It’s been a long wait since Tampa Bay won it all nearly two years ago, but the Stanley Cup tournament is finally back and, yes, so is one of these JABS roundtables we like to have around here. Joining around ye old virtual hotstove for this one, here’s the panel of blogxperts:
Eric McErlain began blogging in June 2001, and went full-time sports in February 2002 when he started Off Wing Opinion. He can also be heard twice a week on the Podcast Bleacher Guy Radio, which he co-hosts with Detroit-based Rob Visconti.
|Yep, it's that time again.|
James Mirtle started his blog in December, 2004, while working as an intern at the National Post: “I wanted an avenue to have a voice on all things NHL. I'd recently talked to a few veteran journalists, CTV's David Akin among them, and they all raved about their blogs. I decided I'd sign up for a freebie at blogspot, and, well, that's where it is today.”
Paul Kukla started Kukla's Korner in July 2005, after starting www.breakingsports.blogspot.com in February 2005. “I started blogging because I was totally miffed with the lack of coverage the CBA talks were receiving in the Detroit media. I just wanted to keep the hockey fans informed of what was actually going on, and the website took off from there.”
Tom Benjamin has been at Canuckscorner since September 2003, “but I've been annoying people with my opinions in various hockey forums for years. A blog was a natural step for me.”
Chris McMurtry started Hockey Country in July of last year: "The blog started out of my enthusiasm for the season once the lockout was ended in July of '05, as I needed a place to put all my disjointed thoughts on the Senators and the rest of the NHL. Having read other blogs, it seemed simple, and sure enough, it was."
So there they are, coast to coast. Let’s get this thing started.
JABS: Before we get into this year's playoffs, a couple of general, looking back questions. We're two years removed from the last Stanley Cup tournament. How did that lockout year away affect the way you went about watching the NHL this year? And what strikes you as the most noteworthy development, either positive or negative, of this "new NHL" so far?
KUKLA: After covering the lockout on an almost daily basis, I was so pumped the puck was again about to drop. Many questions were still remaining but around mid-December I accepted this is the future of the NHL, got rid of some of my stubborness on wanting to see old-old time hockey, and I now thoroughly enjoy most games.
The new NHL has become even more wordly, the development of future stars from Europe continues and enforcement of the new rules has everything to do with it. Even though the game is Canadian and always, will be, the growth of the game depends on the "feeder" leagues in Europe. Their style of play fits the NHL game as we now know it, so it is time to accept the game for what it is and will be. "He who controls the puck usually wins" should be the motto of every NHL team in the future.
McMURTRY: I think like everyone, once hockey came back, I realized all of the little things associated with the game I loved but had probably taken for granted. Stuff like 15 minutes of highlights to watch as I'm getting ready in the morning, something to talk about among co-workers when bored out of our minds, all the rapid callers who call for the coach’s head after every regular season loss. As great as junior hockey is, even in a strong junior market like Ottawa, it just can't compare to the NHL. At the same time, part of me also held the league to a high standard because I wanted to see if they kept their word as far as upholding the new rules and making a sincere effort to change the game for the better.
The most noteworthy development, for me anyway, has been the ability for teams most considered to be out of it before the season even started to emerge as contenders. Every year a few teams surprise us know-it-alls, but this season that seems to be at an all-time high. If you had Carolina, Buffalo, and the Rangers in the top half of the Eastern Conference, you're a friggin' genius. So in that sense, I guess they achieved the parity they talked about.
|Farewell, Brett ...|
BENJAMIN: I don't think the lockout affected the way I went about watching the NHL aside from the fact I watched less. The most noteworthy development was the changed standard of enforcement in the sense that it's had the biggest impact. Whether it is a negative or a positive depends on whether or not you like power plays.
I think it is about three years too early to agree with Chris on the subject of parity. This year we had twice as many free agents, but only because of the missing year. The free agents were still 31 years old for the most part. Nothing really changed very much on the player movement side. We won't see how the new CBA really affects the fan until the free agent age drops and the salary cap climbs.
McERLAIN: Having to go better than a year without hockey actually made me a lot more patient with some of the more profound changes, especially when it came to obstruction penalties. If it had only been a few months removed from the playoffs, I might have gone insane on some of the nights that delivered nothing more than a parade into the penalty box and dueling power plays.
Most noteworthy development? It had to be the changing of the guard. Goodbye Hull, MacInnis, Messier and Stevens. Hello Ovechkin, Crosby, Phaneuf and Lundqvist. It feels like a very different league. That was a big help here in D.C., as the dedicated core of fans knew that it was going to be a rough year for the Caps, and most of us simply concentrated on whether or not Alexander Ovechkin was going to be as good as advertised. And when that did happen, it took a lot of the sting out of some of the beatings the team took this year.
MIRTLE: I think that, considering it had been so long since we'd had NHL hockey, I approached the season sort of refreshed. Normally, you're watching Stanley Cup games into the middle of June, so that when training camps start less than three months later, it's not uncommon to still be a little “hockey fatigued.”
The most noteworthy development was that there wasn't the sort of backlash that baseball felt after its lockout. In general terms, the NHL markets that struggled before the lockout were still struggling, but on the whole, attendance was up. Even among many of the most jaded pundits, there seems to be a sense of optimism about the league's future. (NBC's television coverage has also been excellent, which is a revelation.)
|... Hello, Alex.|
JABS: But James, I would submit there has been a kind of backlash, though maybe in Canada we don't feel it. I can't help but feeling, at least from what I've seen and read, that the NHL has taken a step back in the U.S. sports hierarchy.
MIRTLE: Canadians were over-the-moon this season. The team with the worst attendance, the Oilers, had over 98% capacity. The other five Canadian NHL cities were sold out every night.
As for the U.S., I'm not sure there was anywhere from which the game could 'step back' from. Lower on the sports hierarchy? Hadn't we always heard it was in tractor-pull territory already?
What I meant by the lack of backlash was the big gains in attendance in places like Carolina, Pittsburgh and, to a lesser extent, Nashville. Those were the three teams with the worst attendance figures in 2004, and all gained at least 1,000 per game. I'd say that's rather substantial. The teams that did struggle at the gate this year — St. Louis, Chicago, Washington — can all blame the on-ice product — not the lockout.
It's a gate-revenue-driven league, so the best indication going forward that the league is doing well is the revenue coming in. Considering the salary cap is expected to rise $7-million for next season, I'd say that's the case.
Anyway, I don't want to make it sound like the NHL should be dancing in the streets. The problems that were there still are; it's just that there wasn't any of the backward movement I'd expected. For the most part, people just seem happy to have hockey back.
BENJAMIN: James is certainly right about both the ticket receipts and the NBC presentation of the product, but I don't think it is enough to make for optimism. The problem hasn't changed. It is a gate-driven league and the league only has so many seats to sell. If they sold every single seat - they never will - ticket revenue might go from $1 billion to $1.2 billion. Then what? They can get back to 2003-04 revenues very quickly, but they need American TV to grow revenues significantly beyond pre-lockout dollars. I'll believe hockey will turn big TV revenues in the US when I actually see the eyeballs on the screens in the US. Until then, I'm calling it a pipedream.
McMURTRY: I wouldn't even mention Nashville if I was trying to make a point about how certain U.S. markets have embraced NHL hockey post-lockout. After all James, in your own post about it, Nashville was averaging only 1,200 more this season than last, despite being in a playoff spot all season, bringing in a big name free agent, and being in the hunt for a division title for the majority of the year. They've had the 6th worst attendance. That's nothing to write home about. Sure, they stopped the bleeding and reversed the trend of sinking attendance, but that's still a market with a lot of question marks to me.
MIRTLE: I think that considering how poor that market is, drawing more than 14,000 fans is a fantastic showing. There should have never been a team put there in the first place, but the lockout isn't what 'scared away' the fans in Tennessee.
McMURTRY: That's just not fair, James. Their first three years in the league ('98-'99, '99-'00, '00-'01), Nashville averaged 17,281, 16,660 and 15,824. So they have shown a willingness to watch hockey. Now, perhaps the novelty of the new building and a new sport wore off, but that market has shown they will go to a game. They're just not coming back even though the team is worlds better now. I believe they were one of the "out of sight, out of mind" markets hurt by the lockout. I'd be concerned if I'm Craig Leopold.
|Is Nashville a viable hockey market? Mixed reviews.|
McERLAIN: I'm getting tired of all the proclamations coming from north of the border when it comes to the American hockey marketplace. Yes, Nashville is struggling at the gate, but to refer to it as a bad market that can't support hockey is wrong. It's been more than a decade since GM opened a Saturn plant near Nashville and staffed it with folks who moved down from Michigan, something that gives the team a strong core of fan support to build on.
What Nashville needs is a strong playoff run followed by a sustained high level of play over a number of years. David Poile and Barry Trotz are about half way there. If anything, the folks in Nashville ought to be cursing their bad luck to lose Tomas Vokoun in the same playoff year they draw San Jose in the first round.
The fact is that the American sports marketplace is crowded to such a degree, that it's something of a minor miracle the sport draws at all. Take a look at some of the other choices sports fans can spend their dollars on in Washington, where the Caps drew 13,000+ this season:
*A market dominated by the Washington Redskins, the only unifying cultural institution in the metro area. The Redskins are always the number one story in the papers, on television and certainly on sports talk radio.
*The best dates on the schedule at the Verizon Center are saved for the NBA's Washington Wizards, depressing Caps attendance.
*If there is a second favorite sport in town, it's college basketball. And with the emergence of George Mason, that makes four major college programs (Mason, Georgetown, Maryland, George Washington) that play within a 20-minute drive of Caps home ice. The Caps actually share Verizon Center with Georgetown too, and GW's home floor is five minutes away by Metro.
*For the final month of the season, Caps ticket sales go head to head with the Washington Nationals, a team that gets mega-media treatment from the local press all Winter long.
*Finally, I shouldn't forget D.C. United of MLS, a team that on several nights during its history has actually outdrawn both the Wizards and the Caps.
When you think of it that way, the act of regularly finding 13,000 people willing to pay to see the Caps is pretty impressive. And considering the way the game continues to grow at the youth level -- did you know that the starting goalie for Cornell was born and raised in Texas -- the future of the game in the U.S. is actually pretty strong. As James noted, it isn't without its problems, but its strong nonetheless.
JABS: The rule changes, they have been pretty radical and yes, some nights, pretty frustrating to watch. I'm very interested to see how the new rules apply in the playoffs, where the "anything goes, let 'em play" mentality has been so ingrained that I see perhaps another level of adjustments in store, from the perspective of the players and coaches, and us spectators.
BENJAMIN: I don't have any doubts that the standards will be maintained unless (until?) there is a backlash from the fans.
McMURTRY: What "standard"? It's the end of the regular season and I still don't have a clear idea of what's a penalty in the new NHL, which is my main complaint. There seems to be no consistency to it all. And the problem is, the referees often appear to be as clueless as I am about the whole thing.
KUKLA: The one call I am seeing not made as much lately, is the one-handed stick obstruction, minor hook and weak slash or the other player grabs the stick under the arm and attempts to draw a penalty, and that is a good thing. If a player can't skate through that, they shouldn't be in the NHL.
|Lindy asks the question: What's a penalty?|
BENJAMIN: I think about 50% of the calls are complete and utter b.s. I'll agree with Paul to the extent that this is an improvement over earlier in the season when about 75% of all calls were complete and utter b.s. The worst part about the standards is that eliminating the minor stick fouls has had almost no effect on scoring except insofar as they increase power plays. It does change the game but the result in my view is a kinder, gentler contest without any corresponding increase in real dazzle.
I could suffer through 10 penalties in a period with the Canucks, but I don't put up with it when I don't have an emotional interest. As soon as a parade to the box starts, I start clicking the remote.
JABS: The turnover this time amounts to five teams from the last playoff tournament, including (as of this writing) the (probable) top seed in the east (Carolina) and two others in the top four (Rangers, Buffalo) that didn’t make the playoffs last time around. How did these teams manage to turn it around so spectacularly, and do they look like major players to you?
(Part II tomorrow, as we look over the tournament and make predictions)