This is really something that I've thought about for a while, but has never been verbalized so eloquently.
Now, a lot of what Nate DiMeo had to say in Slate this morning may make some of you cringe, but approach it with an open mind. What DiMeo says is that the NHL needs to adopt a relegation system similar to what is used in international soccer. How it works over in England, for example, is that the three lowest teams in the 'A' league get demoted to a 'B' league and the three best teams in the 'B' league switch places with those three relegated teams. Picture the Coyotes, Kings and Flyers switching places with the top three AHL teams because those six teams finished either at the bottom of 'A' or the top of 'B'. The Coyotes, Kings and Flyers could make it back to the NHL, but they would have to finish in the AHL's top three next season to do so.
"You're not just rooting for your own favorite club and watching what happens at the top of the league. You're also watching teams duke it out at the bottom as they fight for survival. Plus, it means that there aren't perennial basement dwellers. Team owners have to keep investing in their team if they want to stay in the spotlight (and stay where the money is). If baseball had this system, the nation would have been rid of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays a long time ago."
Consider it like a playoff race for the worst teams in the league, except they're not trying to make the playoffs; they're trying to not be one of the three worst teams. Certainly, if your team faced the prospect of being demoted, you would still be interested late in the season even if they're at the bottom of the league. Under today's system, you'll probably just give up on the team in December. Essentially; every team will have something to play for.
Obviously, the NHL owners would never go for this, and I'm not sure how wise Nate's idea of having a 20 team NHL is, but it would certainly increase fan interest astronomically (ignoring for a second all of the shock waves it would send across the sports media landscape... instant front page news). Why risk losing your status as an NHL club? Why risk letting the little guys have a shot at the big time? They don't deserve it! And I don't blame the owners for that response. You know that's how they would react, and I know that's how I would feel in their shoes.
If, by some miracle, they did institute such radical change, it could mean more tickets sold across the board. It would take some getting used to, but it's a sure fire way to keep fans interested even when their team is horrific.