Inquirer Daily News
NHL back on schedule again

Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The ill-fated unbalanced schedule that the NHL decided to employ following the lockout is finally dead, and it's more than okay to rejoice in its passing.

For three seasons, the NHL used a silly system that concentrated on playing mainly divisional opponents and, to a lesser extent, games within a team's own conference. Only a handful of games against teams in the other conference were scheduled each season.

The idea was to engender new and fiercer rivalries within divisions and conferences, but the plan was flawed from the beginning.

First and foremost, the league's scheduling model failed to recognize that certain teams absolutely needed to play each other during the regular season. That problem was most clearly illustrated in the cases of the Original Six franchises.

Two of the NHL's first franchises (Detroit & Chicago) are in the Western Conference, while the rest (Toronto, Montreal, NY Rangers and Boston) are in the East. Yet, under the scheduling format of the last few years, there were campaigns when teams like the Maple Leafs and Red Wings or Bruins and Blackhawks didn't have a single regular-season contest against each other. That means the only possible meeting between those teams would come in the Stanley Cup finals, which didn't happen over the three-year span.

Even without the obvious problems the unbalanced schedule created in regards to the Original Six clubs, there were also numerous rivalries that were put on ice in order to try and create new and less-traditional conflicts between clubs. That's not a terrible idea in theory, but one that would take an extremely long time to take hold. For the most part, NHL rivalries are born and bred in the playoffs, and that's probably the only way teams like the Rangers and a newer franchise like the Florida Panthers would actually develop animosity toward each other.

The NHL's unbalanced schedule allowed some fans of Eastern Conference teams to tune out what happened in the West, or vice versa.
So, in the long run it wasn't worth the effort to try and develop a rivalry between the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Edmonton Oilers, because if one is to emerge, it will happen more quickly when the teams eventually meet in the playoffs. The Oilers are also a good example of a team that had its battles with a familiar playoff opponent effectively end because of the unbalanced schedule. Edmonton went some seasons without playing the Philadelphia Flyers or New York Islanders, teams that the Oilers faced twice each in Stanley Cup finals during the 1980s.

In addition, the NHL's unbalanced schedule allowed some fans of Eastern Conference teams to tune out what happened in the West, or vice versa. For example, a fan of the Washington Capitals obviously knows all about hometown star Alex Ovechkin, and even his rival Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, but that same fan didn't have as much incentive to familiarize themselves with young Western Conference superstars like Dion Phaneuf of Calgary or the Los Angeles Kings' Anze Kopitar.

This all officially changed with the release of the NHL's 2008-09 schedule, which features six games against divisional opponents, four against each non-divisional team within the conference, and at least one contest against each of the 15 non-conference opponents.

We've known about the new scheduling format for quite some time, but it didn't really hit me until the actual list of games were released Thursday afternoon. Most years the announcement of the schedule for the NHL's upcoming season comes and goes with very little fanfare, but on this occasion, the return to the sensible format added some excitement to the process.

It's refreshing to know that this season a fan could see every team in the NHL play if they simply watch every regular-season game involving their hometown club. Hopefully, the balanced schedule will allow fans, particularly those in the United States, to become more knowledgeable about the NHL and hockey in general.

NOLAN KICKED OFF THE ISLE

Earlier this week, the New York Islanders made a surprising decision to release head coach Ted Nolan from his head coaching duties.

It wouldn't have been shocking had the Islanders, who failed to make the playoffs last season, fired Nolan immediately following the end of the 2007-08 campaign, but to wait until the middle of July to make the decision just seemed odd.

First of all, Nolan had a year left on his contract and it's not like the Islanders' front office has exactly been putting together the type of team that is expected to win right away. Isles general manager Garth Snow and his staff have seemed content to make innocuous offseason signings, while relying on All-Star goaltender Rick DiPietro to carry the club.

Both Nolan and Snow cited "philosophical differences" as the reasons for the decision, and it was no secret that the coach and GM had their spats in the past. Still, the firing came as a shock not only to the fans and media, but also to the Islander players and assistant coaches. After all, Nolan is considered to be a coach with a passion for protecting his players at all costs. Just think of his efforts to try to cover for former Islanders enforcer Chris Simon time and time again.

Nolan and the Islanders finished in the bottom three of the Eastern Conference in 2007-08 with a 35-38-9 record for just 79 points. In his first season with the club, Nolan led the squad to the playoffs, going 40-30-12 for a winning percentage of .561.

The Islanders will need to find a new head coach quickly with training camp and the preseason schedule just around the corner. The club will likely head in the same direction many teams have traveled recently, that is, plucking a coach from the AHL ranks. That would make sense for New York since it still has a young team and could use someone with youth on their side behind the bench.

Who knows what the future may hold for Nolan? After all, it took a decade for him to land the Islanders head job after being fired by the Buffalo Sabres following the 1996-97 season. Nolan also had problems getting along with the front office in Buffalo, and could be damaged by the perception that he is difficult to work with.

However, it shouldn't take long for Nolan to land a job this time around. He is a player's coach who has led his teams to the postseason in two of his four seasons behind an NHL bench. His passion for the game and desire to win could make him a handful for many teams, but there must be a good fit somewhere in the NHL for a talented and charismatic leader like Nolan.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Dan Di Sciullo at ddisciullo@sportsnetwork.com.
Dan Di Sciullo