Playoff Parity and the NHL’s Worst Nightmare

In the “new” NHL (which is hardly new anymore, given that it’s nearly four seasons old now), practically any team can make the playoffs in any given year. While this may lead to some truly exciting playoff races (and this year is no exception), it also means that any team can make it to the Stanley Cup Final.

And that’s bad news for the NHL.

If the Montreal Canadiens continue their downward spiral and miss the playoffs this year (which would be ever so delicious, to be honest), it would mark the first time ever that there wasn’t a single Canadian representative in the Eastern Conference / Wales Conference playoffs. Instead of Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal, the playoff spots would go to ’90s expansion teams and clubs from non-traditional markets such as the Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes.

Meanwhile, in the Western Conference, it looks as though all three Canadian teams have a good chance of making the playoffs. However, unlike the East, which can fill out the rest of its playoff spots with established clubs such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, etc., the Flames, Oilers, and Canucks could be joined by teams such as the Columbus Blue Jackets, Nashville Predators, and St. Louis Blues, all of which are in the thick of the playoff race for the final few berths in the West.

Now I’m not here to bash the “southern” teams, as I’m sure that the fans of teams such as the Thrashers and Coyotes are just as passionate as the ones in any other city (although the financial and attendance woes of these teams shouldn’t be ignored). But the fact that so many expansion teams could make the playoffs this season — a season that has seen only a couple of teams really stand out above the rest of the pack — is simply not good for the NHL.

Consider the following Stanley Cup scenarios:

Canadian Team vs. Canadian Team: All of Canada would watch and CBC would smash all known viewership records. However, only a few die-hards in the States would actually watch the final series. Really nice for Canada, but ultimately bad for Gary Bettman and the NHL.

Canadian Team vs. American Team: Most of Canada would watch (as the last Canadian team standing is suddenly labelled “Canada’s Team” and becomes last bastion of hope to bring Lord Stanley home). Depending on the team, American viewership would be decent (but not fantastic). Not the best possible scenario, but acceptable for everybody involved.

American Team vs. American Team (Option A): If it’s two American teams with a solid history, a large fanbase, and exciting players, everybody wins. First of all, it gets Americans to tune in — last year’s Cup-clinching game between the Red Wings and Penguins was the most watched NHL game in the U.S. is nearly 30 years. And while such a series might not be as highly rated in Canada, last year’s match-up proved that a Stanley Cup Final without a Canadian team will still be watched in Canada (an average of 2.3 million viewers tuned in to CBC to see Detroit win it all, slightly down from the 2.5 million that watched Anaheim decimate Ottawa the year before). What can I say, we Canadians appreciate good hockey, regardless of who is playing.

American Team vs. American Team (Option B): Pittsburgh vs. Detroit is all well and good. But what happens if by some fluke the top seeds are sent packing early and the Stanley Cup Final is played by two American teams from non-traditional markets with little in the way of star players? Would you watch hockey in early June if it was the Columbus Blue Jackets vs. the Florida Panthers for the best trophy in sports? Or how about the Carolina Hurricanes vs. the St. Louis Blues?

Excitement!

Excitement!

I’m guessing the viewership for such a series would be embarrassingly low in both the U.S. and Canada. While Gary Bettman would probably be all smug about it and hold press conferences touting the tremendous success of his expansion teams, he’d be saying it through gritted teeth as the NHL head office tries desperately to market a Stanley Cup Final that absolutely nobody in North America would give a damn about. Americans wouldn’t watch because of the lack of a big market team, and Canadians wouldn’t watch because of our inability to comprehend the fact that a city that doesn’t get snow could win the Stanley Cup.

Just imagine … no TV ratings, no media attention, no interest, no hope. This would be the NHL’s worst nightmare. And it could easily happen.

Edmonton went from just squeaking into the playoffs as the eighth seed to being just one win away from the Cup in 2006. Who’s to say a team like the Panthers or Predators can’t do the same this year? Given how close the standings are this year and the fact that parity has made it so that any team can pull off a win on any night (just look at the Islanders’ recent shutout of the Red Wings for a good example of this), it’s not a stretch to say that any team, regardless of where they’re ranked, could go the distance.

Sorry Preds fans, but for the good of the game, let’s hope that doesn’t happen. The simple fact of the matter is that the NHL doesn’t get enough support as it is in the United States, even when its showcasing big market teams like the Flyers and Rangers on NBC. Having teams such as Columbus or Nashville in the Stanley Cup Final may help those markets and bring joy to a small number of fans, but in the end it would be like giving yourself a manicure when your arm’s about to get amputated due to arm cancer.

Or something like that.

Excitement!

Excitement!

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