This has not been a great Stanley Cup finals through four games. And I don’t blame the players one bit. They’re dog-gone tired. They are beat up. And some are playing hurt. Perhaps both teams will find a second gear Saturday night in Game 5, but at this point it appears as though the grind of the long NHL regular season and postseason has had its impact on the Kings and Devils. Oh, and I know what you’re going to say, Los Angeles hasn’t played many playoff games this spring. But the grind of the playoffs isn’t just on the ice, but also mental. Team meetings and practices between rounds are part of that. I felt the same way about the Bruins and Canucks last June. They were beat up. The product on the ice, at a time in which the NHL should be showcasing its very best example of a great sport, is hurt by it.
And so with that, I present to you five solutions to help reduce some of the grind on the players:
1. Shorten camp/preseason and start the regular season in mid-September. This would allow the schedule to be spread out over a longer number of days, allowing for more breathing room and fewer sequences of three games in four nights. Players don’t need training camp like yesteryear. They arrive at camp in perfect physical condition. And we all know how useless preseason games are. Heck, how many jobs are really "won" in preseason with the number of one-way contracts and the salary cap system tying the hands of coaches and GMs? The kids are in school by September, let’s get the season going already.
2. Cancel All-Star Weekend. Well, you know how I’ve felt about the All-Star Game for a long time. But the three-to-four days that the NHL pauses for this meaningless and boring event could be better used to help spread out the regular-season games. Why waste those days on an event few people care about?
3. Shorten the second round of the playoffs to a best-of-five series. The first round of the playoffs is the most compelling of the postseason. The conference finals and Cup finals are the most important. I say squeeze the second round so we get from eight teams to four teams a little quicker. Just another little wrinkle to help ease the physical and mental burden on our eventual Cup finalists.
4. Go to a 2-3-2 series format in any playoff series in which teams travel more than one time zone. Or any flight longer than two-and-a-half hours. I’ll always remember running into the great Nicklas Lidstrom on the eve of Game 7 in San Jose last season, the Red Wings having just flown in that day from Detroit, the two teams crisscrossing the continent during a seven-game series. His face that day said it all. All that traveling is taxing on the players even on a charter plane. The 2-3-2 format would reduce some of that traveling. It’s ridiculous that the Kings and Devils might cross the country three times over the final three games of the series if New Jersey pushes it to seven.
5. Reduce the regular season by four games. This one would never fly, because owners and players would stand to lose money. But it would make such an impact, physically and mentally, on the players. A 78-game season wouldn’t affect the record book all that much in terms of players chasing 50-goal seasons or any other statistical pursuit. But those four games off would lessen the regular-season schedule by seven to 10 days and allow the players just a bit more breathing room.