23 August 2009

Gary Bettman shouldn't go crawling back to ESPN

One of the recurring ideas that I see kicked around the blogosphere is the idea that the NHL needs to kick Versus to the curb, and go groveling back to ESPN. Presumably, going back to ESPN, even if it means taking a lower offer on the television contract, will mean that suddenly the NHL will be heavily featured on Sportscenter. This will hook all the casual sports fans on hockey, because if its on ESPN, they're going to watch it. It's just that simple!

Step 1 - Get on ESPN
Step 2 - ???
Step 3 - Profit!

The supposed returns from a return to ESPN seem entirely imaginary to me. The idea that the NHL returning to ESPN will lead to a significant NHL presence on Sportscenter seems entirely delusional to me. Last time the NHL was on ESPN, there was hardly a significant NHL presence on the morning Sportscenter. Back before all the scores and highlights were easily accessable online, and Sportscenter was the primary means for catching those items, the NHL usually appeared about 45-50 minutes in, and the WWL's idea of NHL coverage was to (maybe) show 20 seconds of highlights from a single game, followed by a bunch of scoreboards for the rest of the games.

The NHL was never a priority on Sportscenter when ESPN had the rights, and the only thing people point out to say why that wouldn't be the case is that the NHL has more marketable stars in Crosby and Ovechkin now. That may be true, but that doesn't mean the NHL is going to get exposure, just that the Penguins and Capitals would. We'd be right back to one or two quick sets of highlights about some combination of DET/PIT/WSH and then some quick scoreboards. This is before we even consider what quality of highlights or analysis you're even going to get on Sportscenter. Oh boy, nothing excites me like hearing Stuart Scott say something stupid as we see Sidney Crosby light the lamp.

The other wonderful thing ESPN will do is take their legions of casual fans and throw them at the NHL, making people fall in love with the game because ESPN gave it to them. Like all these people are really waiting for the NHL to move to ESPN to become hockey fans. One of the complaints about Versus is that casual fans don't even know what channel it is, if they even have it. You're telling me that someone who can't bother to look up what channel the NHL is on is who we're looking to recruit?

Furthermore, you're trying to convince me that because something is on ESPN, its going to suddenly net tons of casual viewers? Poker and NASCAR get plenty of time on ESPN, but they're not on any sort of higher ground than the NHL is, despite all their ESPN exposure. People watch poker because it comes on after they get home from work or after Sportscenter. I've watched poker because it was on. I've watched trickshot billiards because it was on. Hell, I've watched scrabble on ESPN before because it was on. But if you think legions of casual sports fans are marking their calendars for a poker event on TV and becoming actual fans who can be milked for their money, you're kidding yourself. There is a significant difference between "oh gee, theres nothing else on and I need background noise while I look at internet porn" and "OH MY GOD DUDE HE TOTALLY GOT THAT ROYAL FLUSH ON THE RIVER WOW IM GONNA GO GET A PHIL HELLMUTH T-SHIRT!!!". One of these isn't really a fan, and one of them is. One of them is a useful asset to a professional sports league, and one of them is considerably less than that.

Of course, there is the issue of quality of presentation and analysis of the product should the NHL return to ESPN as well. Yes, Versus doesn't have a very good studio team. Brian Engblom and Keith Jones are not exactly a couple of hockey-oriented Einsteins, but then again, neither was Barry Melrose, was he? Most of my time watching the NHL on ESPN was spent yelling at Barry Melrose or listening to Gary Thorne verbally fellate Peter Forsberg. ESPN really isn't much of a step up from where the NHL is at currently, in that regard. Its not like Engblom and Jones have tried to come back to the game recently and been summarily bounced right back out for being incompetent.

One of the fondest memories people have of the NHL on ESPN is the good ol' NHL 2Nite. Yes, a highlights show is better than none, which is what Versus currently does. The thing people forget is that NHL 2Nite was carried more by Buccigross' charisma than anything else. NHL2Nite wasn't even that big on the highlights either. It looked good because there weren't any other options, but when you got past the hour's worth of commercials squeezed into a half hour and reduced run times because of other sport's overages of time, you got a couple quick highlights and that was it. Really, it was John Buccigross' charisma and a lack of options that made NHL 2Nite great.

NHL Network's On The Fly Final is a far more complete highlight and general hockey news show than NHL 2Nite ever was, and hockey certainly isn't getting a full 1 hour show at a reasonable hour on ESPN anytime soon. It may not have flashy graphics or the charisma of a guy like Buccigross, but its pretty good as it is, it has some far better analysts in guys like Larry Murphy and Gary Greene, and those cosmetic shortcomings are the sorts of things that can be improved on. If you really want to make an improvement, do what the NFL Network did with Rich Eisen, and snag Buccigross away from ESPN and put him to work on the NHL Network. If we want a highlights show on cable, without being on NHL Network, why not just get Versus to start playing On The Fly once or twice a night? It's gotta pull in more eyes than Fanarchy or whatever else Versus is putting on TV.

What do I think would be best for the NHL in terms of television exposure? First of all, I think you re-up with Versus. They're willing to do a lot for the NHL, and not many other networks will give you two straight months of prime time programming without a fight. Keep Versus as a primary station. Secondly, re-up with NBC as well. Or maybe CBS. To me, the two are mostly interchangable and equally irrelevant. Give them the same package they have now, give them the Winter Classic, and give them some playoffs. And please, demand that they get McGuire and Milbury off the broadcast team, and replace them with some intelligent people.

Third, if ESPN is interested, you give them a weekly game. Don't hem and haw and make concessions to get on ESPN. Just say, "hey, you guys want some sort of game of the week package for every Friday night?". If they don't, fine, walk away. If they do, take it. Just a game a week for ESPN, no playoffs, no Winter Classic, just give them one game a week. Tell them that if the NHL is to return to the "World Wide Leader In Sports", its not going to be groveling and begging for forgiveness, but as a viable, growing product.

Beyond that, I think the NHL needs to seriously invest in the NHL Network, in an effort to make the NHL Network the primary platform for all things NHL. Obviously that road isn't perfect, as the NFL can tell you, but it has serious benefits. I'm a fan of hockey and football, and I can personally attest that the NFL Network is a far more attractive platform for all things NFL related compared to ESPN, Fox, or CBS. The highlights are more comprehensive, the analysis is more informed, you get far more insight into all aspects of the game, there is more NFL-related programming, and the discussions of relevant issues are far more informed. In fact, one of the things that most impresses me about the NFL Network is that, for a network owned and run by the league, it isn't afraid to be critical of the league, its commissioner, or its practices.

Its not quite perfect, but the NFL Network is leading the way in this aspect of business, and its something that the other three major sports should be eager to mimic. If the NHL started putting together more original programming, airing more live games, breaking more news, and working to bring more and better on-air talent into the network, they'd catch even more eyes. For me, I don't watch much TV, but for a significant portion of the year, I exclusively watch the NFL and NHL Networks. Giving more people more reasons to watch the NHL Network will only serve to help the league further. These steps will do far more to help the NHL long term, than to go crawling back to ESPN, asking to be loved again. For the life of me, I can't understand why anyone thinks crawling back to ESPN is going to be a miracle cure for the NHL's television woes.

19 August 2009

Rubber Ducky, You're The One

Today, the Detroit Red Wings announced the return of Todd Bertuzzi, on a 1 year 1.5M deal. I don't really like Bertuzzi, mostly because I never thought he was that great, and his general worthlessness since his suspension for trying to kill Steve Moore. I'm more or less ambivalent about the move, purely from a "Hey, the Wings acquired Bertuzzi" standpoint, because he can probably do halfway decent with enough talent around him and its a pretty cheap one year deal. However, the real problem with this deal is the roster spot that a mostly worthless Bertuzzi would occupy, especially after the signings of Jason Williams and Patrick Eaves. Check this out:

1 - Datsyuk
2 - Zetterberg
3 - Franzen
4 - Filppula
5 - Cleary
6 - Holmstrom
7 - Draper
8 - Bertuzzi
9 - Williams
10 - Maltby
11 - Leino
12 - Helm
13 - Eaves
14 - Abdelkader

That's 14 forwards, with only 12 spots for a given game available. I don't know which are on 2 way contracts (anyone know a good resource for finding that out?), which will play a significant role in which guys get to be in that top 12.

One of the important things under a salary cap is to get good production from your youngsters, who are still on very team-friendly cap hits. This becomes even more important when your team is very much jammed up against the cap, as the Wings are. In fact, coming into this offseason, knowing that the Wings were quickly approaching a very unpleasant meeting with the realities of a salary cap, there were calls from some sides to go ahead and let some of the kids take over, to take advantage of their cap hits and finally give some of them a chance to crack a notoriously tough lineup.

I don't think there is any question that Leino plays on the big club this year. He has a very team friendly deal at an 800K cap hit, and is a very good bet to produce more than any other forward making under 2M this year.

The question rises more in terms of the roster spots for Helm and Abdelkader. Obviously, the Red Wings' brain trust has faith in Helm, considering the games he's played the last two years. However, Helm was only brought up for 16 games last season. I expect he'll play more than that this year, but as much as the coaching staff loves him, it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if they bounced him back and forth between the AHL and NHL this year. The front office will want to try to get some results from Williams/Eaves/Bertuzzi, which isn't unreasonable, and I also think that Babcock will use a bus ticket to Grand Rapids as a way to punish mistakes and to let Helm know that as much as they like the kid, he can't ever let up. In fact, it might even be one of those things where they're even harder on him because they like him. That alone will probably get Helm a solid half a season this year, and additional subs because of injury will probably get him close to 60 games.

That leaves Justin Abdelkader. Given 4 games of NHL regular season duty across the last two seasons, Abdelkader hasn't had much chance to grab hold of a roster spot. However, in 10 playoff games this past year, he was good for 3 points, and play by play guys were calling his name (along with Helm's, oftentimes) pretty frequently. He seemed to be doing a good job of playing responsible across the entire ice surface, he got a few points, and he definitely got some attention. I've got to think that merits a chance to earn some NHL ice time, but for many of the same reasons as why I think Darren Helm will miss out on some games, I think Abdelkader will also miss out on some large stretches of time. I'm thinking Abdelkader is probably good for no more than a half season this year, tops.

So if I'm right on those guesses, Helm and Abdelkader are losing significant NHL time this year to Patrick Eaves and Todd Bertuzzi. I can't see any possible way that turns out to be a good move, especially in Bertuzzi's case. What offense has been lost to the departure of Hossa and Samuelsson will in large part be picked up by the promotion of Leino, acquisition of Jason Williams, and whoever fills out the roster (ideally, to me, Helm + Abby). It may not make up for all of it, but whatever isn't made up for can definitely be made up for on the defensive end. Giving Bert any of the ice time that has been earned by Helm and Abby, while Bert blames anyone else for the fact that he sucks, is an absolutely wrong move to make.

11 August 2009

Competent Competition

Over at the CLS redraft, we are almost through six rounds of re-drafting so far. When the idea was first kicked around, I envisioned something a bit different than what the draft actually became, but one of the most compelling parts of doing this whole exercise was that I thought it would be highly interesting to see how a group of people reacted to the constant changes of a league-wide fantasy draft. Seeing how people originally intended to go before the draft started, how they reacted to what came their way and to position runs, and where their team was completed compared to the intended build was going to be the most interesting part to me.

As I mentioned before, I came into this draft with a basic plan of how I wanted to build my team. I wanted to build a defense-first team, much in the mold of the Detroit Red Wings or the Anaheim Ducks. Instead, Jarome Iginla fell to #16, and I was obligated to take one of my favorite forwards in the game. After that, I went for a franchise D-man with Duncan Keith in the second round. In the third, I felt that most of the top end defensemen were gone, but Brenden Morrow is another favorite of mine, in a similar mold as Iginla, and he wasn't going to last much longer, so I had to jump on that.

One thing I noticed though by this point in the draft was that in a draft of 30 people knowledgeable about the game, while it was possible to still get some relative "steals" close to where people ought to have been taken, there was no way you were going to fill a team with quality players gotten from the bottom rounds of a draft. I wasn't terribly impressed with what was left over for me in rounds 4 and 5, and I was thinking I could nab some steals in rounds 5-10, so I took some opportunities to trade down and collect a bunch of 5-10's, at the expense of some of my much later picks. This way, while everyone else is fighting over nonames to fill their roster, I'll already have my roster filled with higher quality players. It may not be great all the way through, but top to bottom, it should be better than most people.

Part of the problem here though, is that everyone in this league freaked out and took goalies in a big hurry. I refused to get caught in a position run just to get bottom of the barrel goalies, so I just kept on picking. Then everyone started picking up "name" players and bargain contracts, several rounds before they should've gone. I love Milan Lucic, but there's no way he's a top 2 line forward. He went 130th, to a team that had Lecavalier and Hossa for forwards already. Presumably, he plays on a top line, or he was a tremendous reach. But those reaches are happening all over the draft board, so I'm having to reach similarly for any players on bargain contracts. Having 3 picks in the 6th round, I grabbed T. J. Oshie, Jonathan Ericsson, and Alexander Edler. Decent prices for each, which allows me more flexibility later in the draft for grabbing anyone who is a little overpaid (or even paid market value).

In the NHL, cap room is one of the most valuable resources you can have, and in this draft, people are collecting bargain contracts like they're going out of style. Part of the problem with that though, is that this redraft league is set up to run for one year only. There is no dynastic team building here. Having a $5 dollar shake on your team isn't a problem, as you don't have to think about those raises the rookies are due next year. Especially when you're going to be fighting over a bunch of minimum wage players in rounds 18-23 anyways, who cares if you grab the $5 milkshake now? Competent competition is definitely making this draft harder, as everyone else involved certainly knows their stuff, but at the same time, the pack focus on goaltenders all at once, then bargain contracts all at once, etc. is making for some pretty strange results. I'm not really sure how I feel about it, except that it frustrates me to no end that everyone I want to steal is being stolen by everyone else. This must be how Kevin Lowe ends up making stupid decisions.

Its definitely too late to do this now with this CLS redraft league, but I'm a huge dork and really think dynastic team-building, on a model like the NHL, would be pretty sweet. I'm not sure how such a thing would be done or kept ongoing, but I think it could be pretty cool. Doing an online NHL10 league for 30 teams would be similar, but it woul dbe just too long and unwieldy to possibly make into a reality. I guess I'm kind of envisioning something almost on the level of a Dungeons and Dragons thing, but it would be a hockey sim instead. That probably makes me a huge douchebag, but I think that would be pretty cool.

EDIT: I'm not entirely sure why I wrote this. I guess I'm just bitching because my competition is for the most part pretty good. What I want is for everyone else to grab the expensive players now, and fill out the bottom of the roster with minimum wagers, while I grab all the bargain guys and then am free to fill the bottom of my roster with more expensive guys if I want. Unfortunately, everyone else is screwing this up for me.