Evening out holes in the schedule

If the Florida Panthers' fans, at least the few who remain, wanted to watch their team play the Detroit Red Wings this season, they had to clear time to watch the Panthers-Wings game on television Monday -- live from Joe Louis Arena.

The Red Wings don't go to Sunrise, Fla., this season, which seems unfair given the fact that some of them (both healthy and otherwise) are old enough to use the trip to scout out senior-citizen communities.

If the Calgary Flames' fans see their team play the Flyers this season, they had better be in the living room or the sports bar Tuesday night to watch the Flames-Flyers game -- live from whatever they're calling the Philadelphia arena this week. (OK, at last check, it is the Wachovia Center.)

The Flyers don't go to Calgary this season, which means they can't make the full circuit of Hy's Steakhouses around the league and will need to get double orders of the famous garlic bread in other cities to make up for it.

OK, those voids happen. But under this system that at least leaves us thinking that the goal is to get every team to every city, it still is jarring when teams don't go to certain cities for a second consecutive season, as happens with the Devils and Edmonton in 2003-04. And looking ahead, on March 20, when Colorado plays at Toronto, the Avalanche fans watching on television will be wondering why Tie Domi never shows his mug in Denver.

The Maple Leafs never have appeared in the Pepsi Center, which opened for the 1999-2000 season. In fact, their last game in Denver was on Dec. 15, 1997, when -- if memory serves -- Frank Mahovlich and Red Kelly scored for Toronto in a 3-2 loss.

The examples of such quirky omissions are legion, and the addition of four intradivisional games for each team this season complicates matters. The continued emphasis on intra-Canadian matchups adds to the anomalies. This isn't a criticism of the idea that there are holes like that in the schedule, but of the inconsistency and capriciousness in the process.

So what should the NHL do?

The obvious possibility is to guarantee that every team makes an appearance in every NHL city every season. That means 30 interconference games -- a home-and-home matchup with 15 teams -- for all. Detroit plays at Philadelphia once, and vice versa. Brett Hull for sure could take Olympic teammate Jeremy Roenick to lunch after the game-day skate in Detroit, Roenick could return the favor in Philadelphia, and they could compare notes about playing for Ken Hitchcock.

But it can get tricky beyond that, especially if one buys the premise, as we do, that the number of intradivisional games for each team should be 24, balancing out home and away. That leaves 28 games remaining against 10 teams. Even if you add two, making the schedule 84 games (as it briefly was), that's three against each team -- an unbalanced two in one city and one in the other, rotated from season to season.

That's workable, and so is starting with 20 games against teams from the other divisions in the conference (two against each), and filling in everyone's schedule with eight "wild-card" games, scheduled at the discretion of the league with such things as those Canadian matchups in mind. That inevitably would be unfair, though.

So it makes more sense to acknowledge that the 30-team league makes it too complicated to get every team to every city. (The NBA is going to the same structure next season, following the addition of the Charlotte Bobcats.) The NHL could make the schedule a more ordered rotation. Or, if the league feels especially bold in the wake of the next collective bargaining agreement, do something drastic that represents a complete departure from tradition.

None of these suggestions are going to lead to every team appearing in every city, so in that sense, it doesn't "solve" the problem. Rather, it simply acknowledges that a 30-team, six-division league has to stop even paying lip service to the goal of minimizing the number of no-show teams in each city every season. Once you get past that, it's easier to tweak it.

The most bold step would be to steal from soccer, and we don't mean bringing in Andres Cantor to holler ""Gooooaaaaaaallllllllllll!'', or signing David Beckham to spice up the power play.

We mean demotions.

The concept isn't completely foreign to hockey, but it's best known for its use in soccer.

Have First, Second and Third divisions in each conference, with the original slotting next season (whenever that is, following the work stoppage) decided by the 2003-04 finishes. And have each team play over half its games against teams on the same level, so to speak.

Play eight games against the other four teams in your division. (Total: 32.) Play four games against teams in the other two divisions of your conference. (Total: 40.) And play two games against each of the five teams in the corresponding (First vs. First, Second vs. Second, Third vs. Third) in the other conference. (Total: 10.) That adds up to 82 games, and it guarantees that teams play every team on their schedule at least in a home-and-home. Forty-two games are against teams at the same "level."

There would be voids, because teams each season would miss 10 NHL opponents completely. But at least this builds some competitive rationalization for that.

Teams drop down or move up, depending on their finishes. The volatility that way would increase the challenge for schedulemakers, but as long as they know the slotting by mid-April next year, they can start firming up available dates with specific games.

That system would be a way, in effect, to have low-payroll teams competing against one another, and perhaps have inferior teams end up with better records than more elite teams because of the scheduling system. The good teams play more games against one another, and so do the bad teams. Parity within divisions would increase the entertainment value on many nights. And if the Blackhawks management doesn't like being in the Third Division with Columbus, it could try and do something about it. (As unlikely as that is to happen.)

The rewards for the better teams is that they have more attractive home schedules, plus four teams make the playoffs from the First Divisions, and two apiece from the Second and Third.

Don't like that? OK, this is more traditional and similar to what the NFL does.

Rotate interconference matchups each season. The Pacific Division, for example, would play only the Atlantic Division the first season, the Southeast Division the second, and then the Northeast Division the third. The same formula used in the First, Second and Third Divisions would work -- 32 games within the division, 40 more against the other 10 teams in the conference, and 10 games against the five teams in one of the divisions in the opposite conference.

If you change that to have each team play games against opponents in two of the three divisions in the other conference every season, rotating the matchups and omissions, that starts to look more like what we have now. Which is a mess.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," available nationwide, and 2004's "Third Down and a War to Go."