As a Western Canadian hockey fan, this year has felt like something is missing. No not because I am some delusional Jets or Oilers fan that thought we were cup bound this year. Not because the Flames and Canucks both missed the playoffs and "oh what a shame not to have them there." I am most certainly not someone that enjoyed the Leafs getting out of the first round but relished in them getting dismantled in five games the following round.
I am, in fact, the worst Canadian sports fan given I am a lifetime Detroit Red Wings fan. The concept of playoff hockey has eluded my fandom for quite some time. Now do not feel too bad for me in the slightest. It should be noted that for the first twenty-one years of my life (twenty-five overall), the Red Wings never watched the high-paced action from outside the club. Four Stanley Cups in a lifetime is more than 75 percent of fans will get to witness in their lifetime. So from an outside-the-club perspective, how has this post-season underwhelming?
Marketing The NHL Could Not Be Worse
This is more of a general complaint about Gary Bettman, which should come as no surprise. If you are a true hockey fan you recognize what a disaster he is and makes Roger Goodell look like he does not hate Tom Brady. The National Hockey League is simply a product that sells itself. Non-hockey fans who turn it on simply because the NBA either is not on yet or later in the evening are rarely disappointed. Even Jeff Hunt appreciates hockey and that guy watches spring college football for fun.
Hockey also lost the excuse of "Well baseball is a dying sport so we are not as bad as them." The implementation of the pitch clock in baseball made games much quicker to the delight of fans everywhere, allowing for more stolen bases as well. While Mike Trout may still be able to walk down the street with no one noticing the same could be said for Connor McDavid in the United States. Sure if you are an Edmonton fanboy you would think that is crazy, but tell that to people in Florida, Columbus, and Nashville.
For a product that "sells itself" they could really use a sales lesson from Jordan Belfort (just with fewer drugs). Bettman's inability to market across North America is a major indictment of his reign as commissioner. The lone bright point recently has been the edition of the NHL's version of "NBA on TNT" with Paul Bissonette and the Great One leading the way. But until the NHL can truly become recognized in all markets the playoff product will deliver some underwhelming crowds. Even Florida at times prior to their deep cup run had some putrid atmospheres in FLA Live Arena.
First Round Was The Best Display Of Hockey
This is somewhat of a common theme over the years, but these series almost always deliver. Not one series was a sweep, only one was over in five games (injuries inevitably made it end early), and plenty of tight games. This was the case from night one (April 17th) when you had every game within two goals, two going to overtime and both road teams taking them. The beauty of the National Hockey League over other leagues is the unpredictability and this year certainly delivered on that. Lopsided games happen from time to time in the playoffs and that is okay.
What also happened is some pretty special moments. The New Jersey Devils looked dead in the water, falling behind 2-0 to the Rangers after being outscored 10-2. They came back to win that series in seven games to the surprise of millions everywhere. The Seattle Kraken, entering just their second season, pushed the defending cup champions to seven games and ultimately advanced. Florida, now four wins away from a Stanley Cup, came back from a 3-1 deficit as an eighth seed, to win on the road in overtime against the Bruins. To say through the first two weeks fans were buzzing would be an understatement.
Lack Of Close Contests In Later Rounds
As just mentioned there is no gripe from me about the first round. A historic regular season team melted down, some Canadian teams advanced, and plenty of seven-game series. But what transpired after that has been a gut punch. The first round was like the first four seasons of Dexter. The last few rounds have been like the later seasons as far as excitement goes. Hopefully, the Stanley Cup finals do not become the awful spin-off show from years later.
Looking back though the Eastern Conference second round did not even sniff a game six. Toronto fell behind 3-0, avoiding the sweep before a gentleman came by and said "Not today Satan." New Jersey also left all of their talent in New York apparently cause they too lost in five games. It was not just losing in five, but being outscored 20-5 in their losses, with their lone win being a blowout as well.
Out West, the product was a slight improvement. Edmonton pushed Vegas to six games while the Stars and Kraken went seven games. That being said, 13 games for
two series on paper seems great, except for the fact that 10/13 games were won by multiple goals, eight of which were by three or more goals. Again, lopsided games from time to time are fine. That number of blowouts though makes the games unwatchable in the third period unless you are clinging to some betting tickets.
Conference finals wise I spent more time watching my Vegas Aces rip it up with new acquisition Candace Parker than I did watching these games. The Panthers' sweep was albeit competitive, all games within a single goal.
But the only time I watched Bobrovsky highlights was if Jay Onrait mentioned him in a TSN top-ten reel. Dallas 20/1 to win the cup also died in the conference finals, with Vegas taking that series in six games, the last of which was a 6-0 blowout.
Two Unestablished Franchises In The Final Is A Shame
This will no doubt be viewed as a shot at the Panthers and Golden Knights fans, but all eleven of them should calm down (I see you wasted Brooks Koepka). Vegas has become a fan-favorite franchise, mostly due to its location and the early cup run it went on. Ask the casual fan to name three Golden Knights players and that might be a real struggle. I certainly could, but if you are trying to appeal to the channel surfers to watch your product having some more noteworthy guys would help.
Those channel surfers also probably thought the Florida Panthers were the Miami Heat's G-League team. This may seem crazy, given they have the best American-born player in the league right now in Matthew Tkachuk. But if McDavid is not getting noticed walking down the street Tkachuk might not if he walked around in his jersey on skates everywhere. They also have a near journeyman goaltender standing on his head more than the Jabbawockeez and no one seems to care.
If you made it to this point you might be thinking "Man this guy really hates these teams and hockey in general" but that is not what the point of this article was. The point was to say that this playoff run in general has not been the NHL's finest. Not every year is going to be a home run. Maybe Florida comes back to win the cup as an eight-seed and I have to go into hiding after publishing this piece.
On the heels of McKinnon's first cup and a Tampa Bay back-to-back the last three years it is tough for this writer to say the product has delivered. Viewership is up, Bedard is entering the league in a great hockey market, and still time for this cup final to deliver. Perhaps this guy just put on his negativity cap today, but playoff hockey since the start of May gets a thumbs down from me.