We take our devices everywhere — to bed, to the john, and even into the driver’s seat. (I’ve seen the latter: a man turning the wheel with two hands, phone clutched in one.)
The addictive hold our phones have on our brains is why money-making NHL franchises are not hesitating to invest their hard-won dough back into their buildings. As caffeinated as the on-ice experience is in person, executives stay up at night wondering how they can get their fans to get their noses out of their screens.
As such, visitors to TD Garden this season will experience enhancements that have become standard operating procedure for organizations to implement: a 3,000-square-foot LED screen on the building’s north side, more payment options (Apple Wallet, Google Wallet, Samsung Pay) to speed up transactions, a Garden app that allows for mobile ticketing, and more concessions choices. It’s not about hot dogs anymore. It’s about the Cheetos waffle and chicken sandwich, mac-and-cheese burger, and apple pie gelato.
More is coming. By 2019, Delaware North, the Bruins’ parent company, expects a new scoreboard and sound system inside the rink. The entire south wall will be glass. Concourses will expand on Floors 7 and 8. Officials are considering standing room on the eighth floor. As part of the Hub on Causeway development site, a Star Market, ArcLight Cinema, and a 10-story hotel are in the works.
The Garden opened in 1995. It is a graybeard compared with Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena, which opened this year, and Edmonton’s Rogers Place, which was completed last season. It may be unrealistic for cosmetic improvements to make the Garden their equals. But it remains the objective for its owners.
“They’re the two high-water marks right now,” said Bruins CEO Charlie Jacobs. “I would expect by ’19, we are right there or above them in terms of what we’ve done. Every year, we invest in that building. We invest in the fan experience. We’re hard at it again for a ’19 finish.”
Market research in all sports shows that getting customers in the door is not good enough anymore. Today’s consumer wants an immersive and mobile experience: in the concourses, at the concessions stands, in the pro shop, and in the bathroom, all while remaining connected to the game.
For NHL teams, the trick is to marry everything into one sticky bundle that is more attractive to the fan than the alternatives — YouTube, Netflix, Facebook — in his or her pocket. It’s not easy to hit on the secret sauce at the rink. It’s even harder at home.
Everybody knows hockey in person is a crackling, flammable product. It is multi-sensory immersion: watching the speed of the players, hearing the crunch of checks, even smelling the whiff of equipment from behind the bench. It’s impossible to replicate the experience for television viewers, especially given how some watchers are no longer consuming the game on wide screens. Somehow, the league, teams, and broadcast rightsholders have to make the sport presentable on the same phones that offer dozens of other entertainment options.
“TV might not be the right term,” Jacobs said. “Third screens, right now, are dominating. My kids, when they come to an event, they’re looking at their iPhone, then maybe watching a bit of the game or replays. You’ve seen the changes in the way basic cable is structured with sports tiers. A lot of OTT is on its way: over-the-top delivery. There may be different players in the market than there are today. It could be YouTube. It could be Apple. It could be Amazon. You don’t know who’s going to be delivering the OTT product. Who might be your major distributors? It’s going to devices rather than cable boxes.”
It is a whole new world of hockey consumption. It’s critical, therefore, that the on-ice product engages its fans. It’s risky to tinker with ticky-tack faceoff violations and disrupt the flow that makes hockey sizzle. There are too many distractions for today’s consumer, starting with the ones that are always in our hands.
Centers on their toes in the circle
Early this season, perhaps during warm-ups, centers will be in the ears of linesmen as all sides try to follow proper faceoff protocol. The NHL is insistent on players holding their ground before the puck drops with feet positioned correctly. The trick for players will be to read how each linesman performs the drop.
“Sometimes he throws the puck right away,” David Krejci said of a sample linesman. “Sometimes he waits a second. So the timing’s kind of off. So we have to get those lineys and maybe talk to them before to see how they’re going to throw. As a centerman, it would be one way to get a little upper hand on the other guys to see if he’s going to pause and throw, or set and throw. It could give you the upper hand on the timing.”
A prompt drop is ideal once the players fall into formation. But some linesmen go by the book. They scan the ice in search of cheaters who try to slip their skates forward or breach their opponents’ personal space with their sticks. A methodical linesman is more likely to spot an infraction. If that happens, the offending team is almost guaranteed a loss. No coach would allow a second no-no to take place before the drop and risk a delay of game penalty.
“The biggest thing is when you get kicked out and the second guy comes in, he doesn’t have much of a chance at a win,” Krejci said. “He can’t cheat. You don’t want to put the team on a penalty kill. When you get kicked out, the second guy pretty much has to play to lose.”
While the center prepares for the drop, his linemates must also walk a fine line: Don’t cheat, but be on your toes in case of a quick throw.
“When Riley’s going in to take a draw, I’m going to make sure that I’m as close to in the circle and close to the hash mark as possible without getting him kicked out,” said Noel Acciari, who manned one of Riley Nash’s flanks during Bruins camp with Tim Schaller riding on the left. “I’ve played center. He’s not going to stay in every draw. Tim’s played some center. We’ll be ready. If you’re the second guy called in, you’ve got be very patient with that drop. Because it’s a penalty if you jump it. Lot of patience with this whole new rule. It’s going to take a little time to figure out.”
Ehlers showed the Jets enough
Nikolaj Ehlers provided the Jets with 154 games of NHL data. That was enough. As Ehlers prepared for the final season of his entry-level contract, the wing scored a seven-year, $42 million extension. It’s good cake for a player who scored 25 goals and 39 assists as a second-year pro.
Such prompt declarations of player value are the new normal. Based on his talent, the skill level around him, and the experience he’s logged, it’s a good bet Ehlers will take another step toward high-end status in 2017-18. Had the Jets waited until the expiration of Ehlers’s deal, the price would have gone up as he armed himself with more statistics to frame against those of his comparables.
It’s the same approach Buffalo took with Jack Eichel by committing eight years and $80 million to the North Chelmsford native. Eichel is also entering his final entry-level season. Eichel entered 2017-18 with 142 NHL games, 12 fewer viewing opportunities than Ehlers. But the Sabres knew that Eichel’s talent, in conjunction with his motivation, could propel the right-shot center toward video-game numbers. As such, the Sabres wanted to take care of business early, just like the Oilers did with the player who went one slot earlier in 2015.
Appropriately, the league is shifting toward higher compensation for second contracts. This is good. It rewards high-end players between the ages of 21 and 29.
The days of when the fattest salaries went to players eligible for free agency are over. By then, players are subject to declines by the end of their deals, if they haven’t already started to creep downhill. Think of stars such as Jonathan Toews, Corey Perry, and Anze Kopitar. They’re ring-winners with unquestioned résumés, but most likely past their primes while earning top-shelf dough.
The new system, however, is not bulletproof. There’s no telling how $10 million will affect a young man such as Eichel, who won’t turn 21 until Oct. 28. It’s undeniable that handing Tyler Seguin a six-year, $34.5 million extension — a bargain by current standards — before his third pro season did not produce good off-ice results.
It leaves teams with less time to make critical decisions about young stars. The Bruins had three years and 172 games with David Pastrnak. By next July, the Bruins could lock themselves in with Charlie McAvoy, who entered 2017-18 without a single regular-season game of NHL data.
“If you do feel you have some questions, you have to really do your work,” Bruins president Cam Neely said. “What is the right term? What is the right term for the player? Where do you think the player’s at in his development stage? When you have guys like Pasta playing three years in his entry level and you’ve got Charlie in a couple years, you want to see how they develop year over year and where you see them going to make those decisions on comps and on term. You don’t have the body of work like you would with somebody coming into their third contract where you’re giving up big money and lots of term. So you have a lot of discussions with your staff internally and get their feeling on where they see our player compared to others across the league. Then you make your decision based on all that.”
Scoring is not enough
Frank Vatrano has one of the best shots in the league. Thirty-six goals in 36 AHL games is proof of how rapidly the puck jumps off the 23-year-old’s stick. But Vatrano concluded Bruins camp without a regular position. Former Boston University sniper Alex Chiasson attended Washington’s camp on a tryout basis. Brandon Pirri, who scored 22 goals in 49 games for Florida in 2014-15, could not turn his professional tryout agreement with the Panthers into a contract. For now, Jarome Iginla is a public citizen in Brookline despite being the 15th-most prolific goal scorer in NHL history. The point is that one-dimensional scorers do not help organizations capwise when their sticks go cold. General managers would rather spend dollars on players, usually at a cheaper rate, who have other clubs in their bags. Vatrano, for example, has the speed to hound pucks and make defensemen wary of entering the corner when he’s at full roar. The East Longmeadow native has not folded that consistently into his game. “They are not going to just land in a spot where their one or two attributes are going to parlay themselves into an NHL career,” Bruins GM Don Sweeney said of players with limited skill sets. “I think that’s very important. I think Frank is going through some of that at this point in time. He has to continue to evolve as a player as everybody does, and make yourself more indispensable.”
Nothing doing on offer sheets
The season kicked off with just one restricted free agent left unsigned: Andreas Athanasiou, the last man standing after Josh Anderson squeaked in under the wire with a three-year, $5.55 million extension. It underscores why the offer sheet system requires adjustment. For example, had a rival team presented Anderson with the $1.85 million average annual value he received from the Blue Jackets, Columbus would have been eligible to receive a third-round pick in compensation. The 23-year-old Anderson is coming off a 17-12—29 season with 89 penalty minutes in 78 games, making him a pretty good third-liner with a willingness to throw down. Anderson is worth more than a third-rounder, meaning it would have been an automatic match for Columbus. Had a potential offer sheet fallen into the $3,925,975 to $5,888,960 tier, the offering club would have had to cede first- and third-round selections to Columbus. Not only would such an AAV be inflationary for Anderson, it would also come at a steep cost in futures. The GMs have to address the compensation values in the next collective bargaining agreement. Otherwise, the offer sheet will remain a fantasy.
Caution required with Subban
In one way, Las Vegas is a good landing spot for Malcolm Subban. Nobody expects the Golden Knights to be competitive for a handful of seasons. The expansion franchise can take its time to develop the 2012 first-round pick in a way the Bruins could not. It would not have been fair to Subban or the Bruins to have him serve as Tuukka Rask’s No. 2 this season. The danger the Golden Knights face is with their lineup. After claiming Subban on waivers, GM George McPhee promptly waived erstwhile backup Calvin Pickard. Subban is now the clear-cut No. 2 behind Marc-Andre Fleury. Subban will be playing behind a team that is not fit for stiff NHL competition. Having opponents rip pucks past him will not be fun for a goalie who needs his tires pumped, not deflated.
Neither Leo Komarov nor the Maple Leafs had any excuse for the abrasive wing being tagged with an equipment violation penalty in the season opener. Komarov had regularly worn his visor tilted up and exposing his eyes, something the NHL now considers a no-no. Komarov and the Leafs had all of the preseason to figure it out and still couldn’t get it right . . . The NHL brought all of its independent in-arena concussion spotters to Chicago in September for a refresher course on what to monitor during games. The spotters have the authority to call down to the benches and prompt players under suspicion of head injuries to report to the quiet room . . . Ex-Northeastern defenseman Josh Manson signed a four-year, $16.4 million extension with the Ducks on Wednesday. Manson should have no trouble picking up the tab at Wings Over Boston . . . The Sabres made a low-risk investment in Seth Griffith, signing the ex-Bruin to a one-year, $650,000 contract. The perpetual waivers man (Boston, Toronto, Florida last year) made Buffalo’s roster and could reward his employer by being an inexpensive but efficient scorer . . . Judd Sirott, the Bruins’ new play-by-play radio announcer, arrived with a pre-employment endorsement from Mike Emrick. A good word from Doc should be good enough for anybody . . . Ex-Bruin Zac Rinaldo made Arizona’s roster. But Rinaldo had to serve the five-game suspension he earned in 2015-16 for drilling Cedric Paquette in the head. The Bruins buried Rinaldo in Providence after the hit for the rest of the season and all of 2016-17.
New Jersey broke camp with six former Boston College players on its active roster: Cory Schneider, Jimmy Hayes, Miles Wood, Brian Gibbons, and Steve Santini, and Ben Lovejoy. Brian Boyle, currently inactive following his cancer diagnosis, is a sixth ex-Eagle. Mary Ann’s could be seeing an uptick in business when the Devils are in town.