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NHL schedule clashes with its own desire for quality games late in the season

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The NHL schedule makers have deemed players these days are more machine than man.

Minnesota Wild v Ottawa Senators

In the first 19 days of October, the Minnesota Wild play just four regular season games. The final 11 days of the month, they play 6 games. For the Wild, the injury bug could not have struck at a better, or worse time. With the likes of Zach Parise, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, and Charlie Coyle all missing time due to injury, a slow start to the season helps these guys get back on the ice with less games missed.

Converse to that, 6 games in the final 11 days of October, plus and additional 15 games in the month of November have the Wild queued up for an extremely difficult road ahead. There is something to be said for how slow and easy going the early part of any professional sports schedule can be. The NHL scheduling department has taken that a bit too far. Sure there’s always the initial excitement for a season to kick off, but life kind of bounces back to normal as the grind of the season gets into full swing.

From October 20th to November 30th, 41 days, the Wild will play 21 games. And it’s not just the Wild that seemingly have to deal with this goofy schedule either. The issue is league wide and it’s a trend we’ve seen growing over the seasons, becoming blatantly obvious just last season. Last season we had the excuse built in with the World Cup of Hockey preceding the regular season, everything got sort of smashed together, especially down the stretch. With this season, there is no built in excuse however. The NHL has opted out of participating in the Winter Olympics in Beijing starting February 9th, and there was no World Cup of Hockey to speak of.

Games by month

Month Wild Total NHL Total
Month Wild Total NHL Total
October 10 180
November 15 207
December 14 213
January 11 175
February 13 207
March 15 235
April 4 54
Regular season ends April 7th, 2018

So what’s the big deal anyway? We all enjoy the drama of the March and April months. There’s not a whole lot out there more exciting than a team in the heart of a playoff race.

But the NHL is playing with fire here. The Wild have a nasty case of the injury bug floating around the locker room right now, which is not how any team wants to start a season, but if there’s any time to have injuries it’s certainly right now. But with 21 games in 41 days early in the season, and another 19 games in the final 38 days of the season, the bookends of the season are ripe for players getting worn down to the point of injury.

What’s more, with all the injuries the Wild have right now, players fortunate enough to not have been bit by the injury bug are going to get run ragged. And while the Wild might be one of the less fortunate teams in the NHL right now, the issue is league wide.

How is it there are more games in the month of February that there are in January and October? And the months of March and April are going to be a major grind for every team in the league with 23% of the 1,271 games. It’s a lot to ask one might think, and how the NHLPA is OK with the NHL backloading the schedule for no perceivable reason.

Now I get the fact these guys are paid millions of dollars to play a game, and if they don't like the schedule they are free to find other work. This isn't about that however. It's about the quality of the game being presented on the ice. As the season progresses players tend to get a little gassed. A little hit here, a hard skating game there, it all adds up.

You want your best players to be on top of their game leading into the playoffs, but with 289 games (19 for the Wild) being played over the final 38 days of the regular season, time away from the ice to recuperate is at a premium. Furthermore, the compressed schedule leaves absolutely no time for coaches to make tweaks and have practice in the late months of the season to prepare for the post-season.

It's not like the NHL doesn't have time to stretch the schedule out some. A couple extra games in January and October give you some time off in March. Being able to field a healthy hockey team in March is pivotal for teams going to the playoffs and doubly so for teams on the cusp. Reducing the players workload late in the season should translate to less injuries, and faster, more exciting games down the stretch and throughout the playoffs.

It feels like a no-brainer decision, now if someone would just tell the NHL they are in fact not the tin man from The Wizard of Oz.