The New Jersey Devils were able to bore the Philadelphia Flyers into summer vacation with a 3-1 victory on Tuesday night. The end was all but certain for the Flyers who have to be at least somewhat satisfied with the results of the extreme makeover they attempted last summer. It is a tough task to make as many significant changes to a roster like Paul Holmgren did and get immediate results. The trick to the moves they made is that they really didn’t get any worse, but they got a lot younger adding Brayden Schenn and Jakob Voracek. Wayne Simmonds also showed that he would fit in well with the take no prisoners mantra of the Orange jersey past.
The Devils are another story. They do deserve credit for being able to get past the Flyers with such relative ease, and also for getting David Clarkson to play out of his mind this year. The guy was great during the regular season hitting the twenty goal mark, and has been clutch throughout the playoffs. Jaques Lemaire also deserves a great deal of credit even though he is no longer with the team. Whatever he did to convince Ilya Kovalchuk that he could not only become a complete hockey player, but excel at it. So with that, congratulations to the Devils and best of luck in the conference finals.
Now on to the elephant in the room. The summer previous the last lockout, hockey games were getting fairly ugly to watch. Not for the on ice violence, but rather the lack of activity in most games. If a team scored one goal, the game was slowed to a screeching halt, two goals and the game was all but over. The NHL removed the obstruction rules and the games became exciting. No lead was ever truly safe, the games were constantly moving at a rather enjoyable pace. For whatever reason, the NHL has decided to take a time machine back about nine years, and the games are getting awfully tedious to watch.
This kind of thing is not all that surprising, with all of the head injuries the league must have felt an urge to do something. For months the traditionalists have argued that relaxing the obstruction rules would result in fewer injuries, it makes one wonder if folks at the league office took it seriously. If this is the long term solution to the reduction of head injuries, the league has bigger problems than the injuries that were occurring. The games do not translate well to people that may or may not enjoy watching hockey, better known as the casual fan. The NHL has gotten lucky this year as the Rangers are a great draw for ratings as they are located in the largest media market in the United States, but this may not be the case annually. The Phoenix-Los Angeles series is proof of that, the hockey was slow and “muddy” by most NHL standards, and the markets did not provide enough viewers to attract television ratings.
Not to get off on another rant with this, but the NHL made leaps and bounds following the lockout with a much improved product. Just because they have a large television contract is no reason to start watering down the game again. I personally am a huge hockey fan, just ask my wife. There is not a game that is on television or live any given night that I will not at least give the old college try, but not when it gets like this. Being a Maple Leafs fan, I have no vested interest in any team that is playing, by definition a casual fan. Watching soccer on skates nightly is not what I will invest my time into.
It is not too late for this trend to be reversed, but history shows that it won’t. The league will look at the composite ratings for the playoff and fail to adjust for the market sizes on two of the four teams that remain playing and think all is alright. But chances are good that both the Devils and Coyotes could make it to the Stanley Cup Final, and with all due respect to each of these teams, the bankruptcy bowl will quickly get the NHL back to reality as far as the on ice product being enough to attract fans to watch. This should bode real well for an NBC network that has decided to tie it’s collective sports anchor to the good ship NHL. They will quickly learn the lessons of broadcasting past when ABC network and ESPN could not get out of a contract fast enough because all night celebrity poker was a more interesting product based on viewer survey.
This is such an easy problem to fix and it requires not one rule in the book to be changed. Just enforce the ones that you already have on the book. Call the obstruction penalties which when left unchecked slow the game into a grinding mess. Allow the best players in the league such as Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik, Ilya Kovalchuk, Mike Richards, Shane Doan, and all of the other non third line players to exhibit the skill that put the NHL back on the map when it was left for dead following the lockout. The kind of officiating that allowed players like Daniel Briere, Claude Giroux, and all of the other smallish players be successful is the direction the league should be heading, not in reverse.
If the collective wisdom of the stuck in time traditionalists says that penalties should not be called in the playoffs, then fine. These people will usually stand on a soapbox and use the argument that when calls are made in the playoffs that the officials are dictating the outcome of the game. This fails the logic test, as by doing the opposite they are actually contributing to the outcome of the game, not to mention slowing it down. They like to use the mantra “let em’ play”. Well, that flies out the window when you can clutch, grab, hold, and pretty much do whatever else you want, but a puck going over the glass incidentally will cause a manpower loss.
This is not really directed at any particular team, as all teams left have been in part responsible. The real offender here is the league that sent the message that regardless of the success and improvement seen when the game was called properly, they were going to go back in time. This formula can not last forever, as eventually both the teams involved and the game will not really be worth watching. The last lockout got everything back in check, maybe the next will do the same.