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NHL To Eye Move To 84-Game Regular-Season Schedule


Дек 22, 2022

When the NHL’s Board of Governors adjourned from two days of meetings and discussion in Palm Beach, Florida last week, the news tidbits that emerged were low grade.

There were no headline-grabbers on par with something like a new expansion franchise. In fact, the meeting’s most newsworthy angle was the milestone reached by Gary Bettman, who was marking 30 years since he was hired as the NHL’s first-ever commissioner on Dec. 11, 1992.

But in the days following the meetings, reports have emerged that suggest that a foundation is potentially being laid for some economic and operational changes going forward.

On Dec. 15, Sportico reported at the league is considering re-balancing its schedule to go back to a more rivalry-based format.

In the 56-game 2020-21 season, with division boundaries redrawn to avoid any corss-border matchups between Canadian and U.S. teams, division rivals played each other up to 10 times each, including some multi-game series. It was efficient, travel-wise, and it was exciting when genuine rivals like Edmonton and Calgary were playing each other. But fans were also subjected to repeat viewings of many uninteresting matchups — and no head-to-head clashes at all between some of the league’s biggest stars.

For one season, under the limitations of COVID — okay. But when paying customers are back at the rink, they want an opportunity to see every team in the league at least once every year, no matter what the division. The schedule must allow Connor McDavid to make a trip through the New York region every year, just as Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and the superstars in the Eastern Conference need to come out west.

One day after the Sportico report, Greg Wyshynski of ESPN shared the possibility of a new schedule grid that would check both boxes: 84 games. That would allow each team to still play every squad in the opposite conference both at home and on the road (32 games), and leave 52 games to be spread among seven divisional rivals and eight within the conference.

Perhaps four games a year within the division (28) and three per season for the conference rivals (24)? It all adds up — and it’s time to make these tweaks after the additions of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights in 2017 and Seattle Kraken in 2021.

According to Wyshynski, the 84-game idea was not discussed at the board of governors meeting. But it is expected to be on the agenda for the upcoming general managers’ meeting next March. He also reports that the idea of more rivalry games originated at last November’s general managers’ meeting, held in Toronto.

A schedule expansion would require the approval of the NHL Players’ Association — which is in a quandary of its own right now. The NHLPA Executive Board announced back in April that it was starting the search process to replace its Executive Director Donald Fehr, who has been at the helm since 2010. A successor is not yet in place.

Wyshynski suggests that two games could easily be added to the regular-season schedule by shortening the preseason. If that’s the case, most NHL regulars likely wouldn’t end up playing any more than one additional game.

Shifting one home game for each club from exhibition to regular-season status would help attract more fans, bumping up revenues. It would also mute the grumbles from some season-ticket holders, who pay full freight for the throwaway preseason games in their ticket packages.

It’s not a stretch to think that if a dialogue opens between the league and the players’ association about tweaking the schedule, a conversation about next season’s salary cap could also ensue.

Before the beginning of the regular season, Bettman offered hope that the players’ debt to the owners in the wake of the multi-year revenue shortfalls due to the pandemic was close to being paid off — more likely by the end of the 2023-24 season, but potentially as soon as this year.

In Florida last week, he said the situation remained unchanged, but offered more specifics. According to Bettman, the league is tracking for revenues of approximately $5.7 billion in 2022-23, up from the record-setting $5.4 billion last season. If that projection holds, players would still fall short of paying off their escrow debt, which would lead to a small salary-cap increase of $1 million for the 2023-24 season, to $83.5 million.

Per Dan Rosen of NHL.com, Bettman said this year’s revenue projection would have to rise by about $140-$150 million to get the players over the hump and trigger a cap increase into the range of $86 million — some breathing room that’s desperately needed in a marketplace where player movement has become all-but-impossible with so many teams tight against the current cap ceiling.

But as Elliotte Friedman pointed out in his ‘32 Thoughts’ blog at Sportsnet.ca this week, the current memorandum of understanding between the NHL and the Players’ Association does allow room for negotiation on matters such as these. “The parties can agree to increase the Upper Limit in excess of $1 Million in order to allow for a smoother transition into the ‘Lag’ formula,” Friedman quoted from the MOU, then added, “In plain English, there is room to manoeuvre.”

As the NHL completes its navigation out of COVID economics, the waters are uncharted. It makes sense for the league to be setting the stage now for negotiations over the next six months that could ultimately deliver greater spending opportunities for the clubs when the 2023-24 salary cap is announced next June.

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