Friday, December 7, 2007
This week, it's a debate of 'good or bad'
By Scott Burnside and Damien Cox
Editor's note: In our "Friday Faceoff," ESPN.com NHL writer Scott Burnside (based in Atlanta) and Toronto Star columnist and frequent ESPN.com contributor Damien Cox (based in Toronto) duke it out over any given hockey topic. Let the games begin!
This week's topic: Are all of the close numbers in the standings a result of parity or mediocrity?
Scott: So, I look at the NHL standings on Thursday and I see that only eight points separate the second-place team in the Eastern Conference and the 14th place team. And in the Western Conference, 10 points separate second from 14th. Makes me think there are a lot of pretty mediocre teams in the NHL, or should I just say "parity" and genuflect?
Damien: I would like to see you genuflect, actually. Which knee, however? These are important questions. Yeah, it sure looks like just a big glob of teams out there, with Detroit sitting on the top and Washington on the bottom. What's weird is how so many teams look like world-beaters one minute and absolute crap the next. Remember our chat about the Devils, for example, a few weeks ago? Now, all of a sudden, they look like the '78 Habs. And, as a side note, how about Zach Parise for captain of Team USA at the 2010 Winter Olympics?
Scott: My personal favorite is the Tampa Bay Lightning, who lost five in a row, prompting suggestions coach John Tortorella was on the hot seat. Then they won five in a row, during which Vincent Lecavalier emerged as the NHL's best player (I think he still is, frankly). Then they lost five in a row again, prompting calls for dire action from management before they had won two games heading into Thursday's tilt against Carolina. But maybe that's a good thing for local fans, the veritable rollercoaster ride that comes with a team like that. Lots of highs, lots of lows, and you're never out of the playoff hunt no matter what you do.
Damien: See, you skipped past both the genuflection/knee question and the Parise issue. Anaheim, the defending champ, is like the Lightning. Just as you're ready to right it off as a title team heading into the abyss, it wins a few and then drops a couple. I think the low-scoring style of hockey we're seeing now just sees a lot of games turn on a single play, a single shot.
Scott: I see you're on about the scoring again. It's a bit of a bugaboo for you writers north of the border. For the record, Wednesday night there were 10 games, five of which featured at least six goals and none which had fewer than five goals. But I digress. Isn't it hard to get whipped up about a league where, every time you look, five teams are falling off the map and five are streaking toward glory? Or is that a good thing? The NFL seems to like it. They have two good teams, Dallas and New England, and the rest sit somewhere between junk and inconsistent. Wasn't that what Pete Rozelle was aiming for? The great middle ground where every fan is happy for at least a few weeks during the season?
Damien: See, I think it works for the NFL because they have the Patriots, a dominant, superb team that has separated itself from the pack. Dallas is close to that in the NFC. But in the NHL, is there a team or two that right now looks to be the class of the league? Not really.
Scott: I think Detroit ranks as that kind of team. Unfortunately for the Red Wings, they're dominant in a market that appears a bit bored with them, bored with the team's junky old arena and bored of being gouged by the team when it comes to ticket prices. I recall the excitement that surrounded the Carolina Hurricanes and Buffalo Sabres in 2005-06; both were exciting, up-tempo teams that came out of nowhere to battle for league supremacy. Those stories were being told beyond those markets by the national hockey media. Now, you do a story like that on, let's say the New York Islanders, and suddenly you've wasted glowing prose on a team that's lost five or six in a row. I think that hurts the league's overall profile, such as it is.
Damien: But I'm sitting at home watching all these games last night, and I've got to tell you, they all look pretty much the same. The scores are usually the same, and the style played by most teams -- forecheck some, trap always -- produces very little in terms of contrasting or unique styles.
Scott: Maybe you have a lower tolerance for boredom than I do, which is, of course, a debate for another day. But if the salary cap was supposed to level the playing field economically, it sure has leveled the field competition-wise. Now, we're dissatisfied with it in early December. Do you think it'll be more attractive in late March, when six or seven teams are vying for two or three playoff spots? There is something to be said for that, no?
Damien: Agreed. Moreover, only Washington, L.A. and Phoenix could be said to be out of it already, and they could even climb back in. I can't stand baseball; half the clubs have no shot at postseason play by July. So, there are benefits to parity in the salary-cap era. I just worry that we'll never see a star-studded team like the 2002 Detroit Red Wings again.
Scott: I guess the question is whether you can have both -- a competitive, healthy race with lots of teams and enough elite teams to capture the attention outside their markets. One way to get at it, I think, is to allow teams to make more trades, which goes to [Ducks GM] Brian Burke's suggestion that teams be able to eat some salary so that players can be moved. I know trades aren't always the panacea we in the media make them out to be, but I think movement is a good thing. I expect that will be on the books by next fall.
Damien: Yeah, although don't fans complain that they don't get to know the players on their favorite teams because there is too much movement? I think the best news for the league, quite frankly, is that teams in major media centers, like Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia, are competitive this season. That should drive interest and TV numbers. The league has been hampered for years because the Hawks, Bruins and Kings have been lousy and, for a long time, the Rangers, as well. In general, my friend, I don't mind the parity; it's the low-scoring, tight-checking, shutout-heavy, a-chance-is-as-good-as-a-goal style of player that wears me down.
Scott: I guess I am more likely to be annoyed by the parity midseason than I am late in the season. Had to love the way the Islanders snuck in on the last afternoon of the season. It was high drama, and I expect it will be the same again this season. Even if these races turn out to be between absolutely ordinary teams, I think it's a great lead-in for the playoffs and you can't ask for anything more than that. Unless it's a national cable deal and more scoring for our Canadian friends. Until next week?
Damien: Just remember how it turned out on the last weekend of last season. A 6-5 game between the Leafs and Habs and a shootout on Long Island. Few remember the shutouts, but many recall the goals. Enough pontificating. I'll get off my pulpit. At least, until next week.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."