Imagine a National Hockey League that started each postseason run with a play-in series for teams on the bubble.
Two squads from each conference would duke it out for the right to advance to the NHL’s second season and take their best shot at bringing home a Stanley Cup. It might be a one-game, winner-take-all showdown, or a three-game mini series.
The wild card round would draw more teams into the playoff race and thus keep more markets plugged in to the league for a longer period of time. Sure, the advancing team would be an overwhelming underdog to get within shouting distance of the trophy, but hey, hope sells.
This scenario did exist on paper. The NHL’s last collective bargaining agreement included a two-season window during which the league could have tried it out and then consulted with players on whether or not to continue.
Of course, that never happened, and baseball beat hockey to the play-in punch. But whenever the NHL does return, fans can expect efforts to lure them back will include those kinds of changes.
For all the insults hurled at both team owners and players over the current lockout, neither group is stupid. They know many fans are furious at or, worse, apathetic toward the league at the moment, and that simply saying “we’re back!” won’t be enough.
Senators president Cyril Leeder told me as much in an interview earlier this week.
“I haven’t had any discussions on that at this point, although I think logic would say hopefully there would be something for the fans to look forward to other than the fact we’ve reached an agreement, that there’s something exciting there,” he said.
The end of the 2004-2005 lockout brought with it a series of rule changes meant to boost scoring and shake fans out of their hockey-free slumber.
Some were small, like changes to the size of goalie equipment, net placement and offside rules. Others fundamentally changed the game (fans here will remember Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson donated their sticks to the Hockey Hall of Fame after they each scored to help the Ottawa Senators win the first NHL shootout). All those changes combined to create a lot of buzz around the league.
So what will the NHL look like coming out of this impasse?
Realignment is an easy one.
A year ago this month, the NHL board of governors approved a plan that would have seen teams in the league’s six divisions split into four conferences of seven or eight teams instead, with the top four teams in each conference qualifying for the playoffs.
In addition to drawing renewed fan interest, it would have also corrected some of the more egregious alignment problems (such as the Detroit Red Wings playing in Western Conference and the Winnipeg Jets playing in the Eastern Conference).
The players’ association didn’t approve the move, however, arguing it wasn’t fair to teams playing in bigger conferences. The plan was scrapped a month later.
“Certainly the realignment issue is one we’ll have to get addressed, whether it gets addressed as part of a new collective agreement or after a new collective agreement is in place,” Leeder said, though that, and any other changes, would probably have to wait until the next campaign.
“If we were to get one done now, obviously we would be in a shortened season and that may not be practical, but you know, hopefully realignment is part of that discussion at some point in this next agreement.”
The NHL’s challenge this time around will be to find something that can provide a significant enough jolt to get its heart started, without further alienating the die hard fans who are already feeling betrayed.
We asked hockey fans on Twitter what one change they would make to the NHL coming out of the lockout. Here are some of the responses:
- Teams should wear white at home again
- Gary Bettman
- Eliminate no-trade clauses
- Contract weak teams to improve play
- Get rid of the trapezoid behind the nets
- Require binding arbitration before expiry of CBA agreements
- Add no-touch icing
- Get rid of the shootout
- Get rid of points for losing in overtime or a shootout
- Allow each team one review of a disputed penalty call
- Make the ice surface bigger
- Play fewer games
- Scrap the delay of game penalty for shooting the puck over the glass
- Move the league office to Toronto
- Bring back the old division and conference names (e.g. Norris Division, Wales Conference)
-Three-on-three overtime (this was considered last time)
- Get rid of the instigator rule