In the world of the NHL it seems there is great unhappiness with this year’s wild and wacky playoffs.
For the first time in league history the top seeds in each conference, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Calgary Flames, were bounced in the first round. Even worse, they won exactly one game between them.
The other two division winners in the regular season, the Nashville Predators and Washington Capitals, the Stanley Cup champions, were eliminated in the first round as well.
In Canada, the fans and Rogers Media executives are crying in their beers over the ouster of all the Canadian teams in the first round, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Winnipeg Jets along with the Flames. If you’re wondering why the Boston Bruins are the featured team on Hockey Night in Canada in the second round, it’s because the Rogers bosses quite rightly believe as an Original Six team the Bruins have the most fan interest across Canada among those left in the hunt, which might help mitigate the ratings damage.
However, despite the breast-beating across Canada and certain U.S. cities, there is much happiness in the NHL head office in New York. It would not be surprising if the mood in NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s office is downright giddy.
Having all those division champions and six of the nine teams that earned at least 100 points in the regular season crash and burn validates two major planks of the Bettman administration. The biggest one is parity, which was one of the goals in forcing the players to accept a salary cap in 2005. The other is the argument hockey can flourish in non-traditional markets.
If you look at things from Bettman’s perspective – and this modest corner of the sporting world has rarely been accused of that – it is easy to see why parity is to be prized above all. The commissioner has to keep 31 team owners happy. That has been considerably more difficult since three teams (Chicago, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles) have won eight Stanley Cups in the past 10 years.
Last year was a start when the Washington Capitals won their first Cup after years of falling short. This year is paradise for Bettman because even better than seeing all those darkhorses in the second round (all four wild-card teams advanced) is that a lot of them are teams from shaky markets that are always found in the bottom third of the NHL’s attendance charts.
The best example is the Carolina Hurricanes, who knocked off the Capitals and opened the second round Friday night against the New York Islanders, a once-proud dynasty that declined because of erratic ownership. The Hurricanes, after winning the Stanley Cup in 2006 (another Bettman-style year because the other finalist was the long-shot Edmonton Oilers), missed the playoffs in 11 of the 12 following seasons.
As the losing dragged on, the Hurricanes saw more and more empty seats in an area known much more for its devotion to college basketball and stock-car racing rather than hockey. By the time owner Pete Karmanos finally found a buyer for the club in 2017, the Hurricanes were regularly included with the Islanders in talk about which teams were likely to relocate.
The moving talk ended when Bettman once again pulled a new owner out of his hat, Texas billionaire Tom Dundon. The new owner quickly got up the nose of hockey traditionalists by announcing he would do things differently, such as not pay the market price for a general manager but make the position part of a committee. The iconoclasm reached right down to the players, as their post-victory celebrations on the ice were so elaborately choreographed that Don Cherry called them “a bunch of jerks.”
But those who do not share Cherry’s world view argue the victory routines, which drew lots of looks on YouTube, exposed the team and the league to a whole new audience.
The Hurricanes, as with some of the other surprise playoff teams such as the Columbus Blue Jackets, spent much of the season struggling before a late playoff push, so their ticket sales did not take off. According to figures compiled by ESPN.com, Carolina was 28th in NHL attendance this season with an average crowd of 14,322, which was 76.7 per cent of its arena’s capacity (Columbus was 24th).
The only other playoff team with worse attendance than the Hurricanes was the Islanders. They were dead last with an average crowd of 12,442 for games split between Nassau Coliseum and Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. The Islanders moved to Brooklyn in 2015 when they could not persuade the Nassau County politicians to renovate their old rink or build them a new one.
The move to Barclays, which was not built to accommodate hockey and has thousands of seats with obstructed views, was doomed from the start. The Nassau Coliseum was finally renovated but as a much smaller venue. It holds only 13,900 for hockey, which does not meet NHL standards.
But now the Islanders, who also suffered the insult of seeing their superstar, John Tavares, bolt for his hometown Maple Leafs, have a new rink to anticipate. They expect to move into Belmont Park Arena in 2021, which is much closer to their original home than the Barclays Center.
Even better, the rebuilt Islanders seem headed for greater glory on the ice, which would restore another weak market under Bettman’s watch. Aside from advancing without Tavares, Islanders fans can relish that their team is on to Round 2 with the help of some Toronto rejects. Lou Lamoriello signed on as team president when his GM’s job was taken away by the Leafs, and he brought along players Matt Martin and Leo Komarov when they were deemed surplus by the Leafs as well.
So they are all still enjoying the playoffs while their old team is hearing calls for the heads of head coach Mike Babcock and various players. Also basking in the Islanders success is another castoff, head coach Barry Trotz, who was pushed out the door after he brought the Capitals their first NHL championship.
Yes, life is good for the Islanders, Blue Jackets, Hurricanes et al, not to mention Bettman. The schadenfreude positively reverberates in certain quarters.