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6.04.2004

Hockey 

Silly me, I turned off Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals after two periods. I missed Tampa Bay's equalizer in the third period and Calgary's overtime game-winner.

I did see Jarome Iginla's second-period goal though. Tampa Bay made an errant pass that coasted towards the boards at center ice. Iginla hustled down, got the puck, skated down the wing into the offensive zone, and flicked a shot off the wrong leg that went off the post and behind Nikolai Khabibulin. Amazing.

As far as I can tell, hockey's in for a long cold winter or summer or lockout. The players have been accustomed to the higher salaries they've been raking in over the last ten years, but the NHL just can't keep paying them that kind of money when TV ratings and attendance are sagging.

The NHL seriously needs to consider contraction.

Yeah, that's right. Cut Nashville, Florida, Carolina, Phoenix, Atlanta, Columbus and Anaheim. Cut the deadwood from the league. There'll be more money to distribute among fewer players. I don't think 25-goal-scorers should continue to expect to make $2,000,000 per year, but they're going to have to take what they can get.

Recall that the NHL exploded in popularity in 1994. Michael Jordan had just retired, and casual sports fans had to watch the New York Knicks and Miami Heat bludgeon each other to death. Later that summer, Major League Baseball shut down.

Meanwhile, the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils -- two teams that had talented players and played a solid team game -- played an epic seven-game series in the Eastern Conference Finals. Down 3-2, the Rangers' Mark Messier guaranteed a Game 6 win, and his hat trick sealed the victory. The Rangers then took a lead into the waning minutes of Game 7, but with Martin Brodeur on the bench, the Devils launched a furious assault in the last minute and Valeri Zelepukin scored to tie the game. The Rangers then won the game in double overtime.

The Rangers went on to play the overmatched Vancouver Canucks, but Vancouver somehow managed to stretch the series to seven games before succumbing at the very end.

The NHL was riding high that summer, and not even the lockout that erased half the 1994-1995 season could crush the wave.

So what's the point of this trip down memory lane? Good players on good teams make for exciting hockey. Mediocre players play clutch-and-grab hockey, and the refs really can't stop them because calling penalties on them in a consistent manner would quickly become ridiculous. Goaltending looks spectacular these days, and no doubt today's goalies are better athletes and better-coached than in days past, but they also face lots of scorers who aren't very dangerous.

The NHL has neither the player talent nor the fan base to support itself right now. Cutting six or seven teams and 120-140 players would raise the overall level of talent in the game and get rid of some unproductive franchises.

Oh, but didn't Anaheim make the finals last year, Carolina the year before, and Florida in 1996? My point exactly. With talent diluted around the league, there are lots of teams around the league that are candidates to ride a hot goaltender or skill player to the finals, where they inevitably get beaten by a superior opponent. The NHL needs teams that have lots of talent, not lots of teams that have two or three top-notch players.

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