By Stan Smith
The National Hockey League currently ranks fourth in popularity in North America. It sits behind the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and the National Basketball Association for most popular sports.
One reason the NHL trails other professional sports in popularity is the failure to highlight their star athletes. The NHL does seem to have a “star power” problem.
The NHL’s Stars Don’t Play That Much
One issue facing the NHL in selling its elite players is the lack of playing time those players get. The very best players on any NHL team only play about a third of the game. That’s quite different from MLB baseball where the stars play the entire game. In NBA basketball the star players rest for only a few minutes each game. In NFL football where they play offence or defence and you see them during those times.
Given the energy expended by NHL players, part of that makes sense. As well, it’s been a coaching mantra that to win a team needs to “roll four lines.” Having a strong fourth line that can play ten to twelve minutes a game works in keeping the players fresh. It means that up to a fifth of any given game, fans are “forced” to watch lesser players. (No offence meant to those players.)
Question: how many fans have experienced the angst of watching a crucial close hockey game? As well, as time wears down, waiting for their team’s best players to get back on the ice? We all have. Meanwhile, we watch the third or fourth lines working to get through their shifts without being scored on. While we hope they can score a goal themselves, we don’t expect them to.
Hockey is a fast but gruelling, and tough, physical sport. There is no way we can expect the best players to play the whole game. What if we could change the rules so the top players on a team get more ice time? Would that make the game more enjoyable for the fans?
Forget About the Salary Cap Changing
Presently the NHL allows each team to have 23 players on their roster. The NHL is a hard salary cap league. That means that the total salary of those 23 players cannot exceed a certain amount of money. For the 2023-24 season, that salary cap is $83.5 million. The total average salary of every (healthy) player on each team cannot exceed that threshold.
We could get into a discussion about changing the salary cap rules. However, the league and the team owners fought hard to get that control over wages and they are not about to give it up. Any talk of softening the salary cap, or increasing it above the 50/50 split of revenue that it is currently is moot. It just isn’t going to happen.
The question becomes how the league can grow while sticking to a hard salary cap that shares revenues equally between the teams and the players. Is there a way we can give the better players in the league more exposure? At the same time, can fans have a more exciting hockey to watch?
Is There a Way to Change the Roster for Each Game?
Here is one idea that Stan thought about that is a little out of the box. But see if it makes sense.
Teams can dress 20 players in any given game. There are no rules that stipulate or break down what position those players play except for goalies. According to NHL.com the only rule on who NHL teams can have play in a game is that “NHL teams are only allowed to dress a maximum of 20 players – 18 skaters and two goaltenders – for any given game. But, those 20 must come from the 23-player active roster.”
If a team wanted to, it could dress 18 defensemen or 18 forwards.
Traditionally most teams will dress twelve forwards and six defensemen. That allows a team to roll four lines and three defensive pairings. Some teams will opt to dress eleven forwards and seven defensemen but the usual breakdown is 12/6.
That gets us back to the “rolling four lines” idea.
Could the NHL Play Fewer Players Each Game?
The players who occupy the bottom half of the lineup are usually less talented. They have earned their spot in the game by being more workmanlike, physical, and sound defensively. We can look at them as we would the defence on a football team. Their primary job is to not get scored upon when they are on the ice. If they have a bottom-six shift where neither team scores a goal it is considered to be a good shift.
While nothing is stopping a team from playing its better players more, doing so risks having them out on the ice tired and playing against less talented but more physical, and more rested players.
What if, by rule, there were fewer bottom-six type players in the game? What if the rules for roster construction stated that a team could dress nine forwards and six defensemen? That would eliminate the three least skilled players on each team from the game altogether.
Most teams presently play their best players twenty-plus minutes a game. The next best get between fifteen and twenty minutes. The players a level below that play between ten and fifteen minutes a game.
The best players are not usually in any better shape than the other players. An argument could be made that players that are not amongst the very best need to be in better shape to make up for their lack of talent. Physically, if the best players can play twenty-plus minutes a game then any professional player should be able to play twenty-plus minutes a game.
The added ice time for the second and third-line players should not be a problem. With three lines, a typical breakdown of ice time could be twenty-five minutes for the top line, twenty minutes for the second line, and fifteen minutes for the third line.
There Are Advantages to Rolling Three Lines
Another advantage of rolling three lines and three defensive pairings is a coach could now employ them as five-player units instead of figuring out how to match three defensive pairs with four forward lines.
Having nine forwards and six defensemen (if the league kept the two-goalie rule) would mean dressing seventeen players instead of the present twenty. There are two problems with that.
The first problem is that the players association would not want a situation where three fewer of their members on each team would get to play in a game. The second problem is injuries. What happens if one of the skaters gets hurt, either enough to take him out of a game, or just badly enough to affect his play in the game?
Sitting Two Extra Men, Just in Case
Both those problems could be rectified by adding an extra forward and an extra defenseman to the lineup. Those players could be used in case of an injury taking another player out of a game for any length of time. The extra players could also be incorporated into the coach’s game strategy. One of the ninth and tenth forwards could be more offensively gifted while the other could be better defensively.
The same with the extra defenseman. Their usage could be dependent on game situations. If you need a goal, you go with the offensive players. If you are up a goal you go with the defensive players. For whatever reason in hockey, if a player is dressed for the game it is felt he needs to get ice time to keep him in the game.
Other sports have no issues with dressing players and keeping them on the bench only to be used if necessary. The NHL already does this with goaltending, which is a position where a player coming in cold is the most likely to risk an injury. There is no reason why teams could not do the same thing if they desire.
Having a Third Goalie Brings the Team to 20 Players
That brings the roster up to nineteen players. How do we get it back to twenty? Have a third goalie. While teams don’t often need a third goalie in a given game, it does happen. Right now the home team in each game provides an EBUG (Emergency Back-Up Goalie) in case a team requires a third goaltender in the game. With this new setup, a team would have its third goalie ready to go if needed. Having a third goalie on the overall roster also provides an extra NHL goalie for team practices, and can help manage their goaltending workload and health.
Teams could still have a 23-player total roster giving them three more players to work with without having to dig into their farm system if they desired if they had the cap space. They could also potentially run with the minimum 20-player roster that would still consist of an extra forward, an extra defenseman, and an extra goalie.
Of course, an idea like this, along with details, would have to be worked out in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement.
There Are Ways to Provide a Faster, More Skilled Game
This idea, or a version of it, would have the potential to provide the fans with a faster, more talented game to watch. It would remove the slower, less talented fourth-line players from the game while keeping the roster sizes the same as they are now.
Could it work? Who knows? But ideas to improve the game for fans might increase its popularity. That would be great news.