Saturday, July 23, 2011

Beware the East Coast Hockey Hype Machine

I suppose I'm a skeptical guy by nature.  I've been around the block enough times to have seen fads come and go, to have seen "the next great thing" turn out to be that much sliced Velveeta.  I've seen hype.  Lots of hype.   Some of it's actually panned out.

And I've seen the hype-makers.

With all due respect to our kind friends in the media world of the National Hockey League - you know, the folks who largely have desks in and around New York and Toronto - I'm going to suggest that a boatload of hype comes out of the East.

Let's look at the evidence:
  1. The New York Rangers
  2. The New York Islanders
  3. The New Jersey Devils
  4. The Toronto Maple Leafs
Four Eastern Conference teams.  One qualified - barely - for the Eastern Conference playoffs last season (and won a whopping single game in the first round before getting eliminated).  Yet, if you followed the Big Time Hockey Media, you'd think that they were all Stanley Cup contenders.  (Well, OK, not the Islanders. They're out on Lawng Ize-land, so they almost don't count.)  The teams get the benefit of the doubt, and their players are larger than life.

Why is this?  I'm going to suggest three reasons.  First, it's a simple case of numbers.  There are more hockey writers in those markets than in others.  They have to produce content that has to be read to keep their jobs.  And, in order to reach readers in markets that are somewhat saturated by writers, bloggers, etc., they have to engage in a bit of hyperbole.  (Hyperbole = root of "hype", remember?)  When you write to get noticed, bad players aren't bad, they're horrible.  Decent players are stars.  Great players are personally ushered into the Hall of Fame.  It's the nature of the beast, and those of us in smaller markets are used to it.

Second, it's familiarity.  As an example, the NHL-centric XM Home Ice channel is based out of Toronto .  Its on-air talent largely comes from Toronto and Montreal (and the majority of NHL Network and Versus/NBC talent comes from greater Toronto and metro New York, so the same general train of thought applies to those guys).  Guess what their frames of reference are?  That's right: The Leafs and the Habs.  I can't entirely blame them - they talk about what they know, which is better than talking out of their rear ends - but they DO have a bias.  And talking about what they know...means that we get a lot of coverage of Leafs and Canadiens.  Go figure.  (Props to them for bringing in outside "experts" to cover the areas where they recognize that they have the vast majority of the Western Conference.)

Third, it's ratings.  New York teams bring New York viewers, and there are a lot of them.  Same goes for Toronto and Montreal.  Even the Devils, with their lingering ties to New York while now in Newark, get a lot of New Yawker love.  Let's face it, ratings drive a lot of media behavior.

And it's not just the attention paid to the teams, it's the pumping up of the players.  Remember Tomas Kaberle?  The Toronto-based media hyped that guy up beyond belief when it was suggested that he was on the Leafs' trading block.  His trade to the Bruins at the deadline was supposed to put the Bruins over the top and singlehandedly deliver the Cup to Beantown.  Yet it was Dennis Seidenberg, the same Dennis Seidenberg that signed a 1-year contract with the Panthers right as training camp for the 09-10 season opened only to get traded in a trade deadline package deal with Matt Bartowski for the Bruins' Bryon Bitz, Craig Weller and a draft pick (surely you remember those guys...), who was teamed with Zdeno Chara.  Kaberle couldn't crack the top pair.  And now he's going to go get overpaid in Carolina, soaking up his residual Toronto hype.  Did you see Bostonians crying over losing him?  Didn't think so.

Which brings us to the Columbus Blue Jackets.  They've spent a lot of time and effort mining the Eastern Conference talent pool this offseason.  Jeff Carter comes from Philadelphia.  James Wisniewski comes from the Canadians (by way of the Islanders).  Radek Martinek comes from the Islanders.  Now, Vinny Prospal has come on board from the Rangers to plug the hole left by the injury to Kristian Huselius.  Gulp.

I'm not going to say that these guys are worthless products of the East Coast Hockey Hype Machine.  Carter is a (once) All-Star, generally a decent sign that he's not a crappy player.  Danielle Browne has me convinced that Wiz could very well be on the cusp of becoming The Real Deal despite what hockey experts on the West Coast think.  But Martinek?  Prospal?  Are these four guys good signings in part because of their East Coast coverage?  Should we presume that there's an inflation factor applied to their actual talent?  I don't know the answer.  (But I keep recalling that the West has largely done better in interconference games than the East in recent seasons, Stanley Cup Finals excepted.)

I'm guessing that the Blue Jackets got themselves some decent players.  On balance (Columbus lost Jake Voracek, Mike Commodore, Jan Hejda, Anton Stralman and - at least temporarily - Huselius), it appears that they're improved over last season...a season that, barring two mind-numbing (term used intentionally) implosions, could well have seen a playoff run in Columbus.  Thus, I'm optimistic, but cautiously so.  I'm ready to be impressed by this influx of new talent, but they have to overcome my innate skepticism of their Eastern Conference playing roots.

So call me Missouri.  Show me.  

[UPDATE: I apparently stuck a nerve and, in the process, apparently received help in proving my point.]


  1. DBJ -
    Good post. My point is that Carter ranks 4th, while Nash ranks 5th in goals scored over the last 3 years . That is not a function of hype. Does it have yet to happen on the ice? You bet!

    I think I have the goals scored stat correct, even though I am in the hockey desert of the Outer Banks. On a more light hearted note, we plan to go Wysh stalking soon!

    Bwah, ha, ha, ha (evil laughter). An unsuspecting Wysh, descended on by CBJ fans whilest on vacation!

  2. Gallos - Step away from the computer and get your butt back on the beach! This blog is no place for a vacationing man...

    Seriously, my larger concern re: Carter is that he ran up those numbers on a Philadelphia squad that ran a specific system against...well, largely Eastern Conference opposition. There will be some transition. The stats you mention, plus his all-star designation, make one believe that he's the real deal...but, again, show me.

  3. The East Coast Bias does cause issues for some analysis, but I think that characterizing players based on their prior conference is slightly short-sighted.

    As a quasi-Sabres/Pens fan (the teams my friends follow), I see quite a bit of Eastern Conference play, and it's really unfair to characterize things as being just the bad teams. If you were to do that, you'd have to claim the the West was pretty bad too - Edmonton and Colorado were train wrecks last year and by most observers even our beloved Jackets were pretty pathetic.

    The East is not nearly as easy as we'd like to believe. While Carter did face the Islanders with regularity, he also played against the powerful Penguins who aren't far off from their back-to-back Cup Final + Stanley Cup years. And while the Capital seem to quit playing in the playoffs, they are a real juggernaut in the regular season. Both their high-scoring and defense-minded (a change that happened this year) systems have been unstoppable. Add in some of the best goalies in hockey (Miller, Price, Lundquvist, Vokoun, Thomas) and the East is no cakewalk.

    I agree that a move to the East would benefit the Jackets, but I don't think that it would instantly make them playoff contenders. With the Caps, Pens, Flyers, Sabres and Bruins all near-locks for the post-season, it's tough to fight for 3 spots with the Habs, Lightning, Rangers, Hurricanes and Devils (who were nothing like their normal selves last year).


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