In terms of salvaging games, the best the NHL can likely do is strive to channel and one-up its 1994-95 self, when a 48-game slate started in late January and the postseason covered nearly all of May and June.
This time, the league could shoot for a regular season of five full months spanning December through April with the Stanley Cup playoffs starting Wednesday, April 30.
There will, most naturally, need to be substantive tweaks to the collective schedule. The reconfiguration and rescheduling starts with the (unfortunately) necessary sacrifice of all East-West tilts, the most anticipated of which has already evaporated.
To delete all nonconference contests and leave all divisional and conference dates untouched would amount to a 64-game schedule starting no later than December and all but inevitably needing to end in late April. That would be fairly akin to what the NBA did last year with everybody cramming a 66-game slate between Christmas and April 26.
That was an iffy decision for that league and the NHL might assume a similar outlook if it springs for a similarly sized docket, especially if the earliest possible start date is pushed back any further.
The 64 games could―repeat, could―be pulled off reasonably well if and only if no more game days are lost. The Boston Bruins, for example, currently boast 58 originally intended contests on their schedule between Dec. 1 and April 13.
Stretching the retooled slate to April 27 and plugging those extra two weeks with six additional game days would make keeping the full intra-conference slate practical. Therefore, on the one hand, there would be three extra weeks on the NHL’s 2012-13 schedule than there was on the NBA’s 2011-12 regular-season itinerary.
On the other hand, hockey is a more inherently intensive sport, which a multitude of the NHL’s players are currently engaging in elsewhere while others have been accruing excess rust by the day.
In turn, if the season ends up being delayed any longer than it already has been, there should absolutely be further restructuring and use of a one-time format to create a still shorter, but balanced schedule.
One option could be trimming off two meetings between each pair of divisional rivals, meaning everybody faces each of their 14 conference cohabitants four times apiece for a 56-game slate.
Or, if divisional rivalries are not worth sacrificing, the NHL could cut back on non-divisional matchups while briefly returning to the 2005-08 arrangement of eight encounters with each division cohabitant. That is, have everyone trade a single visit with the 10 conference rivals from other divisions and then add 32 divisional dates for a 52-game schedule.
In either of those two scenarios, while it would mean fewer openings at the arenas and thus less revenue for the year, there would be no need to let the regular season spill beyond the originally intended April 13 date. There might even be enough open space to salvage the All-Star Game in Columbus, which presently remains untouched even while the Jan. 1 outdoor game is a goner.
At this point, as lazy and cliché as it might sound, any number is better than zero, as it was in 2004-05. But the more each side of the labor dispute achieves on Tuesday and the quicker they build on it, the more options there will be to weigh leading up to a December puck-drop.