Way back in the old days... 1991, gas cost $1.60 per gallon, a pack a cigarettes cost $1.25 and the NHL had 22 Flourishing teams, seven of which were Canadien based. The market was strong, the fan base was even stronger and the televeision presence was even stronger yet. The league was flourishing, the talent pool was very well stocked and everything was running smoothly as it had been for 74 prior years.
Fast forward to 2007, a gallon of gas costs between 2.80 and $3.00 per gallon and a pach of cigarette's costs $5.00 in most places. The NHL has over gorwn it self to 30 teams, all of which are the result of expansion and all of which are located in the "sun belts" of the United States, California, Florida, Georgia, Arizona and Tennessee while Canada lost teams in Winnipeg and Quebec. Since 1991 there have been two work stoppages in the form of player lock outs, one in 1994 and another in 2004 which resulted in a loss of the entire season, the first time in American sports history a league cancelled it's whole season due to contract negotiations. In 2007 we also suffer through the loss of national television broadcasts and major cable network broadcasts. Now, a mojority of the cable coverage is regional or a seldom carried channel called "Vs". The fan base is declining very fast, attendance at game is dwindling and advertising is minimal at best.
Fixing this is very simple but it would take balls to do it. First of all, eliminate the "hard salary cap" that was implemented in the 2004 strike and in it's place replace it with a soft cap and add a luxury tax. This give owners the right to pursue whatever player they want regardless of price, but would also have to pay a small penalty in addition. Second of all, give all the big networks another chance to carry games on national tv, only this time, take what they offer no matter what the cost. The only way to fix the league is to put it in the publics eye and broadcasting games on a little tiny cable channel just isn't going to do it. Take the hit for a few years, sign with ESPN, or ABC for 5 years at a fraction of the price, let the league get it's steam back and then you'll have more bargaining power when the contract expires and I guarantee you'll get a much better offer the next time negotiations come around.
Start trimming some of the fat, start shutting down franshises that aren't doing what they need to do, make money and drawing in people. It is a business just like anything else, if it doesn't pull it's own weight you have to dump it. Yes, it's going to hurt, it's, probably going to hurt real bad, but it not going to hurt nearly as bad as it hurts the leagues pocket book keeping them around. Get the league back down to realistic numbers, the talent poo, will again start to grow and as a result you'll get a much much better product on the ice and again resulting in better viewership and that leads to national coverage.
The next thing would be to focus alot more on advertising and less about rule changes. I would start an NHL combine, a kick off of the NFL combine. Have these college players get their names out their, put them on TV and have them do the skills, how in the world can this hurt. You have all these NHL scouts out there, let them show us what they are scouting, let them show us why players are predicted to be drafted first, second or third. Advertise on TV, advertise on the radio, you could even advertise on the sides of busses but god sake just advertise! I see nothing advertised these days... anywhere. Back in the 80's Mike Iilitch, the owner of the Detroit Red Wings was forced to give cars away between period to get fans in the seats, and it WORKED! Look at the Red Wings now. With the price of cars these days thats not very feasible, but you can give away hats, t-shirts, mini hockey sticks... anything you can put a logo on you should be handing it out to every person who walks through the turnstile. The league should take the Stanley Cup one time, to every city that has a NHL team and bring some of the history too. A traveling Hall of Fame if you will. Most people have never seen the actual cup itself, most poepl have never seen the Hall of Fame and the history it provides, this would spark interest and alot of it!!
And lastly, you need to lower the ticket prices. A family of 4 needs to be able to come to these games and not go broke doing it. True, the NFL, NBA and MLB dont lower their prices, but you have to remember, they are "main stream" sports, they have a very solid foundation to sit on, the NHL is very shaky and sitting on a rickety foundation. Lower the ticket prices, lower the cost of consessions, make it affordable, a family shouldn't have to feel a huge pinch to go to a game.
I think these changes would and would drastically change the state of the NHL. Sure the league would feel a pinch in the short term, but it's long term rewards would surely out weigh the hardship the league would feel in the short term.