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NBC to air Maple Leafs - Jets game

In a quest to showcase the top young talent in the NHL, NBC is going to commit the cardinal sin of US hockey broadcasting.

Winnipeg Jets v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

NBC has announced their NHL schedule today, and it’s not all Chicago, Pittsburgh and Washington games. NBC is going in a bold new direction by chasing the good teams, the good young players, and giving up on its tired, old “Rivalry Night” concept.

They’re also showing more games than they ever have, which bodes well for the strength of the league and the size of future salary caps. Revenue makes the cap go up, and Leafs fans have to be cheering on rising HRR as much as they do the Leafs if they want long-term success.

The NHL hasn’t gone totally radical. The Winter Classic is Chicago and Boston, and a lot of NBC’s weekend broadcasts are the usual suspects. But in a surprise, the All-Star Game will be aired on the regular broadcast channel in primetime.

NBC has learned some lessons, however. Many games will start at 7:00 or 7:30 p.m., mostly because they’re going to start airing doubleheaders. Imagine that, they’re going to cater to the west coast audiences.

One of those doubleheaders begins on October 24 with the Leafs playing the Jets at 7 p.m. (so we get an eastern time zone friendly start, and they can complain about it). The follow up is Tampa at Colorado at 9:30 p.m.

This is an effort to get young talent on the screen and connect with fans, particularly young ones. To do this while showing good games is not easy, and NBC is taking a lot of risks with this schedule. Chicago games get ratings, and convincing a national audience to watch teams from small markets, even if they’re very good like the Lightning, isn’t always easy. I don’t think Brayden Point is a household name for all hockey fans like Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine are.

The problem is a feature of the way the NHL is structured, and it’s not going away.

This is the top four draft picks since 2010, where they play now, and if that’s a playoff team. Near the bottom of this list, these players are stretching the definition of young; at 26, they’re roaring up on UFA status.

Top Four Draft Picks Since 2010

Name Team 2018 Playoff Team Second Round
Name Team 2018 Playoff Team Second Round
Rasmus Dahlin Buffalo Sabres No
Andrei Svechnikov Carolina Hurricanes No
Jesperi Kotkaniemi Montréal Canadiens No
Brady Tkachuk Ottawa Senators No
Nico Hischier New Jersey Devils Yes
Nolan Patrick Philadelphia Flyers Yes
Miro Heiskanen Dallas Stars No
Cale Makar Colorado Avalance Yes
Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs Yes
Patrik Laine Winnipeg Jets Yes Yes
Jesse Puljujarvi Edmonton Oilers No
Connor McDavid Edmonton Oilers No
Jack Eichel Buffalo Sabres No
Dylan Strome Arizona Coyotes No
Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs Yes
Aaron Ekblad Florida Panthers No
Sam Reinhart Buffalo Sabres No
Leon Draisaitl Edmonton Oilers No
Sam Bennet Calgary Flames No
Nathan MacKinnon Colorado Avalance Yes
Aleksander Barkov Florida Panthers No
Jonathan Drouin Montréal Canadiens No
Seth Jones Columbus Blue Jackets Yes
Nail Yakupov KHL
Ryan Murray Columbus Blue Jackets Yes
Alex Galchenyuk Arizona Coyotes No
Griffin Reinhart AHL
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins Edmonton Oilers No
Gabriel Landeskog Colorado Avalance Yes
Jonathan Huberderau Florida Panthers No
Adam Larsson Edmonton Oilers No
Taylor Hall New Jersey Devils Yes
Tyler Seguin Dallas Stars No
Erik Gudbranson Vancouver Canucks No
Ryan Johansen Nashville Predators Yes Yes

I can see why NBC wants to showcase the Jets, as a team that actually took their young stars deeper in the playoffs than the first round this past spring. The Leafs didn’t manage that, but they are a guaranteed good show with yet another top star in John Tavares.

Only 12 players on this list are now with teams that were in the playoffs in 2018. And you have to go all the way back to 2010 to find the second player who got deeper than round one.

Relying on the same old top of the Metro and Central division teams to fill their broadcast schedule, with a sprinkling of the big-market Buffalo Sabres and Boston Bruins, has not been an inexplicable business choice for NBC. But it makes for a moribund star system. There stopped being anything interesting to say about Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin years ago, swims in fountains notwithstanding.

Why aren’t there more stars in the NHL, people ask, and then they talk about how the players won’t say outrageous things about how terrible the league is in public or wear cowboy hats in warmup. I say there are no big stars in the NHL because most of the good young players are on really bad teams.

But as that list seems to indicate, this problem is not just the draft structure that rewards losing. There are a lot of teams with multiple top four picks who still aren’t any better than a bubble team. So when NBC is picking games to air, they have to be aware of the pitfalls of showing the hottest young player getting rolled over by Pittsburgh or Washington or Tampa.

Lucky for NBC, they can show six Leafs games and four more Jets games to overcome this difficult reality. The full NBC schedule is available in the link above.