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Saturday, December 15, 2007

WARNING: Parity Has Seized Control

In doing some of what I do to fill time in what is a generally hockey-overloaded life, I find myself getting in discussions with lots of fans about the game - fans from all over the map even. It's interesting how this season has shaken out so far because I've discovered that there are actually NHL hockey fans in Boston and Chicago.

I don't know if they were hibernating awaiting the sunshine of success to awaken them or if they're new to the whole thing and riding the wave of winning. Generally though, I find myself talking with people who are hardcore fans, some of which don't often see hockey outside of their own teams. I don't fault them for that at all, but it does allow me to be amused by I get to hear and read though.

And besides, what's more exciting than having your team in the thick of things when it comes to the playoff hunt? Nevermind that we're less than halfway into the season and things are far too far away from being hashed out - nevermind all of that! The thing is, and it's likely something that Gary Bettman is most happy to see, just about everyone right now is in the mix. Your team would have to be doing colossally horrible to not even be within whiffing distance.

That said, at this point in the season you can be eight points out of the eighth spot and still have a fighting chance to get into the mix. If your team goes on a four or five game winning streak - BAM! - right back in the mix. Case in point: The New Jersey Devils started off the year horribly, buried towards the bottom of the Eastern Conference. A nine-game winstreak later, they're in first place in the division and second in the Eastern Conference. Not bad, eh?

It's this sort of tenuous state of being that exists for most teams in the NHL right now, with the semi-glaring exceptions of Ottawa and Detroit which have become bastions of glowing success even in spite of having problems.

In Ottawa, both Martin Gerber and Ray Emery became sieves while the team allowed others to skate all over them leading to a stretch where they lost 8 out of 9 games through November and into early December. Yet even through that, they remain six points ahead of New Jersey for first in the Eastern Conference and six ahead of the Boston Bruins for first in their division.

Detroit, on the other hand, has seen their all-world goaltender suffer through both injury and ineffectiveness this season and has seen that amount to....no change at all as backup Chris Osgood, an old man in his own right, fill in more than admirably while Dominik Hasek struggled physically and in-game as well. In fact, Osgood has played better than Hasek this season and have streamlined the Red Wings into losing just six games in actuality and three others via the skills competition (copyright: Howie Rose, New York Islanders play-by-play man).

What's incredible about those 6.3 losses the Wings have had is that four of them come at the hands of their should-be-and-now-probably-is rival, the Chicago Blackhawks. Given that the resurgent Blackhawks are fully in the thick of the parity playoff soup, you can see the headlines come April when the upstart eighth seeded Blackhawks upend the top-seeded Red Wings. Who can't see this coming from a thousand miles away?

But this is what the NHL and Gary Bettman wants for the league. Everyone is in it, everyone gets involved, and you don't get the same teams involved all the time. That's perfect for them because then everyone gets a taste of success throughout the league! Hooray! It's sports socialism! Don't believe me? Look at the divisional and conference races as they stand now just over 30 games into the season:

In the East, the Devils are two points up in their division and sit second in the East. They lead last place Pittsburgh by five points. Pittsburgh currently sits 10th in the East and two points away from 8th.

We've discussed Ottawa and how they dominate atop the East and the Bruins sit six points behind them. Buffalo currently sits last in the Northeast Divsion with 31 points, good for 11th in the East and three points out of last place.

The Southeast Division is, as always, where hockey goes to die and win Stanley Cups and it sees one of the worst teams in hockey, the Washington Capitals, in last place in the division and conference with 26 points. Carolina leads the Southeast with 35 points and sits just six points ahead of not-so bottom dwelling Atlanta who is fourth in the division with 29 points. Florida is third with 30 and Tampa Bay is just four points behind Carolina with 31. Tampa Bay sits tied for 11th with the Sabres in the East. Yikes.

In the West, Detroit leads the Western Conference by nine points and they lead the Central Division by 13 points with 47 points over St. Louis and Columbus who are tied for second with 34. New-found nemesis Chicago has 32 points and Nashville sits in last with 30. St. Louis and Columbus are tied for 8th in the West and Nashville is 13th.

As you can see, the distance between being nearly at the bottom of the conference and in the playoffs can be made up in just a couple of wins.

In the Northwest, Vancouver leads with 37 points and last place Edmonton is a mere five points back with 32. Vancouver could go from first to fourth in the division in the matter of one game as Calgary sits in fourth with 35 points. Ouch! Edmonton is tied for 11th overall in the West with Chicago but could be sitting in fifth as soon as next week if things broke right. As it is for now, people are down on their Oilers saying they need to re-tool.

Here's the new NHL version of re-tooling: Wait a week!

The Pacific Division is its own bizarre monster in that it has one of the NHL's best teams with the San Jose Sharks at the top along with the ever-boring Dallas Stars, both with 38 points. Anaheim lays lurking with 34 points in third (incidentally they're 10th in the West) and then you've got Los Angeles and Phoenix sitting tied for last in the division and the conference with 26 points and 12 points out of first in the division and 21 behind Detroit for first in the West. Ouch. Phoenix has turned the tide of late after stealing goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov from Anaheim but they will be eagerly awaiting the coming of the draft lottery with L.A.

That is, unless, they get hot and their young guys like Mueller and Hanzal take over and they storm into the 8th spot.

The underlying point here about parity, however, is that while sure its great that just about every city in the NHL can think and dream and wonder about the playoffs... where's the greatness at? Sure, people get annoyed when a team goes on an extended run of success and common fans root against that team to fall - that's normal and that's expected. What was so wrong about having a team assembled that could come out and flat out dominate and show you the way the game is meant to be played?

We saw it come and go in the NBA, the NFL and even for spells in Major League Baseball and we've certainly seen it in the NHL and those teams are revered through the years as some of the greatest hockey they've ever seen. The Islanders of the early 80s, the Oilers for the rest of the 80s, the early 90s Penguins - these teams were dominating forces of nature (although I imagine some will argue on the Penguins given that they didn't win nearly as much as the others, that's fine) - what no one can argue, however, is that those teams were truly great.

What parity is, and we're certainly seeing it in the NFL now, is guaranteeing that greatness will not be tolerated in extended doses becuase it's unfair to everyone else who wants to get to the top of the heap. Instead, it flattens out the mountain so that even the rabble can get to the top and claim that they're better. That, to me as a fan, is insulting because I want to see the best of the best in the end.

I don't want to see hockey whittled down and made into a boring game of chance, the way it's become with the advent of defense-first systems and now the shoot-out to decide games. The GMs want more scoring, the players who don't play goal want more scoring (because nothing nets a bigger contract than goals) and the coaches just want to keep their jobs longer than a year or two.

If the league is this excited about parity, then why not just play a meaningless regular season and then at the end of it all, put all the names of teams in a hat and pull them out to determine playoff spots. With everyone becoming the same pack, that's basically what it's come down to.

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