The NHL's starshine shortage
NHL athletes are better than ever, but there are no superstars, no fabulous teams
Sidney Crosby's concussion and Alex Ovechkin's decline dimmed the marquee
Salary cap parity means assembling a star-laden dynasty is now impossible
The looming NHL crisis is hiding in plain sight.
Concussions? They are hiding out of view, in quiet rooms and training rooms and examining rooms.
The coming CBA negotiations that threaten to turn the lights off for a second time in eight years? No, whenever they start, presumably some time after the All-Star break and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr has properly canvassed his membership, those talks will be hidden behind closed doors.
No, with the All-Star festivities in Ottawa from Jan. 26-29 and the loose definition of what passes for a star in the NHL now, this crisis is right in front of us.
Forget the relatively thin gruel of the All-Star rosters for a moment. You can see it basically any night, played before 17,113 fans in Nashville and 21,273 patrons in Montreal and all the people who flip to NBC Sports Network in the United States or TSN in Canada or any regional carrier anywhere.
In six words, the potential crisis is this:
No fabulous players. No fabulous teams.
The absence of spectacular teams was all but mandated by the salary cap that was hammered into place the last time owners locked out the hockey help, in 2005. The cap was going to level the field to a degree, in dollars if not in terms of the hockey smarts of general managers who are still wrestling with the CBA just as it is about to be renegotiated. Forget about building the Canadiens of the late 1970s or the Islanders of the early 1980s, the last teams to win more than two straight Stanley Cups. Because of the cap system, you couldn't even put together a veteran team like the 1999 Stars or dream of stockpiling a roster like the 2002 Red Wings, which should have its own wing in the Hall of Fame.
Parity. The calliope music was stilled and the circus was leaving town forever, replaced by the egalitarian notion that everyone could win a Stanley Cup and be special. Even Columbus. This has left the NHL with ... what?
There have been engaging post-cap teams, such as Pittsburgh and Washington, but they are scuffling now. The current ascendant teams are the Rangers, who even their coach says are not talented enough to win if their effort flags on a given night, and the Blues, who didn't place a skater in the All-Star Game and really didn't feel hosed even if David Backes might have deserved a nod. The Bruins and Canucks remain relatively deep and skilled teams that share a fraternal bond, not unlike Cain and Abel, but neither will be mistaken for the dynastic Oilers of the 1980s.
But mostly everyone saw that coming. In the place of the Super Teams post-lockout, the NHL was going to reinvent, and remarket, itself as a players' league. (Remember the, ahem, partnership with the players?) With generational talents like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin entering the league together in 2005, they seemed perfectly suited to be the twin pillars that would buttress the new approach. They were the above-the-marquee guys. In a sport in which the team always had been paramount, these were two forwards the NHL could turn into Magic and Bird or, later, Kobe and LeBron.
Now Crosby is concussed, back to the physiological drawing board. And Ovechkin's rough patch, which began at the 2010 Olympics, has extended almost two years. At some point, a prolonged slump becomes the new normal. So with Crosby on the shelf and Ovechkin showing only the occasional glimpse of what made him hockey's favorite eye candy, which players can do more than carry a team or sometimes dominate a game but really fill a seat?
In other words, who are the guys you would pay to watch?
The question was put to a general manager on Wednesday. He rolled it around in his brain for a few moments and came up with Crosby ("when he's back"), Ovechkin ("because there's still a chance he'll do something great"), Evgeni Malkin ("still an enigma because people don't know his personality"), and Pavel Datsyuk because no hockey connoisseur can ever get enough of the Red Wings center, who, like Lully's ballet music or sweetbreads, requires a more refined pallet.
This is the gentle irony of circumstance. Technically and athletically, NHL players never have been better athletes. But where are the absolute all-timers once Nicklas Lidstrom, an All-Star no show, retires? Claude Giroux might ascend to the level of truly special, Henrik and Daniel Sedin provide nightly examples in the joys of symbiosis, and Steven Stamkos can hammer a puck, but there are few players who consistently do something that grabs you by the lapels and screams would-ya-look-at-that!
"Look at the Rangers," an NHL president says. "The star is the goalie." He paused. "And no one comes to see the goalie." At least not since Dominik Hasek's glory years in Buffalo.
The prevailing theory is that individual greatness has been muffled by the increasing sophistication in coaching. Says the NHL GM, "Like baseball with pitching coaches and batting coaches and third base coaches ... we've gone down that road. The coaching is so thorough, the video preparation so solid, that it's difficult to stand out. It's tough finding individual guys that you can sell all on their own. I bet with the NBA you could come up with a list of 10 pretty easily."
"I think what's been lost is the distinctive style of teams," a veteran coach tells SI.com. "At one point you knew that the Calgary Flames were going to play a certain way, a big marauding team that was going to be physical with you. You knew the Dallas Stars had a certain way of playing. New Jersey played their way. Edmonton. The Rangers would try to play a lot like the Oilers. That's been lost."
Even the Capitals, once wonderfully distinct because of their high-octane offense, have become buttoned down under new coach Dale Hunter. In the way that the 35-second shot clock homogenized college basketball to a degree, the similarities in style are more noteworthy than the differences.
With the current dearth of high-powered name players, the NHL has toddled along nicely enough because the games are closer -- if not always better. Says the NHL president, "It used to be you'd have a couple of great teams maybe, a couple of lousy teams and the rest in the middle. You were more likely to see more bad games. Now it seems like almost every game is a one-goal game. And if you look at the (increased revenue)" -- the salary cap is a record $64.3 million -- "something's working."
Yes, it works. Camouflaged by competitiveness, the NHL will keep peddling its events -- Winter Classic, openers in Europe, a "national" Thanksgiving game, All-Star Weekend. By the time anyone notices that there might not be a 100-point scorer this season -- the playoffs will be upon us, at which point no one cares about anything but red-meat hockey.
But in a world in which sporting star power is pure nectar, the NHL, without Crosby and Ovechkin to rely upon, will have to identify who is worth the price of admission. Soon.
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