Small Talk: A Look at the NHL Season Halfway Through
We are just over halfway through the 2021-22 NHL season. Here are some of my casual, instinctive observations on the season thus far.
New ESPN/TNT TV Deal
This season marked the first in over 15 years that NBC would no longer carry the NHL. ESPN and TNT signed a joint deal and will now share the NHL package.
Let’s start with ESPN. Unpopular opinion, but I don’t like John Buccigross as the face of the NHL on ESPN. His calls are overdone, and don’t feel authentic. Good on ESPN for at least bringing in Ray Ferraro as their top analyst, one of the most if not the most knowledgeable insiders in the game. What should ESPN do to complete their team? Go out and get Gord Miller from TSN and pair him with his partner Ferraro (they do TSN’s World Juniors and NHL coverage together). In my opinion, Miller has been the best play-by-play commentator in the game since Doc Emrick retired in 2020, and he should get the spotlight.
ESPN had a two-and-a-half(!) month gap between nationally televised NHL games dating back to the fall, which is not a good method to increase new fan engagement. Also, they are blacking out ten of each team’s games this season exclusively for ESPN+. That is an irritating tactic that will make it tough for some fans to follow their team closely, considering the package is $5.99/month in most cases.
Now for TNT, Kenny Albert is solid, who succeeded Emrick and did the play-by-play for last season’s Cup Final on NBC. But he is nowhere near a fan favorite the way Emrick was. Hockey is in desperate need of a signature voice to replace Emrick (think Jim Nantz or Al Michaels for the NFL). Can TNT go out and get Gord Miller? If I were TNT I would try.
I appreciate TNT’s efforts to make their NHL intermission similar to their NBA on TNT show, filled with personalities Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley, and Shaquille O'Neal. But I can’t help but cringe at Liam McHugh trying to be edgy, especially after years of being the host on NBC’s NHL in-studio coverage where it was boring as hell. Bringing in Wayne Gretzky is good because it brings the show a credible face, but it feels like he’s only on the air once in a while. A great pickup for TNT is Paul Bissonette, most widely known for his Barstool Sports podcast “Spittin Chiclets”. The set also includes African-Canadian Anson Carter, who played goaltender in the NHL for eleven seasons. Carter brings the show diversity, which is critical to hockey’s initiatives to grow the game, but lacks charisma in my opinion. Former Arizona Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet joins the set as well. Overall, I think the crew doesn’t mix well and has some work ahead of them to become the caliber that the NBA on TNT is.
The women’s Olympic gold medal game between the U.S. and Canada averaged 3.54 million viewers on NBC, even despite an 11:15pm ET puck drop. It averaged more viewers than any NHL game this season, and it was the second most-watched hockey game in the U.S. since 2019. That is an achievement those involved in women’s hockey should be very proud of.
As far as the men’s tournament, it was odd to watch. The International Ice Hockey Federation made a change to play all games on an NHL-size rink (200x80ft) rather than European dimensions (200x100ft) that are typically used for international tournaments in Europe and Asia, which is ironic and unlucky considering the NHL pulled out of the Olympics months before the games. The National Indoor Stadium in Beijing was clearly designed to be played with European dimensions, and the limited capacity of fans made it even more bizarre to watch.
A young U.S. team faltered in the quarterfinals to Slovakia after an undefeated 3-0 record in group play. Finland defeated the Russian Olympic Committee in the gold medal game 2-1, their first ever Olympic gold. Good for the Fins, they’ve been consistently good in international play for a long time.
The World Junior Championships are set to restart in August after being canceled back in December due to Covid-19. Too bad players like Owen Power and Matty Beniers will likely not participate in order to focus on their rookie seasons in the NHL.
Looking Ahead to the Stanley Cup Playoffs
Eight teams in the Eastern Conference have separated themselves from the pack. Florida and Carolina may be the favorites, both with deep cores. Tampa looks to go for three cups in a row. Pittsburgh and Washington have been steady regular season teams the past three years, but can they get back into cup contention? Neither team has won a playoff series since 2018 (they met each other in the second round, the Caps won the series and went on to win the Cup). The Rangers may have the best goaltender in the league right now, Igor Shesterkin. My logic is the team with the best goaltending goes the farthest, and with that being said the Rangers could make a deep run. Can Toronto get over the hump and win a playoff series? Is Boston still a legitimate contender? We’ll find out come playoff time.
Now for the West. Colorado is the clear Stanley Cup favorite with over a ten point lead on the next best team in the conference. Although they are in the thick of it right now, keep an eye on Vegas to make a strong push down the stretch and in the playoffs. They just added Jack Eichel to their lineup, and he has looked healthy and sharp thus far. Edmonton won five straight after firing Dave Tippett with consistent scoring and improved goaltending. Let’s see which of Minnesota, St. Louis, Calgary, Nashville, Los Angeles, and Anaheim can make a leap in the standings. Overall, a much more open playoff race in the West than in the East.