A rash of late-season injuries, coupled with the playoffs going into June, should inspire the league to consider cutting the regular season by a month.
Photo by Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
The list of NHL players who went down with injuries in the month of March reads more like an All-Star lineup: P.K. Subban, Nathan MacKinnon, Evgeni Malkin, and Leo Komarov were just some of the players who saw their season cut short in one of the ugliest months of the season. Add in Marc-Andre Fleury, whose availability throughout the playoffs is uncertain, and you have some of the league's biggest names sitting on the sidelines.
March is an interesting point in the NHL campaign. Save for a straggler here or there, the playoff picture is all but set and teams begin to look forward to the playoffs, the unofficial "second season" that decides who gets to hoist the Stanley Cup.
Take this season: after March 1, 14 of the 16 teams currently in the NHL postseason were also in a playoff position then. The Minnesota Wild and Philadelphia Flyers—the two teams that were on the outside looking in but secured wild-card spots—were just two and five points out, respectively. You could make the case that besides the Flyers, the playoff picture hasn't changed all that much in a month. And that has historically been the case.
But still, hockey fans sit through March and anxiously wring their hands in anticipation of the playoffs, when the real fun begins. It's not nearly as fun for the players, mind you. Some could play an extra 28 games through four grueling rounds of the postseason.
And the hockey world has witnessed the effects: after the 2011 Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins fought through three seven-game series they went 3-7 to start the next season. They eventually got bounced by the Washington Capitals in the first round of the 2012 NHL playoffs. In the 2014 playoffs, all three of the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings' first three rounds went to seven games. They eventually finished off the New York Rangers in five games but did not qualify for the playoffs the next season.
Last season, the Tampa Bay Lightning also played 26 games in the playoffs, losing in a six-game final to the Chicago Blackhawks. The 2015-16 campaign for the Lightning began much like a Sunday morning after a Saturday night of libations: slow and largely aimless. They went 5-5-2 through the month of October and didn't look like the Cup contenders many expected them to be this season.
In short, the Stanley Cup hangover is real and painful. And while no known cure exists for the modern hangover (believe me) there might be one for the injury woes and the drag of the season that currently exists: just cut a month out of the regular season and get the playoffs going that much sooner.
In doing so, the NHL would protect many of its star players against injuries as it is that late-season grind that usually wears players down and, coupled with the immense travel time that many have endured, leaves them susceptible to injury.
Toronto Maple Leafs veteran forward P.A. Parenteau, having played over 400 NHL games for six different teams, says he "wouldn't be against" a shortened season. "I've seen so many injuries, especially late in the year," he says.
"It's been 82 games now and it'd be hard to change that but the grind of the last 20 or 25 games is tough. We end up playing every other day. You have to take care of yourself."
Taking care of yourself has become that much more difficult to do with the NHL's rigorous 82-game schedule. The San Jose Sharks logged an incredible 50,632 miles (81,484 km) of travel this regular season, which is over double the circumference of the Earth, in case you were wondering. No NHL team cracked 50,000 miles of travel last regular season.
The Sharks lost 29-year-old stalwart defender Marc-Edouard Vlasic to a sprained MCL on March 18 and he has yet to return.
"Most athletes suffer from fatigue due to travel and poor recovery," Dr. Charles Samuels tells VICE Sports. "We know that sleep-deprived humans are not as attentive,"
Dr. Samuels previously advised former Calgary Flames GM Jay Feaster about the importance of proper sleep and recovery for professional athletes. He has also worked for the Canadian Olympic Committee under the Own the Podium program and has managed the sleep recovery and travel for the Canadian Olympic teams.
A lack of sleep due to an exhaustive travel schedule may not necessarily directly lead to injuries, but if a lack of sleep leads to a lack of attention and focus during a game, the risk of injuries could certainly increase. This threat is only compounded by the speed and intensity in which the modern NHL game is played at.
"There's a ceiling effect," says Dr. Samuels. "There's only so much stimulus you can push into the system when you have a sleep-deprived brain. The brain won't react anymore."
So in short: no amount of smelling salts can prevent players from not being as mentally alert late in the season. And as the NHL continues to rely more on its star power to sell its product, a reduction in the visibility of that talent could only hurt the league's continued growth.
"It's tough to sleep," says Parenteau of the late months of the regular season. "Especially when you land late and you have to be up early. It's a grind. And as you get older, it doesn't get any easier."
As the game continues to move toward a speed-driven product, an 82-game regular season could become a player safety issue. Few things inspire change like player safety, but there would be other benefits to a shorter regular season.
It's all but a given that the NHL will soon expand to one or possibly two more markets. This will lead to a dilution in talent league-wide, which could make March games for teams out of playoff contention that much less of a draw. Although the Carolina Hurricanes had an NHL-worst average attendance of 12,203 this season that number fell as low as 10,743 for a March 8, 4-3 Canes win against the Ottawa Senators.
By March, many fans have turned their attention toward the playoffs, and games between middling teams already out of playoff contention won't be able to garner the necessary attention league-wide. It's bad enough right now that failing teams have to endure weeks of talk about tanking and what could happen next season. By eliminating a month's worth of games, the NHL would also increase the probability of more teams staying in the playoff hunt, and hopefully less tanking as well. High draft picks in the first round would become less of a reward and more of a consolation prize.
There are even more reasons that could be explored: Why does the NHL continue to have games into June and compete against Major League Baseball for viewership? The casual fan may continue to find it hard to become enthused about the league's most important hockey that far into summer.
Is the continued revenue from regular-season games just too high to turn away from, even if it means having teams play games in March without many of its stars? The influx of cash from the expansion fee (rumoured to be around $500 million) would be distributed among existing NHL teams, so in the short term, it could be worth examining the viability of a shorter season. Reducing the number of games played would increase the importance of each game and it's likely that some owners would parlay that into increased ticket prices.
The NHL is growing in popularity and as a business will likely grow, as well. But like any business, as it grows, there could be concerns about the quality of its product becoming compromised.
But nothing will make the NHL want to shorten its season more than if the health, and visibility of its star players continues to decline.