No changes to NHL schedule as GMs can’t agree at their meeting

Unable to find any consensus among the 30 general managers Tuesday, the NHL might stick with the current format for 2007-08 before making any possible changes.

“We’re really just beginning the second year of what’s set up as a three-year cycle and I think I would prefer to see how it unfolds over a longer time period,” Montreal Canadiens GM Bob Gainey said after a five-hour GMs meeting. “And if there’s really drastic iniquities one way or another then that can be looked at with a little more background and little more evidence.”

Still, the debate isn’t dead and will continue at the NHL’s Board of Governors meeting Dec. 4-5 in Palm Beach, Fla. The GMs will also have more time to get things done at their next gathering, Feb. 18-21 in Naples, Fla.

“I’m not convinced we’ve heard the last of it,” said Toronto Maple Leafs GM John Ferguson. “I know this particular schedule had originally been intended to go three years, I’m not convinced it won’t at this point, but … there has been enough sentiment expressed that there may be some reason to change.”

Despite a long discussion on the schedule with varied opinions, the GMs weren’t able to find any agreeable solutions.

“Everyone is looking at their own situation and trying to provide for their own market and their own fans,” said Ferguson. “There wasn’t any unanimity, there was barely a consensus I would say. But a good exchange of views.”

Other topics on the agenda Tuesday:

-A discussion on salary arbitration and what it would take to convince the NHL Players’ Association to possibly agree to scrap it. GMs weren’t keen on the idea of reducing the age for unrestricted free agency even lower than the seven years service already introduced in the new CBA. As it stands, Sidney Crosby would be an unrestricted free agent at 25 years old. The union probably won’t listen to anything unless it got free agency lowered to 21 years old.

“While we continue to believe that salary arbitration is not compatible with a closed economic system such as the one we now have, it was not a big enough concern to our general managers at this point to justify us having to propose a further liberalization of free agency in order to eliminate it,” said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

-Colin Campbell, the NHL’s director of hockey operations, discussed varied issues with GMs, including hits to the head, low hits, diving and shootouts.

-Daly gave GMs a legal report, mostly focused on the Nov. 15 hearing in U.S. federal court involving the lawsuit from Metallurg Magnitogorsk against the NHL and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Russians hope to stop Evgeni Malkin from playing in the NHL.

-There was also an update from Daly on the IIHF agreement, which expires at the end of this season and the league’s hopes of bringing Russia back into the fold. The NHL has a Nov. 14 meeting scheduled with the IIHF.

-Stephen Walkom, the NHL’s director of officiating, discussed the work of his referees so far this season.

-Kay Whitmore, the NHL’s goalie supervisor, talked about the continued streamlining of goalie equipment.

But on this day the NHL schedule took up most of the discussion, which is not surprising considering the differing views on it.

“Everyone has their own scenario, it is a big continent and we’re spread out across it,” said Gainey. “Trying to come up with one thing that gathered more than a fluttering of interest just wasn’t there.”

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The NHL is in the second season of its unbalanced schedule, which was introduced after the lockout ended.

Each club plays eight games against divisional rivals (32 in total), four against the 10 non-division clubs in its conference (40 in total) and only 10 games against teams from the other conference, five at home and five on the road.

For now, it appears that will be the case again next season.

“I think it’s the right decision and hopefully it stays that way,” said New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello. “This is the first year we’ve had with it, we had great playoff races last year. I can’t see any reason why we would change it.”

Some fans and GMs, particularly in the Western Conference, would like to guarantee annual visits by the likes of young stars such as Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin or Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby or top-drawing teams like the New York Rangers, Canadiens or Maple Leafs.

“Our fans love the rivalries that have developed with all the teams in our division … but because Phoenix is a city of five million people we have a lot of transplants who come from Midwest and Eastern cities that relish the idea of seeing their old team coming into town on occasion as well,” said Phoenix Coyotes GM Mike Barnett. “In the best of both worlds, we’d like to continue with the rivalries but have our fans able to see more of the Midwest and Eastern teams.”

In the end, it’s a bigger issue for Western Conference teams because of the extra travel than it is for Eastern Conference GMs.

“I think it is more of a concern for them,” said Buffalo Sabres GM Darcy Regier. “Let’s face it, we get on a plane at 3 p.m. the day before a game and we get home at 1 a.m. the night of the game. I’ll admit, that’s a nice advantage. …

“We do like it like as it is,” he added. “We’re in a division that’s primarily Canadian. It’s great to play Toronto, it’s great to play Ottawa, it’s great to play Montreal. So that works for us.”

Added Boston Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli: “We like the schedule as it is but we’re certainly open to discuss change. We like conference rivalries and we like division rivalries.”

Meanwhile, getting 30 GMs under one roof in the old days sometimes meant big trades but that’s less of a reality in today’s modern ways of technology.

“This was a short meeting, most managers got in late last night or early this morning and we’re already out the door at 3 p.m,” said Barnett. “The (trade) discussions, whatever ones have been taking place, more so continue by telephone and email. Face to face might get you closer to something but not being in the same room won’t negate the possibility of conducting a transaction.

“I just didn’t feel like there was much time today for that.”

Like Barnett, Chiarelli is also trying to improve his struggling team.

“Well, we’re 14th in our conference right now,” he said, “so I’m all ears and all eyes.”