Nov 092007
 

Last season there were seven eastern conference teams between 86 and 94 points. As I write this there are seven eastern conference teams within one game of .500 hockey and another nine in the western conference. That is the kind of parity the NHL seems to have been striving for with the new CBA, salary cap and all. But is it good for hockey? Is it good for promoting the sport?

Of the major North American team sports the NFL is probably tops followed by MLB, the NBA and finally hockey. The NFL is kind of a unique entity in that they only play 16 games and that it is gains a lot of popularity because of sports betting (even just casual betting between friends) but parity is anything but real in the NFL. Over the past 4 1/2 seasons the New England Patriots (past 4 plus the current one) the New England Patriots are 59-14 and the Indianapolis Colts are 57-15. Those two teams have won 3 of the last 4 Superbowls and have been the dominant teams in the league. The New England-Indianapolis game a couple weeks ago generated huge media attention and fan interest and football fans of all kinds tuned in to watch. I even found myself, who rarely watches football, tuning in to see what the excitement was all about.

Then there is MLB where it is thoroughly dominated by the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry. These two teams and its rivalry have dominated the MLB landscape for years and people get excited about Red Sox-Yankees games and playoff series. Fans of other teams can use playing against these two teams as a measuring stick of how good their team is. It’s a challenge to compete with these two but when teams do people get excited. People enjoy the David vs Goliath stories. Now one could argue that the Yankees-Red Sox dominance is a bit too lop-sided in baseball but it is hard to argue that that rivalry and having those two teams being a standard in baseball is not good for baseball. The love-em or hate-em attitude that fans have towards the Yankees and Red Sox keeps fan interest alive.

Once upon a time the NBA was the fastest growing sport and in the mid-1990’s may have even been the top team sport in North America. The reason was not parity but because of the Chicago Bulls dominance. Michael Jordan was the biggest sports star on the planet and the Bulls won six of 8 championships between 1991 and 1998. As the Chicago Bulls dominance faded, the LA Lakers dominance rose and they won three straight championships from 2000 to 2002. While the NBA is still a popular entity it has lost some lustre over the past several seasons and I believe a part of that is because there is no one dominant team or player.

And that brings us to the NHL. Most hockey fans, even the casual ones, remember the Colorado-Detroit rivalry of the 1990’s and into the early 2000’s. When those two teams played fans watched. Those games were intense even if they were played in November and only meant 2 points in the standings and those teams were all but a certainty to make the playoffs regardless of who got the 2 points. They were intense. They were hard hitting. In the standings they didn’t mean much, but for the pride of each franchise they meant a lot. They were measuring stick games. When teams played the Wings and Avalanche those games were viewed as measuring stick games. They were games to watch. Not surprisingly, those years were the years when the NHL had their best U.S. national TV contract and probably the most consistent fan interest and media coverage.

The NHL now has parity. The 2006 NHL Stanley Cup champion missed the playoffs in 2007 as did the NHL runner up. The 2007 Stanley Cup champion is currently floundering two games under .500. The big media markets of Toronto, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles all saw their teams miss the playoffs last year and despite having a real good team, fan interest in Detroit has waned probably in part due to the fact they really don’t have a big time rival anymore with Colorado missing the playoffs last year and long time rivals Chicago and St. Louis sucking big time the past few (or more in Chicago’s case) years.

The NHL has tried to create rivalries since the lockout by having each team play their division rival 8 times which seemed to have back fired and resulted in over-saturation. It is difficult to generate a rivalry from 8 relatively non-important games between average teams. Rivalries are created between good teams or through playoff battles but while the NHL promoted divisional games in the regular season they missed the boat by promoting a conference style playoff system. There was a time when teams frequently played the same teams in the playoffs over a number of years but that is not the case anymore. Ottawa-Toronto faced each other in 4 of 5 seasons and Edmonton-Dallas faced each other something like 5 consecutive times. Those Edmonton-Dallas series made Edmonton-Dallas regular season games seem just a little bit more interesting than they probably would have otherwise. That doesn’t happen much anymore. Last year featured only two playoff series which also occurred during the 2006 playoffs. Those series were San Jose-Nashville and Ottawa-Buffalo. The San Jose-Nashville series were generally uninteresting and fairly easy San Jose wins so they probably didn’t generate much of a rivalry but now that parity has hit and Nashville is no longer a good team, and rivalry would have lost its lustre anyway. The Ottawa-Buffalo series did create a bit of a heated rivalry that did generate some regular season game interest but once again the NHL’s parity plan hit the Sabres in the face and now they currently sit out of a playoff spot and no longer do the Sens-Sabres games feature two dominant offensive powerhouse teams.

Who knows, maybe a couple of dominant teams will rise up and some key rivalries will create some league-wide excitement like the Wing-Avalanche did in the late 1990’s but in the new salary cap era I have my doubts and that is going to keep fan interest low. Fans just do not get excited about mediocrity.

  12 Responses to “Is Parity good for the NHL?”

  1.  

    Expansion could help you get some more talent disparity, and that could certainly help. Let’s put a few more teams in here ;)

    Sorry, had to.

    I don’t think parity’s too important, but every once in a while a team does need to be able to win in order to keep the team alive. The problem in MLB isn’t Yanks-Sox, it’s going to be making sure teams like the Royals can survive long-term.

    If the Leafs, Rangers or Habs dominated the NHL every year, that’d be ok. The real issue would be making sure teams that frequented the bottom of the standings wouldn’t collapse.

    As for the scheduling issue, it works in other sports, and I think it could work in hockey. The media really pushed the “everyone should play each other” idea and for whatever reason, people bought it. It seems like it’s one step forward and two steps back to me, but hey, at least we have more Canes-Coyotes games, and I know everyone is going to tune into that.

  2.  

    I would love a return to divisional playoffs – I think it would be terrific for hockey. One thing that is true -

    However, several points above seem to me incorrect -

    The NHL has tried to create rivalries since the lockout by having each team play their division rival 8 times which seemed to have back fired and resulted in over-saturation.

    Huh? Over-saturation? C’mon now. Divisional games should have more fights, more physical play, and more effort. I enjoy them far more than any other contests. In October they’re a little lifeless but in March they absolutely are not.

    Over the past 4 1/2 seasons the New England Patriots (past 4 plus the current one) the New England Patriots are 59-14 and the Indianapolis Colts are 57-15. Those two teams have won 3 of the last 4 Superbowls and have been the dominant teams in the league.

    Surely you are not so foolish as to believe such teams could exist in hockey. In hockey there is far more variance in-game than in football.

    fan interest in Detroit has waned probably in part due to the fact they really don’t have a big time rival anymore with Colorado missing the playoffs last year and long time rivals Chicago and St. Louis sucking big time the past few (or more in Chicago’s case) years.

    There are a multitude of reasons why fan interest is waning in Detroit – I don’t think the lack of a Colorado is necessarily the reason.

    I think you are ignoring the fact that 1/3rd of the league is playing for a different team now than they were pre-lockout. It is difficult to re-ignite rivalries after a year off and all the players moving around.

    I do think that dynasties are interesting – and create a more interesting league. But they cannot be at the expense of legitimate competition. In the NFL, they are not – while there are awful teams in the NFL this season, they can draft well and be just fine next season. There is parity – I defy anyone to pick 6 NFL teams who will miss the playoffs pre-season and get them all right – but there are dynasties too – an excellent compromise. In Major League Baseball, the dynasties come at the expense of legitimate competition – and while you claim that the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry is huge, my guess is that most baseball fans couldn’t care less about it, because both teams represent large-market teams who continually ravage the small-market teams for their best talent once they hit free agency or unaffordability. Goliath vs. Goliath is not that interesting. It kills in the ratings because Boston and New York have very loyal fan bases that are dispersed around the country, but remember the Mets-Yankees World Series got a terrible nationwide ranking.

    I’d advocate a return to the divisional playoffs, but there’s an uneven number of teams – one team would have to shift conferences, which would once again make it unequal. Failing that, I think the NHL should go to 10 teams making the playoffs from each league, with a 3 game playoff between 7-10, 8-9. These games would generate more revenue for the league and be tremendously exciting, while rewarding the top two teams in the Conference for finishing where they did. More than the problem of parity to me is that a good regular season is wasted by two bad games and facing a super-hot goaltender. There needs to be more of an edge for the teams finishing first, otherwise the incentive just isn’t there, and regular season games suffer.

    I’d also like to point out that it is the new CBA that allowed Buffalo to even be competitive in the first place. Under the old system, Briere is sold a year before his UFA age.

  3.  

    Expansion could help you get some more talent disparity, and that could certainly help. Let’s put a few more teams in here

    Expansion is a key problem in the NHL. Expansion means greater parity and a far less chance of the same teams making and meeting in the playoffs, even in a divisional system.

    Huh? Over-saturation? C’mon now. Divisional games should have more fights, more physical play, and more effort. I enjoy them far more than any other contests. In October they’re a little lifeless but in March they absolutely are not.

    And for the most part they still aren’t all that exciting. At least, not like what they used to be 15 years ago. Part of the reason for that is they don’t have divisional playoffs. Oversaturation is probably not the right word. But the NHL has messed that up too by packing so many divisional games together. Phoenix plays San Jose three times in a row next week. yawn.

    Surely you are not so foolish as to believe such teams could exist in hockey. In hockey there is far more variance in-game than in football.

    Not with that W-L record, but why can’t there be dominant teams in the NHL. We’ve had them in the past and we can have them again.

    There are a multitude of reasons why fan interest is waning in Detroit – I don’t think the lack of a Colorado is necessarily the reason.

    I am sure playing Chicago, Columbus, and St. Louis 24 times in each of the past 2 seasons hasn’t helped. Yawn.

    I’d also like to point out that it is the new CBA that allowed Buffalo to even be competitive in the first place. Under the old system, Briere is sold a year before his UFA age.

    Under the old system Briere is not yet have been a UFA and neither would have McKee been a UFA. Under the new CBA they lost Briere and McKee sooner and got nothing for them.

  4.  

    Rivalries are born in the playoffs. Plain and simple. The Leafs-sens and Sabres-sens rivalries didn’t arise out of 8 games a year during the regular season.

    The only time the regular season matchups develop any heat is when they take place in back-to-back games much like, yup you got it, in the playoffs.

  5.  

    And in the “if someone falls we have to call a penalty” era the players get more angry at the refs than each other so most games lack intensity even in back to back situations.

  6.  

    Expansion is a key problem in the NHL. Expansion means greater parity and a far less chance of the same teams making and meeting in the playoffs, even in a divisional system.

    Agreed, but unless the NHL is working on a time machine, there’s nothing that can be done about this.

    And for the most part they still aren’t all that exciting. At least, not like what they used to be 15 years ago. Part of the reason for that is they don’t have divisional playoffs. Oversaturation is probably not the right word. But the NHL has messed that up too by packing so many divisional games together. Phoenix plays San Jose three times in a row next week. yawn.

    The league’s scheduling is terrible. I have no idea why these things occur. I do not think the NHL has messed anything up by packing so many divisional games together, and I think they are making a mistake going back to the pre-lockout schedule. Maybe I am biased because the Atlantic Division features phenomenal rivalries between all the teams except maybe Islanders vs. Penguins.

    I am sure playing Chicago, Columbus, and St. Louis 24 times in each of the past 2 seasons hasn’t helped. Yawn.

    Under any good system they are playing these teams 18 times, and the other 6 games are wasted on intra-conference matchups which are FAR worse than too many divisional matchups. You want real yawners, watch teams on long cross-country road trips go play teams they see once a year.

    Under the old system Briere is not yet have been a UFA and neither would have McKee been a UFA. Under the new CBA they lost Briere and McKee sooner and got nothing for them.

    and Vanek would’ve had to be signed with a ludicrous bonus, and so on. We can go back and forth on this. The fact is that the new CBA allows teams to retain their players in a small market far better than the old one.

  7.  

    I don’t understand how the new CBA allows teams to retain players ANY better than the old one. It reduced the UFA age, and severely restricted the number of dollars a team can throw at it’s good young players that it develops. Not that the smaller market teams ever had this option, but all they become in this system is feeders to clubs with salary cap space.

    I have to agree that parity isn’t always a positive. The reason it doesn’t make a difference in the NFL is because players don’t have guaranteed contracts. If you want to dump a player that’s underperforming, you cut him, and you’ve cleared cap space. They also have rules regarding designated players, 1 per season, to prevent top flight talent fleeing on a yearly basis. This is going to be an increasing issue in the NHL. Players stuck in markets they don’t particularly enjoy (no offence to our friends down the QEW, but this could be read as “Buffalo”) will flee for greener, more metropolitan pastures, as soon as possible under the new system.

    If the NHL wants to maintain rivalries, it needs to make divisional rankings meaningful IN the division. The current conference ranking system means divisional games are actually no more important than any other inter-conference matchup… there just happens to be more of them. If divisional rankings were used for playoff seeding (beyond the top 3 spots), then divisional match ups would actually mean something.

    Personally I hope the league contracts by 2 or 3 franchises, and then we return to something resembling the old divisional/conference system. I miss the old Leafs-Blues, Leafs-Wings rivalries of the Pat Burns years, just like I miss the not-so-old Leafs-Sens series years of Pat Quinn.

    Here’s hoping SOMETHING makes it less … meaningless.

  8.  

    Along these lines, I also think that making a big deal out of every game that is played (ie. turning down the lights, light shows, videos, etc. is overdone and doesn’t leave much to elevate to when the playoffs come around.

  9.  

    I don’t understand how the new CBA allows teams to retain players ANY better than the old one. It reduced the UFA age, and severely restricted the number of dollars a team can throw at it’s good young players that it develops. Not that the smaller market teams ever had this option, but all they become in this system is feeders to clubs with salary cap space.

    It doesn’t allow team to retain player X, but it allows them to obtain similar player Y or Z in free agency. At least in theory. If you’re out of cap space, that’s your own fault. In Year 3, a team can certainly look ahead and see who’s going to need to be paid what down the road.

    A lot of teams are betting on the salary cap rising at the same rate it has in previous seasons. I don’t see it rising at the same rate – not with attendance the way it is in the US.

  10.  

    A lot of teams are betting on the salary cap rising at the same rate it has in previous seasons. I don’t see it rising at the same rate – not with attendance the way it is in the US.

    The problem with this logic is, the US attendance figures haven’t dropped drastically from past years but the Canadian Dollar HAS gone up. Since the Canadian franchises have higher gate revenue streams than the American franchises, and their incomes are going up relative to the greenback, you can expect the cap increasing yet again this coming off season. The problems will result if the Canadian dollar retreats against the American $ once again… which is quite possible. Then the Canadian teams would again be shafted, and the American franchises will be less burdensome on the system… right now is basically NOT good for Bettman’s vision of a strong US market for the NHL.

  11.  

    Speaking personally, I enjoy the parity. In the past, a Nashville/Columbus matchup would have held no interest for me, but I’m watching it tonight.

    As far as your comment on every team playing every other team; I fail to understand how a Canes/Phoenix matchup is any less interesting than a Senators/Panthers matchup and I certainly see the benefit of having the Penguins play the Wild. No, they don’t have a rivalry, but neither do the Senators and Panthers. The eastern and western Canadian teams playing each other regularly also have added interest for me, but I regularly sell my Oilers/Wild, Flames/Wild, Canucks/Wild tickets. I would say ‘oversaturation’ of divisional games is the perfect word.

    It won’t take much to re-kindle the Hawks/Wings rivalry. The Hawks have won the last 2 times they’ve played (another benefit of parity?).

    It’s no fun (for me), in any league when you know 70% of the playoffs teams before the season starts. Baseball is horrible that way. There are always teams that are going to have an advantage based on superior management (see: Red Wings), but I, for one, am glad to see the days when a team could simply spend their way to a spot in the playoffs, have come to an end.

  12.  

    I will also acknowledge that I’m not a typical hockey fan and that nothing I said answered the question “Is parity good for the NHL?”

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