It has been a week since the NHL returned from its self-imposed lockout exile. It’s far too early to draw lasting conclusions but certainly enough to gather initial impressions, now that we’re detailing power-play success over HRR and back-diving contract control.
So much for boycotts and fan apathy. The NHL reports that average per-game announced attendance is up 6.6 percent, or more than 1,000 fans per game, through the first 49 games of this season compared to the first 49 last season.
Not only have the fans come back with a vengeance, filling almost every NHL rink to capacity, but they’re watching on television in record numbers as well. NBC’s opening-weekend games (Chicago in Los Angeles and Pittsburgh in Philadelphia) were the most-watched regular-season games, outside the Winter Classics, in 14 years. Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Chicago reported record local ratings. NBC Sports Network’s offering of the Boston-New York Rangers tilt on Wednesday drew 956,000 viewers, the biggest single regular-season-game audience in the network’s history and the most-watched regular-season game on cable since 2002. An incredible 27 percent of the Canadian population tuned in to the Montreal-Toronto season opener. Boston, St. Louis, Minnesota, Dallas and Florida also reported significant spikes in viewership for their local broadcasts.
It’s not all roses and cherries, though. Phoenix drew an announced crowd of just 8,355 Wednesday night, and this for a team that went to the Western Conference finals last spring. While the Blue Jackets are clearly not a big draw in Denver, the Avs announced 14,325 Thursday night, well short of a sellout at the Pepsi Center. The Panthers and Blues were also short of sellouts in home games Thursday night.
A better indication of whether fans and sponsors are prepared to forgive and forget when it comes to the lockout will come in a month or two, especially if teams like Florida or Columbus or Carolina have fallen out of the playoff race. What will the numbers look like then? Maybe the short season will keep eyes on the game and butts in the arena seats in record numbers right through to the end. Maybe not.
Not many would have predicted that the Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Washington Capitals, Los Angeles Kings and Detroit Red Wings would start a combined 3-13-1. Throw in a 1-3 start for the Phoenix Coyotes, who won the Pacific Division last season and advanced to the Western Conference finals, and a 1-3 start for the defending Southeast Division champs from Florida, and you’ve got a lot of teams with high expectations and standards that are wallowing near the bottom of the standings. Worth noting is that the 1994-95 New Jersey Devils started 0-3-1 and went on to win the Cup during that 48-game, lockout-shortened season. Is there a similar rags-to-glory story among these slow starters? Maybe the better story is which of this group of well-heeled bottom-dwellers can turn things around enough to make it to the playoffs in late April. Our guess is no more than three.
Markov Is Back
Yes, the absence of unsigned restricted free-agent defenseman P.K. Subban has been a problem for the Canadiens, but the return to form of Andrei Markov and the emergence of young Swiss defender Raphael Diaz means Subban’s absence is felt less keenly. Before the start of the 2013 season, Markov had played in just 65 NHL regular-season games since 2009-10 because of a series of mostly knee-related injuries. But Markov has three goals and an assist while averaging 23:47 of ice time to help bolster a power play that must produce if the Canadiens are to make it back to the playoffs. Diaz has also been a revelation after a strong lockout spent playing with Damien Brunner and Henrik Zetterberg in Switzerland. He has five assists in three games for the Habs, who won two in a row after an opening-night loss to Toronto.
Injuries Hitting Hard
Everyone assumed injuries were going to be a major theme in a shortened season. But whether it's the compressed schedule (it actually just seems busier than a normal 82-game slate) or the lack of a training camp or the disparity between those who played during the lockout and those who didn’t, the injury bug has bitten and bitten hard. The Flyers are without Danny Briere and Scott Hartnell, and their defensive depth at the AHL level has been ravaged by injury. The Red Wings have been nicked up, testing their defensive depth. Steve Downie is gone for the season for the Avs. Joffrey Lupul suffered a broken forearm after being hit by a shot from Maple Leafs teammate Dion Phaneuf and will be gone for a couple of months. Mike Smith left the Coyotes’ net midway through the first period this week, although his injury isn’t believe to be serious. Still, don’t expect the bug to be stopping its bite anytime soon. With that in mind, look for the teams with the greatest organizational depth to rise above these injuries and stay in the hunt for playoff berths and/or top seeds.
Rookies On A Roll
Maybe it’s no surprise that a handful of youngsters are having an immediate impact in this young NHL season. Whether it’s Vladimir Tarasenko in St. Louis, who had four goals and six points to lead all rookies as of Friday, or Detroit's Brunner, who scored one of the prettiest shootout goals you’ll ever see, or Dougie Hamilton, who looks as if he has been patrolling the Boston blue line for years and not just days, the lockout has given way to a serious youth movement. Justin Schultz and Nail Yakupov in Edmonton, Cory Conacher in Tampa and Jonathan Huberdeau in Florida are other noteworthy first-year players making a name for themselves. Usually coaches and GMs worry about the final third of a normal season for rookies, the travel and the physicality of a full schedule often taking the bloom off the rookie rose by the last 25 or 30 games. But with a 48-game slate, these rookies might keep lighting it up from beginning to end.
Good for the league and the players to get together and adjust the buyout process to allow Montreal and the Rangers to part company with unwanted players Scott Gomez and Wade Redden, respectively. We understand the logic that led to both teams initially planning to park both players for this season with the intent of buying them out next summer. Teams can’t buy out injured players, and it made more sense business-wise not to have them play. But there was something inherently wrong about it and the two sides agreed to alter the language and allow the Rangers and Habs to buy out those players. That has allowed Redden to resume his NHL career with the St. Louis Blues and Scott Gomez to sign a one-year deal with the San Jose Sharks. Both have much to prove, although wouldn’t that be an interesting storyline if either were to end up holding up the Stanley Cup in the spring? Bottom line, it was the right thing to do. If only the two sides had been able to summon up that spirit of cooperation last summer.
Sharks Have Bite
San Jose head coach Todd McLellan told us before the start of the season about the challenges of putting together a lineup with players who were at varying degrees of readiness, some having played extensively in Europe or the AHL, some having played a bit and others not at all. Whatever McLellan is doing, it’s working: The Sharks were one of two undefeated teams in the Western Conference through Thursday's games (Chicago was the other). Patrick Marleau, who did not play during the lockout, had three straight two-goal games to lead the league in goals; linemate Joe Thornton, who played in Switzerland during the labor impasse, leads the NHL with nine points. Will the Sharks, off the Stanley Cup radar for the first time in years, make skeptics pay with their first championship, regardless of who played where and how much during the lockout?
You Get The Power
It’s interesting to see which teams have been able to take advantage on the power play early on and how important it has been. The Blues and Sharks led the NHL with seven power-play goals each. The Blues were clicking at a shocking 53.8 percent rate while Chicago was third with six man-advantage goals. The three teams were a combined 10-1-0 to start the season. At the other end of the ladder, the Kings and Red Wings were the only teams without a power-play goal at week’s end. They were a combined 0-for-34 with a man advantage and had combined for a 1-4-1 record.