As the holiday season gifts us with a COVID variant (Omicron is my least favorite Transformer), and the NHL gets ever closer to a shutdown, it’s tough to prognosticate the state of professional hockey moving forward. This is a Winnipeg Jets forum, but without any games to speak of, this platform turns its attention to the league in general.
The old adage, “a rolling stone gathers no moss” should apply to every professional sports league, but especially to the NHL. Stagnation leads to apathy, and it has become clear the NHL is content with the status quo. I’m here to help. In the spirit of a New Year, and making resolutions that become empty promises by mid-January (thanks gym membership), the NHL should resolve to make some changes to reinvigorate die-hard fans, and attract new ones:
1. Tweak 3-on-3 overtime – congratulations NHL coaches, you’ve made something fun to watch, nearly unwatchable. You’re the DC universe of professional sports. At its best, the 3-on-3 overtime encapsulates all the pinnacles of offensive hockey: Kinetic energy, nonstop action, star players making transcendent plays, and unpredictable outcomes. However, through 431 games this season, 94 games have gone past regulation and 60.6% of those games have ended in the 3-on-3 overtime (57 games). This is a statistically drastic dip from years past (66%). Why? Teams have adopted a much more conservative approach to 3-on-3; opting for a far less entertaining ‘puck control’ and cycling approach. The result is more shootouts…. an outcome I think we can all agree is not ideal.
The good news? We don’t need to abandon this concept altogether. Let’s institute some mechanisms to prevent the meandering 200 ft. cycle-a-thon this has become. I call this fake new rule the “Nik Ehlers”: once a team has entered the offensive zone, they cannot carry (or pass) the puck back out voluntarily. This would force teams to scheme for 3-on-3 zone time in the offensive and defensive ends. You’re welcome NHL.
2. Radical idea – let’s get rid of offsides. Hear me out. Every other major league has made changes or concessions for the sake of offense because that’s what fans pay money for: goals, touchdowns, buckets, home runs – that’s where the excitement is. Not the NHL though, which has grown complacent with scoring totals dropping back to Dead Puck Era levels.
Offside is a tool to mitigate offense and it’s been exploited in the form of the neutral zone trap for years. On top of defending the net, there’s the war of attrition in the neutral zone where teams are also defending their zone leading to a sludge-fest, where everyone is congested in the rink’s middle third.
There’s just not enough space to maneuver and it makes entering the fun zone trickier than a Run DMC jam. At 5-on-5 there isn’t enough room to maneuver, especially when teams can set up a 1-3-1 to suffocate teams into turnovers or throwing the puck away for a dump-and-chase, a puck battle that the defensive team usually wins.
I understand the puritanical aspect of hockey, and that a change this fundamental would unnerve the Don Cherry and Barry Melrose types, but why not try it? For those statistical zealots that fear that this would create an unfair scoring advantage compared to players of yore…have you actually watched a game from the 80’s? It is a miracle that goalies made ANY saves, given the miniscule equipment, and no “butterfly” style at the time. Hell, players used to hack darts in-between periods. Stop living in the past. It’s a new year.
3. Change up the Divisions – Does anyone else wax nostalgic for the Campbell and Norris Divisions? I was not a proponent of the COVID forced reassignment at first, but Tuesday night games against the Arizona Coyotes have caused me to long wistfully for the North Division. Admittedly, this one is a bit selfish, but I enjoyed a “Canadian only” division. It creates rivalries and minimizes travel (albeit not in Canada). Watching Pierre-Luc Dubois ragdoll Austin Matthews multiple times a year is worth the change alone.
4. Get rid of Gary Bettman. Tenured professors don’t enjoy job security as robust as this guy. He is a blight on the league and has fostered a festering hockey culture for decades. The least popular Commissioner in professional sports has had his run, but it’s time for a change. I too have grown fond of fans lustily booing him at every opportunity, but an organization is only as successful as its leadership.
Introducing variants is not just for virology, so let’s embrace some change. Most of these New Year’s resolutions are likely a pipedream, but as the great Wayne Gretzky used to say “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”. Happy New Year!