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Is the Columbus Blue Jackets’ success bad for the NHL?

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Who knows what “best for the league” means

Tampa Bay Lightning v Columbus Blue Jackets - Game Four Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

The underdog Columbus Blue Jackets became the first team to advance in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, where they were soon joined by other unlikely second round surprises like the Colorado Avalanche, New York Islanders and Dallas Stars. Those victories came at the expense of “better” teams, and there’s been some hand-wringing in hockey circles over What This All Means and whether all of this playoff is Good For The League, particularly a good post on The Athletic from the inimitable Sean McIndoe (a.k.a. Down Goes Brown).

McIndoe compares how you view the playoffs to two doors. Through door number one, “the best team always wins the Stanley Cup.” You think the playoffs are a two-month tournament where the cream rises to the top and the last team standing has truly earned its spot as the best in the NHL (always, in this construction).

The second door, on the other hand, believes that “the Stanley Cup playoffs don’t necessarily tell us much of anything” and the playoffs are designed to manufacture drama and money. More from McIndoe:

If you go through the first door, this year’s playoffs are freaking amazing, even if your team isn’t in them. (Maybe especially if your team isn’t in them.) They’re a constant stream of twists and turns and unexpected subplots and jaw-dropping surprises. And those surprises all matter, because we’re watching an intricate puzzle get solved one step at a time. It’s like devouring a mystery novel by a master of the genre, spread out over two agonizing months. And you know that when you finally get to the last page, the ending is going to pay off. The best team always wins. It’s just a question of how long it takes you to figure it out along the way. You won’t ever be sure until the very last moment of the season.

By contrast, if you choose the second door, you can still enjoy the postseason. But it’s not the same. Now the playoffs are like reading that same mystery novel, only it’s been written by some hack who can’t be bothered to have any of it connect together. What happens on one page doesn’t have much to do with the last or the next, and when you get to the big reveal at the end it’s something that might not even make sense. You’re kept guessing, sure, but not in a good way. It feels less like an intricate puzzle, and more like flipping a handful of coins. It’s all still fun. It’s just not all that meaningful.

I would wager that almost everybody reading this website about the Columbus Blue Jackets has embraced the chaos and loves these playoff upsets, particularly this season. I’m not trying to refute McIndoe’s—who I have read for almost a decade and is fantastic—personal second door belief, which a sizable number of comments have tried to do.

I’m saying: who cares?

What does any of this matter? If someone sees the joy and relief from a beleaguered fanbase winning its first-ever playoff series by sweeping the far-and-away best regular season team and immediately thinks, “Well, this ain’t great,” who cares? And conversely, the nine-year-span where only four teams won the Cup wasn’t a ton of fun for everyone (read: us), but what’s the use in going after the Hockey Knowers who truly understand how close these games truly are and are pleased the “best” team won?

There’s admittedly no solution offered in the piece, nor much of an explanation as to why unpredictability is bad. McIndoe is merely laying out both sides, as he says in a comment: “All I’m suggesting is that when we get yet another upset and half the fans go ‘This is amazing!’, they should remember that the other half is going ‘This just feels random’. And vice versa. No right answer.”

This is sport. This is what we signed up for. The obvious answer is to embrace a European sporting culture where the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrate a real regular season championship, with all the appropriate trappings and pomp. They’re treated like royalty, they have a parade, and then there’s a separate tournament.

We don’t live in Europe, though, and here it’s all or nothing. And this isn’t the NFL or college basketball, where if you lose one game, you’re done. Hockey at least has that whole “best of 7” thing going for it, plus multiple rounds before crowning a champion. The Lightning had four chances to win at least one game, and they didn’t. Ditto for Pittsburgh. They had fantastic regular seasons but they’re treated like failures, rightly or wrongly. This is the mindset we’ve built on this side of the ocean.

The NHL wants parity, and they got it, which brings us to another point: the “Is this chaos good for the league?” question. Let’s get this straight: the NHL would screw up a one-car parade. Between a long legacy of ignoring player health, mismanaged marketing, a screwed-up seeding system everyone hates, along with byzantine rule changes and video review, I’m not sure this new reality that any team can win the playoffs (which we still don’t really know) is what’s going to do the league in. There are enough reasons hockey remains inaccessible to outsiders or casual viewers. The old adage of “best sport, worst league” remains undefeated.

In that same vein, there’s also been some chatter about the possible ratings hit these playoffs could take, with the emergence of smaller markets and the lack of previously reliable stalwarts like Pittsburgh, Chicago, Detroit, etc. To that end: you are not the NHL. Your personal revenue does not scale with advertising rates. You do not watch hockey to see the same Discover ad 20 times a night. You should not spend any of the valuable seconds you have on this Earth thinking about how many households watch the NHL. Unless, of course, they’re about the market in which you live and they show an unprecedented amount of local support, just to pull an example out of the air. In that case, go nuts.

This pseudo-nihilistic view of the NHL playoffs, if extended, does approach another question: whether or not the regular season matters, if all we really pay attention to is the playoffs. The Blue Jackets and general manager Jarmo Kekäläinen sure treated the season like a run-up to the playoffs, treading water until the trade deadline before going all-in with a bevy of acquisitions. The CBJ used the end of the season to fight for a spot and jell just in time—which, if we’re being charitable, could mean nobody knew as much as they thought they did and Columbus, who has been one of the league’s top five teams over the last few years, is actually pretty good, taking some wind out of the “this is just a coin flip” argument. I sure hope we’re not wasting six months of our time watching a regular season that doesn’t matter. Or 13 seasons, if missing the playoffs invalidates the whole campaign.

I get both sides, and it seems like McIndoe is hinting at an “ignorance is bliss” sort of viewpoint with respect to playoff enjoyment. Sports aren’t books or doors or coins, though. Real people are out there, with their own sets of goals and motivations, and they don’t really care about I—or you—feel. There are three more rounds of hockey left. Enjoy them as much as you want to. In the words of Justin Bourne at the start of the second round: