The NHL’s schedule, and how it awards playoff places, is really no dumber than any other sport. Which is a rare thing for the NHL. But the problem across all four major sports is that their schedules and playoff systems don’t line up. Thankfully, in a couple years the NHL will have a chance to solve this. They won’t, but they can at least wave when the chance goes by, like they do with any other opportunity to improve their game.
You may remember that when the current alignment was first proposed, there weren’t wildcard teams. There were just four divisions, the top four in each go to the playoffs, and then after the first two rounds the four left were re-seeded, so that it could have ended up one day with a Chicago-San Jose Final or this year, it could have worked out to be Boston-Pittsburgh or even Nashville-San Jose. It was actually an interesting idea, one that would have marked the NHL out as unique, so of course it didn’t work out.
The players union bitched that the two divisions that had seven teams would have it easier in getting to the playoffs, and players know they can grow their paychecks with playoff performances, so this concoction was made up. I don’t know that it’s actually fairer, because now instead of seven teams competing for four spots in each division you get seven competing for three and then eight competing for two when they don’t get the first three and I’m not going to do the percentages and let’s just agree this is imbecilic.
What makes it really stupid is that these teams aren’t going against the same slate, or schedule, yet they have to compete for the same playoff spots. So right now in the West you have Colorado vying with St. Louis and Anaheim to an extent, and LA, for the wildcard spots. But Colorado and St. Louis have played wholly different schedules than LA and Anaheim, who reside in a far easier division. We really have no idea if these teams are better than the ones in the other division, because they’ve accumulated points in what amounts to a wholly different system.
In the East, the wildcards are going to come out of the Metro, so fine, but it doesn’t work that way every year. You can’t count on this.
And it’s a problem all across sports. In baseball you have your division winners, fair enough, but your next two spots are being competed for by teams playing different schedules. For example, the Mets are going to most likely trying to grab a wild card spot, but they’ll be playing 19 games each against the Nats, and at least competent Braves and Phillies (well, we thought they might be competent but they’re going to knife their manager by Memorial Day). Meanwhile, a team like the Diamondbacks has to deal with the Dodgers sure, but also gets 19 games against each of the thoroughly underwhelming Rockies, Padres, and Giants. They get a leg up, though competing for the same prize. The NBA has tried to address it but still hasn’t gotten it, and the NFL has the problem of teams not even playing the same teams as someone they might be competing with both for the division and wildcard spots.
However, in two or three years time, when Seattle arrives, the NHL can fix this. And it can do it by having a 76-game schedule.
Yes, I’m aware, stop yelling. Shortening the season is almost certainly a non-starter. But MLB has discussed it, and the argument was that the lessening of travel costs might make up for the lost home dates. We’re talking about three less home dates for each team, so let’s see if we that won’t work out here.
The fun thing is that the NHL can go about getting to 76 games two ways.
First: The original, four-division, no-conference look. The top half of each division goes to the playoffs. Yes, some divisions are weaker than others, but everyone’s playing the same schedule here and if a division is truly weaker its winner should get thwacked in the third round by the highest seed left who came out of the tougher divisions. To wit: Every team will play the other teams in their own division four times for a total of 28 games. It will play every other team home-and-home, for a total of 48 games. Boom, 76 games, everyone in the division has played the same schedule, we basically know who’s better than whom.
Second Way: Do away with the divisions. They’re kind of dumb anyway, meant to keep travel costs to a minimum, and we’re going to do that anyway. Two 16-team conferences. You’d play every team in your conference four times, for a total of 60 games. You’d play every team in the other conference just once, for a total of 16 games. Top eight in each conference go to the playoffs.
Yes, I see the problem here and the NHL already dealt with it once. Fans didn’t particularly like that every team didn’t come to visit every season. I’m not convinced this really is a huge problem, given how provincial hockey fans are anyway. And it’s a problem MLB or the NFL doesn’t seem to concern themselves with. In addition, if you’re in a place where Crosby, McDavid, Matthews only visit once every two seasons, it’s more of an event than it is now. Second, you might think getting to play a certain team at home while someone you’re competing with had to play them on the road is an advantage. I’m not sure this amounts to more of an advantage than say getting to play the Penguins when Matt Murray is hurt or the Canadiens when Price is on a cold streak and your competitor didn’t get those. I think it’s probably a negligible factor.
Now, does this equal out losing three home games? Hard to say. The first plan, for instance, would only see the Hawks have to go to Western Canada and California (plus Seattle) once, where as now they have to visit at last one of the regions twice (for instance this year they went to Calgary and Vancouver twice, but California only once. This will rotate next year, and they’ll still have to go to Edmonton twice) The East Coast teams still have to make one trip out west as they do now, but some would only have to swing down to Florida once (from the Metro) and the Atlantic teams would only have to do the Eastern seaboard thing once for the most part. The teams in the Pacific probably still get screwed a bit, but there might not be a way around that anyway. And instead of having to come to some Midwestern cities twice, they only have to do that once.
76 games also allows for less back-to-backs or three in four nights, which we know lessens the product and gets players hurt more often. It might allow for teams to concentrate more home games on the weekends, which is when they’d prefer anyway. It could also keep hockey from spreading into the second week of June, which we all know is pretty ridiculous. With it this way, the NHL could start in the last week of September (which is probably should anyway) and have a chance to be done in the middle of May. Sure, the playoffs might start during the NCAA Tournament, but you’re always competing with something. Right now it’s up against the start of baseball and the NBA Playoffs. Is that really any better?
But I won’t sit on a hot stove waiting for the NHL to consider this.