The NHL would benefit from a permanent schedule change

New York Rangers left wing Alexis Lafreniere (13). Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
New York Rangers left wing Alexis Lafreniere (13). Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

A shortened 2020-21 campaign has given us a glimpse of potential modifications to the NHL’s schedule format.

Rivalries are the heart and soul of every sport. The passion amongst fans and players is always evident, but on rivalry day, that passion immerses all those who witness the event unfold. In hockey, bitter rivals square off numerous times each season, trying to knock their bitter foe down in the standings, while fans of opposing sides chirp each other in the bleachers.

Never have rivalries been as impactful as they will be in 2020-21, as teams faceoff continuously for 56-games, albeit without fans in attendance. This condensed schedule has paved the way for increased divisional play, a format the NHL would be wise to revisit and keep once cross-country travel is deemed feasible again.

Before the postseason reformatting and the schedule were altered to allow teams to play at least two games against each team in the opposite conference, the NHL’s schedule comprised many divisional matchups. I remember watching the New York Rangers play the New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils six times each year, and how exciting each of those meetings would be.

With the Seattle Kraken becoming the 32nd franchise at this campaign’s conclusion, the NHL will have four balanced divisions of eight teams. That means the NHL will have to amend their schedule to fit in the Kraken, giving them leeway to make some moderations to its current format.

Seattle Kraken
The Seattle Kraken. (Photo by Jim Bennett/Getty Images) /

How the NHL should tweak its current schedule format

I propose that the NHL return to a heavy slate of divisional games, similar to what we are seeing during this 56-game season. The NFL’s schedule features two divisional games comprising half the schedule, and the remaining eight games are played against two of the remaining four divisions. I think the NHL should imitate this format in a breakdown that looks like such:

Team A plays seven divisional opponents six times each.

Team A plays opponents from the other division in the conference three times each.

Team A plays eight non-conference opponents, two times each.


Team A plays all 16 non-conference opponents, one time each. 

This breakdown enables each team to play each other during the season but still emphasizes the divisional matchups that the current schedule does not. There’s a bonus for the NHL with this format as well. After the 2020-21 season, the league will be signing a new television contract, likely doubling its television revenue.

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Pitching a schedule that features continuous rivalries will surely perk the interest of major television companies, driving the new contract’s price point up. The cancellation of NBCSN, which will be coming near the end of 2021, almost ensures that hockey will be seen on a new network starting next season. ESPN has shown significant interest in bringing the NHL back to their networks (I can hear hockey fans groaning now), and so has FOX, giving the NHL options for a new tv home.

If growth is truly paramount, ESPN would be a wise choice, adding new eyeballs to the sport and increasing interest. For a league that has relied heavily on gate receipts, a schedule emphasizing rivalries could allow for massive gains on a new tv contract while simultaneously maintaining attendance.

Fans will be allowed in attendance sooner rather than later, and despite COVID lingering on the sidelines, humanity will begin to move forward. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and company have to figure out a way to maximize revenue, pushing the league back toward the path of prosperity. This proposed schedule format allows for teams’ travel to remain controllable but still offers cross-conference play.

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As someone located on the East Coast and covers the New York Rangers, I can think of nothing more exciting than six meetings with the Islanders, Devils, Capitals, Flyers, Penguins, and the rest of the Metropolitan Division. I am sure a lot of you think the same way, and this scheduling change will allow us to enjoy the thrills of rivalries while allowing the NHL to capitalize on a huge economic opportunity.