You may have noticed something unusual about the NHL schedule in recent weeks: Certain teams have disappeared, taking up to a week off at a time. That's thanks to the new bye weeks, a concept negotiated between the league and NHLPA last year that kicked in for the first time this month.
The bye weeks – which are actually five days long, not a full week – are meant to give players on each team one league-mandated midseason break to rest and recharge. The idea borrows heavily from the NFL, which gives each team one week off during its 17-week schedule. But not everyone is a fan, with Toronto coach Mike Babcock calling the idea "100 percent wrong for player safety."
So sure, the jury's still out on this one. But that doesn't mean the league shouldn't be thinking ahead to the next inspiration they could draw from the competition. So to give them a boost, here are five more ideas the league could steal borrow from the NFL.
1. Trading coaches
The big trade rumor in NFL circles these days doesn't involve a star player. Instead, it's a coach – New Orleans Saints' boss Sean Payton, who reportedly could be headed to the Rams.
That's not all that rare in the NFL, where more than a few big-name coaches have been traded over the years, including Bill Parcells, Jon Gruden and Bill Belichick. It happens in the NBA and MLB as well – Blue Jays fans may remember the deal that sent John Farrell to the Red Sox a few years ago.
The concept isn't completely unheard of in the NHL, but it's only happened once. That was in 1987, when the Nordiques sent Michel Bergeron to the Rangers for a first round pick. That deal didn't really work out for New York; Bergeron only lasted two seasons, never making the playoffs, and the deal ended up costing them the fifth overall pick.
Maybe that's why we haven't seen a similar move since (aside from the forced draft pick compensation the league briefly implemented and then abandoned a few years ago). But it would be fun to see it come back. Jon Cooper for Claude Julien, WHO SAYS NO?
2. Acknowledging referee mistakes
Referees make mistakes. It happens. In fact, if you got fans of various sports together in a room, it probably wouldn't be long before they were arguing over whose officials were worse. It's the nature of fandom – we always think the guys in stripes have found a way to screw things up.
But in the NFL, the league doesn't pretend that it never happens. The league reviews each game, and admits when the officials blew it. The league's head of officiating is also on Twitter, engaging fans with explanations of close or controversial plays. And if the refs miss one, someone explains what went wrong.
It's certainly not a perfect system. Obviously, those admissions come too late to change the results, and are of little comfort to teams victimized by blown calls. (Some players aren't shy about expressing that sentiment.) And there's no doubt that some officials would prefer the league stayed silent, rather than hanging them out to dry.
But the approach has one major benefit: credibility. When the time comes for the NFL to defend a call, they can at least point to other cases where they took the lumps. That creates at least a little bit of credibility in the eyes of fans, who don't assume that the league will just take a knee-jerk stance of defending everything.
Compare that to the NHL approach, where everything is fine, and the league has virtually never seen a mistake that they've publicly acknowledged. That just creates an atmosphere where everyone thinks every close call that went against them was missed, and that every hare-brained conspiracy has some basis in reality. The NHL can't defend its officials effectively, because it never acknowledges when they do screw up.
Nobody's perfect, and nobody should expect perfection from officials. But a little honesty from the league itself isn't too much to ask.
3. Wild card weekend
The NFL just held its wild card weekend, featuring four games that determined which teams would move on to the divisional round. Granted, last weekend's games ended up being duds, with all four home teams winning easily. But the weekend generally produces at least a few memorable games, much like MLB's similar play-in round.
The idea of the NHL adding a wild card play-in game of its own, or even a short best-of-three series, has been around for a while. The format would see one or two teams in each conference added to the playoffs, creating matchups between the #8 and #9 seeds (and perhaps also #7 vs #10) that would play out immediately after the season ended.
Many fans don't like the idea, since adding extra teams to the postseason could be seen to water down the importance of the regular season. But there's a flip side to that – the presence of a wildcard round makes finishing with a higher seed all the more important, since teams won't want to risk having to play a short winner-take-all series. Far better to get some extra time off to recuperate, while your future opponent has to fight through an extra round.
Look at this year's Metro Division, where four of the league's best teams are fighting for top spot. It's a fun race, but ultimately it won't mean much – all four teams are going to make the playoffs, and none will be rewarded with an especially easy matchup. But if those teams were fighting to avoid a wild card round, the regular season starts to take on some serious importance.
4. Actually explaining challenges
The NFL was the first league to embrace instant replay reviews, with the NHL following suit years later. And unlike football, the hockey world is still relatively new to coach's challenge, which were just introduced a few years ago. It shows. The NFL system is far from perfect, but the NHL could learn a lot from it.
Here's what happens when an NFL challenge occurs: First, the referee makes a clear announcement about what's being challenged, and what the ruling on the field was. Then he goes under the hood, reviews everything about the play and emerges with a ruling, at which point he explains what he saw and why the call is or isn't being changed.
Granted, some of those explanations are clearer than others, and some of the rules that the league actually reviews for are a mess. But as a fan, you're rarely left guessing about what went into a decision, even if you may not agree.
Compare that to a typical NHL scenario: The referee announces that a challenge is taking place, and probably forgets to tell us what the call on the ice was. He puts on the headphones, breaks out his iPad mini, and reviews the play. Then he makes a vague announcement which basically amounts to either "goal" or "no goal," with little or no explanation. Sometimes, he'll even repeat the whole process for reasons nobody understands.
Also, the NFL's microphones work. Let's look into how they manage that.
The whole thing is just a smoother process in the NFL, and a big part of it is due to league at least trying to explain what's happening. NHL refs probably wouldn't like it, since they make every announcement looking like terrified first-graders giving their first book report in front of the whole class. But they'd get used to it. And hockey fans would be better off.
5. Treating overtime losses like losses
OK, stay with me here. Sometimes, NFL games go into overtime. And when they do, something crazy happens: One team wins, and one team loses. That's it. The losing team doesn't get a half-win in the standings as consolation for coming really close.
I know what you're thinking: "Surely that results in terribly boring playoff races, since we all know that giving partial credit for losing is the only way to have parity even though that actually makes no mathematical sense when you think about it." Believe it or not, the NFL has somehow persevered. I'm told their games even occasionally get decent TV ratings.
It's true that the whole "every game is worth the same in the standings" approach isn't unique to football (and baseball, and basketball, and pretty much every other sport). But maybe hockey could give it a try some day, just to see what happens.
No? You say that's completely off the table, Mr. GM of a team that lost 45 games and still claims to have a winning record? OK, can't say we didn't try.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008, most recently for ESPN and Grantland. He spends most of his time making jokes on twitter, where you may know him as @downgoesbrown. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.