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Three Ways to Improve the NHL

From changes to how the salary cap is managed to the future of officiating, Adam Proteau looks at three ideas that could improve the NHL's product.
NHL

At this time of year, when NHL and hockey news can get somewhat scarce, it’s as good a time as any to take a step back, look at the game’s big picture, and bring up some issues that might get lost in the shuffle once the sport is back in full bloom. 

With that in mind, here are Three Ways We’d Change The NHL:

3. Install An “Eye-In-The-Sky” Referee: The ongoing electronic revolution has forced sports leagues to reevaluate the way their games are officiated: to wit, Major League Baseball is now hotly debating the implementation of robotic home plate umpires to call balls and strikes. There are some people who are against such a move, and they make fair points; at some level, in any system, human judgment will come into play, and human judgment is fraught with the potential for error.

Still, the idea that hockey has become too fast to be properly officiated cannot be easily dismissed. Players are quicker than ever before, and no referee has their head on a swivel to see everything that takes place on the ice sheet. This is where the concept of a third referee comes in. By appointing another ref in the stands, watching the game from an overarching perspective, you would be helping ensure calls aren’t missed, and there would not be an extra body on the ice to clog up shooting and passing lanes more than defense-minded players and coaches already clog them.

Giving an “eye-in-the-sky” referee option doesn’t mean giving such a person ultimate control of any given game. Rather, it’s a safeguard, someone who can buzz into the main on-ice official and have them whistle down a play that has someone who deserves a penalty, offside call, or any other broken rule they see from their unique vantage point. No longer would the personality traits of one referee lead to a different style of NHL game product than one the rulebook demands.

This can be seen as a compromise to fans and media who believe referees put their whistles in their pockets and “let players play”, and demand bigger changes. Under an “eye in the sky” system, the rules have a better chance of being enforced properly. That should be the goal of on-ice officials and everyone else associated with the game.

2. Create A Luxury Tax For The Salary Cap: The NHL loves to tout its current collective bargaining agreement as providing parity for all teams, but those who look closer can see that’s not as true as they’d like it to be. Granted, the salary cap floor and ceiling provide a more even playing field for all franchises, but the notion that everyone is on the same level is simply wrong.

Indeed, when you consider the tax situation that varies from state-to-state,. Province-to-province and country-to-country, the NHL still has pronounced imbalances that should be addressed. Take the two Florida teams, for example: the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers operate in a location with no state income tax (and neither do the Dallas Stars or Nashville Predators); right away, that gives them a clear advantage not possessed by the majority of the league.

Similarly, some NHL organizations are fortunate to be situated in a warm-weather locale. It’s no secret why a place like Carolina, Vegas, Los Angeles, San Jose and Anaheim are grativated to by players. It’s shorts-and-sandals weather all year round in those cities, and if the salary they get is the same as it is anywhere else, you can understand why NHLers wind up choosing to play there rather than somewhere like Edmonton, Montreal or Buffalo.

So, how can you make it fairer if you can’t guarantee true parity across all facets of the professional game? Easy – amend the current labor deal to include a luxury tax that competitive team owners can pay in order to push the competitive envelope. It doesn’t have to be a massive amount of money – say, 10 percent, or approximately $8 million under today’s cap constraints – but a luxury tax would allow passionate fan bases to see their team take another step toward winning a Stanley Cup.

You could even make the luxury tax restrictions tighter, and use a system like the National Basketball Association does. In the NBA, their “Bird Exception” permits teams to go over the cap ceiling to retain talents they’ve developed on their own. This would mean a team like the Maple Leafs could keep a player like Zach Hyman around, instead of forcing them to part ways with the athlete.

Regardless, this notion of “perfect parity” is a red herring that’s never going to happen. Some teams have a built-in advantage, and a luxury tax would go a long ways toward evening things out.

1. Make The Net Bigger: Yes, we’re well-aware NHL teams averaged 3.14 goals-for per game last season – the highest number since the 1995-96 campaign, when it hit the same average – but only two years ago, it dipped to 2.94 GF/GP, and for the bulk of the past dozen seasons, it has hovered in the 2.7-2.8 range. This is the natural order of things in the sport: once teams find a way to break out and score more, coaches and players inevitably find ways in which to stymie their offensive successes.

This is why the notion of bigger nets is almost always a regular point of contention. Nobody is suggesting hockey nets expand to the size of football nets, however, an increase of a couple inches at the sides and on top of the net could free up skilled players to light the lamp considerably more often than they do at present.

The reality is, we’ve been seeing significant growth in the bodies of goaltenders over the years, but no linked change to the nets themselves. As we’ve argued before, other sports made material changes to the heart of their entertainment product, and the game not only survived, but thrived. Think of the NBA and the three-point line, or MLB and the adjusted pitcher’s mound. Neither of those elements of the sports were there at their inception, but times changed, people changed, and the product changed.

We’re still of the opinion that many fans wouldn’t be able to perceive an increase in the nets if they weren’t told about it beforehand. However, you’d better believe players would know the difference, and they’d exploit it to their advantage. And if you’re one of those people who’d say “Hey! Let’s not blame this all on goalies!”, we’d say we’re not. Again, look at baseball: when we were young kids growing up, MLB’s average pitching Earned Run Averages were in the mid-to-high threes; now, they’re in the mid-to-high fours. That doesn’t mean pitchers are no longer essential components of the game. They’ve just adjusted to a product that underscores the value of offense.

That’s the same target the NHL should have in mind when looking at something like bigger nets. The Save Percentages of goalies would take a hit, but the best goalies would still be the best goalies. Most importantly, hockey fans paying hundreds of dollars per single-game experience would get more excitement than they do at present.

The NHL’s circle-of-life goes like this: players find ways to get better and faster before coaches find ways to bung up the system and push the game back to a more defense-minded affair. It’s the responsibility of the league and players to acknowledge that, and adjust certain elements of the sport to give shooters more room to show their skill. Bigger nets – even slightly bigger nets – would serve that cause very well.

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