May is a good month to follow European
football soccer, not so good to follow the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Back in the old country, each domestic league reaches its climax, with teams at the top vying for the title and teams at the bottom battling to avoid demotion to a lower league. Each domestic cup—a knockout tournament running parallel to the league season—gets awarded. And the biggest club competition of them all, the Champions League, wraps up. This year’s showpiece, held today in Rome, features reigning champions Manchester United against Spanish giants Barcelona.
Contrast that to being a Leafs fan. After a lifeless season we got eliminated from playoff contention two months ago, though only the most deluded didn’t see it coming.
European soccer ain’t all bunnies and cuddles. Hooliganism remains a disgusting blight, though it’s unclear whether the sport causes the violence or is merely an excuse for it. And successful teams can become entrenched at the top—though falls from grace can be spectacular.
Nevertheless, the NHL could learn a few things from European soccer.
The San Jose Sharks against the Colorado Avalanche (top) and Phoenix Coyotes (bottom). Photos by pointnshoot.
1. Rationalize the league scheduleIn most European league seasons, each team plays each other twice: once at home and once away. As every team meets the same opponents the same number of times, the final standings generally reflect their relative strengths.
In the NHL, a team plays six games against each divisional opponent, four games against each remaining conference opponent, and either one or two games against each cross-conference opponent. Teams in tough divisions or conferences play more games against better teams, and vice versa, and they match up against inter-conference opponents with varying frequencies. The NHL deserves better than this arbitrary system, particularly when playoff qualifications and seedings are often determined by a point or two.
There’s an easy solution. Each team should play each other twice, once at home and once away. In a league of thirty teams, that’s a tidy fifty-eight games.
As for the two main objections—it diminishes regional rivalries, and twenty-four games get removed from the schedule—the European experience is instructive. Regional rivalries remain healthy despite infrequent encounters in the league, and missing games can be compensated for in other ways (see #3 below).
What it means for the Leafs: Fewer league games against Montreal, but they’ll be more meaningful. And ACC fans will see every other team, unlike this year when we missed Colorado, Detroit, L.A., Minnesota, Phoenix, and San Jose.
2. Make the league matterWhile a first-place league finish is the greatest domestic honour for a European team, NHL league standings are pretty meaningless. Although the top-placed team wins the President’s Trophy, few fans get excited about it, and only in North America could the winner (San Jose, in case you forgot) say that it had a disappointing season.
Borrow a page from Europe: celebrate the league champion (and the runner-up). Create an international club competition and allow the top teams to represent the NHL. It’s an achievement to grind out results in Edmonton in November and Phoenix in March, and players deserve greater recognition for it.
At the bottom end, the European concept of relegation sees the worst-performing teams of a senior league exchange places with the best-performing teams of a junior league. In our fantasy world, the Colorado Avalanche, Tampa Bay Lightning, Atlanta Thrashers, and New York Islanders would play AHL hockey next year, replaced by the Milwaukee Admirals, Manitoba Moose, Bridgeport Sound Tigers, and Hershey Bears.
Relegation may be frightening for the NHL, but something like it might prompt bottom-feeders to address, say, forty-two years of futility, discourage tanking (which one Torontoist commenter correctly called “disgusting“), and give lowly teams something to play for as the season concludes.
What it means for the Leafs: We’re as far away from winning the President’s Trophy as the Stanley Cup. Still, the threat of relegation might get us going.
Photos of Manchester United playing (and scoring) against Chelsea by Gordon Blood.
3. Hold a parallel cup competition (or two)Europeans hold one or more domestic cup competitions running parallel to the league season. They progress on a knockout basis: teams are randomly paired up, they play one game against each other, and the winner progresses to the next round.
Without touching the current format of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the NHL could stage one or two new cup competitions during the year, particularly as a shorter league schedule would open up space in the calendar.
This is where the NHL could promote regional rivalries, grouping teams (perhaps along current divisional lines) in a round-robin competition to determine which one or two will represent them in a series of knockout rounds with the rest of the league. A cup in the fall and a cup in the winter might whip up a bit of mid-season enthusiasm.
What it means for the Leafs: More games against Boston, Buffalo, Montreal, and Ottawa, without compromising the integrity of the league schedule. And more chances to win silverware in our lifetimes.