As the Stanley Cup Finals approach, the players from Anaheim, Buffalo, and Carolina will really appreciate the extended break that the remaining Western Semifinals series has afforded them. Thanks in part to the Winter Olympics, many of these athletes have played over 100 games since October, and while most of us can envy those who do what they love for a living, we should also harbor some sympathy for the men who put on sweaters year-round.
No sport demands nearly as much from its athletes as does hockey — nothing comes even close. For the not-so-young players, this seems to have worn down their playoff aspirations, and their postseason losses should resonate sharply with those of us who call ourselves real fans. Indeed, the near absence of veteran stars in this year's Stanley Cup run demonstrates the clear need for a shorter regular season.
What childish bickering failed to accomplish, though, might have been legitimized by the disappointing NHL postseason. Even Gary Bettman has to be discouraged by the lack of established stars who survived the month of April. Indeed, this newer, faster NHL afforded them much less late season opportunity.
One could not help watching Jaromir Jagr and wonder 'what if'? Had he not limped off the ice and left a clueless Rangers team behind him, might we have seen that same Hart-caliber brilliance deep into the Stanley Cup Finals? And where did The Dominator go? Remember that brief match up against his former Buffalo teammates? You know, the one in which he did not participate? A legendary rematch might have taken place, were it not for a groin injury that resulted from his long Olympic winter. Needless to say, few will remember the lackluster series that Hasek watched from the bench.
Were the regular season shorter, one also has to imagine that the Red Wings would have continued their veteran-led dominance late into the playoffs. Detroit sported not one, but two players with twenty-three years experience. Chris Chelios and Steve Yzerman deserved to skate off the ice as champions, or at least as winners of their opening round. But how much can you ask of men in their forties? While the Red Wings do have several young stars, their regular season success was largely driven by established competitors, including Nicklas Lidstrom and Brendan Shanahan, the latter of whom scored one goal in six playoff games.
Though the elder statesmen of hockey departed early, the NHL postseason has offered up its usual young-goalie surprise. Anaheim's Ilya Bryzgalov turned out to be this year's Jean-Sebastien Giguere — the next in what has become a tradition of young, out-of-nowhere goaltenders who shine in the postseason. As far as skaters go, only one of the post-seasons' top ten scorers, Jamie Langenbrunner, is out of his twenties' and only by a few months. The playoffs' biggest remaining star, Eric Staal, is barely old enough to drink.
In short, the NHL playoffs need some veteran success stories. Wasn't it great to see Jagr have a comeback season? How about Paul Kariya's return to prominence? Don't tell me you weren't cheering for Joe Sakic — one of the only Hall of Famers to enter round two. These guys are legends and deserve to have the late-stage success that we have recently associated with Curt Schilling or Jerome Bettis.
Cutting the regular season to seventy-two games might cost the league some money, but it has several obvious advantages. First, it would help the league to better spotlight the aforementioned established stars — the inability to make household names out of its players has been a costly NHL struggle for years. Second, it would allow the playoffs to get a one month jump on the NBA playoffs, which would greatly improve media coverage. Finally, it would keep players healthy for longer, which is an implicit goal of any competitive sports league.
Given the overwhelming success of the 2005-2006 NHL season, teamed with the major changes that it recently oversaw, an abbreviated year is probably not in the cards for now. That said, it is an idea that the league should seriously re-visit as it continues to groom the next generation of stars. Twenty years from now, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin will still be vying for Lord Stanley's trophy — lets hope that the league isn't too fast for them in 2026.