Thursday, February 22, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Shorter proves better for abbreviated NHL season

Did you notice anything special about Monday night's Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final? Well, other than the ending was among the most spectacular and stunning in the history of the sport?

Game 6, just like the previous five games, was well played. Extremely so. Despite rickety Boston ice that made for a wobbly puck, the game between the Blackhawks and Bruins was played crisply and cleanly. The players seemed quick and sturdy physically, while sharp and alert mentally. Aside from the usual bumps, bruises and cuts you find this time of the playoffs, the players seemed fresher than what you usually find at the end of the long chase for Lord Stanley's Cup.

Maybe, just maybe, a lockout-shortened regular season made for an exciting postseason.

Ultimately, when it comes to sports seasons, less is more. Fewer games make for better games.

Consider this. When the Lightning won the 2004 Stanley Cup, it played 82 regular-season games plus 23 playoff games. Add that up and you have 105 games played.

This season, the Blackhawks played 48 regular-season games plus 23 postseason games. That's 71 games. No wonder the Blackhawks and Bruins looked so fresh. They played 30-some fewer games than most Stanley Cup finalists.

And before you start wondering if the lockout compacted the schedule, it really did not. In 2004, the Lightning played those 105 games between Oct. 10, 2003, and June 7, 2004. That's a span of 241 days, meaning an average of one game every 2.3 days.

This season, the Blackhawks' 71 games took place from Jan. 19 to June 24. That's a span of 156 days and made for one game about every 2.2 days.

Hardly a difference at all.

The Stanley Cup playoffs are a grueling two-month marathon that tests the will and durability of every player. And it seems like the playoffs are tight every year, regardless of how long or short the regular season is.

But just because the playoffs are close and dramatic every season doesn't mean they are as well played as we saw this year. Many Stanley Cups are won through attrition. It's not about which team has the best players, but which team has the best players left standing.

It's one reason why it's rare to see the team with the NHL's best record go on to win the Cup. Over the past 20 years, only six teams have had the most points during the season then won the Cup. This season's Blackhawks happen to be one of them.

As it was, this NHL season, including playoffs, still lasted more than five months — about the length of an NFL season. A normal NHL season drags on for about eight months. That's a really long time. And there are times when it feels as if the season is crawling with far too many meaningless games.

Yet those games take a toll on players. Take Bruins star defenseman Zdeno Chara. Last year, he played 1,975 minutes during the regular season. This season, he played about 1,200 NHL minutes. He did spend time playing in Russia during the lockout, but you don't think those extra 775 NHL minutes made a difference in the quality of his play, especially come playoff time?

Imagine trimming every season to 48 games, or even in the 60-game proximity. Start in December to build in a few more off and practice days. Heck, most people in the United States don't start paying attention to hockey until football winds down anyway.

Traditionalists will complain about records. Magical numbers like 50 goals and 100 points will disappear. Career numbers will be skewed compared to the all-time greats.

To that, I say: So what? We'll start new records.

The overall product and the health of the game are more important than doing a little math to compare today's players to players from yesteryear.

And I wouldn't stop at hockey.

The NBA didn't seem to be negatively affected by the lockout a year ago, while both the Heat and Spurs seemed out of gas at the end of this long season.

Baseball's 162-game season starts in the spring and doesn't end until fall. Far too many playoff and World Series games are played in conditions better suited for hot chocolate than a cold pop. Do you really want the most important games of your league played in bitter cold weather?

The NFL will never back off from a 16-game schedule, but let's put a halt to the talk of an 18-game season right now. It's a small miracle when a football player can go through 16 games without getting hurt. Some of the league's best players end up missing large chunks of playing time because the season is so long. How is that good for the NFL?

It's also a joke how the league talks out of one side of its mouth about player safety then uses the other side to whisper about increasing the number of games.

Not only would fewer games produce healthier postseasons, but it would make for more meaningful regular-season games.

Of course, in the end, don't expect anything to change. There's way too much money involved. No way the owners are going to cut down on the number of times they collect revenue for tickets, parking, concessions, advertising and, most of all, television.

Heck, many fans wouldn't go for it either. They would rather have more games to attend, more games to watch on TV, more games to follow.

But fewer games might mean better games. Would that be worth the trade?

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