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A question of balance

How to fix the NHL's unfair schedule

Posted: Thursday November 2, 2006 1:24PM; Updated: Thursday November 2, 2006 1:57PM
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The Ducks will get fat on 24 games with the weak Kings, Coyotes, Blues and Blackhawks without running into the Sabres this season.
The Ducks will get fat on 24 games with the weak Kings, Coyotes, Blues and Blackhawks without running into the Sabres this season.
Jeff Gross/Getty Images
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Dave Nonis might have started something.

When the general manager of the Canucks lashed out earlier this week against the NHL's unbalanced schedule, he gave official voice to what fans around the league have been saying since the beginning of last season:

The current system, which creates three-year gaps between the teams in one conference playing teams from a particular division in the other and leaves us with nonsensical standings, is broken. Not only do fans deserve to see all of the league's stars at least once each season, the teams deserve a better competitive shake. And for the benefit of all involved, it needs to be fixed, sooner rather than later.

A lot of ideas have been tossed around lately as to how to make that happen. Here are mine:

The first step is to expand the schedule to 86 games.

The season's too long already? I couldn't agree more. If we were talking wishes here, I'd suggest paring it back to 1967-68 level of 74 games per season so we could get the Stanley Cup awarded before baseball's All-Star Game. But this is business, and the chance of the owners closing their doors and giving up eight nights of revenue because it's the right thing to do is about as likely as me waking up tomorrow morning with wheels like Scott Niedermayer's. It ain't gonna happen.

The league is scratching around for every additional penny it can toss into the coffers, so adding four games will thrill the bean counters. But how do you tack the four onto the schedule without overtaxing the players and beating down the paying public? Simply by re-distributing the current workload in a practical fashion. Take four preseason games out of the meaningless category and put them on the official slate.

The preseason currently lasts eight or nine games, which is about four too many to simply whittle down the options for a couple of depth forwards and a seventh defenseman. As far as entertainment value goes, these prospect- and suspect-laden matches appeal only to the hardcore element. You think a Tuesday night tilt in February against Florida is a drain on your life force? Try a late-September bout against Olli Jokinen and Alex Auld backed by Rochester's version of the Not Ready For Prime Time Players and you'll learn a new definition of pain.

What's really galling is that fans in most cities are being asked to pay regular-season prices for those tickets. Give the paying public more games that matter for their money.

The second step requires the abolition of the six divisions and going with two conferences of 15 teams apiece.

I used to be a fan of divisional play -- a couple of decades ago, and not just because I was hooked on the historical richness of names like Norris and Adams. Back then, the four alignments meant something because a team had to advance against others in its division before it could get to the conference final and, ultimately, the Cup. Today, the six divisions only serve to offset regular-season travel expenses and give one team home ice in the first round of the playoffs.

So, not only are the six divisions a failed means of creating rivalries, they have the potential to negatively impact the seeding of the postseason for no good reason.

Complaints change from year to year, but for this season, consider the case of the mighty Pacific Division. It's conceivable that Anaheim, Dallas and San Jose could finish with the top three point totals in the Western Conference. But because the three top spots are reserved for the division winners, regardless of their comparative success, two of those three powerhouses could be slotted fourth and fifth for the playoffs, with one eliminating the other in the first round.

That's good for hockey, eh?

Worse, forcing divisional play creates a schedule imbalance that, from year to year, allows one or two teams (see Detroit and Nashville, 2005-06) to pad their point totals at the expense of a couple of weak sisters. Since each team ultimately battles the others in its conference, and not just its division, for a playoff berth, it's only fair to balance out the schedule so that each team meets the others an equal number of times.

So, what would these two manipulations allow us to do with the schedule? Teams would play 56 intra-conference games, facing off against each opponent four times, with two games apiece against teams in the opposite conference. Nice and neat.

Any questions?