This time last week, we NHL hockey fans were still mired in a lockout, unsure of when we'd see another game played.
Now, just a few days later, we're breaking down the matrix that the NHL is using to construct a schedule for hockey in 2013. Now we know that the league is gunning for a January 19th opening day.
How time flies!
According to this report from the oh-so-linked-in one Bob McKenzie, teams will participate in intra-conference contests only. Each squad will play against two teams within its division four times, and against the other two teams in the same division five times.Then, to round out the schedule, each team will play three games against each of the other teams in the same conference.
This truncated schedule carries positives and negatives. Here are a few humble thoughts for your consideration.
The first and most obvious pro of the schedule is actually having a schedule to look over, consider and discuss.
I can't get over the fact that just a few days ago, we were all waiting for the NHL and NHLPA to finally push it too far, costing us another season of our beloved game. The only explosion that occurred however, was on Twitter in response to the news that the lockout was ending. Finally.
While there are several things to consider while looking at the breakdown of scheduling format, above all I am excited just to have something real to look at.
What-ifs for 113 days can wear anyone out.
Hockey is arguably the fastest game on the face of the planet. Anytime you read about a rookie or first-time NHLer "making adjustments" to the game at this level, this is probably what they mean. The speed, and the quickness that is required to make choices on the ice, can catch the uninitiated off guard.
Training camp typically bridges the gap for pro hockey players. They have a few weeks to work out and get their game legs back. With this shortened schedule, however, they won't have a few weeks. In fact, they could have only one.
A lot of NHL players were able to find jobs overseas and in the AHL, but what about the guys that chose to work out at home? Even if there were workouts with other NHL players, nothing matches the intensity of playing against the best the sport has to offer.
Add in the pressure of needing to win every game (because there are less of them, thus less room for error), and there could be a few disasters in the making.
I hope I'm wrong about this one, believe me. But the chance of injury just seems higher to me.
You'll be hard-pressed to find a sports fan that doesn't love rivalries. Those games tend to carry more weight, have a higher intensity level and resonate on a more personal level than any old tilt.
Rivalries are just like geology. All they take are pressure and time. That's all it takes really. Just pressure and time. (Warning: That link does contain a dirty word, so don't click it if the boss or kid is in the room.)
With the condensed schedule, there will be an increased pressure to win every hockey game. A bad run from Week 3 to Week 6 could cost you a playoff spot, and that fact won't be lost on players or coaches. Excellence will be required right out of the gate.
With teams playing inside of their divisions so often, the chances of a great rivalry or two being born (or furthered) seem greater.
No problems there.
Losing streaks and winning streaks are a part of hockey. In fact, "stringing a few wins together" is such a part of the hockey-speak run-around lexicon nowadays that the words don't even register with me.
However, the words take on a greater meaning when you have only 48 games to iron out any kinks and make the playoffs.
Maybe your favorite team's netminder comes out of the chute cold. He strings together a few rather poor performances, thus getting the hook and giving the backup the chance to shine. Maybe the backup does, maybe he doesn't. But suddenly your squad is 2-7 and staring at a five-game climb just to get back to .500.
I guarantee you that at least one team in each conference will play out this scenario and manage to bury itself early.
While there is usually more time during the season to right the ship and make some changes, this year there may be no saving teams that come out wheezing a bit in strong divisions.
Coming out of the last work stoppage, I had really disconnected from the NHL. I'd just lived the first year of my life without hockey in it, and the gametime habits and addiction were gone.
I wasn't necessarily mad at the league. I was just heading into my second year of college and had other things to worry about other than billionaires and millionaires trying to find a satisfactory way to split their pie.
I read an article here and there, getting a handle on all the new rule changes and how the salary cap worked, but my knowledge of the day-to-day goings-on in the NHL was nil.
Until Alexander Ovechkin started making headlines for his flashy play and ridiculous ability to score goals at will. If I recall correctly, NHL.com did a write-up after he scored 40 goals as a rookie, and needless to say this caught my attention.
I'll never forget sitting in my dorm room, watching a compilation video of Great 8's first 30 or 35 goals on YouTube and falling back in love with the game instantaneously. I was hooked again, and from that day on I never really managed to get the hooks out of me again.
This is all a long way of saying that another player will capture the imagination of fans by the first week of February, and the NHL will finally start making some headlines for something outside of the business of the game.
And this is a very good thing.
I wonder who it'll be this time around. The shooting star that swoops in to give ESPN something to talk about and fans something to cheer about.
Who has an easier road to the playoffs, the New York Rangers or the Boston Bruins? The St. Louis Blues or the Vancouver Canucks?
Looking up and down the standings from the last season, the answer is quite clear. The Rangers do battle in a division that sports three other 100-point teams, while the Bruins beat the second-place Ottawa Senators by 10 points.
This would have been the case regardless of when the season started, but again the effect is magnified in a big, important way with only 48 games being played and with so many intra-division games. The Rangers' playing extra games against the Islanders instead of the Flyers could be the difference between the division title and finishing fifth or sixth in the conference.
Ditto for the St. Louis Blues, who will square off against three other 100-point teams while trying to defend the Central Division title. What if they end up playing Columbus four times while Detroit and Nashville get to play them five times?
Again, with so few games to be played, those few extra games could have a huge impact on the final standings.
The intra-division play is aces in my book, but I'm not a big fan of each team being at a distinct advantage or disadvantage in terms of strength of schedule.
At the start of every playoff series, we are treated to stats from the regular season between the two teams involved. Even if they only played two or three times, we try to derive conclusions about the upcoming games based on what already happened in the regular season.
This year we won't be able to do that for the Stanley Cup Finals, because the two teams involved in the finale series of the year will be seeing each other for the first time in Game One.
Call me a romantic, but I like this notion a lot.
The regular season should go out the window at the start of the playoffs, regardless of the year. This season we'll be forced to can it and wait to see what happens. No recent history, just straight-up hockey for the Cup.
Good, exciting stuff in my book.
NHL players are all professionals, as are NHL coaches. They've all been through the paces a hundred times before, and can pick up systems on the fly when needed. But usually that need arises during short tournaments like the Olympics or the WJC, not at the start of an NHL season.
System adjustments are usually reserved for training camp, where coaches have plenty of time to explain the nuances and expectations of the new system. That kind of time will be out of question heading into the shortened 2013 NHL season.
Pressure in places like Montreal and Calgary is great already. Now imagine having to familiarize yourself with a group of players for the first time as a coach, or trying to familiarize yourself with a new coach if you're a player. Championships are rarely won with unfamiliarity. It's typically the opposite.
Even teams that are bringing in new assistant coaches like the Detroit Red Wings could fall a step behind early, because these are usually the brains behind important parts of the game like the power play and penalty kill.
It'll be interesting to see who folds under this pressure and who thrives.
Franklin Steele is an analyst for the Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for entertaining media and musings on hockey.