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NHL has no one to blame but themselves for scheduling issues

Fixing the NHL’s scheduling starts with them

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2023 Upper Deck NHL Draft - Rounds 2-7 Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images

The NHL is looking into changing their formatting around to bring some necessary relief, but going about it in the wrong manner.

Chris Johnston from The Athletic explained the aspects of a de-centralized draft a little further. It doesn’t change the format or rules of the draft, just the size of the party.

The league circulated a memo Wednesday asking for feedback on a possible “decentralized” draft, similar to how the NFL and NBA conduct theirs, with team personnel remaining in their home markets while the prospects gather in one centralized draft location.

Under the proposed new model, the NHL would use a 5,000- to 10,000-seat venue and have one or two representatives from each club on hand. Prospects would be greeted by commissioner Gary Bettman and a team rep on the draft stage for a brief photo opportunity after being selected and could later be flown with their family to the club’s home city after finishing broadcast and media responsibilities.

The timing draft placement can be unfortunate, in 2023 the draft was held on June 28th and 29th. Free agency began on July 1st. The lack of spacing between those events is too short, but the solution to stay at home and press forward with the same schedule is the actual issue.

The draft keeps getting bumped back in the calendar due to the timing of the season. Vegas skated off the ice on June 13th with the Stanley Cup, but had the series gone all seven games there would have been hockey until June 19th.

The scheduling is even worse this year, the last possible date the Cup could be awarded is June 24th (!!!). The Stanley Cup playoffs don’t even begin until April 22nd.

The backwards creep on the calendar is the natural result of late starts to the season. As recently as a decade ago, the NHL’s regular season started on October 1st. This allowed the playoffs to begin on April 16th that year and end in mid-June.

Since the pandemic stoppages ended and the NHL began normal seasons again in October 2021, they’ve started the regular season on: the 12th of October, the 7th and this year on the 10th. They start slowly too — as of now on October 19, five teams have only played two games and more than half the league has played three or less times. This gradual shift towards barely getting off the ground while getting deeper into October means the playoffs don’t start until later, and playoffs won’t end until far into June, leaving little time for the draft and the important start of free agency that traditionally begins on July 1.

Schedule expansion playing into the official summer season has long been happening, and always been unpopular. Many were shocked and appalled way back in 1992 when Mario Lemieux and the Penguins played a game in June for the Stanley Cup for the first time, that season ended on June 1st (and was a sweep that would have been even later if not for the speedy resolution). Now that the league has swollen to 32 teams, playing into June has become normalized and is unavoidable to an extent. And yet, the NHL playing year continues to creep towards July these 30+ years later.

Television pressures and general sport awareness likely means the league doesn’t mind ceding September and even early October to football, and bumping hockey back to put more of the season in the spotlight once the Super Bowl comes and goes in February. Football is indisputably king, but at some point the NHL has to take matters into their own hands to fix their own problem. Heat and humidity makes playing deep into June a mess in many cities and venues. Scrunching the draft and free agency into a few days is bad for teams and fans, which means it’s bad for the league.

Sliding the schedule back would be popular for many. Short of spamming the league office with the ‘we’re all trying to find the guy who did this’ meme, to help them figure out why the current strategy is broken when it comes to the draft, the NHL should take action to fix it. Letting teams stay at home and weakening the draft experience isn’t the right course of action. Making the end of June less cluttered is the play.

Though idyllic to the point of being too good to actually happen, LeBrun’s ideas and many in that vein would be a step in the right direction. Bumping back even a few days and sliding the end of the year towards June 5-7 is just as well and allows for plenty of time to get the draft in around June 20th, and then give teams time to prepare for free agency.

That makes more sense than making the NHL event, as the NHL memo cited above said, “obviously, a decentralized draft will be less of an ‘event’ than the current draft”.

Even considering a move to head backwards by the NHL seems like only an option they would think about. The better move back would be to bump back the start and end of the playing season.