Sunday, December 6, 2009

WRT's Sunday Slant

(We promised you some new things here at M&G. This is one of them.)

As we all sit here on this first Sunday in December, a few things stand out in the NHL:

Is it just me, or do the injuries around the NHL seem more severe than normal this season? Or is it not the severity of the injuries, but whom they are happening to? Imagine the NBA without Dwayne Wade, Kevin Garnett, Detlef Schrempf, and Tim Duncan, all at the same time. The NFL without LaDanian Tomlinson, Jared Allen, Matt Hasselbeck, and Ben Roethlisberger, all at the same time. Baseball without A-Rod, Albert Pujols, Joe Mauer and C. C. Sabathia, all at the same time.

I think you get where I'm going with this.

Too many of the NHL's premiere players are on the shelf with injuries, whether self-inflicted (did Ovechkin really need to do that knee in Carolina?), just during play (take your pick) or running into your own teammates (Brent Burns)?

Look at most NHL rosters. The injury list is like a who's who of hockey. Some teams, like the Minnesota Wild, have had upwards of 1/3rd of their entire salary cap sitting injured in the press box recently. Nashville, already in financial trouble, is in a similar fate. So is Anaheim, especially now that Teemu Selanne broke a bone in his hand Thursday night in Dallas. The Stars, also, have had serious injury problems in the first 1/3rd of the season. Carolina, Washington, Montreal, Detroit, the list goes on and on. Nearly every team has had a first-line player from their roster come up on the IR this fall. Yes, it is indeed how those teams deal with those injuries (and still stay under the salary cap), which is driving front offices nuts as the season drags on.

May I offer three reasons for the upswing in injuries?

  1. The protective gear players wear now, while giving more support than ever before, also has less give than ever before. The shoulder pad, elbow pad and thigh pads of 20-30 years ago are light years removed from the high-tech, super-hard-shell protective equipment of today. In some ways, that's better for the player delivering a check. It's a lot worse, however, for that player who is RECEIVING that same check.
  2. The development of equipment, especially that to protect the head and everything in it (eyes, teeth, brain, jaw) is woefully behind the rest of the body curve. Today's player is bigger, faster and stronger than the player of 20-30 years ago. Sure, no one likes to wear visors (they're uncomfortable, fog up, steamy, etc.,) and they are a hinderance when there's no alternative to dropping the purse, but for the sake of the players themselves, the curve has to be pushed out. And soon. The development of the 'Messier 03' (I think that's what it's called) helmet, which is designed to alleviate the impact of blows to the head, is an important step. Now, does Hockey do the right thing and force players to adopt new style helmets? Or do we see the alarming number of concussions we see today continue?
  3. I really do believe the NHL schedule, or more specifically how it is developed, has something to do with injuries as well. Teams are dragged across North America on almost 'Amazing Race'-esque schedules, going from one end of the continent to another and are being expected to play at a high level, regardless of how the circadian rhythms of the body are screwed up by factors such as time changes, climate, (you can't expect a team playing in, as example, Dallas one night and Minnesota the next to fare well), and altitude (Denver and, say, Vancouver). There should be a set pattern (like the NHL had in the 70's and early 80's) of how schedules are set. (Example: an Eastern Conference team playing a California swing should not travel three times across California to play three games. Western Conference teams visiting New York's 3 teams should also do this all in one trip, not two or, in some cases, three trips.) The fact that there are so many back-to-back games (due to the 2 1/2-week Olympic break in late February), and that arena availability in many cities is next-to-non-existent in March and April (as other sports end their seasons) also factor in.

The easiest one of these is, obviously, the schedule one. Will the NHL compress its' schedule in 2014 to allow its' players to compete in Sochi, Russia? The Russian players will almost certainly bail to play in the Olympics in their 'Mother Russia'. And, who really can blame them?

Setting the Olympics aside, the schedule, and the computer program which determines it, is broken. It needs to be fixed. The NHL needs to adopt new divisional boundaries, as the traditional ones the League has had since the mid-90's no longer works, especially in the Western Conference. Two 7-team divisions in the West and two, 8-team divisions in the East (no need to change the playoff format or seedings) would do wonders for all involved. Consider mandatory rest days when a team travels over certain distances. Every team should have at least one back-to-back at home. Limit the travel early in the season to specified periods (a la baseball, who plays inter-league games during specified weeks in the season.)

Like any sport, the best thing the NHL has to sell is the game itself. Save the best asset that the game of hockey has. The travel issues are the easiest items to fix. Fix the travel issues.

-- WRT's Sunday Slant will appear, hopefully, the first Sunday of each month (unless I forget)...

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