As the misery of the stalemated NHL owner-player negotiations continues, at least we don't have to debate whether a shortened season would be viewed as legitimate.
History decided that for us. There is no asterisk associated with the 48-game 1994-95 NHL season. We say New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur has won three Stanley Cup championships. We don't say Brodeur won three, but one of them was in an abbreviated season.
If 48 games is the most games we can play this season, we will be all aboard. But that doesn't mean the NHL shouldn't be open to the possibility of spicing up the competition.
If owners and players finalize a new CBA any time soon, it shouldn't be enough to give fans business as usual. Since normal went out the window a couple of months ago, why not simply embrace the uniqueness of the situation and strive to give fans the potential for the most entertaining post-season they have ever witnessed?
Fewer regular-season games, longer playoffs. That's the slogan that works for me. If I were commissioner, I would have two plans for an abbreviated season, and both would involve expanding the playoff pool by a round and adding more qualifiers.
If we play a 48-game season, my suggestion would be to increase the playoff pool from 16 to 24 teams. It would be a conference-only format, and the top four teams in each conference would draw a first-round bye, and then teams ranked fifth to 12th would play in a best-of-three play-in round. No. 5 would play No. 12. No. 6 would play No. 11, and so on.
The lower seed starts with a home game, and then the higher seed gets the final two games at home. You would have to do that to ensure that each team gets a home game while minimizing travel.
Once the play-in round is over, the teams are re-seeded No. 1 through No. 8 and the regular playoff format resumes.
Can you imagine the intensity of those best-of-three play-in rounds? Historically, the most buzz about the NHL playoffs comes in the first round because there are fans from 16 teams still believing they can win the Stanley Cup. Wouldn't the buzz be greater if 24 teams were still alive in this one-time unique post-season format?
Altering the playoff format in this manner makes the regular season even more important. The competition to capture a first-round bye will be heated. With a compressed season likely, coaches will desperately covet that bye to give their teams time to rest while other teams are slugging it out to survive in the play-in round. The battle to land in No. 5 to No. 8 should be just as angst-ridden because home-ice advantage seems crucial in a best-of-three.
No one in the hockey world wants negotiations to be where they are at today, but now that we are here why not celebrate a chance to give the sport a different look for one season? Next season, we can go back to what we did last season.
Under this format, we could have the most eventful playoffs in NHL history. What we love about the playoffs is that players have to essentially run a gauntlet to win a Stanley Cup. This season we should make that gauntlet more challenging. This season, let's make it possible that a team might need to win five playoff rounds to win the Stanley Cup.
Presuming we are going to get this lockout ended at some point soon, let's make this all about what can be done to make it as entertaining as possible for fans.
Commissioner Gary Bettman has said he can't imagine playing fewer than 48 games. But I can. If it were up to me, I wouldn't view 48 games as the minimum required to have a legitimate season. I would be open-minded.
Personally, I would rather not see a compressed 48-game schedule with players exhausted from playing too many games in a week. I would rather see a 30-game schedule, with proper rest days built in and with the playoff format I just described.
Here's the other hook in my 30-game plan: Each team would play every other team in the league one time and then on the last night of the season, you would play a rivalry game. The Los Angeles Kings would play the Anaheim Ducks. The New York Islanders would meet the New York Rangers. The Florida teams would play each other. The Pittsburgh Penguins would battle the Philadelphia Flyers. You get the picture.
My plan would call for no conferences for this season only. The standings would list each team ranked No. 1 through No. 30 every day. The top 24 teams would make the playoffs, and the top eight seeds get byes to avoid the play-in round. The play-in rounds would be No. 9 vs. No. 24, and No. 10 vs. No. 23 and so on. We re-seed after the play-in rounds to set up our top 16 and proceed.
Instead of scoffing at this 30-game schedule as being illegitimate, I think fans would be talking about it for years. Every day, your team could rise or fall five or six places in the standings. It would be like the NFL, where every game seems huge. It's possible, under this format, that we could enter the final two weeks of the regular with no teams knowing where it stood. This kind of schedule could turn a disastrous season into one of the most memorable in NHL history.
Obviously there are flaws with my plans, not the least of which is that the two sides aren't close to a settlement yet.
Plus, if this settled before the season is canceled, owners and players will want to play as many regular-season games as possible to maximize revenues. I also understand that reducing the number of regular-season games changes the Stanley Cup chase from a marathon to a sprint. I get it, but we are past that point.
It's going to be a different season no matter what the league does. So why not be bold and make the game more interesting for fans? It's not good enough to etch "Thank you fans" into center ice and pretend it is business as usual.
Fans deserve some creativity in the presentation of this year's games. After all, most of the hockey-related revenue that owners and players are arguing over comes out of their wallets.
-- USA Today