McKenzie: Flames-Oilers rivalry needs more games, better scheduling from NHL

CALGARY — When the NHL decided to change its playoff format to the current one, since its conference included three teams from each division and two wildcard teams, the train of thought was that rivalries would be in vogue for the playoffs. You can argue all you want about whether the previous format – the top eight teams in each conference – was better, and you’d have an argument. But the case for the current format has some merit given the potential for rivals to clash in a high-stakes playoff series.

That makes the current state of the rivalry between the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers somewhat ironic, even if we’re only dealing with regular-season games.

We’ve seen three games between provincial rivals this season and all were hard fought – each decided by a one-goal difference. But if you were hoping for more fun after the Oilers’ 2-1 win over the Flames on Tuesday night, then you were out of luck. The season series is already over, days before the new year. It’s quite a change considering division opponents typically play each other four times a year, with a few games in the second half of the season.

The Flames and Oilers even met four times before the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the remainder of the 2019-20 regular season and a fifth game was canceled.

“It’s definitely strange that we’re not playing these guys after tonight,” Flames forward Milan Lucic said hours before that third and final game of their regular-season streak. “That’s how the schedule comes about. Every few years you only play three times against a divisional team, which happened to be the Oilers this year. That’s how it is done.”

The Flames and Oilers aren’t the only rivals or notable divisional matchups to have only three encounters this season. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins have only met three times this year, none in the first half of the season, but their games are split between January, February and April. We should also take a moment to sympathize with fans of the New York Islanders and New York Rangers, who also exhausted their three-game season — their last regular-season meeting was on December 22.

While it’s a quirk in the schedule, the fact that games finish before halfway through the season is an issue. It’s fair to say that three or five games are a better way to decide a regular-season matchup, even if they lose meaning for a playoff series. But there would be less confusion if the games were held in November, December and March, as opposed to two games in October and one in late December just as fans were awakening from their Christmas slumber.

“I think I’d be lying if I said it’s not a little bit different,” said Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. “I’m not sure how it all works, the planning and stuff, but I don’t know if I ever played all of our games against the Flames in the first half of the season.”

Flames head coach Darryl Sutter prefers an even number of games, if you’re wondering.

“Having an odd number is odd,” Sutter said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s four, you still want it to be straight. You want that. Especially if you even have teams in the league and even divisions. So they are 32 (teams) and eight (in each division). So it’s pretty easy to do the math.”

OK sure. Maybe the Oilers and Flames have a playoff rematch. But we’d have to wait a few months for that, and it’s not even a guarantee.

Given how good the Pacific Division has been, there’s a scenario where the Flames and the Oilers are fighting for a wildcard spot at each other’s expense. However, no more matches remain between the two to show that desperation against each other. A high stakes regular season game, or dare I say a play-in gamewould be a must-watch affair.

We would never disparage the work of the NHL’s game planners, whose work is hard enough as it is and they find it impossible to look into a crystal ball to see how teams will play against each other. But the odd scheduling of this year’s games means a missed opportunity for more fans to brace for the league’s marquee rivalry throughout the season, months away from a playoff series that pitted teams against each other. Especially when there are two of the best players in the league in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl and two teams with ambitions for the postseason.

Now you can say what you will about the quality of the Flames-Oilers playoff series, a five-man group that had little to no defense or good goalies and denied fans a long-range encounter. But that the series drew so much anticipation is what the league and its fans need.

In a perfect world, the NHL would find a way to emulate the National Football League’s schedule. There is an obvious difference in the number of games in an NFL campaign, increasing the importance of each game, but this league ensures that rivalries are fought throughout the season, with some teams beginning and ending their seasons with a division opponent .

When the league increases the number of NHL games from 82 to 84, as ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski first reported, there’s an obvious benefit to regional rivalries. Four or five games should be an ideal number for those games, but the league needs to make sure they’re spread out throughout the season. Better still, the league has already shown that it can get to four or five games without expanding to 84 games.

We shouldn’t have to wait until the playoffs, or a reported Heritage Classic matchup next season for the Flames and Oilers to meet again.

(Photo: Sergei Belsky / USA Today)