One of the big and unexpected kerfuffles in this postseason was started, as kerfuffles so often are, by Pierre McGuire.
In Game 7 of the Nashville-Winnipeg series, Scheifele scored two goals to boost his playoff total to 11 in 12 games. Pretty good, but McGuire made the mistake of saying Scheifele was a relatively unknown star player in the league.
Based on the reaction, you’d have thought he said Scheifele isn’t the reason Alex Ovechkin’s line is any good. (Yes that’s a Tom Wilson joke but please don’t email or tweet at me about Tom Wilson.)
Far be it for me to defend Pierre McGuire, but what I think he was trying to say is that few people know about how unbelievably good Mark Scheifele is. Were it not for the huge amount of really good centers in the league today, Scheifele could very easily be one of the true elites at his position (we’re talking top-five instead of top-10) but also he’s only 25 so he probably still has a few more years of improvement ahead of him. This is a guy who has 142 points in his last 139 regular-season games, and entered last night’s Game 2 against Vegas with 12-6-18 in 13 games this spring.
But if you’re just an average NHL fan, how would you know that, other than to have watched him shred Minnesota, Nashville, and now Vegas?
I said it in the mailbag last week but people in and around this sport bristle at the idea that certain guys — specifically high-end players in smaller markets, or Canadian markets, or to combine the two, Winnipeg — are not “stars.” I’m not sure there’s a reasonable definition of what a “star” is that we can all agree with, right?
McGuire said he’s a known player that most fans might not know a lot about, because how known can he really be in the NHL given the way the league’s national TV deal in the U.S. is set up? The way NBC covers this league is, necessarily, a U.S.-centric approach, to the point that of the 99 nationally-televised games NBC produced — on NBCSN or NBC itself — Winnipeg was one of three teams that got literally none of its games aired. The other two? Oh hey look at that, Canadian markets Calgary and Vancouver.
And you can quibble with how smart it is for the league to only put 28 of its 31 teams on national TV in any given year, but this is something that isn’t going to change. Let’s put it this way: The Oilers, with the best and most entertaining player in the world, only had three national games this season — up from the previous year’s z-e-r-o — and that was at least the second year in a row the Jets weren’t on NBC at all.
The idea that this league would have the ability to put Connor McDavid, entering his second season, on national TV any non-zero number of times and just wouldn’t do it is, obviously, psychotic, but think about how these national games get apportioned.
Nine teams were on national TV at least 10 times this season, and four of them were in the Metropolitan division; the Rangers, Flyers, Penguins, and Capitals all got on at least 14 times. Only two other teams in the league, Boston and Chicago, cleared that bar.
So the NHL has clearly landed on the way it will appeal to hockey fans, and that is “by appealing to fans in about a half-dozen media markets.” Not that I’m trying to tell the NHL and NBC how to market this product, but if the best players in the world who happen not to play in the Northeastern U.S. are only given the opportunity to play in front of a national audience at most two or three times a season, then I can’t imagine why anyone could ever take issue with what McGuire said.
In part because of how small the hockey community is, and in part because NBC wouldn’t put Winnipeg on national TV without someone kidnapping Liam McHugh and sending a ransom note to 30 Rock with letters cut out of a magazine, people have a tendency to have skewed perceptions. I, as a hockey writer who subscribes to Center Ice, of course know who Mark Scheifele is and I’ve probably seen him play about 15 times this season. (It didn’t help that he missed a quarter of the Jets’ games in the regular season.) He’s awesome and fun to watch. Great player.
But the question is: Is he instantly recognizable to any hockey fan turning on any random-ass Wednesday night game in January? No, because he’s not on any Wednesday night games. And if he wants to be next year (which he probably will because “making the conference finals” seems to be something that gets teams on national TV at least once) then he better start forming a rivalry with someone in the Metro sooner than later.
The point is, the number of actual “superstars” you see in this league is able to be counted on one hand. McDavid, yes. Crosby, yes. Ovechkin, yes. After that? Probably not that many, which is why we as hockey fans have to sit through that horrible Marty Brodeur commercial for the 700th season in a row; the league has so few marketable stars that a 40-something goalie who retired years ago is still one of its few recognizable faces. And even then, he has to say, “Hey remember me, I’m the Devils goalie from before!!!” in the commercial.
Now, to circle back to Pierre McGuire, the guy who started this whole thing, you can bet he watched a bunch of Winnipeg games this year. Maybe not as many as people in Canada (generally) or Winnipeg (specifically) but that becomes the other thing I was talking about last week, where there’s a point of diminishing returns on how much more you will know about a team than someone who sees them irregularly. Nevertheless, he can watch a Jets game here and there then look at the stats page on NHL.com and say to himself, “This Scheifele guy can play! Incredible.”
There’s nothing wrong with that. And it is, for better or worse (and by the way: worse), how the NHL has operated for years.
Mitigating factors here do not make Mark Scheifele a superstar. And if he wanted to be, he would have demanded a trade to the Rangers three years ago. And if that happened he’d be on national TV once a week, minimum, and you’d rather walk into traffic than hear one more word about Mark freaking Scheifele.
As with so many other things in the NHL, there’s no good answer to this because the NHL does everything in a way that’s only going to piss people off. But that’s especially true of diehard fans.
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All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.