Ask NHL fans what the best part of any overtime regular season game is and the verdict is usually the five minutes of four-on-four overtime play.
Non-stop line rushes, end-to-end action, three-on-two, two-on-ones, acrobatic saves and a frenetic pace are showcased in most overtime periods.
It is hockey at its finest, and while challenging to maintain the pace for a full 60 minutes, it begs the question: Should the NHL move to full time four-on-four play in regulation?
I say yes for the following five reasons.
1. Precedent Exists
The NHL passed on its opportunity beginning in the 1980s to move the game onto Olympic-sized ice.
Dozens of NHL rinks have been built since that time, but the ice dimensions have been unchanged. Since the 1980s, players are much larger on average, and teams play a much more structured game than before.
This leads to larger players playing in a relatively confined space under rigid systems. Reducing the number of players on the ice is not without precedent. Originally, the game was played with seven players on each team.
This went unchanged until the 1920s. It’s time for another reset.
2. Duos vs. Lines
The days of entire lines playing together for any kind of extended time are over.
Many coaches do not even keep the same lines together for an entire period any longer. Duos, however, abound.
With four-on-four hockey, duos would play together and even greater chemistry could be nurtured than it is currently.
The opportunity for both teams and the NHL to market these duos would be much greater than it is currently.
Excitement for fans could only increase.
3. Increased Scoring
Most fans and seasoned observers lament the lack of scoring in the league.
The pendulum has swung in favor of tight-checking play, defensive systems and large, athletic goaltenders, despite rule changes meant to increase scoring.
Scoring chances would increase with the changes, and once four-man units had opportunities to practice together and play more games, scoring would inevitably increase.
Conversely, defensive strategies would still be part of the game, and mobile checkers would remain important parts of teams that play a more defensive style.
4. Roster Size Maintained
The roster sizes would not change.
This would be the chief concern for the NHLPA and rightly so.
Teams could employ a combination of six forward duos, three defense duos and two goaltenders. If you had players like Dustin Byfuglien who can play well as forwards or defensemen, then they could move back and forth.
You could also use five forward duos and four defense duos if you chose to do so. For those organizations that prefer defensive play like New Jersey and St. Louis, they could adjust accordingly.
5. Physical Play Continues
Physical play would not be eliminated.
We still see big hits, intense play along the boards and occasional fights when four-on-four hockey is played now in both regulation and overtime.
Players that would be eliminated would be the current fourth-liner who plays less than five minutes per game and lacks the overall skills to play at the NHL level.
Enforcers that can only fight and nothing else would not offer clubs anything with the reduction in on-ice players.
The process of eliminating the traditional enforcer has already begun in most organizations.
This kind of player would have the choice of becoming a better skater, or he would not “make the cut” at the NHL level.
The NHL product would be stronger as a result.