For years now, the NHL and its higher ups have seemed like they don’t really know how to advertise the game to new audiences. For at least 15 years, Gary Bettman and the other bigwigs have seemingly re-hashed the same stars they marketed then. Sidney Crosby. Alexander Ovechkin. Patrick Kane. The same concepts have been played so many times over, it’s kind of a wonder the established fans are bothering to return. It seems even when the NHL has great stories to tell and events to publicize, they unintentionally bury them behind a philosophy that’s become increasingly irrelevant in the modern age. Chris Kreider of the New York Rangers was the league’s goal-scoring leader for a time, and neither his team nor the league put in any effort to get the story out there. On top of that, Kreider led the way for the Blueshirts in the playoffs.
The 2022 Stanley Cup Semifinals handed the NHL its most obvious marketing opportunity in almost two decades, and on a silver platter. Each series had something different to offer, and the league can capitalize on multiple angles to usher in a new era and attract the new fans it claims to need.
Avalanche vs. Oilers: the Best Team & the Best Player
The Western Conference Final between the Edmonton Oilers and the Colorado Avalanche brought out the best the league had to offer. The Avalanche dominated the Western Conference throughout the regular season, finishing with 119 points and clinching first place as well as home-ice advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs. The domination didn’t stop once they reached the postseason, either, as they swept the Nashville Predators, battled past the St. Louis Blues in six games, and ultimately overpowered the Oilers for another sweep. Even so, the Oilers-Avalanche series had something for everyone.
The Oilers were somewhat of surprise (relatively speaking, anyway) to make the postseason. In Feb. 2022, with a record of 23-18-5, they dismissed head coach Dave Tippett after a particularly ugly 4-1 loss at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks. Replacing Tippett was Jay Woodcroft, the relatively unknown coach of the Oilers’ AHL affiliate Bakersfield Condors. Woodcroft’s arrival galvanized the team, as he seemed to know exactly what he needed to do to get the best of everyone. He re-organized the defence pairings, teaming up Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci, and ultimately transformed the top pair into one of the best shutdown duos in the league. Another genius move was his decision to separate Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl on a permanent basis, alternating the two with centres Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Ryan McLeod. (From “Oilers GM Ken Holland has a lengthy “to-do” list, but extending Jay Woodcroft is Job One” Bruce McCurdy. Edmonton Journal. 11/06/2022)
The Oilers thus bounced back to dominate their provincial rival Calgary Flames in five games and set up a date with the best team in the conference. The anticipation for the Oilers-Avalanche matchup was incredibly high, and fans got to see McDavid and Draisaitl go toe-to-toe with the most dominant team around.
Game 1 lived up to all the hype and more, as the Avalanche ultimately came out on top with a wild 8-6 victory. Avs forward J.T. Compher potted two goals as 13 different players found the back of the net across both teams. The stars came out to play in that series, with big names like Nathan McKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, and Cale Makar scoring in bunches alongside the Oilers’ big guns. Although the Avalanche dominated the Oilers, the series served as a microcosm of what the league is becoming and exactly the aspects that need to be marketed.
Rangers vs. Lightning: Defending Champions and New Look Blueshirts
The Eastern Conference Final presented just as many storylines as its Western counterpart. The Tampa Bay Lightning entered their series with the New York Rangers (and the playoffs as a whole) as the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. A roster loaded with stars, they squeaked past the Toronto Maple Leafs in round one before handily disposing the Florida Panthers in Round 2. When they met the Rangers, they no doubt expected much of the same type of play they had experienced in the Leafs series.
The Rangers were one of the most exciting teams in the game in 2021-22, and the team answered the bell in all aspects. The rebuild produced results ahead of schedule, and both the regular season and playoffs featured breakout stories for the ages. Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, and Artemi Panarin carried the Rangers’ offence to a 52 win, 110 point regular season. All three were a joy to behold, and Panarin finished with 96 points, 74 of which came as assists. The aforementioned Kreider tore up the scoresheet, scoring 52 goals. Zibanejad finished second on the team in scoring and enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career.
In the playoffs, it was the goaltending which won out, as the previously unheralded Igor Shesterkin stole the show (and likely the Vezina Trophy). Just like many of his established teammates, Shesterkin enjoyed a breakout season, but at the same time put himself on the map with his performances, including a 69-save masterclass in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference first round against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Rangers and Lightning, as two of the most electric (no pun intended) teams in the league, gave fans an absolutely mesmerizing seven-game slugfest, and put two of the best teams in the league on full display, right where they should be.
The combination of Avalanche-Oilers and Lightning-Rangers as the NHL’s final four teams gave the league an unprecedented marketing opportunity, one which displays exactly the direction the league is heading in. Bettman and company would be foolish not to use these series as a blueprint for growing the game, just as they’ve so badly wanted to do for years.
What Should the NHL Do Now?
Simply put, the NHL should shift its marketing focus. These games are the ones that the NHL should schedule in primetime. The exposure of the 2022 Stanley Cup Semifinals, combined with the new broadcasting contract, should provide the perfect backdrop for this shift. They provide a perfect opportunity to transition away from the “Wednesday Night Rivalry” promotion that has since become tired and uninteresting. When it started, the participating teams were each successful and the rivalry games often determined division and playoff seeding. As the seasons passed, the novelty wore off as the participating teams performed worse and worse. Yet, the NHL and NBC Sports belligerently stuck to the idea, resulting in last season’s true marquee matchup when the 24-25-7 Chicago Blackhawks played against the 19-27-10 Detroit Red Wings.
While it’s become somewhat of a cliché that the NHL and Bettman in particular have biases against and in favour of certain teams, the 2022 Stanley Cup semifinal indicates the exact teams that should be repeatedly on display. The NHL has had a tendency — at least in recent years — to overhype the “Original Six” games ad nauseam, to the point where the term has lost all meaning. Instead, the league should focus on the teams with the most exciting rosters and the teams that play the most exciting hockey. A game between the Maple Leafs and Oilers, for example, would draw many more fans in a national slot in America than a game between two mediocre teams like the Blackhawks and Red Wings.
Not only would featuring some of the young, exciting teams draw more fans to the game, but it would also salvage the reputation of the NHL’s leadership group in the eyes of many. The 2022 Stanley Cup Semifinals can provide the groundwork for an entirely new approach that, if done properly, can ensure the stability of the league for the foreseeable future.
Covering the Pittsburgh Penguins and other topics for The Hockey Writers. Also a big fan of the Chicago Cubs and progressive rock music.