NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs success has been remarkable

This has been a remarkable Stanley Cup tournament produced under remarkable conditions. The games have been played at an especially high level, the competition seemingly enhanced by the unique environment in which they are set.

That would be my one complaint about the presentation. The television audience has never experienced the ambience — or the lack thereof — of the rink. The piped-in noise that has given the telecasts a quasi-familiar feeling has left us in the dark as the conditions under which the games are truly being played.

I’m sure it’s too late now, with the conference finals upon us, but at least for one game, or one day, it would have been interesting to hear it without the fabricated noise.

And let’s hope the concept does not make its way into the realm of reality NHL television when relative normalcy returns to the league and the schedule.

Extensions of three of the four conference semis to seven games indicates that these athletes most certainly did not seek to bail from the bubble at the first opportunity. I think perhaps in earlier rounds, older teams that had won before but recognized quickly that would not be the case this time may have subconsciously been easier outs than expected, but these games have produced stellar drama and stellar performances.

In the absence of bad news, we should not make the mistake of overlooking how daunting this entire task seemed months ago, and clearly this remains as much with the showcase rounds of the playoffs here. We should not take any of this for granted. There was still the challenge, surely not taken lightly by anyone, of transporting the Eastern finalists from the bubble in Toronto to the one in Edmonton, where the two finals rounds will be played.

The players and attendant staffs who have made it this far have been physically isolated since the fourth week of July. They have been away from their families. They have lived pretty much in a hockey-and-hotel mentality for weeks. If you want to compare it to the old Devils under Lou Lamoriello, when the team was bivouacked at an infamous spot in New Jersey other than for scant hours at a time during their multiple Cup runs, you might not be all that wrong. And yes, of course, much of the population operates under much greater hardships. This is not a plea for sympathy for these athletes.

The Avalanche and Stars shake hands following last night's series finale.
The Avalanche and Stars shake hands following last night’s series finale.NHLI via Getty Images

It is just an appreciation of the upper echelon hockey we’ve seen under adverse conditions. Without any kind of external motivation provided by fans or outside social contact, every bit of emotion and energy is being generated from within. Maybe it’s even more personal. The swings within multiple games have been enormous. In that respect, this sure isn’t your circa 2003-04 anymore, where a one-goal lead might as well have been 10.

In another respect, though, the amount of interference that is being permitted and the amount of uncalled infractions do recall an earlier era. Or maybe that was just last year. That could be.

My observation, though, and I dare to say that in this instance at least not mine alone, is that the skill product the NHL sells throughout the regular season and increases annually, is not the one generally on display in the postseason.

The league rewards one type of discipline in the regular season and another in the tournament. If you want to say that is a large part of what makes winning the Cup so special, fair enough, because you do have to figure out how to make it one way and win the other. The Islanders, meanwhile, are consistent from October through, well, through September, as it turns out.

This is what I would ask though: Who is the biggest star left standing in the NHL? Who is the guy who is going to bring some more eyeballs to the screens of people, many of whom remain largely sequestered depending on location? I’m not a ratings-fanatic by any means, I think it is pure ignorance to label a product (or individual) by ratings ,and I’m not wild about the importance of branding and influencing, though I recognize the importance to some bottom lines.

Victor Hedman is a star. There is no doubt about that. You have to wonder, don’t you, what would have been had the Islanders taken Hedman first overall in 2009, and John Tavares thus would have gone second to Tampa Bay? Maybe not. But maybe Hedman, a towering figure for years within the game, can become a breakout personality from within the bubble.

Obviously, a spotlight will be shined on Miro Heiskanen, and deservedly so. Shea Theodore has an opportunity to create more of a name for himself. If Marc-Andre Fleury gets to play, of course people know him.

But does this kind of thing matter? Perhaps not to purists, but it certainly does to league and network executives. The value of the next U.S. national television and attendant media rights contract that will follow expiration of the current deal with NBC Sports following 2020-21 is crucial to both the league and the NHLPA. Because of the “lag formula” contained in the new CBA, that television money would not count toward the cap for at least two more seasons, thus allowing revenue in the interim to pay down what likely will be a considerable escrow debt.

So, television matters. To that, beyond my perhaps particular sensitivity to the white noise, the production has been uniformly outstanding under challenging positions, and it was so right from the start of the qualifying round. Anson Carter’s eloquence has been noteworthy. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to incorporate some form of Sean Avery’s Instagram analyses into the show, but then I wake up from that dream.

There are still miles to go before the NHL can sleep, but with two rounds to go, excellence merits notice.