The 14-Man NHL

ONE of hockey’s greatest problems is depth. Many believe that the National Hockey League has too many teams and too few good players to go around, leaving most clubs with only one or two star players and maybe another ten decent ones, and, judging by the quality of play, that seems to be correct. The most popular solution to the problem is contracting the NHL by four, five or even six teams, with the targets pretty much unanimous, allowing the remaining teams to adequately fill the gaps in their lineup with the contracted clubs’ players. However, since the NHL may not be going to contraction, there may be another solution in the mix, and that would be to simply lower the limit of players NHL teams can carry on their roster, from the current 25 (23 skaters plus goalies) to as low as 14.Of course, this too is probably a pipe dream. The players won’t agree to contraction because they don’t want to lose their jobs, and this idea would also face dissent from the players for the same reason. However, in today’s financially-starved NHL, the owners may welcome the idea of not having to pay as many players, and, with so many players to go around, there would be plenty of options to fill depth charts. Though it’s a small chance of happening, it is still an option for consideration, as another solution to the NHL’s problems.

Under current NHL conditions, there are 750 players currently on NHL rosters, with 23 players to a side. Of those 750, 600- or 18 skaters plus two goaltenders to a side- get to dress for a NHL game, not necessarily meaning they’ll play but they’ll at least have the opportunity to do so. Now, factoring in financial considerations- real or perceived- only a few clubs have the ability to use all 18 players because their rosters are that deep, forcing other clubs to use 12-15 players because their full roster cannot adequately match up against the opposition. If the hoped-for contraction does occur, with four teams biting the dust, only 650 players are on rosters and, of those, 520 get to play. Lowering it further, to say, 24 clubs, only 600 are on rosters with 480 playing. Now, if the number of players were reduced to, say, 17 players- 15 skaters plus two goaltenders- on a side with 14 playing, 510 would be on rosters and 420 would play, a reduction of almost one-third. This would be more on par with the 21-team NHL of the 1980s, which some consider the equilibrium point of talent that the NHL could ideally support.

The plan would have many advantages. As mentioned earlier, there would be more than enough players to go around for every team, with probably a few on the brink players that could technically play. Also, since many teams use short benches anyway, only four or five teams would have to adjust, so the transition wouldn’t be as hard as it seems. As for the players themselves, with only two lines each team would be almost forced to use both lines almost equally since the coach cannot tire his players too much. Finally, there is the financial side- with so few players to pay, it’s conceivable to have a $30 million payroll like the Edmonton Oilers do and still be able to afford a $10 million-a-year player or two, as more money is available for less players. It may stretch the club to the limit, but, in doing so, it could at least be at least marginally more competitive than it is now. Finally, all NHL cities can keep their clubs, showing that, ostensibly, the NHL is commited to making hockey work everywhere, as opposed to saying “only certain cities are capable of being hockey towns because the others can never do so”, much like baseball is saying right now with contraction.

Obviously, there are flaws with the plan. First off, there would be the fear that the players may tire themselves out by the time the playoffs start because they have to play so much more, and the owners won’t reduce the amount of games or game time for revenue reasons. Second, it wouldn’t be out of the relam of possibility for a “rich” NHL team like the Detroit Red Wings to show off a $17-million contract at some point, meaning salary scales would continue to skyrocket. The National Basketball Association currently has this problem, since, with 12 players to a side, there are many players earning $17 million or more a year, nullifying any monetary advantage there would be by having so few players. Still, the NBA has revenue sharing, so it’s not as big a deal as it looks. Finally, there’s the players themselves- they don’t want to lose their jobs, and some may not take too kindly the fact that they were once dependable regulars and are now forced to be used only in practice or, even worse, the minor leagues.

Overall, though, this plan would be a worthy solution to the NHL’s problems and may be the best alternative to contraction. Obviously, the plan would probably never go through- like contraction- since the players won’t like the idea of losing their jobs. Still, with less players allowed to compete in the NHL there would be more than enough talent for everyone and, once again, the NHL fans can enjoy quality hockey for a change. In short, though, no matter what plan the NHL adopts, one thing remains clear: the NHL needs to find a better way than what it has now to improve the quality of play, and needs to do it now. It may be a tired message but it’s funny after all these times the NHL still refuses to listen.