Editorials

Stanley Cup Playoffs: NHL Misses Boat On Scheduling

By Colin Likas
Nov 17, 2015; Nashville, TN, USA; Anaheim Ducks goalie Anton Khudobin (30) makes a save with pressure from Nashville Predators center Colin Wilson (33) during the second period at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 17, 2015; Nashville, TN, USA; Anaheim Ducks goalie Anton Khudobin (30) makes a save with pressure from Nashville Predators center Colin Wilson (33) during the second period at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports /
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Stop me if you’ve heard it before: The NHL has no idea what its fans, fringe fans and somewhat curious viewers want, so it just says “Screw it” and makes a decision that appeals to pretty much no one. You have heard it? Well, I’m going to talk about it again anyway.

On Sunday, after the Anaheim Ducks defeated the Washington Capitals to complete a surprising (considering the Ducks’ start to the 2015-16 season) run to a Pacific Division title, the playoff field and seedings were set. Not long after this game ended, the Stanley Cup Playoffs schedules were released. And, oh boy, are they a treat.

The NHL has once again forgotten that not all the teams in the Western Conference are actually in the western part of the United States, and has shown blatant favoritism to Eastern Conference teams and their fans. This has been done at the expense of some Western teams with great fan bases, and at the expense of fringe fans and those who may start watching hockey regularly once they get a taste of this postseason.

If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, let’s dig into it. We’ll start with the series we’re all paying the most attention to, the Chicago Blackhawks vs. the St. Louis Blues. The opening game of this series will see the puck drop at 8:30 p.m. So, you’ve already lost most of the fans of these two teams who are situated in the Eastern time zone, and you’re also going to lose a lot of fringe fans and even some hardcore ones halfway through.

Why? Because Game 1 starts at almost 9 p.m., and people have been up all day at work and/or have to work the following day. It’s pretty ridiculous that two teams in the Central time zone are seeing 8:30 starts just so there can be some space between the Eastern Conference games ahead of time. On Wednesday, the Red Wings and Lightning open at 6 p.m., while the Rangers and Penguins start at 7. All three of these games could wind up overlapping, and NYR-PIT and CHI-STL will definitely overlap regardless. So what’s the point in dropping the puck in St. Louis as late as you possibly can?

The exact same thing happens to Minnesota and Dallas on Thursday for their series opener. Now, this is even more egregious, because you have two teams that haven’t established the recent level of success as the Blackhawks and Blues. (St. Louis’ is mostly regular-season success, but stick with me). How fast do you think fringe fans are going to tune out of that game? And even some of the bigger fans will just consider it to be the first game of a potentially lengthy series. They might have to work the next morning, so why stay up until 11/11:30 p.m. for this game?

I would jump into the oddity of the Islanders and Panthers having back-to-back games Thursday and Friday, a rarity in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but I’m guessing this has something to do with previous bookings at Florida’s home arena, necessitating the rushed schedule. So that scheduling quirk is off the hook.

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Of course, we only have to go into the following Saturday and Sunday to get more silliness. It’s good to have afternoon playoff games on the weekends, in my view. If the NHL is committed to a four-game slate for Saturday and Sunday, there should be two games in the afternoon and two in the evening. That … didn’t happen.

We’ve got the Rangers and Penguins at 2 p.m. Saturday, and the Blackhawks and Blues at 2 p.m. Sunday. After that on both days are two games squeezed together at 6 and 7 p.m. Then, the worst decisions on the entire first-round schedule: two games that start at 9:30 p.m.

Here’s why this doesn’t work, especially given the teams involved. San Jose and Los Angeles have a 9:30 p.m. puck drop Saturday, which equates to 7:30 p.m. Pacific time. Seems fine, right? Except it’s a Saturday in urban California. No one is sitting down to watch these first-round games on a Saturday night. The only way you’re drawing anyone in is at a bar, and you’re intentionally limiting your viewership by thinking that way. The late Sunday game is even worse, as Anaheim and Nashville will square off. Predators fans really got the shaft here. In what world does the NHL expect a fan base to stay up until well past midnight on a Sunday night? This is just extremely poor planning, and it’s so obvious … to everyone except those making the schedule.

Monday actually gets off pretty clean, as it only has three games scheduled, and they’re all reasonably timed given the teams/markets involved. But never fear, because Tuesday’s (April 19) schedule is here to make no sense whatsoever.

Up to this point, the NHL had avoided same-time starts, which I think is wise. Sure, you’re going to get overlap with games starting 30 to an hour and 30 minutes apart, but you can still catch the end of each one, conceivably. This is good for the game and business. For some reason, the league stopped caring about that on the April 19 list of games and put all four of them into two time slots. Tampa Bay and Detroit along with Pittsburgh and New York start at 6 p.m., while the Blackhawks and Blues along with the Predators and Ducks get going at 8:30. It’s just head-slappingly stupid.

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A lot of these poor scheduling decisions seem to be made in order to please the mighty Eastern Conference teams and their markets. Funny thing, of course, is that one Eastern Conference team has won the Stanley Cup in the last six seasons. Then, it also looks like the NHL is being dragged around by its TV deal with NBC and NBC Sports Network. It should certainly be the other way around, right?

Overall, these scheduling errors are just going to hurt ratings throughout the first round and make many pockets of fans tune out from multiple games. It’s unfortunate, as the NHL seems determined to stunt its own growth at every turn. Most of the hardcore fans will stick it out, but that may be the only group that does. And the NHL needs more than that to be taken seriously in the bigger professional sports picture.

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