The NHL’s bye week experiment is still a work in progress

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One of the big changes in the NHL this season has been the introduction of the bye week, giving every team in the league one stretch of at least five consecutive days where it plays no games.

The theory behind it was simple: The NHL season, 82 games, plus two months of playoffs if your team is good enough to keep advancing, is a grueling grind and a five-day break in the middle of the season would be a welcome break.

One of the big problems has been the fact that nearly every team that has returned from its bye week has not only lost, but hasn’t even really been competitive in its first game back as they try to shake off the rust and get back to game speed.

After all five teams returning from their bye weeks on Saturday (Montreal, Washington, Chicago, Tampa Bay, Nashville) lost their games, NHL teams are only 3-12-4 this season coming off of their bye.

The 16 teams that have lost their first games back have been outscored by a 60-23 margin (that is a minus-37 goal differential!). Eleven of those losses have been by multiple goals, including seven that have been by three or more.

Even if you include the three teams that won their first game back, NHL teams have a minus-30 goal differential (outscored 37-67) in that first game back.

This has not gone unnoticed with the NHL.

The issue was discussed during Saturday’s Hockey Night in Canada broadcast with Kelly Hrudey talking about a couple of the options that have been proposed, including an extended holiday break (which NHL teams are not in favor of). One of the other ideas mentioned was a suggestion by Calgary Flames assistant general manager Craig Conroy where the each conference takes its bye week at the same time, and when they return from that bye week they only play teams from that conference so nobody has a competitive advantage over the other team.

But while the record of teams coming back from the bye week has been the key talking point, the other unintended consequence that seems to slip under the radar is what that bye week in the middle of the season does to the rest of the schedule.

If your 82-game season is going to cover the same amount of time on the calendar, and you are giving teams an entire week off in the middle of the season, it is going to condense everything else the rest of the way. It is going to force teams to play more back-to-backs, have more weeks where they play three games in four nights, and add to the wear and tear at other times during the season. Making matters worse this season was the World Cup of Hockey that preceded the season, pushing the start date back an additional week later than it normally is.

Several NHL coaches have expressed some frustration with this, not only with what it does to the schedule itself and for player safety, but also for the way it has cut into practice time. Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News wrote about the subject this week, quoting Bruce Boudreau of the Minnesota Wild at the All-Star game saying that he has never had fewer practices in the league as a head coach because, “you can’t kill the guys, especially your best players.”

Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock was even more direct.

“I think it’s 100 percent wrong for player safety,” Babcock said, via Harrington. “You’ve got so many games in such a short period of time and you’re jamming in more. To me, the more days rest you can have by not playing back-to-backs and jamming it in, the healthier you have a chance to be.”

Given the amount of attention this current set up has received, it seems like a strong bet that the NHL is going to at least look at the way the bye week is set up and how it is utilized next season and beyond.