Jim Nill is smart. Around Boston, the Dallas general manager is known as the burglar who fished Tyler Seguin out of Black and Gold for bread crumbs.
So it was with jaw dropped that I read Nill’s quote last month to the Toronto Sun regarding the current state of the NHL.
“A 2-1 game can be better than a 5-4 game,” Nill said. “I think the game has never been better, never been faster. And almost every game is exciting. I think that’s because every team has a chance to win.”
Nill is right about several things. Hockey has never been faster. But if Nill believes the game has never been better, perhaps he’d be interested in flipping Seguin for a bridge.
One of the biggest puzzles of 2016-17 is how TD Garden reports every single ticket to be sold. At least one of every three games is unwatchable — little in the way of offense, creativity, hitting, fighting, or anything resembling entertainment. The never-faster tempo results in two teams going up and down, throwing pucks at nets that thud off bodies or sticks or goalies with little chance of going in.
The conflict that made the game crackle is diminished. Players aren’t throwing checks with abandon. You’d be cuckoo to step in front of a 225-pound ruffian skating at full tilt, never worried about the red line and forbidden from being impeded by a concerned defenseman.
Bruins-Canadiens wasn’t a must-watch spectacle because of speed or skill. It was hate. There is nothing intense about the rivalry anymore.
And yet they come.
Local data remains strong. Garden sellouts indicate in-person interest is high. On television, colleague Chad Finn reports that NESN’s ratings are holding steady. By these metrics, hockey is healthy in Boston.
So it is with caution that I express skepticism about the sport’s condition. To these eyes and those of others, the NHL does not grab its customers by the collars and demand that every game be watched. In an informal poll, among those reporting dissatisfaction with the product include an ex-coach, a former front-office executive, an ex-Bruin, and several broadcasters. They echo most of the notes that arrive in my inbox.
It is through this prism that I wonder about the game’s future. It feels like the NHL is in a vulnerable position. The game is compromised, ticket prices are high, and entertainment alternatives have never been more expansive — athletic or otherwise.
I relate my experience as a cord-cutter, washing my hands when the Summer Olympics were not available via DirecTV. Netflix gives my family enough entertainment options for me to consider it a monthly no-brainer. Cable TV, meanwhile, is bleeding customers. The NHL is losing eyeballs that may not feel compelled to return.
Hockey fans are loyal and optimistic. But the NHL cannot depend on its customers’ devotion. The product has to become more engaging to watch. Some fixes:
1. Restrict net-front time for defenses. This is standard operating procedure in the NBA, where defenders cannot occupy the paint for more than three seconds without actively playing a man. The NHL has to use something similar. The best scoring chances take place in front of the net. Coaches teach their players to collapse in the slot, force everything wide, and reduce chances. The game is nothing without scoring chances.
2. Bring back the red line. Without it, the game is too fast and too dangerous. Everything is north-south at full sprint. With the red line back, it would put brakes on the pace and encourage east-west creativity. Players would hang onto the puck and make plays instead of shuttling it up the ice at every opportunity. At slower speeds, players wouldn’t be as wary of contact.
3. No more icing on the power play. It’s too easy for teams to kill penalties in the current format. And when teams don’t score, the game doesn’t change. By enforcing icing, penalty killers would get tired, make mistakes, and allow more goals.
4. Ban fighting. The end is coming through attrition. But the last fighter won’t turn out the lights for a few more years. Until then, we’ll see the nonsense of linesmen throwing water on flareups and disappointing fight enthusiasts. It’s insulting. Either let it go or make it stop.
5. Enforce penalties. Because of the efficiency of penalty kills and the absence of retribution, it’s smarter for teams to slash and cross-check star players to break up scoring chances or even put them out of the lineup (see Johnny Gaudreau). Referees have to be on higher alerts for cheap stickwork.
6. Make the goalies use skaters’ sticks. Safety is critical when it comes to goalie equipment. It’s hazardous to a goalie’s health to stand tall against a Shea Weber slap shot. But a goalie’s battle ax does nothing to make him safer. It only discourages scoring.
7. Eliminate the offside challenge. The league had good intentions. It wanted to toss out the stinkers, such as Matt Duchene’s doozy against Nashville in 2012-13. But the coaches, as they usually do, have manipulated yet another rule to make scoring harder when the sport should be seeking the opposite. No human can spot, in real time, some of these infractions. Everybody makes mistakes, including linesmen.
Peters rewarded Alves for his work
Had a more sour man been behind the Carolina bench, Cam Ward would have finished out the Hurricanes’ 3-1 loss to Tampa Bay on Dec. 31. But Bill Peters, one of the nicer men with a whistle around his neck, did the right thing to close out a zero-point result. With 7.6 seconds remaining in regulation, Peters waved Ward to the bench and sent Stoughton native Jorge Alves to the crease.
The Hurricanes employ Alves as an equipment manager. It is the hardest job in the league. During the season, equipment managers such as Alves are on call around the clock to perform every level of grunt work: hauling bags, fixing gear, sharpening skates, washing uniforms. When every other member of the team retires after a game, the equipment managers’ nights continue, expected to set up the dressing room (home or away) for the following day.
Against the Lightning, Alves was filling two roles. He was doing his day job, but also filling in for Eddie Lack. The backup goalie, who would later be diagnosed with a concussion, did not feel well enough to dress. Neither Michael Leighton nor Daniel Altshuller, the organization’s two AHL goalies, was available to back up Ward. The Checkers, Carolina’s AHL affiliate, were coming off a road game against the Manitoba Moose in Winnipeg. The Hurricanes had no choice but to sign Alves to a one-day professional tryout contract and hope nothing happened to Ward.
The 37-year-old Alves knows what he’s doing. He played goal at North Carolina State. He’s seen game action in the ECHL, including in 2006-07 in Pensacola, a team that employed former Hockey East goalies Mike Ayers (University of New Hampshire) and Adam Geragosian (Northeastern) that season.
But emergency goalies are asked to fill what is a ceremonial, break-glass-in-case-of-emergency position. For example, it was more of a chuckle than business on March 28, 2015, when Bruins goalie coach Bob Essensa lumbered down to the bench from the press box. Essensa, 50 at the time, was called upon to strap on the gear after backup Niklas Svedberg relieved Tuukka Rask because of a migraine. There was never any intention for Essensa to step onto an NHL sheet for real for the first time since March 4, 2002.
So it was within this context that Peters gave Alves the green light to relieve Ward. It’s been another hard season in Carolina, rolling toward its eighth straight DNQ. But Peters, in his third season behind the bench, is trying to build culture among young players such as Norwood’s Noah Hanifin, Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Sebastian Aho, and Elias Lindholm. Peters allowed Alves to fulfill a dream. That goes a long way in making the atmosphere right.
Backup plan can be difficult
The Bruins signed Anton Khudobin to a two-year, $2.4 million contract partly to fulfill exposure criteria for the expansion draft. Even after waiving Khudobin, the Bruins are still in expansion compliance. All 30 teams must expose one goalie who is under contract for 2017-18. Khudobin meets this standard.
If they find a taker for Khudobin later in the season, the Bruins can also expose Zane McIntyre or Malcolm Subban because both will be restricted free agents after this season. Either of the two must have received his qualifying offer before the expansion draft.
The risk the Bruins run with Option 2 is having Las Vegas draft the 24-year-old McIntyre. Other goalies likely to be exposed include Marc-Andre Fleury, Jimmy Howard, Semyon Varlamov, and Antti Niemi. The Golden Knights must draft three goalies. General manager George McPhee is expected to take one youngster with his three selections.
In some ways, it’s a moot point because of two things: The Bruins cannot find a party interested in taking on Khudobin, nor would the veteran pique Vegas’s interest come June. Through eight games this season, Khudobin (1-5-1, 3.06 goals-against average, .885 save percentage) proved he was not fit for dependable NHL backup duty.
Teams miss their forecasts on such goalies regularly. It happened with the Islanders (Jaroslav Halak) and the Maple Leafs (Jhonas Enroth), both of whom waived their goalies earlier this year. The curious thing is why the backup position has been a trouble spot for the Bruins for three straight seasons. Khudobin, Jonas Gustavsson, and Niklas Svedberg all performed short of expectations behind Tuukka Rask.
Being a full-time backup isn’t easy. It’s hard to develop rhythm, touch, and confidence by playing once every eight games. But some teams have figured it out, including Columbus (Curtis McElhinney), Washington (Philipp Grubauer), and the Rangers (Antti Raanta). It’s about time the Bruins joined their company.
On-site experience is critical
The NHL selected two television powerhouses for the Winter Classic: the Blackhawks and Blues. Commissioner Gary Bettman has likened Chicago’s TV audiences as being NFL-like. St. Louis performed well during last year’s postseason run. Still, Monday’s Winter Classic posted a 1.5 rating on NBC and 2.6 million viewers, the smallest audience yet for the annual event. With each passing season, the outdoor game becomes less of a much-watch television showcase. It does not mean the Winter Classic is a bust. The Blues and their fans enjoyed hosting this year’s game. As those who attended the 2016 version at Gillette Stadium will recall, the spectacle is outstanding in person. Regardless of the quality of hockey (and the Bruins submitted a dreadful performance against the Canadiens), the NHL succeeds in making the outdoor game pop for those who attend. Ticket and merchandise sales are robust. The game makes an impression on its on-site customers. So instead of seeking teams and matchups with TV ratings in mind, the league should train its efforts on the in-person experience. Small-market teams such as Columbus, Buffalo, Carolina, and Nashville would do well at the gate. Consider that for their 16th straight win over Edmonton on Tuesday, the Blue Jackets scored a 5.0 rating (46,000 households) on Fox Sports Ohio, the network’s second-highest-rated regular-season game ever. Such teams deserve a chance.
Entries central to Hall’s approach
After missing two games because of a lower-body injury, Taylor Hall returned to New Jersey’s lineup on Monday to set up the winning goal against the Bruins. Key to Hall’s north-south style is how well he carries the puck over the blue line with speed and control. Against the Bruins, after taking a cross-ice pass from Andy Greene, Hall entered the offensive zone and attacked Zdeno Chara, forcing the captain to backtrack instead of closing his gap. By the time Hall carried the puck through the high slot and fired a shot on Tuukka Rask, the left wing had allowed PA Parenteau to catch up and drive the net. Rask stopped Hall’s shot, but the Devils retained control, cycled against the Bruins, and scored later in the shift. Hall is a high-volume offensive producer. According to www.corsica.hockey, Hall is averaging a team-high 16.2 shot attempts per 60 minutes of play through 29 games. The ex-Oiler’s ability to cross the blue line at high speed helps him drive pucks toward the net.
Untimely concussion for Griffith
Tough break for ex-Bruin Seth Griffith, whose stay on Florida’s first line is at risk after suffering a concussion on Wednesday. The shifty wing, playing alongside Vincent Trocheck and Jaromir Jagr, never saw Winnipeg’s Nikolaj Ehlers approaching from his left side and absorbed a game-ending thump. Griffith, a two-time waiver claim this year (first Toronto, then Florida), had been a first-liner for coach Tom Rowe for 11 straight games after starting his Panthers career as a bottom-six forward. On Dec. 15, in his previous game against Winnipeg, Griffith logged a career-high 20:00 of ice time, recording a power-play assist.
The Panthers, perhaps more than other organizations, hunt for bargains such as Jonathan Marchessault. They believe they landed another one in the undersized but clever Griffith, who couldn’t gain varsity traction in Boston.
Avalanche’s struggles snowballing
The season is over for the Avalanche, who lost their fifth straight game on Wednesday in Calgary, 4-1. Former Flames captain Jarome Iginla, awaiting his next and perhaps final destination, was denied by linesmen Mark Wheler and Mark Shewchyk from fighting successor Mark Giordano. The Avalanche landed just 18 shots on Brian Elliott, one off the stick of ex-Bruin Carl Soderberg. Through 38 games, the former Black and Gold pivot has just four goals and six assists while averaging 15:52 of ice time. It seemed puzzling from the start why Colorado invested five years and $23.75 million in the heavy-legged Soderberg. But Soderberg’s signing should have served as an indication of a muddled vision. Now, it’s manifesting with unacceptable results. While the Avalanche will be able to acquire futures for Iginla, they have no chance of divesting themselves of the three seasons that will remain on the third-line center’s deal.
North Andover native Bobby Farnham made his season debut on Wednesday in the Canadiens’ 4-3 overtime win over Dallas. The former Phillips Andover Academy buzzsaw landed two shots and four hits in 12:10 of ice time . . . Milt Schmidt made his mark in the NHL with 776 games played and 770 games coached. But Schmidt also played 18 games for the Providence Reds in 1936-37 during the AHL’s inaugural season. Schmidt, who died on Wednesday, was the last surviving member of the AHL’s first season, yet another mark in the 98-year-old’s legacy . . . Among the oddities in Anton Blidh’s abrasive game has been its cleanliness. Through 14 games, the fourth-line left wing’s rambunctious play has led to zero penalty minutes. Meanwhile, the Bruins rookie has drawn three opposing minors, including a two-handed slash by Drew Doughty. Coaches love young players who stay out of the penalty box while convincing others to take two-minute seats.
After previous goofball campaigns succeeded in securing All-Star Game spots for John Scott and Zemgus Girgensons, the NHL revealed four traditional fan selections for this year’s version. Carey Price, Sidney Crosby, P.K. Subban, and Connor McDavid will represent their divisions and serve as captains. According to the CIA, the NHL, in hopes of avoiding a Scott-like repeat, hired Russian hackers to handle the usual mischief.
When stars collide
Over the next nine days, we’ll be treated to two more installments (barring injury) of the NHL’s greatest individual rivalry — Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin. Since both former No. 1 overall picks debuted in 2005, they’ve gone head to head 52 times, including the postseason. Crosby holds the advantage in both team and personal success.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.