With the World Cup of Hockey, pre-season, the full NHL season including playoffs, players have the potential to be playing over 120 games from September to June this year. That is way too much hockey year in and year out. So how do we fix this? The playoff format is non-negotiable. Only 16 team’s battle for Lord Stanley’s mug in the spring, and seven game series’ are essential to the league. So that’s off the table. Pre-season games are needed for players to get back into the swing of things, and they can choose to rest these games without sacrificing playoff position. This season the World Cup of Hockey jump started the excitement of the season displaying international competition and superstar talent. I love international hockey, it’s the best demonstration of skill, and sport and it fuels international rivalries that have been present since the 70’s. International play introduces new audiences for the game and promotes the league around the globe. Same goes for Olympic hockey if we ever see NHL players there again.
That leaves the regular season, 82 gruelling games, with travel included is just unfair for players. The travel for those Western Conference teams is especially bad. Arizona, Dallas, Nashville and Vancouver are all teams that log huge miles in travel over the regular season. I’m sure I left out teams, but the point is made. Many Western Conference players that move to the East have publicly stated that they have noticed their bodies wear down less frequently and later in the season due to less travel and being home more often. Long days and less sleep impedes performance and healing already. I have heard ideas to just eliminate exhibition games altogether, which I don’t agree with. But few ideas have been tossed out to shorten the NHL season to resemble a 60+ game season, from an 80+ game season.
The Stanley cup hangover is a real phenomenon in the NHL. Teams that have continued years of playoff success often drop off the hardest due to fatigue and injuries. EXCEPT THE PENGUINS, who have gone to back to back cup finals twice in the Salary Cap Era. They are the exception. Teams like the Blackhawks, Sharks, and Rangers have all been criticized as coming off as flat during multiple seasons of playoff hockey.
All three have experienced season ending injuries.
The past few seasons has seen numerous star players go down to minor or major injuries. Crosby, McDavid, Stamkos, Karlsson, Price, Quick, and Seguin, are all superstars that have experienced major season ending and potentially career altering injuries. Hockey is a rough sport, and like all sports, accidents occur. But the season is too long and hard on players. The game is changing to appreciate speed, and skill as opposed to size and violence, which in my opinion is a great move for approachability and turning the NHL into less of a circus act.
Unfortunately unlike the NBA, players are not afforded the ability to sit games out simply as maintenance or ‘rest days’. With the wild card system, and over time losses incorporated (I will write an editorial about how the league needs to change the scoring system soon) playoff races are tighter than ever. Imagine the playoff implication if Malkin, Crosby and Kessel just decided they needed the rest during the last 10 games of the season. There is too much parity, and playoff match ups are too important. The health of players is at risk, as they play through injuries. The list of Ottawa Senators that played through injuries to the conference finals is just gruesome, yet astounding.
Head injuries continue to be a hot button topic league wide. With the introduction of spotters, and concussion awareness the players would benefit from less trauma inflicted season long. With longer breaks and more rest all around, injuries would occur less frequently and with less severity. Ideally it would also prevent players from returning to action before they are ready. The injuries this could preemptively address needs to be considered. Frankly i’m shocked the players haven’t asked for this for years.
Shortening the NHL season will do a lot for exposure for the league. The longer the season, the greater the disparity in points. With a shortened season, teams that are not necessarily perennial contenders might have a shot at a playoff spot. With a longer season, deeper teams find ways to win games and worse market teams find ways to get worse. I’m torn on this topic, as I’d hate to see teams that don’t deserve to be in the playoffs make it, but at the same time having fewer injuries and having superstars play longer careers to welcome in the new guard of NHL stars would be great. I also am not a huge fan of overtime losing points, as it makes late season playoff races even tighter. Currently the bye weeks are just bad. At one point in the season, the Bruins had played so many more games than the Leafs or Sens. Having 5 or 6 games in hand just doesn’t make sense for playoff races as you are looking at hypotheticals. The bye week doesn’t help anyone when players are playing 3 games in 4 nights, then take a week off just to do it again. It is just squeezing the same length of season with one week sporadically thrown in there.
What can we do? My suggestion is a shorter season, with longer breaks in between games. Full bye weeks are not necessary, but multiple days in between games will ensure players get the rest and recuperation to play longer careers and deep into the playoffs years in a row. A 64 game season hypothetically would still allow for divisional battles, and less travel across conferences, and in theory across the continent. Future contracts would be proportionately less as the salary cap would have to factor in less games per season. But I’m sure players would agree to take less money collectively in the interest of their long term health and continuity in the league. Having a healthy base of stars along with the preservation of long time superstars is not only good for the players, but also for the fans. The league needs to look into this, as soon as possible. The next CBA should address this, from a league, and health perspective.