NHL Roundtable: Outdoor apathy; World Junior hype; multi-coach
Every Wednesday, a trio of SI.com staffers will sit down for a discussion of the hockey world's hot button issues. This week, Brian Cazenueve, Sarah Kwak and Al Muir palaver about Winter Classic boredom, a clash of titans at the World Junior Championship, and the Ghidorah approach to coaching in New Jersey.
• There's a sense that apathy has overtaken anticipation of the Winter Classic. What will it take to restore the luster of the NHL's marquee regular season event?
BRIAN CAZENEUVE: Eh, OK, so the Winter Classic isn’t a big TV ratings bonanza. It’s still a great event in person. It’s a moneymaker for the league. It’s a game that most NHL players love to play in. So I’m not sure how much more you could do with it for TV's sake, but I certainly wouldn’t do away with it. Ask an NHL player how much he looks forward to playing in a Winter Classic. Then ask how much he looks forward to the All-Star Game. The Classic is still a treat for most people to be a part of live. You can’t see the puck well on TV. You can’t get the same sense of THE meteorological challenges in playing outdoors as you can with, say, an NFL playoff game. As long as you have cameras in the dressing rooms leading up to the game, would teams be OK with more live mics on the bench (with maybe a five-second delay in coverage), so we could hear what Jonathan Toews or Alex Ovechkin is saying? Given the extra room from the boards to the stands, is there something creative you can do with camera angles that you couldn’t do in an arena? Barring that, I’m not sure you can do much more for the TV coverage.
SARAH KWAK: Yeah, I think the outdoor game overload is real. Last year, with six of those "marquee" games spread out throughout the season, I'm afraid the NHL gave fans too much of a good thing. The excitement hasn't been the same this season, and to bring it back, the league will need to make the Winter Classic unique and special again. I'm not exactly sure how to achieve that, especially now that the college football playoff is in place and sure to dominate the attention to sports on New Year's Day. What established the Winter Classic as a marquee event was the novelty, and where's the novelty with the same teams playing in these games year after year? Yes, these are the markets that show great passion for hockey, and have the stars to carry it. But the fact that this year's game will be played by two teams that have already played in this game—this will be Chicago's third outdoor appearance—in its short history makes it relatively dull. I say let's open it up, bring in different teams and spread the wealth a little. But for the long term, once the novelty of new teams involved is gone, then all that's left is the product, and let's be honest, the hockey at Winter Classics isn't quite so thrilling. They need to create playoff-like atmosphere in a non-playoff game. Maybe that's achieved by pitting real rivals in these games—not these forced inter-conference rivalries.
ALLAN MUIR: You're right on, Sarah. As much as I supported what the league was trying to accomplish with multiple outdoor games last season, it's clear the NHL exhausted too many legitimate rivalries (Islanders-Rangers, Ducks-Kings) and intriguing venues (Yankee Stadium, Dodger Stadium) that would have moved the needle more than the pair of mismatched foes at the seven-year-old, nondescript ballpark that we're getting this year. It's time to refocus the brand and give us games featuring playoff-tested matchups and locales that are worthy of the spectacle. Don't limit it to NHL cities or massive structures. Invest (once) in something picturesque like "Mystery, Alaska" or the rink that Molson built for its recent "Anything For Hockey" campaign. And don't be afraid of using Canadian teams. Boston-Montreal makes a lot more sense than Boston-Philadelphia.
GALLERY: THE NHL OUTDOORS
• There was no shortage of hype before the World Junior matchup between Canada and the United States. Is the hype justified?
I've been far more excited about it—and possibly another Canada-U.S. tilt later in the tournament—than I am for anything during the NHL’s regular season, and that includes the Winter Classic. It reminds me of the hype for the NCAA basketball game 35 years ago when Magic Johnson’s Michigan State team was about to face Larry Bird’s team from Indiana State. That was actually a dull game, given how easily Michigan State prevailed, but many people romanticize it as a matchup that ushered in a new era of basketball. Sure, you knew these two would lock horns many times during their NBA careers, but this would be the one collegiate meeting between the two guys who were clearly head and shoulders above the pack. Wayne Gretzky was older than Mario Lemieux, so they never had one before they became the faces of an era. While it is a lot to ask of the round robin game and possibly the final, I won’t be surprised if people talk about the contest in Montreal and maybe Toronto for years to come as they watch Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel develop into NHL stars.
Yeah, it's kind of reminiscent of the gold medal game back in the 2005 WJC tournament when a draft-eligible Sidney Crosby faced off against Alex Ovechkin shortly after Crosby had been taken first in the 2004 draft. Neither Ovi nor Russia fared all that well in that one (Canada trounced them, 6-1), but it was a moment that presaged a rivalry that came to define the sport. That's how the round robin game set up with McDavid and Eichel pegged by scouts as generational talents, but as I pointed out in Off The Draw, don't be surprised if they aren't the stars of the show. Both players assumed supporting roles for their teams in the early going. That's exactly what you'd expect from underagers in a tournament that's typically dominated by 19-year-olds, but it's worth keeping in mind for fans who don't usually watch this event.
When I talk to hockey non-aficionados about the World Juniors, I tell them it's kind of like hockey's NCAA Tournament—except with a nationalistic bent. So, yes, Brian, I think your parallel is apt. So what should we expect? I hope it's everything that we've built it up to be, and that McDavid and Eichel dazzle and wow like the time that Crosby and Ovechkin traded hat tricks in a playoff game in 2009. But alas, we all know that hockey is a team game. And like that Magic-Bird game, I think it may not be the most epic World Juniors showdown of all time—especially their first meeting because it's not a knockout game. But I also believe we'll see solid showings from both; it'll come down to much more than a one-on-one duel, though. I'm tempering my expectations, but I'll tune in with hopes that something super special comes about.
Hey, if there's ice, anthems and Canada/USA, you're guaranteed special. And don't forget that McDavid and Eichel aren't the only kids worth watching. Team USA has Noah Hanifan on defense, and it's a good bet taht he'll be the third player selected in June. The other one that scouts are raving about is Auston Matthews, a 16-year-old forward from Scottsdale, Arizona (!) who's the early favorite to be the top pick in 2016.
• The struggling Devils handed coach Peter DeBoer his pink slip this week, but his firing was nowhere near as big a story as the way he's being replaced. Has GM Lou Lamoriello lost his mind or should he be regarded as a visionary for his football-inspired approach to bench leadership?
You know if this works that others will follow. Lamoriello is still a respected figure among NHL GMs, even if some people acknowledge that his heavy-handed ways would not work with many organizations. Hockey is becoming more structured by the year. Just look at the ideas of puck pursuit, breakout plays and the advanced stats that were not in the game all that long ago. As the game has become more structured, it has also become more open to the ideas of specialized coaching and preparation. Coaching staffs are larger now than they used to be. I remember when teams didn’t have goalie coaches, when one head coach changed both forwards and defensemen, when the idea of an assistant who worked with the special teams was simply not given any thought. If it works, yes, Lamoriello will be thought of as a visionary for trying it, but more important, other teams will consider following suit. If it fails, then it will be a while before people start confusing hockey with football.
I suspect that this is not all that different from how many NHL teams already approach coaching—that is, coaches in charge of specific aspects of the team. What will be interesting is how exactly they move forward. I do not see this as a permanent staff structure, and I suspect they will return to a head coach with assistants who concentrate on their areas of expertise. That's because there needs to be a singular vision for the team, and it doesn't work if there are too many cooks in the kitchen. Is Lamoriello a visionary? In lots of ways, he already is, but I don't think that this is one of them. I think this move will work out fine for the short term. Both Scott Stevens and Adam Oates have a lot of experience working under Lamoriello and in the organization, but there are deeper issues than coaching here. The Devils need to build a better roster and cultivate their talent better than they have. They haven't done particularly well in the draft, and that's where I think New Jersey needs to concentrate.
New Jersey's season is essentially over—the Devils are not leapfrogging past six other teams, even in the East-—so why not swing for the fences? I don't see it as a viable solution (Sarah's right about too many cooks), but they've got four months to let this experiment play out. Maybe they learn something about their structure and game management processes. Maybe they learn something about their development system and their personnel. Maybe they realize just how far removed they are from being anything more than a fringe playoff contender. Or maybe they end up with a high lottery pick. As crazy it looks on the surface, there's really no downside here.