The longest regular season in National Hockey League history has thankfully ended. Training camps and preseason games started as usual in September. Yet, the pandemic would hover over Gary Bettman’s league like a dark cloud. A pause or cancellation of games seemed inevitable. Sure enough, numerous games had to be postponed and rescheduled starting in November.
This meant that the NHL had to cancel its participation in the Winter Olympics. The planned two-week pause in the season to accommodate the Olympic tournament would now be needed for rescheduled games. Plus, the completion of the regular season would now have to extend beyond the beginning of April to complete a full eighty-two game schedule. The Stanley Cup playoffs would not start until May.
May has finally arrived. Fans of the league can only hope that the Stanley Cup Playoffs bring more excitement than the just-completed, boring regular season.
Longest NHL Regular Season Lacked Excitement
It’s never good for any professional league to have its fans disinterested. If they so desired almost half of the NHL’s markets could have tapped out by the midway point of the season. By then, the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference had separated themselves from the bottom eight. Four months is a long time to follow a team languishing out of the playoff picture.
The Western Conference’s “race” to the playoffs was slightly better. Ten to eleven teams could argue they were part of the playoff picture deep into the season. However, by the last two weeks of the season, the only thing to be determined was whether or not the Vegas Golden Knights might take the last playoff spot. For a league like the NHL that relies more on local or regional interest, this is problematic. Non-traditional markets require a competitive team to maintain engagement from their fans. If your local team is suffering through a difficult season, you can still follow interesting league-wide stories. Unfortunately, this year the NHL lacked those as well.
Few Interesting League-Wide Stories to Follow
In addition to the lack of playoff races, there were few individual accomplishments worth following to keep casual fans watching.
Connor McDavid had yet another 100-point season and led the league in scoring. It says something about his talent that his season was not extraordinary by his standards. Alex Ovechkin continued his march to the top of the all-time goal-scoring list, but the excitement of that storyline will crescendo when he gets within striking distance of Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky. Forty-goal seasons from him are a regular occurrence. Auston Matthews reaching sixty goals was arguably the biggest individual story. Jonathan Gaudreau, Jonathan Huberdeau, Roman Josi, and Cale Makar are others who had excellent years but nothing to necessarily excite fans outside of their respective cities. Trevor Zegras provided sensational highlight-reel goals and assists with his lacrosse style skills, but he is not yet among the upper-level superstars.
There were also no team stories that stood out. No cinderella team stepped up and caught everyone’s attention with a surprise playoff spot. The Florida Panthers won the President’s Trophy, but this was not a revelation. They have been a very talented team for a few years now. Many usual suspects occupy the spots in the playoffs. The NHL and its fans must pin their desires on some playoff excitement to salvage this season.
Potential Elation Awaits
The good news for followers of the NHL is the plenty of intriguing storylines that are about to begin. McDavid is once again back in the playoffs. He is the league’s most exciting player. It benefits any league to have its best player in the playoffs, but this is especially true for hockey. Eyes will also be watching Matthews and his Toronto Maple Leafs teammates. They will try to finally reach Round 2 in a series against the 2 times defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning. Love them or hate them the Leafs are always a story. If they should go on a long playoff run the narrative will only get larger.
The star-stacked Colorado Avalanche will once again try to be the last team standing. The Calgary Flames are strong enough to end Canada’s Stanley Cup drought. Fans in the large-market metropolitan New York area will again be excited at the chance to watch playoff hockey. How about a good old-fashioned “Battle of Alberta” in Round 2?
With any luck, the Stanley Cup Playoffs will bring many overtime finishes in front of packed arenas. Fans are on the edge of their seats with every twist and turn, waiting for new hockey heroes to emerge. Following two interrupted, anti-climatic seasons, we could all use it.