Saturday, May 13, 2006

Where's The Buzz?

Here's a nice piece from Jeff Patterson (Georgia Straight) about the seemingly lack of buzz in this year's NHL playoffs:
The NHL sacrificed a season to, among other things, grow the game by promoting geographic rivalries. The league felt that one way to generate excitement and interest in hockey was to up the number of games so-called rivals played against each other during the regular season. As a result, every one of the 30 teams in the NHL plays its four divisional opponents eight times each throughout the year. That’s 32 divisional games, or a substantial 40 percent, of each team’s regular-season schedule.

Now, on the surface, there is nothing wrong with pushing such rivalries and stirring the passions that go along with such battles. In many ways, it’s one of the better ideas to come down from the NHL’s ivory tower. But how can the league put so much stock in regular- season rivalries and then simply turn its back on those same matchups when they matter most: in the playoffs?

Does anyone else find it ridiculous that of the eight first-round series this spring, only one—the New York Rangers versus the New Jersey Devils—was a divisional matchup? And now in the second round, again, just one—the Ottawa Senators against the Buffalo Sabres—is a battle born of regular-season hostilities. So of the initial 12 playoff series in the run to the first post-lockout Stanley Cup, the league has hung its hat on a whole bunch of contests that don’t have mass appeal or marquee value. In other words, the league itself has stamped “who cares?” on most of this postseason.
I've thought that as well. And while I'm not fond of the unbalanced schedule, I will admit that because of it, the league was successful in creating a buzz in the regular season. However, it also eliminated a lot of the same buzz when most teams started the playoffs playing teams they - and their fans - didn't see much of for the first seven months of the NHL season.

Jeff continues:
No one really needed to see the Nashville Predators play the San Jose Sharks in the opening round. In fact, the people of Music City USA weren’t all that interested in that series, as evidenced by the fact the Predators couldn’t sell out game two even after they had won the first game on home ice just two days earlier. However, had the Preds drawn the Detroit Red Wings, their divisional foe, a team they slugged it out with all season and their truest rival, the place would have been packed and the city buzzing.

Look at the matchups involving the four Canadian teams in the opening round of the playoffs: Calgary versus Anaheim, the Edmonton Oilers against Detroit, Ottawa taking on the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Montreal Canadiens facing the Carolina Hurricanes. Although each series managed to produce some decent hockey and a few memorable moments, not one of them captured the imagination the way a Calgary-Edmonton or Montreal-Ottawa series would have.

To be sure, determining the final playoff lineup is out of the hands of the National Hockey League. It sets the regular-season schedule and waits to see what transpires. But for a league scratching and clawing just to get noticed south of the border, why not give the networks and the fans what it’s been claiming they want? Why not rework the playoff structure to promote divisional battles in the opening round? Why not start the playoffs off with a bang?
Eric McErlain weighs in on the same topic:
Well for one thing, back when the league was just four divisions, there was a time when the first two rounds of the playoffs were played inside the division, with teams seeded 1-4 in each.

The problem, however, was that it wasn't all that uncommon for a dog of a fourth place team in one division to have a regular season record far worse than a fifth or sixth place team in another division in the same conference (Hartford Whalers, white courtesy phone!). But if you seed playoff teams 1-8 inside a conference, the problem disappears.
So how about this for a hybrid solution:
  • Make the top two teams in each division play each other in the first round.
  • Add a "wildcard" bracket between the top two point-getters from the rest of the conference.
  • For the second round, the league can use a fixed bracket (like the NBA does) where the winner of the series with the top point-getter in the conference plays the winner of the wildcard, or it can re-seed the remaining teams like it does now.

This hybrid format, like the current format, also relies on good luck for divisional rivals to meet after the first round, but for one postseason round at least, it guarantees the divisional rivalries the league wants.

One point of caution from Eric:

Can you say change fatigue? How much change can the league go through before fans just stop paying attention to all of the tinkering?

Good point. But sometimes much change is necessary when things aren't working the way they're supposed to. It's just that in the NHL, things don't work the way they're supposed to a lot.

(Links courtesy of Off-Wing Opinion and Kukla's Corner.)

Comments/Questions: Feel free to post in the comments section or email me at gocanucksgo10 (at) hotmail (dot) com.

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posted by J.J. Guerrero, 3:27 PM


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