Before we get into who’s still around, let’s pour one out for friends who are no longer with us.
This will be the first NHL playoffs since the Upper Canada Rebellion in which neither Sidney Crosby nor Alex Ovechkin will feature.
Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals were bad in an anonymous way that contains no suggestion of getting much better. The Penguins were more aspirational. A real coulda-shoulda-woulda team that couldn’t and wouldn’t, and didn’t have any explanation.
The spirit of the current Penguins was captured in their final regular-season game, against Columbus. The Blue Jackets needed to lose to buy themselves a winning ticket to the Connor Bedard lottery. No team in any sport has ever wanted to lose more. And Pittsburgh would not allow it. Columbus won in overtime. The Blue Jackets were openly despondent about it afterward.
About 10 minutes after the game, the Penguins fired their president (Brian Burke) and their GM (Ron Hextall). They might as well be piling cord wood around the arena. I don’t know what temperature it is down there, but it’s already barbecuing season in Pennsylvania.
The Penguins haven’t been much good in ages, but it only became obvious this year. Too old, too tired, short on ideas, played out.
The NHL is a bit like high school English – if a teacher decides you’re an A student, you get A’s no matter what you hand in. Same thing with D’s. In some senses, we’re still living in the NHL of a few years ago, when the league was run by the cool kids of the 2004/05 drafts.
That league is over now. Time to find new valedictorians.
What would make the most sense is Connor McDavid finally graduating from award winner to actual winner.
When the Edmonton Oilers were bobbing around near the postseason cut line just a few weeks ago, there must have been a familiar sinking feeling at NHL HQ. McDavid’s (lack of) success has become a referendum on the league’s ability to manage its assets.
Figuring out where to put new franchises is hard. Don’t knock them until you’ve tried it yourself. For all we know, you, too, might look around and say, “Quebec City? Too cold. Hamilton? Too many fans. A city in Arizona that will be waterless before the end of this century? Just right.”
Compared with that, bringing your most valuable human product to market should be easy.
A good analogy for the McDavid situation might be quarterback Tom Brady. What if Brady played his entire career in Cleveland, put up the same numbers and never won anything? The NFL would be a different league now.
That is the rolling business disaster the NHL is perpetrating with McDavid. Its mistake is doubly unforgivable because as well as being unable to convert him into a Stanley Cup hero, it has also taken an Olympic hero off the table.
McDavid is 26, and he’s won as much meaningful professional silverware as I have. If the Oilers don’t make the final this year, the NHL has failed in its duty as a business proprietor. It invented the iPhone, but can’t figure out how to deliver it to anyone outside Canada.
Were I the league, I would be begging for NHLers to be allowed back into the Olympics under whatever circumstances. That may turn out to be the only way you can declare McDavid’s career something other than a fun way to spend your 20s.
Then there’s the second tier of new stars, represented most vividly by Toronto’s Auston Matthews.
Matthews was the league MVP last year, playing on a team that hasn’t won a postseason round in two decades. Is there a better illustration of how disconnected the NHL’s most recognizable faces are from its successes?
If the league wants to expand from its base, the time to do that is May and June. When the casual fan tunes in on a whim, she wants to see the players she’s heard some hype about. What does she see? A bunch of grinders from the Tampa Bay Lightning.
This isn’t meant to denigrate the Lightning. They’ve figured out a way to repeatedly do the most meaningful thing in sports. But while doing so, they have sucked up a lot of the air in the NHL conversation for the past three years.
Is the Lightning part of the general sports conversation in the way its peers – the Golden State Warriors, maybe, or the L.A. Dodgers – are? Not even close. Most Americans couldn’t name a player on the Lightning. (Most Americans couldn’t find Tampa Bay on a map, but you get the point.)
This problem isn’t likely to get much better in the next couple of months. Who’s going to win it all? The Bruins, probably.
The Bruins do at least have history and an identity. That’s progress.
But who’s fresh and new on Boston? The Bruins are a bunch of old guys bullying the kids. Their stars are quiet professionals who take persona tips from Patrice Bergeron. I’m sure it makes for a rewarding work environment, but it doesn’t do much in off-ice entertainment terms.
If Crosby and Ovechkin are finished as headline acts, who is the face of the league? It can’t be someone who never wins anything. NBA star LeBron James wouldn’t be LeBron James if he’d scored just as many points and never won a championship. He’d be considered a talented flameout, and maybe the unluckiest man alive. Instead of a one-man conglomerate, he’d be a cautionary tale – “Be careful who you get drafted by, son.”
The NHL isn’t stupid. It understands that McDavid is in danger of getting turned over. If Bedard is as good as advertised, McDavid loses whatever faint new-car smell he’s managed to hang on to. Then he’s just another guy who got lashed to the main mast of a basket case franchise.
With all that in mind, it’s not hard to imagine the league’s dream final – Rangers vs. Oilers. Barring that, Leafs vs. Oilers. Basically, anyone vs. the Oilers (Original Six preferred).
If there’s a plan, that’s it and it’s a smart one. Plus, we know how great the NHL is with plans.