With the conference quarterfinals over, and Round 2 of the Stanley Cup playoffs underway, I have a few observations about what’s worked and what needs improvement in the NHL playoff system. Clearly, the lack of quality, unified television coverage is a sore spot that needs to be fixed, if the sport ever wants to equal or exceed the level of popularity it had in the mid-late 1990s. There are other problems too, such as how the playoffs drag onwards, and how a few teams lack the quality to really belong in the playoffs in the first place.
The way the NHL has marketed every series on the star players present is sickening, and disrespectful to what is at its core, a team sport. No one denies that Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby are great, if not phenomenal talents. But how those teams succeed in the playoffs is dependent upon much more than a single player. Ovechkin and Crosby’s teams, the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins aren’t even the most exciting to watch in this year’s playoffs. In my opinion, this designation should be given to the Blackhawks and Hurricanes. No matter- that’s what the NHL’s paid commentators will be talking about.
NHL television itself it an abomination. Nothing can define a professional sport as “niche” or local-market-only, like inadequate or poor quality television coverage. While a team may have sufficient broadcast of its games in its own media market, there is no national solution. The days when ESPN carried multiple regulation season games weekly, and most of the playoffs, died after the 2004-05 lockout – the result of a combination of poor ratings and poor advertising revenue. Nowadays, the channel, “Versus” provides some coverage, with about so-so quality. However, the channel isn’t offered in basic programming packages for most cable companies. NBC has purchased a chunk of the playoffs also, but puts out a horrible product, with poor commentary, and little promotion. Perhaps one day soon, a legitimate set of non-premium NHL channels may arise, and carry the majority of playoffs games, but until then fans may be stuck listening at their computers or waiting to read about the results the next day.
A frequent gripe about the NHL system of playoffs is the incredible length of time it takes to complete one cycle. With 16 teams over 4 rounds, and the possibility of going the maximum number of games in a 7-game series, determining the championship team can seem almost as tiring for a dedicated fan as it does for the players. But why is it necessary to have so many teams qualify for the postseason ? With only 30 teams total in the NHL, 16 teams represent more than 50% of all teams qualifying! No other professional sport in North America does this except the NBA (and critics agree its system is flawed too). Perhaps a system where only 6 teams from each conference qualify would be a good solution. The top two teams in each conference would receive a “bye” through the first round. While the number of rounds would stay the same, the quality of play should increase. The San Jose Sharks lost early in the playoffs yet again, despite winning the President's Cup and owning the best regular season record in 2008-09. But one series later, and they lose embarrassingly to the Ducks. I suspect that having underperforming teams present in the playoffs exists solely because it increases revenues and profit, not because of some desire for competition. *Sigh- “purity of sport” takes a backseat to financial greed.
As the playoffs go on this year, I hope for more challenging matchups and more exciting hockey. Personally, I don’t have a lot of faith in the commissioner, Gary Bettman to change the NHL much for the better, but I can hope.