During this Christmas break, as we pause and reflect, I am going to take a few minutes to bring you my vision for the NHL. There are things I would like to change on and off the ice. So if I could convince the NHL, its owners and the NHLPA, here's what I envision:
1. Limit the outdoor game to the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 and no others. The event is being watered down by having a number of outdoor games every season. The New Year's Day game is a perfect date, it's a special game. But to preserve its value and quality long-term, the NHL and NHLPA must set aside their appetite for revenue and limit it to just one game. That would give the Winter Classic a longer shelf life. Less is more, as they say.
2. Shrink the end zones to where they were before the blue line was pushed out in 2005-06. This one comes courtesy of the great Scotty Bowman. The neutral zone was shrunk from 54 feet to 50 feet in 2005, the idea being that the bigger zones from the blue line in would allow for more offense. But now all you get is five players collapsing down low to block shots. Bowman's idea is that if we go back to old dimensions, maybe the wingers would have to cover defensemen like they used to and open up more ice underneath. Not to mention point men would be closer to the net when taking their shots. When in doubt, trust the NHL's all-time winningest coach.
3. Put the center red line back in as far as counting two-line passes. This one comes from a Hockey Hall of Famer who shall remain nameless, as per his request. But his contention is that with no red line, all defensemen have to do these days is bang the puck off the glass in the hope of hitting their forwards in the neutral zone. He feels that if you put the center red line back in, defensemen will be under more pressure to make a play, a real pass, so as to avoid the two-line pass, and that should lead to more mistakes and therefore more scoring opportunities off those. I agree.
4. Move to fully independent concussions spotters. I think the league is on the way there after this season anyway, but this idea that teams can use either their own club spotters or league spotters must stop. For the health of the players, who are their own worst enemies sometimes, independent league spotters should be the only ones in charge to make sure players who look woozy after a big hit leave the game for observation. Take this out of the hands of the teams and out of the hands of the players. While we're on this subject, as I wrote recently, let's also curb fighting further by making a fighting major accompanied by an automatic game misconduct. I think this one is self-explanatory in a world in which we are so concerned about head injuries.
5. Have a penalized player serve the full two-minute penalty regardless of whether the other team scores. You might remember it's because of the high-flying Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1950s that the rule was changed in 1956-57 to allow the penalized player to leave the box if the other team scored on the power play. We need more goals, right? Let's have players serve the full two minutes no matter what. San Jose Sharks captain Joe Pavelski was intrigued by this suggestion when I shared it with him earlier this month.
6. Schedule the draft and the opening of free agency on the same weekend. I've pushed for this for years. Think of the buzz the baseball winter meetings get with all the wheeling and dealing. This would be hockey's version. Listen, all the agents and team executives are in the same city for the draft every year in late June. My idea is that once the draft wraps up Saturday, the official opening of free agency is Sunday, while everyone is there. I would have teams stay put Sunday and Monday and then use Tuesday as the travel day. Normally the third day of free agency is a bit of a pause anyway as teams huddle back up, either because they're done signing players or because they've struck out and need a Plan C. Imagine the buzz of seeing general managers and agents and perhaps unrestricted free agents all in the same rink or hotel making deals. Come on, tell me that isn't a great idea. Plus the bonus would be no longer having free agency open on July 1, which is a national holiday in Canada. It's brutal that free agency opens that day. Get all the signings done by late June, and everyone wins.
7. Start the regular season earlier by two weeks, which means ending the playoffs earlier by two weeks. I think we can all agree the Stanley Cup needs to be awarded by May 31. There's just something wrong with hockey in June. It has never felt right. There's nothing wrong with starting the season in late September. Shorten preseason if you have to. But a season that ends by May 31 would be universally welcomed by players and fans alike.
8. Extend the holiday trade freeze. The holiday roster freeze runs Dec. 19-27. Here's my thinking: If you freeze trades between Dec. 10 and Jan. 10, I bet you might see more teams try to get things done before Dec. 10 for fear of losing their opportunity at a deal they've been nibbling at. Case in point, the NHL has a trade freeze during the Olympics every four years, and there are often trades made before the freeze, like the year the Carolina Hurricanes traded for Doug Weight before the Olympic break in Torino, Italy, and ended up winning the Cup that June. I just have this feeling that a month-long trade freeze from Dec. 10 to Jan. 10 would produce a bit of a mini-frenzy. Not to mention that players would likely appreciate the peace of mind heading into the holidays for longer than just eight days as it stands now.
9. Create a minor penalty for a team that doesn't pursue the puck carrier; in other words, penalize teams that sit back. This one comes courtesy of the O-Dog, former 40-goal scorer Jeff O'Neill, who works alongside me at TSN. I'm not sure exactly how you would come up with the criteria but likely there's a time element or zone presence on the ice involved -- like a variation of basketball's illegal defense. There's something in here, I think, and O'Neill's point is that you want to have teams play more aggressively, which also leads to more mistakes and more entertainment.
10. Cancel the All-Star Game. Enough said.