Within 72 hours of declaring its intention to commence the delayed 2012-13 season on Nov. 2, the NHL deleted all originally scheduled action through Nov. 1. All of the latest proposals exchanged between the league and the NHL Players' Association evaporated, all but concomitantly taking down that initial hope to drop the puck two weeks from now.
Furthermore, as one Friday report from the Canadian Press noted, “If next Thursday's deadline passes, more games will likely be cut, and the New Year's Day Winter Classic will be the next big event in danger of being lost.”
Had the NHLPA agreed to the owners’ proposition laid out on Tuesday or if any of their multiple counteroffers passed muster, there still could have been a full-sized 82-game slate for all 30 teams. Considering the virtual lack of change in the labor landscape since those offers were unleashed, one can safely assume that a full 2012-13 campaign is now as good as impossible.
At this time, though, the aforementioned Winter Classic has ample life left in its prospects.
So, too, does the fledgling Thanksgiving Showdown, the league’s other U.S. national television special.
With an exact three-week gap between the earliest games still untouched by the lockout and the Black Friday bout between the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers, a deal can still conceivably be reached in time for both marquee events.
Even if roughly two months and a handful of games per team are irrecoverably squandered, the NHL could preserve some precious PR points by salvaging its full NBC network broadcast slate.
One item that is virtually out of the question is a schedule big enough for each club to cross paths at least once with all 29 of its adversaries. Unless the league wants to ultimately push its postseason beyond the summer solstice, non-conference games in the regular season are a natural sacrifice.
Of course, that can complicate the Winter Classic matchup, the first of its kind to feature one Eastern and one Western franchise.
But there is a way to take a not-so-awkward C-cut around that.
The less savory scenario would be to make the Red Wings and Maple Leafs reduce their meeting at Michigan Stadium to an exhibition. That simply would not cut it, whether the season is already underway or if, a la 1994-95, it constituted a part of the preseason before meaningful games began later in January.
The best solution that still falls within realistic boundaries is to restructure the schedule, link up each team in the Eastern Conference with one Western Conference team and have them trade visits.
This would mean having the Wings visit the Air Canada Centre sometime before or after the Winter Classic, whether that would be a direct home-and-home or whether the two games were months apart.
Other fixtures could include rematches of recent Stanley Cup Finals (Los Angeles-New Jersey, Boston-Vancouver, Chicago-Philadelphia, etc.). Still others, such as Minnesota-Winnipeg, Columbus-Buffalo or Carolina-Nashville, could capitalize on cases of decent geographic proximity.
Some teams may need to resort to relative randomness, but this arrangement would at least provide balance and keep the Winter Classic as meaningful as possible.
In turn, the best the NHL can do for a 2012-13 season would be a regular season starting on Friday, Nov. 23 and running through Sunday, April 28. All divisional and conference games would be kept intact along with the two non-conference tilts, giving each team a 66-game schedule to play over a 157-day span.
Just as it was in 1995, when everyone crammed 48 games into a 102-day time frame, the All-Star Game would likely need to be sacrificed. But at least the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs could begin on Wednesday, May 1, with the assurance that it would be over before Canada Day/Free Agent Launch Day on July 1.