Friday, February 25, 2011

What's In A Name...Or a Conference?

In yesterday’s online version of The Hockey News, Adam Proteau penned an interesting essay arguing that the NHL’s division structure should be scrapped in favor of straight-forward conference rankings. His is essentially a three-pronged argument. First, it completes the modernization job the league started back in 1994 (when the named divisions – Patrick, Norris, Adams, and Smythe – were retired in favor of geographic names). Second, it makes understanding the standings easier for the casual fan, who no longer has to ponder the meaning of a division leader getting an automatic ticket to a top-three conference seed. Last, Proteau offers an equity argument – it is fairer to teams that are more successful than a weak division winner that gets a free ticket to a top-three seeding.

Proteau makes a logical argument. What he argues would streamline the organization of teams (in fact, would go in the direction opposite to that which Major League Baseball has pursued over the last 40-plus years by adding divisions to a “league” structure) and would provide a level of competitive transparency (only one structure in which the teams compete).  I just don’t happen to agree with the prescription, and here is why. Rivalries.

Football markets the logo on the jersey, basketball markets players, and baseball markets its history. What does the NHL market? They have tried players, but that is pretty much an Alex Ovechkin/Sidney Crosby phenomenon, at least in trying to expand to the casual fan. The logo? Can’t compete with the NFL in that regard. History? Going to be hard doing that when you didn’t grow up in the game in the same fashion baseball fans generally do and develop a decades-long attachment to the sport from childhood.

I think Proteau is on to something in arguing against the competing divison/conference influences on seeding and the unbalanced schedule. The underlying argument – that divisions don’t matter, except to the team finishing first – is one I agree with. But I think there is a way to fix the problems in that arrangement and increase the volume of rivalries without abandoning divisions.

Make divisional play matter. Go back to four divisions. I would go all the way back to the Patrick – Adams – Norris – Smythe days, but those are details. No, go back to divisions and make them matter by establishing that the top four teams in each division make the playoffs (a nod to the past). Not only that, but you have to make it out of your divisional round (rounds one and two) to play for a conference title.

For the regular season, it makes divisional games matter more in that you are fighting for a top-four seed in that group, and that group alone (not for a top-eight spot against teams of other divisions as is the case now). Add to that the narrower geographic focus of a division-based organization and division-based means for making the playoffs, and rivalries could intensify, built around the natural ones that existed before the modernization began (some of which are preserved in the current alignment, like Detroit/Chicago or Boston/Montreal).  I think proximity matters here, and competition within smaller geographic areas creates more heat between fan bases than competition between conference rivals greater distances apart.

A 30-team league presents problems in balancing regular season schedules, and there really is no good way to solve this problem if you employ four divisions. In August 2009 we proposed a two-conference/four-division format with 32 teams (taking some liberties in moving/adding teams), but the point is creating a structure that intensifies rivalries in a context that means something to all of the teams involved. You are one of eight teams (or seven, for two divisions in a non-expansion scenario) fighting for four spots, period. No complicating factors such as whether a team finishes first and gets a guaranteed extra-divisional seed or relying on a weaker division to capture a playoff spot as a five-seed in the division (but with more points than the four seed in another weaker division). This is the pool in which you swim – top-four and you’re in, bottom-four and you’re out. Period.

Will that mean that a weak team wins a division, or worse, that a very good five-seed in a division will miss the playoffs while a weak four seed in another makes it? Yes. But the NFL endured sub-.500 team making the playoffs, and the world of sports was not reduced to rubble (they even won a playoff game against the defending league champion). Moreover, the nature of salary caps and free agency could very well mean that to the extent there are weak teams from time to time within a division making the playoffs at the expense of better teams in other divisions, this will be spread around the divisions over time. It is harder to keep teams together, and if there are five or six strong teams in, say, a reconstituted Patrick Division this year, chances are that in four or five years it might be the Smythe that has those strong teams.

But the key here is the playoffs. That is where the rivalries get amped up a few notches. And that is why it is important as part of this exercise that: a) four teams in each division make the playoffs, and b) that they play one another in the first two rounds. If familiarity breeds contempt (if not outright hatred), two playoff rounds against teams you’ve already had a long and presumably intense regular season series with will make players’ blood boil (not to mention their fans). That kind of intensity is something that could be of considerable interest to the fan that has not followed hockey especially closely.

I think the NHL lost something when it discarded a piece of its history in abandoning named divisions for points on a compass. I think it lost more when it abandoned divisions as a basis for competition in favor of conference seeding. They tried to get something from both worlds -- divisions and conferences -- and succeeded in creating the mush that Proteau (to his credit) would like to see remedied.  To me it has had the effect of sanitizing the sport – the rivalries don’t seem quite as intense. Six games with a division rival don’t carry with it quite the same intensity when you can make the playoffs at the expense of teams in other divisions (as is the case in conference-based seeding) than is the case when you are fighting with that team for one of four spots in the division in which you play. And, you have the possibility of having to face that team again (and one of two others) in the first two rounds of the playoffs just to get to a conference final.

Conference-based play has the charm of symmetry – 15 teams in each conference, and you can build a schedule around that which can accommodate the need to balance the number of intra-conference games you play, promoting a home-road balance in extra-division games, and still arriving at a total of 82. It would be harder to do this with the asymmetry of two divisions of eight and two of seven teams. But that problem is offset in large part by focusing on the fact that it is the intra-divisional results that matter for seeding. With a 30-team, four division arrangement you could start with the premise that each team plays a fixed number (six?, eight?) of intra-divisional games and build a schedule out from that to accommodate concerns over whether you wanted a team to face all 29 other teams in a season or if you wanted to designate another division for home-and-home games, etc.  In that respect the schedule might not look much different than what we have now, but the consequences of it change since it is the intra-divisional results that take on more meaning.

I was not much of a fan of the actions the league took in the 1990’s to abolish one connection with their history and to construct a divisional structure that mattered only in the context of the conference in which they competed. Completing that journey – abolishing divisions altogether – just does not seem to me to be the direction in which the NHL should go. I think it needs to establish an identity built around the restoration of the sort of rivalries that gave the league much of its personalities in the days of the Patrick, Adams, Norris, and Smythe divisions. I think it’s time to make divisions matter again for the players and for fans.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Rangers, February 25th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Hockey is back in DC after a two-week hiatus.

“Hi ate us?”

Yeah “hiatus”…a break, an interruption, a recess.

“The Caps went on recess? Did they play kick ball?”

Cheerless, you are as dumb as a box of rocks. Anyway, it’s hockey on a Friday night in…

“You know where the word ‘Friday’ came from, cuz?”

Oh, this oughtta be good.

"It’s a religious thing."

You mean, the day is named for a Norse pagan god, “Frigg?”

“No…jeez, get real. Friday? Fish? Lent? Fish ‘fry’?....FRY-day. You always make things so complicated, cuz.”

Well, while Cheerless contemplates matters of religion and days of the week, we’ll comtemplate tonight’s game. The New York Rangers come to town, clinging to a playoff spot despite having had a difficult month of February. The Rangers are 3-6-1 for the month, but are 3-2-0 in their last five games. Overall, their numbers going into last night’s action looked like this…

Looking at the numbers, the thing that jumps out from them is how much their profile resembles that of the Caps. Sixth and seventh in defense, 19th and 20th in scoring, 12th and 13th in 5-on-5 play, and so on. So why are the Caps sitting six points ahead of the Rangers? Well, even though the Rangers have ten extra time wins, it is their inability to get to that extra time that resulted in seven more losses in regulation for the Blueshirts, while the Caps managed six more points in extra time losses. It’s a rather thin margin.

And that could make for a close game tonight, even with the Rangers depleted by injuries to the likes of Ruslan Fedotenko, Chris Drury, and Marian Gaborik. Gaborik suffered a concussion, perhaps last Sunday against the Flyers, the latest in a series of injuries that has limited him to 47 games this season. His absence places more pressure on Rangers’ leading scorer Brandon Dubinsky (19-24-43 in 57 games), who comes into tonight’s game without a point in his last three contests after putting up a four-game points streak. One might be forgiven for thinking Dubinsky has been around for a long time, but he is still only 24 years old and in his fourth full season of play. In nine career games against the Caps he is 2-5-7.

Perhaps more important that Gaborik’s absence as a factor in tonight’s game is the possible absence of defenseman Marc Staal. He tweaked his knee against Carolina on Tuesday and did not practice with the team yesterday. He will be a game-time decision. Staal’s absence would be crippling. He is a minutes eater (almost 26 minutes a game), is one of the best shutdown defensemen in the league, and has added an offensive dimension to his game not present in his first couple of years. He is on a pace to finish with 30 points, which would be a career best, and finish plus-11, which would tie his career best. In the first three games of this season’s series with the Caps he has a goal and an assist and is a plus-2.

If you were asked, “who leads the Rangers in goals?,” your first inclination might be to respond, “Marian Gaborik.” Wrong. “OK, how about Dubinsky?” OK, he is, but only tied for the team lead. Know who the other player is? You’d stand there thinking a long time before you settled on Brian Boyle.

“Wasn’t he in ‘Caddyshack,’ cuz?”

No, that was Brian Doyle Murray. Brian Boyle was a first round draft pick once upon a time (26th overall, to Los Angeles in 2003), but after spending four years with Boston College in the NCAA, he had a tough time breaking in with the Kings. After skating for only 32 games in Los Angeles over two seasons, he was traded to the Rangers in June 2009 for a third round pick in the 2010 draft. Not the sort of deal that gets a lot of attention. And last season he did not give anyone cause to pay much more attention, because despite playing in 71 games for the Rangers he finished with only four goals and a pair of assists, skating about 15 minutes a game. This year, it’s been much different. He was fast out of the gate, recording ten goals by the end of November. He has not been as hot since – nine goals in 36 games since December 1st – but with 19 goals for the season (four of them on the power play), it isn’t just his size (6’7”, 244) that makes one pay attention.

And that brings us to Henrik…Hank…or “Henny,” if you are Stan Fischler, “The Hockey Maven.” That would be Henrik Lundqvist. The Rangers’ netminder has not had a vintage season, wins and losses wise (winning only 24 of 48 decisions), but his 2.30 goals against average and .920 save percentage are both 11th in the league. He shares the top spot in shutouts with Boston’s Tim Thomas (seven). There have been cracks, though, appearing in Lundqvist’s game recently. Not big ones, but certainly enough to make one wonder if the minutes are taking their toll (he has played more than 4,100 minutes in each of the past four seasons and has more than 2,800 so far this season). Since blanking the Toronto Maple Leafs, 7-0, on January 19th, he has allowed three or more goals in nine of 11 decisions (4-6-1). He split two decisions against the Caps in this year’s season series, playing to a 2.02 goals against average in doing so.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder:

New York: Dan Girardi

If Marc Staal cannot answer the bell tonight, the job falls to Dan Girardi to take up a bigger load to shut down the Caps. He is the Rangers’ top point-getter from the blueline (3-22-25), but he will have to play better in his own end than the 72 goals against he has been on the ice for this season – about 47 percent of the Rangers’ total – suggests.

Washington: Alex Ovechkin

Ovechkin has looked much like his old self recently. In his last 15 games he is 9-8-17, plus-5, and he is on a four-game points streak, his longest since early November. He has power play goals in two of his last three games, which brings us to the point. He does not have a power play goal at Verizon Center this season. He has only 12 goals at home in 31 games. If he gets a goal or two, and especially if he gets one on a power play, it will be a big indicator that he is back.


1. Show up for 60 minutes…and maybe more. These two teams are among the league leaders in one-goal games played (32 for Washington, 31 for New York). These teams are likely to be hanging around one another all night…just so long as the Caps give a 60-minute effort…and maybe more.

2. Gather the wagons. The Rangers have outshot opponents 35 times in 62 games so far this season…and have a losing record in doing it (17 wins in 35 decisions). Keep those shots to the outside, and numbers won’t matter.

3. 60 minutes…part two. The Rangers have scored 39 first period goals this season, only one more than the 30th-ranked Caps in that measure. But they have scored 59 second period and 64 third-period goals (very similar to the Caps’ 61 and 60). They will be around at the finish. The Caps had better be, too.

In the end, these are teams that mirror one another quite closely in almost any number you care to use for comparison. Scoring, defense, special teams, the timing of the goals they score and allow. It’s like two cars speeding around a NASCAR track, one right on the tail of the other. And that is what will make playing a 60 minute game so important for the Caps. Sure, they would like to put on a show for the home folks after spending two weeks on the road, but this is the wrong team for that. The Rangers are not the kind of team that will play along in an up-and-down goal fest. This is one the Caps will have to earn the hard way.

Caps 3 – Rangers 2