The commissioner series: NHL improvements

Francis Boeck, Reporter

This is the first of a four-part series that will run in consecutive weeks. The series will focus on what changes the commissioner should do to improve their league. 

First up: the National Hockey League. The NHL has dropped in popularity the past couple years and is dangerously close to falling out of the ‘Big 4’ of American professional sports leagues. If I had unlimited power in the NHL, I would make a lot of changes.

Two immediate changes I would make:

  1. Change the length of the game/change the time format
  2. Push players to enter the draft only when they are NHL ready

I would keep the first and second period pretty much the same except I would cut the first intermission down to three minutes. Then, I would have the second intermission be to 15 minutes. Also, I would cut the third period down to 10 minutes and make it 3-on-3 play. Overtime and the shootout would stay the same.

Now, I know you probably think I am the craziest person alive right now for even suggesting such a change. But, here’s why these changes would make the game better, especially on TV.

Right now, every game (unless there is overtime) has two intermissions of 18 minutes. That is basically two halftimes, and they’re both longer than the one halftime in the NFL and NBA. It is hard to ask viewers at home to keep coming back to the game twice after stopping play for almost 20 minutes.

Then there’s the third period, which I think should be cut in half and play 3-on-3. The NHL changed the 5-minute OT from 4-on-4 to 3-on-3 play, and that’s made a huge difference.  It used to be that if a game could not be decided in regulation, fans would take a break and go to the bathroom or watch the clock, waiting for a shootout.

The idea behind having less players on the ice is that it will create space for players to make plays and score goals. The 4-on-4 play created some space, but at times when one more pass could have been made or a juicy rebound was left in front of the net, you felt there was a missing player.

However, with 3-on-3 play, more space is created and no one is missing. 3-on-3 play promotes fast play and increased offense. Speed is shown off in the overtime now with a let more 2-on-1 breakaways. Endings like the one last week between Winnipeg and Toronto where one 2-on-1 was stopped and then another happened right away, one going right back the other way.

I think this is a part of the game that showcases the skills of the league’s stars, especially their young ones. 3-on-3 play every night would be a ton of fun to watch and for fans at home, it would be worth waiting for.

The second thing I would do is create a system where most players entering the draft are ready to take the ice for their NHL team that fall.

One of the biggest advantages the NFL has over other leagues is that when players are drafted into the league is that many of them, at least for the first three rounds are ready to play right away for their teams in the fall. Also, many of the top players entering the draft already have some sort of following.

For many of the top-five picks playing a skilled position, many fans have seen them play in college and could recognize them walking down the street almost as well as a veteran star. This would make it a lot easier for the NFL to market their young talent.

The NHL does not have this luxury. NHL teams are forced to draft kids – yes kids – who, beyond about the tenth pick, probably won’t see NHL ice time that season and maybe not for two or three years.

This not only places a burden on scouting departments who are supposed to project how an 18-year kid is going to progress over 3-5 years, but also makes the draft uninteresting for most fans. Unless your team is picking in the top three, the draft will probably have very little impact on your team the next season.

Fans are impatient and want to see immediate change. If their team is the worst in the league and wins the top overall pick in the draft, they deserve immediate impact from the best hockey player that is ready to take the ice in the NHL.

Another problem with drafting kids so young is that they sort of go away for a few years. Fans don’t see their team’s shiny new toy. The kid is either in the middle of Europe on a team you can’t even pronounce the name of or somewhere in Canada playing minor league hockey.

Those games are often hard to find on TV or even the internet. Any excitement that was created when the kid was drafted goes away and has to be recreated when they finally make it to the NHL.

So how would I fix this? Easy. Ok, not that easy. It will take some time for the all the fine details to be made before the system would be put in place.

My system would create a chart where players would have to accumulate so many points of experience in minor junior hockey before being able to enter the NHL Draft. I would have the competition committee sit down and track pretty much every player and figure out their path to the NHL.

This means the league they played in and for how many years would factor in before they took the ice full-time (40-plus games) for their NHL club. Then I would have them average that and map out the most common route to the NHL. The committee would then come up with a certain number of points that a player would need to enter the draft.

Every minor league or NCAA, based on the competition within the league, would be given a point value for a full year played in that league.

Let’s take former Sabres forward Cody Hodgson, for example. Hodgson was selected tenth overall by the Vancouver Canucks in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. It wasn’t until the 2011-2012 season that Hodgson played a full NHL season; it took three years from when he was drafted until the Canucks pulled him up to the NHL.

In the NHL, many tenth overall picks play in the NHL day one.

What I’m saying is, assuming the Canucks were correct in their assessment of his abilities that the three years after he was drafted and before he started playing in the NHL should have taken place before he was drafted.

If we look at Hodgson’s career before playing full-time in the NHL, he played five years of minor professional hockey. What I’m proposing that is that all five or at least four years would have taken place before he was drafted.

Hodgson played four years in the Ontario Hockey League, one of the top minor hockey leagues. If that were deemed to be the average experience NHL players have before taking the ice full time in the NHL, then the competition committee would have made the point value for one season in the OHL 1/4 or 1/5 of the total points needed to enter the draft.

The Western Hockey League, NCAA and other minor leagues in North America and Europe would have certain point values  given to players for playing a year in that league based on the level of competition in that league.

This would only play into the player’s eligibility to enter the draft. The player’s draft stock would be determined by how he played within those leagues. The point system would only measure the amount of experience the player has.

The player is not forced to enter the draft when he accumulates the required minimum number of points. He can wait however long he likes in order to improve his draft stock.

By making this change, the draft will have a stronger effect on the immediate future of each of the NHL teams. This way, the worst teams in the league should get better much quicker because their picks will be able to play sooner and have an impact on their teams.

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