It’s nearing the end of the NHL offseason, with fans starting to think about what the return to the ice will look like, which makes it the best time to discuss changes to the league’s rules. My colleagues over at The Athletic Hockey Show got that conversation going last week. The difference between this piece and what they focused on — and ideas presented in most other articles you’ll read — is that I want the focus here to be specific: proposals that will improve the game but in ways that make the league more profitable.
The best thing about money-making rule changes is that they appeal to the folks with the power to put them in place, the NHL’s 32 ownership groups. The problem is that what’s good for the wallet isn’t always good for the game. We’re going to overcome that challenge with a set of four rule changes that are both good for the game of hockey and good for the bottom line, the kinds of things that fans and owners alike should be able to agree upon.
There is one underlying assumption we should get out of the way first: I assume here that scoring is entertaining.
If you’re a current NHL coach or anybody else who firmly believes that the best kind of hockey is one in which your team scores on its lone scoring chance and then suffocates the opposition for 59 minutes, we’re not going to agree here. A 1-0 or 2-1 hockey game can certainly be exciting, and a 5-4 hockey game can be unsatisfying, but on the whole, goals equal excitement. Like any hockey fan, I admire a good shutdown player, but scoring is more fun — and infinitely more marketable — than its absence.
With that out of the way, we can get into the meat of the issue: four sets of rule changes that would make the game better and improve the bottom line, ranked from the easiest to implement to most difficult.
1. Minor changes: wording tweaks, penalty crackdowns, etc.
The easiest thing the NHL can do to improve the attractiveness of major-league hockey is to selectively focus on a specific problem and tweak either the written rules or the enforcement of those rules to address it. We know it’s the easiest thing to do because the league does it every year.
These moves are important in terms of maintaining the game. They also don’t change much, both because they’re small in themselves and because the league isn’t making incremental progress to some larger goal. It’s playing whack-a-mole, knocking down issues as they come up. This is particularly true on the officiating side: The NHL will do something about a problem, then ignore it for a while, then do something about it again once the standard has slipped.
The league also tends to self-correct to minimize the impact of rule changes.
Take a hypothetical example: imagine the NHL mandated tomorrow that minor penalties were to last for a full two minutes, even if a power-play goal was scored. This would be a more significant rule change than most tweaks of the salary cap era. Theoretically, that would instantly extend roughly 1,500 power plays, thereby driving up scoring.
Then counteracting forces would kick in. The most obvious is game management. Officials who are already hesitant to call penalties at important moments would grow more nervous. Surely we’d also see a rise in offsetting minors. In some ways, it’s hard to blame the referees: just imagine the roasting an official would get the first time some marginal third-period call resulted in a team scoring three goals.
Ultimately, the league struggles to make consistent progress by these methods. To paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, as an institution it means well, but it only means well feebly.
2. Long changes twice per game
If we want to make real improvements to hockey, we need to aim higher. The next step up from minor tweaking is a mid-level rule change, like this one the league has already experimented with. Scoring goes up by some 15 percent in the second period, when teams have the “long change” because their bench is further away from the defensive zone.
An easy way to create more scoring — and thus more excitement — would be to force teams to deal with the long change twice per game (in the first and third periods) rather than once (in the second period) as they do now.