NHL News

If Season Canceled, NHL Will Need Lightning to Strike Twice

Patrick Kane after scoring in OT to win the Cup in 2010. [Photo via Newsday]

Patrick Kane after scoring in OT to win the Cup in 2010. [Photo via Newsday]

Prior to the current lockout, the NHL found itself in a unique position. Each of its franchises in America’s largest sports markets – New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Detroit – had competitive teams with legitimate championship hopes. The Rangers were one goal away from the Finals last year, and oh, what a sexy Finals that would have been. Now that Rick Nash is finally out of juniors Columbus, we can expect more from him and the rest of New York’s stacked squad, even without Dubinsky. With much of its 2011 championship team intact, including arguably the best goaltending tandem in the league, the Bruins were heavy favorites until the Caps’ Joel Ward scored in OT and incited a barrage of racist tweets from Southie (who knew they were on Twitter?). The Flyers’ line-up, even after Gagne, Richards, and Carter’s departure, packed some serious firepower, but eventually succumbed to an evident lack of discipline and competent goaltending. Enjoy the remainder of Bryz’ nine-year, $51 million contract, Philly fans.

Even with Lidstrom gone, the Red Wings will continue to contend, as evidenced by Datsyuk tearing up the KHL on a near-nightly basis. The lockout robbed the Kings of the opportunity to capitalize on any momentum gained from winning its first Stanley Cup in franchise history. The team was hardly the best in the league throughout the regular season and got hot at precisely the right time to make their unprecedented run (think last year’s New York Giants). Jonathan Quick was virtually impenetrable in the postseason, and the UMass Amherst alum will likely remain so.

So to review, the Cup winners since the 2004-05 lockout: Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago (over Philadelphia), Pittsburgh (over Detroit), Detroit (over Pittsburgh), Anaheim, Carolina.

America loves winners. Each of its Big Five sports markets possessed winners. The 2012-13 season would have been the year the NHL finally broke through into the American mainstream, at least to a certain extent. It was due. A Winter Classic at the Big House signified that. The cancellation of a Winter Classic at the Big House signified the shattering of these great expectations.

As soon as this CBA stalemate is passed like the kidney stone it is, the league will immediately begin its thinly veiled attempts to save face. Fine. As a business, first and foremost, it ought to. But lame marketing ploys (Guardian Project, anyone?) can only do so much. The NHL will need to rethink their content. After all, it is what built the league back up in the seasons that followed the 2004-05 lockout.

Last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs cooled off as they wore on, culminating in a thoroughly uninspiring Finals. After the Kings’ upset over the Canucks and a slobber-knocker of a series between Philly and Pittsburgh in the first round, it was all blocked shots and uncomfortable Tortorella pressers until the Kings steamrolled a Devils team that, had it not been for two overtime goals from rookie Adam Henrique and his glorious porn star mustache, had no business being in the Stanley Cup Finals.

In order to keep the casual fans, the NHL needed the 2012-13 season to begin as soon as possible, and with as much scoring as possible. Americans, who fuel the league’s $2 billion television contract with the NBC Sports Network, love scoring. It’s no wonder why the few friends I have over at Penn State tuned in to watch Bryzgalov and Fleury let in a few dozen goals in the first round after never having watched a minute of hockey. While this is one extreme end of the spectrum, it certainly beats three grinding periods of 1-0 hockey. Blocked shots and the creeping return of the neutral zone trap, albeit diluted, will continue to keep scoring down and the casual fan away, which will prove especially problematic when the anemic league attempts to win them back. What casual fan would ever willingly tune in to this?

As a result of the 2004-05 negotiations, the red line was eliminated, and with it the two-line pass. This allowed for a flood of scoring. Now, the league is considering reinstating the rule. Bad idea, says SB Nation‘s Travis Hughes:

It slows things down, jams up the game in the neutral zone and creates a lot less offensive pressure at both ends of the ice. There are fewer goals as a result. Even if you like defensive hockey and creativity in creating chances through the neutral zone, back-and-forth play in between the blue lines is about as boring as hockey gets.

In addition, the NHL will need storylines. In the past, the league tried pitting Crosby and Ovechkin against one another in hopes it would create a blockbuster rivalry not unlike Magic/Bird. The harsh reality is that Crosby/Ovechkin will never be Magic/Bird. No NHL player rivalry will ever be Magic/Bird. The NHL simply cannot produce rivalries like this. Instead, it can create rivalries much like the MLB does. No matter how it is marketed, no casual fan will be swayed by a Chara/Pacioretty rivalry. But if done right, Bruins/Habs will attract a much wider audience than it already does. The league must take advantage of the existing rivalries with rich histories rather than force hockey on an indifferent American South: Rangers/Devils(or Flyers), Penguins/Capitals, Blackhawks/Red Wings, even Ducks/Sharks.

Of course, luck had a lot to do with the success the league enjoyed between lockouts, namely droughts. The Kings won their first Cup in the franchise’s 44-year existence. The Bruins won their first Cup in 39 years, and the season after becoming only the third team ever to blow a three-game lead in the playoffs. The Blackhawks ended a 49-year drought with their win over the Flyers in 2010. The Pens and Red Wings traded wins in 2009 and 2008, and the Ducks and Hurricanes won their first ever Cups in 2007 and 2006, respectively.

In other words, storylines upon storylines.

The NHL cannot control this (unlike the NBA), but it can do a few things to minimize the tremendous damage this lockout will inflict. By marketing team rivalries – especially those in its thriving Big Five American markets – and continuing to keep the two-line pass out of the game, the league can offer quality content while it hopes for another miracle. Or seven.

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3 thoughts on “If Season Canceled, NHL Will Need Lightning to Strike Twice

  1. I agree with some of what you had to say, but I think there’s a lot of exciting hockey going on outside the big markets. St. Louis and Nashville, just to name a couple. I do agree the NHL is exciting enough in itself and the league needs to play of what’s happening instead of trying to force storylines that aren’t there. But to say the Devils didn’t deserve to make it to the finals is an absurd statement. They just skidded by in Florida, but after that, they were dominant. They completely dominated Philly, and, yes, they beat the Rangers on a Henrique OT goal, but that was not a game 7. They couldn’t compete with LA because they couldn’t beat Quick, simple as that. He had that Conn Smythe locked up from game 1.

    • I agree that exciting hockey can be found in St. Louis and Nashville. However, the Blues and Preds rank 30th and 25th in franchise value, respectively. The hockey might be there, but the money certainly isn’t.

      • Agreed, I think the NHL should be feeding a little more cash in the direction of the exciting teams that don’t get as much exposure, and I think more should be done to promote hockey in these cities.

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