3 scheduling solutions for the NY Islanders to play their rivals more often

Fans love the intense environment that comes with playing their rivals on home ice.

2024 Navy Federal Credit Union Stadium Series - New York Rangers v New York Islanders
2024 Navy Federal Credit Union Stadium Series - New York Rangers v New York Islanders / Al Bello/GettyImages
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The New York Islanders went 17 straight games without playing their Metropolitan Division rivals.

February 18th marked the latest in an 82-game regular season that the Islanders faced off with their tri-state counterpart, the New York Rangers. Last night's game against the Pittsburgh Penguins will only be the 17th divisional game the Islanders have played.

Through 53 games this season, the Isles have already completed their 4-game series against the Washington Capitals. Not to mention, they only play the Philadelphia Flyers one more time, a team with which the Isles are in playoff contention.

The lack of divisional games is not only frustrating for the loyal fans who love the thrill of a rivalry, but for producing an interesting product. The Islanders are in the mix for a postseason berth with the Capitals, Flyers, and Penguins for third place in the Metropolitan Division. Games in March and April against opponents competing for the same goal make taking the trip to UBS Arena more intriguing. Furthermore, with the implementation of a 32nd team in the Seattle Kraken, the Isles only play the Columbus Blue Jackets and Flyers three times this season, which would be a franchise low.

With the NHL seeking to enhance their product to best compete with the MLB, NBA, and NFL, how can the schedule be arranged to play more games against divisional opponents?

Play each Western Conference team only once instead of twice

The NHL has the same scheduling policy as the NBA for an 82-game season: play each Western Conference team once at home and once on the road. The purpose of this policy is so that every fanbase can experience their favorite teams playing against every star player in the league at least once in each market. For example, star players Matt Duchene and Connor McDavid will travel to Long Island at least once every season.

However, the fans would disagree based on the audience size at UBS Arena. It's easy to say the Isles' attendance is down because the team is struggling. However, the attendance records on home ice are staunch between Eastern and Western Conference opponents. When playing the Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche, Minnesota Wild, and Vancouver Canucks, the audience size was about 14,000. Against divisional opponents, the Isles have sold out the arena every game with the exception of one against the Blue Jackets. Suffice it to say, there is more fan appeal in watching games that matter standings-wise, not necessarily the player appeal.

Under this format, the Islanders would play each Western Conference team only once, with 8 games being at home and 8 on the road. There can be a rotation each season in which teams travel to Long Island with an 'every other year' approach. The NHL could also keep it a surprise, which would provide more intrigue for scheduling releases with fans who live or vacation on the West Coast. In short, this would total 16 games of the Islanders' schedule rather than 32.

Play each Metropolitan Division team 6 times

We just witnessed the Islanders and Rangers draw over 70,000 fans to MetLife Stadium in a state that is not even their own, New Jersey. The night before, the New Jersey Devils and Flyers drew about the same amount of people. This audience size just emulates the passion our fanbases have when competing against one another. The rivalries between each team trace back decades to the opening of the Nassau Coliseum in 1972. Fans traveled from Suffolk County to East Rutherford just to support their hometown team playing the Rangers, a drive that can take up to 4 hours.

Media outlets such as the broadcasters on ABC and sports talk personalities on WFAN described their experience as energetic and an encouraging sign that the NHL is broadening its fanbase. Hall of Famer Bryan Trottier described the rivalry as always intense and a game that every athlete plays with an edge. For this reason alone, just 3 or 4 games a season against the Isles' most hated rivals is not enough. In some seasons such as 2023-24, there will only be one game played against the Devils, Flyers, or Rangers at UBS Arena.

Under a different format, the Islanders would play each divisional opponent 3 times at home and 3 times on the road, totaling 6 games against each team. This would make for 42 games on the regular season schedule, as compared to just 26 this season. In closer review of the standings, every team but the Blue Jackets is in competition for the 3 divisional playoff spots. Games against these opponents in March and April would matter much more if the Isles matched up with each one multiple times down the stretch, rather than play the Ducks and Winnipeg Jets.

Play each Atlantic Division team 3 times

Under this scheduling format, the number of times the Islanders would play each of the 8 Atlantic Division teams would remain at 3 each, totaling 24 games. The attendance on home ice against each opponent is always a near sell-out, with competition for the 2 Eastern Conference wild card spots. There is also regional appeal for fanbases that are close, such as the Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres. Fans are willing to travel with their teams, with Upstate New York and Massachusetts being much more convenient.

Furthermore, there are many relocated New Yorkers in South Florida who always attend when the Islanders visit their arenas. New Yorkers also travel to warmer climates during the winter months, with the Islanders playing between two and four games in Florida as an extra appeal. In total, 24 times against the Atlantic Division plus 42 against the Metropolitan and 16 against the Western Conference results in a normal 82-game NHL schedule. In creating a more intense environment, especially as the team enters playoff season, the Islanders should really be playing their rivals more often than the NHL schedules them to.