Can the NHL get out of its own way?

On the ice, the quality of the NHL has never been higher. Play is faster, while players are more skilled — and feel more freedom to try out the kind of highlight-reel plays that wouldn’t have been tolerated in previous eras. Whether it’s Edmonton’s Connor McDavid using his skating and puck skills to pull off an end-to-end rush or 18-year-old Chicago rookie Connor Bedard showing off a shot that’s already among the best in the league, the game itself is in great shape.

But off the ice, the NHL has taken a hit. Commissioner Gary Bettman has been in his role for 30 years, and the league hasn’t been an innovator in recent years. As proof: In November, the NHL launched NHL Breakaway, its NFT digital collectible program for hockey highlights. In contrast, NBA Top Shot, the NBA’s version of the same concept, launched in 2020, early in the NFT boom. Culturally, decisions such as banning special warm-up jerseys — after a handful of players refused to wear Pride-themed jerseys in warm-ups ahead of their teams’ annual LGBTQ+ awareness games — have created a perception the NHL has little interest in inclusion.

The salary cap has also been stagnant since the beginning of the pandemic, hamstringing teams that signed players to long-term contracts before the pandemic, based on projections of the cap going up. Many NHL executives believe the nearly flat cap (it has risen just $2 million since 2019) has limited trade activity, at a time when NBA teams are making blockbuster trades left and right — and drawing fan interest and engagement from those moves.

The latest projection has the salary cap set to increase by $4.2 million to $87.7 million next season. That should help solve one of the NHL’s issues, but how the league is perceived on a cultural level — particularly among the younger demographic the league is trying to cultivate — will remain at the forefront in the new year. — Bailey Johnson

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