fans as they stop paying for NHL.tv and find free, illegal avenues to watch their favourite teams.
6. Bigger Punishment for Headshots
There seems to be inconsistency among headshots in the league. What is suspendable and what’s not? Is the head the first point of contact or is the player targetting the head? There are so many little aspects of the hit to look for involving contact to the head and yet every season players are hit and lose time from concussions. The NHL needs to protect its players and have bigger punishments for contact to the head.
Even if this means a 10-20 game ban for an initial hit to the head, so be it. then double it next time. Imagine the career totals Eric Lindros would have had without concussion problems. He finished with 372 goals, 493 assists and 865 points in 760 games, but lost a great deal of time, including the entire 2000-01 season to concussion problems. Or Sidney Crosby now, how high would his point totals be without concussion problems? The NHL needs to get rid of headshots however it can.
“The illegal check to the head rule is often misunderstood or misstated,” the league has said in the past. “Illegal checks to the head and legal full body hits often look similar at first glance because the difference between legal and illegal can be a matter of inches in a sport that moves fast.”
5. Go Back to the Old Playoff Format
Designed to create new rivalries while showcasing the current ones, but it doesn’t really happen. Trying to force the divisional matchups isn’t the way to do it, just let them happen. This also results in teams who have done very well, potentially finishing third in the conference, facing off against the second-place team in the conference.
By going back to the conference-wide playoff with first-seed versus eighth-seed, second-seed versus seventh, and so on, you get a chance for teams to face off against different rivals instead of seeing the same ones every season. The rivalry matchups still happen.
It’s still possible for an eighth-seed to win the Stanley Cup, just look at the Los Angeles Kings in 2012 when they won the Stanley Cup. The majority players also want the old playoff format, The Athletic completed a poll of NHL players in Feb. 2019 and one of the questions was if the NHL should change the playoff format, to which 60% of the 198 players said yes. (From: “The 2019 NHL Poll: Best player? Most overrated? Players weigh in on the best (and worst) in the game” – The Athletic– Feb. 28, 2019).
4. Commit to the Olympics
During the Winter Olympics, hockey gets highlighted in ways it doesn’t at any other time. It boggles the mind that the general manager’s refused to double down and expose an international audience the best possible product. Yes, there is a risk of injury, but there’s also a risk of injury when they play in the NHL. Committing to the Olympics can only be a good thing for the league as a whole.
Even the Great One, Wayne Gretzky believes that the NHL should let it’s players go, “I really think it’s a real special stage. There’s something really unique and special about playing for your country and there’s nothing bigger than playing for your country in the Olympic Games. There’s a different level. If we can send the best players in the game it’s always much better for everyone.” (From: “Gretzky: NHL players in Olympics ‘much better for everyone'” – National Post– Sept. 13, 2018).
This ties into number one on this list as well. The Olympics are an international spectacle, and the league needs to grow the game of hockey around the world. By putting the best possible product on the ice, viewers can see the best of the best play. On top of growing the game, the players want to be able to compete for their countries. In The Athletic poll mentioned above, one of the questions was if the NHL should go to the Olympics. Of 198 players, 99% said yes.
3. Equal Odds for the NHL Entry Draft
Currently, the NHL Entry draft gives the last place team in the NHL the highest chances of being awarded the first overall pick. While coaches and players may not want to finish last in the standings ever, there’s an argument to be made that general managers and ownership may be on board with tanking for a better chance at an elite, top-prospect. To erase this chance of tanking in the standings, the NHL should switch to an equal odds draft, meaning that every team not in the playoffs gets an equal chance at the top pick.
This would take out the interest of teams wanting to do poorly in a season, as they would have no advantage. This would result in teams always trying their best for playoffs. With no incentive to lose, teams should always be trying to win. It also keeps the draft extremely interesting. Auston Matthews was drafted in in 2016 by the Toronto Maple Leafs after finishing last in the league in 2015-16. The Boston Bruins finished 16th in the league, imagine if they were given the first overall? Or the then 21st place Colorado Avalanche?
2. Introduce a Three-Point Win System
The current NHL point system gives teams two points for a regulation win or an overtime/shootout win. It also awards a team that loses in overtime or a shootout one point. If the overtime games are worth three points, why not make every game worth three points? For a regulation win, a team earns three points and then keep the overtime point system the same. If a losing team should be rewarded just for reaching overtime, why not also reward teams for winning without overtime?
Near the end of the regular season, if a game is tied with time running out in the game, there are times where both teams seem to take their foot off the gas and coast to the overtime-awarded point. This extra point can be huge for playoffs. More often then not, there’s a team just one point out of a playoff spot. Or, one point back of home ice advantage. If a team earned an extra point for a regulation win, there would be more urgency in these games to get a game-winning goal ahead of the overtime period.
1. Grow the Game Abroad (and at Home)
The NHL needs to grow its audience. In 2017 and 2018, they sent NHL teams to China to play pre-season games. The growth of hockey in the largest populated country in the world can only be a good thing for the NHL. It will create more hockey fans, resulting in higher viewership and revenue streams, and create a whole new wave of NHL prospects in the future.
Also in 2017 and 2018, the NHL started the NHL Global Series, after not leaving North America since the 2011 NHL Premiere. The Global Series was played in Sweden the first year, then in the second, they played in Sweden, Switzerland, Finland and Germany. These types of events need to keep occurring to grow the NHL and the game of hockey.
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 help 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.
Starting out as an Ottawa Senators contributor for The Hockey Writers, Josh is now an editor and at-large contributor, focusing on prospects, the NHL Draft, hockey history, and breaking news stories.