PHOTO CREDIT: GARY A. VASQUEZ/USA TODAY SPORTS
There’s an old line about every challenge being an opportunity in disguise, but the NHL operates under the reverse of that principle. For the league, opportunities are not openings to be exploited but rather problems in disguise.
So it should come as no shock that with an upcoming expansion draft, the league is once again doing its best to dampen down enthusiasm and sideline what should be a marquee event.
Let’s start with what an amazing opportunity this is, and the correct way to handle it.
An expansion draft by its sheer novelty commands attention. It’s been nearly 20 years since the last one, meaning that for many fans this will be their first opportunity to see a new team assembled from scratch. Moreover, even for fans who followed previous waves of expansion, the salary cap is a game-changer.
For some teams, Vegas will represent a unique opportunity to shed some serious dollars, opening up the possibility of big trades or free agent additions or simply to retain young stars needing new contracts. Gary Bettman and company may not like it, but getting a Dan Girardi or Dustin Brown off the books could be as instrumental in bringing a Cup to New York or Los Angeles as any number of other moves.
All 30 fanbases will be united for one weekend by the expansion draft. It’s a rare thing for a league which has always struggled to command the attention of the entirety of its fan base in a single moment. It’s like the entry draft, except people actually know the names and the results are immediate. It’s like free agency or the trade deadline, except with a guarantee that every single team will do something.
The anticipation has been building for more than a year. As someone who makes his living writing about the game and interacting with fans, I have no doubt as to the level of interest in this topic, if only because for the last year any discussion on a trade or signing has inevitably included a component on expansion draft ramifications.
So make it an event. Publicize protected lists as early as humanly possible, so that fans can follow the drama and the action from the outset. And when it comes time for the actual selection process, treat it like the draft lottery or the entry draft itself, with an official televised announcement of each selection and either a panel of experts or better still representatives from Vegas on-hand to analyze each choice.
Fans across the league could and would watch. Fans in Vegas would have a reason to get excited about relatively anodyne selections of No. 4 defencemen and third-line forwards. It would make the league the centre of sports news for a day and give its newest franchise the best possible start.
Naturally, the NHL doesn’t entertain such plans.
On Wednesday, ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun revealed that if the general managers could help it, fans wouldn’t even get to know which players would and would not be protected:
The NHL also discussed with GMs whether or not they would reveal each team’s protected list ahead of expansion draft. GMs said No. (con’t)
— Pierre LeBrun (@Real_ESPNLeBrun) March 8, 2017
So unless it changes, appears league won’t make public each team’s protected list in June.
— Pierre LeBrun (@Real_ESPNLeBrun) March 8, 2017
While I don’t doubt LeBrun’s reporting, I’d be surprised if the NHL could stick to this format because it’s so ridiculously stupid.
General managers may not want to have awkward conversations with unprotected players. That’s too bad. Given the number of people who need access to the list, there’s no way this doesn’t leak to agents eventually, and from there to the players. If anything, putting off the awkward chatting is more likely to backfire than just being up front about the realities of a salary cap world.
General managers may also not want to face public criticism and second-guessing of their decisions. That’s also too bad. Their players perform for fans every night, facing assessment and criticism from the people who collectively pour millions of dollars into watching games. The idea that a GM should be immune to such evaluation is laughable on the face of it.
Fans like to understand the things their teams do and why they do them. The short-term pain of being transparent here is more than compensated for by the level of engagement that will result from allowing them to follow along.
More likely to stick is the television format the NHL is supposedly considering. Via Josh Cooper of Yahoo Sports:
The draft is set up to where all 30 other NHL teams must submit their list of protected players by 5 p.m. eastern on June 17. Then Vegas will submit their expansion draft selections by 5 p.m. eastern on June 20. The picks will then be made public on June 21. The decision for the league to televise the draft and bundle it with the awards in Las Vegas is important for the visibility of the Vegas franchise and big for the NHL as it becomes the first major pro sports league to enter the market.
If we may interpret this to mean that the league will televise the choices on the evening of Wednesday, June 21, that means keeping those results secret for a full 24 hours before pushing them out. That may prove to be a challenge for the NHL, and if the names leak in advance it will turn a must-watch event into an irrelevance. Even if they don’t, it will certainly take away some of the drama of what should be a momentous occasion.
To further subtract from the drama, they’ll host the NHL awards in the same time-frame.
As for the timing, I’ve always been amazed by the NHL’s ability to bury its own best moments. The league summer calendar currently looks like this:
- Stanley Cup awarded: mid-June, probably between the 11th and the 15th
- Expansion draft: starts June 17, completed June 21
- NHL awards: Around the expansion draft
- NHL entry draft: June 23-24.
- NHL free agency: July 1
- Total lack of stories: July 5(ish) – mid-September
The Stanley Cup win should be exciting, and with any luck there will be more than one full day to discuss it before it’s buried by expansion draft storylines. Awards coverage is almost certainly going to take a back seat to those stories, but that’s okay because there should be a full day to digest it all before the amateur draft starts in Chicago. Then there’s an entire week before free agent frenzy, though of course that week will be packed with all kinds of trades and signings too.
The funny thing is that a lot of fans don’t just check out over the summer. Just because there aren’t any overly relevant stories doesn’t prevent fans from logging in to check out prospect profiles and salary cap calculations and to see if that random third-line winger has found a new team yet.
If the league was intentionally trying to keep itself out of the public eye for two months, it couldn’t do a better job. The expansion draft this year only furthers the foolishness of the NHL’s season-end schedule.
None of this is a surprise, though. This fits the NHL’s long pattern of forgetting that it is first and foremost in the business of entertaining its fans.
The league doesn’t market its stars, preferring old school hockey virtues to the possibility of anyone, anywhere, doing or saying anything interesting. Witness the wrath that descends upon any young player who too vigorously celebrates a goal, or adds a flourish during a shootout move, or (heaven forbid) says anything remotely disparaging of the opposition.
We’re now in the third decade of the dead puck era. Remember when the New Jersey Devils won the Stanley Cup in 1995, and in so doing created the template for an all-defence, all-the-time approach to the game of hockey? The average team scored 3.0 goals per game that year. In the 22 seasons since, the NHL has only topped that mark twice, in 1995-96 and 2005-06. This year, teams are scoring 10 percent less than they did in 1995.
Olympic negotiations are always an ugly slog, and there’s a real possibility that the league will sit out the 2018 games. The World Cup, the NHL’s homegrown replacement, is Mickey Mouse in both its conception and its execution when the league can be bothered to run it at all.
By its actions, the NHL has shown minimal interest in providing the best possible on-ice product. It has consistently put the narrow interests of players and executives above providing entertainment to the people who actually pay the bills. And when a golden opportunity to capture the imagination and attention of those paying customers comes along, the league just can’t help itself: It always manages to find patches of grey in even the bluest sky.