Now that we’re just past the halfway point of the 2013-14 NHL season, I think it’s a good time to give the league an unofficial report card. Because this is hockey, after all, I’ll grade on a plus/minus basis (which is apropos, as plus/minus is a near-worthless stat, and mine is a near-worthless opinion). Aaaand away we go:
- +1: Conference Realignment. Some have groused about the names of the new divisions, despising “Metropolitan” and the fact that only two clubs in the Atlantic actually border that ocean, and the uneven distribution of teams by conference (16 in the East vs. 14 in the West) has resulted in much wailing and gnashing of teeth. To the grousers, wailers and gnashers, I say: If “Metropolitan” is too hard for you to say or spell, just go with “Metro.” As for the geographical oddity that is the Atlantic Division, get over it – Pittsburgh was in the Atlantic until this season and you were fine with that. And the uneven conferences? Well, the supposed greater difficulty of making the playoffs in the East (due to the two additional teams) has been overshadowed by the superiority of the Western Conference. If the playoffs began today and were held on a league-wide basis, i.e., the top sixteen teams overall, nine would come from the West. Realignment has, at long last, fixed the “glitches” of Winnipeg in the East, Columbus and Detroit in the West and Dallas in the Pacific Division. In addition, the road has been paved for the seamless addition of an expansion franchise in Seattle, and another elsewhere in the West (hello, Houston – how are y’all?).
- +2: The Winter Classic. The 2014 iteration of the league’s showcase New Year’s Day event was a HUGE success, breaking NHL records for attendance and TV ratings, as well as generating a net profit in excess of $20 million. All numbers aside, I think the best way to describe the Winter Classic is with a personal anecdote: Though I am a die-hard hockey fan, I’m fairly selective in the games I watch. Though I have the utmost respect for the Red Wings, as a Stars fan, I despise them with every fiber of my being. What do I think of Toronto? Well, generally, I don’t. Despite my antipathy and apathy for the teams involved, I watched the Winter Classic this year, just as I do every year. Because it’s the Winter Classic. I would like to see more variation in teams/venues, though, with Stars vs. Wild in Minnesota at the top of my wish list, followed by Blue Jackets vs. Rangers in Columbus and a game hosted by the Avs in Denver. Make it so, Mr. Bettman!
- +3: Parity. Less than half the regular season remains, and if we use “>7 points out of 8th place” as the dividing line between teams in or out of the playoff hunt, then 23 teams are still in the fight for 16 playoff spots. Though the top three in both the Pacific and Central divisions have separated themselves from the pack out west, the combination of a weak Metro Division (Pittsburgh excepted) and the Eastern Conference wild card race has resulted in nine teams currently battling for four playoff spots. Everyone – players and coaches alike – knows that every point counts. The net effect is an intensity approaching playoff levels, and it’s been building for a few weeks now. Every night is a battle, and it’s exciting to watch.
- -1: NHL Officiating. Last month, Michael Russo of the Star Tribune interviewed NHL Director of Officiating Stephen Walkom about “…how officials fine-tune throughout a season, how they’re evaluated and how it’s decided which officials work the longest in the playoffs.” Unfortunately, one key question wasn’t addressed: If on-ice officials “fine-tune” throughout the season, why don’t we see any significant improvement? The NHL is the fastest sport not involving an internal combustion engine and referees are human, so mistakes are inevitable. The problem is that we see the same mistakes repeated throughout the season, and some are so glaring as to call into question the integrity of the game. It should be obvious by now that four on-ice officials can’t be counted on to make the right call on a consistent basis. Greatly expanded video review and coach’s challenges should be implemented next season, including for referee’s judgment calls, as far too many calls seem to indicate impaired judgment on the part of the ref (case in point: two teammates collide and an uninvolved-but-nearby player on the opposing team is called for interference *coughChrisKreidercough*). Will it slow the game down a bit? Sure it will. More importantly, would you rather spend two hours and forty-five minutes watching your team lose because of a bad call, or two hours and fifty minutes watching your team win?
- -2: The Stadium Series. Many have opined on the glut of outdoor games, and I agree: it’s simply too much of a good thing, and slow ticket sales in Los Angeles and for the weeknight Rangers-Islanders tilt bear that out. New York Rangers founder Tex Rickard once said he thought the market would bear “one or two big events a year,” but no more. Rickard was talking about championship boxing matches, but the principle holds true for outdoor hockey games. Though the Stadium Series clearly did not impact the 2014 Winter Classic, ticket sales and TV ratings for the 2015 Classic will be interesting to watch.
- -3: The Playoff Format. The first Stanley Cup Playoffs under the new format are still three months away. As they approach, expect the controversy to grow. What controversy, you ask? How about the one involving the potential disadvantage of finishing first in your division? If the playoffs began today, Anaheim would finish first in the Pacific, while Chicago would take the top spot in the Central. For finishing first, Anaheim would play Minnesota while Chicago would meet Vancouver. In other words, the top two teams in the West would have to travel across two time zones in the first round of the playoffs while the second- and third-place finishers in each division benefit from easier travel, if not opponents (Colorado @ St. Louis and Los Angeles @ San Jose). How can this be fixed? It just so happens I have an idea…
Another big minus is the shootout, but that’s a topic for another time. For now, we’ll just add up the plus/minus above and call it even, which ain’t bad…and which is a further example of why plus/minus is a near-useless stat.
Follow Matt Pryor on Twitter: @BigTex1926.