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NHL Blueline Review: A Tale of Two Sunbelts

Welcome back to the NHL Blueline Review, with a special day-late edition! There’s still a lot going on in the early season in the league, but not all of it is good for the game. The Carolina Hurricanes, once a bright light of the league’s southern expansion/relocation craze is barely drawing five figures at home games this season, and are at the bottom of the average attendance for the NHL.

While the Canes are struggling at the box office, they are still doing better overall than their days as the Hartford Whalers before the move. Also not helping in this time is a very poor record that has them near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. And they aren’t alone among struggling southern franchises.

Two more teams in the Sunbelt, the Arizona Coyotes and the Florida Panthers, are also suffering attendance woes – the two teams are ranked 27th and 28th, respectively, in the league for attendance. What’s more, both teams have also been embroiled in off-ice problems; The Coyotes are brawling with their current arena hosts in Glendale, while the Panthers are seeking a $86 million bailout from Broward County (Fla.) – and just might get it. Should either of those teams relocate to a more hospitable Northern city, it wouldn’t be the first time: The Atlanta Thrashers struggled for a decade before bringing hockey back to Manitoba.

Unlike Carolina, however, both teams have also been successful on the ice, and are currently in position to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs – thus contradicting, in this instance, the idea that good hockey will draw good crowds.

And while many hockey traditionalists will point to this as evidence that the NHL’s expansion into the Southern half of the US is a failure, there successes there that are a photo negative of the struggles shown above. The Tampa Bay Lightning ranks fifth in attendance and is the reigning Wales Trophy holder, while the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators have emerged as legitimate title threats. And while both teams are found in the middle of the pack in league attendance, the blame there lies with the arena architects: Both teams average a sellout every night, and a team can’t be expected to do better than that. Hockey can (and does) work in the South.

Most mysterious is the plight of a non-southern team: The New York Islanders are in a state-of-the-art arena with a young and affluent local fan base and a team that is in the thick of a competitive Metropolitan Division…and they’re only ahead of woeful Carolina in attendance.

As hard as it is to admit, many hockey fans are fair-weather when it comes to in-person attendance, and this isn’t limited to Southern teams. Even cities with solid NHL traditions have struggled to fill the arena in the recent past: the Chicago Blackhawks drew just over 12,000  during a miserable 2006-07 season, while the St. Louis Blues and Pittsburgh Penguins both drew poorly enough at that time to seriously consider relocation. In each of those scenarios, weak on-ice play was a considerable factor – and attendance returned as success returned to those teams.

The fact that half of the league’s teams draw more than 95-percent of their home arena’s capacity (a figure on par with that of the NBA) shows that the state of the league is solid at the box office, which is better than many predicted about the league after the land run to the South two decades ago. But like most initiatives the league has launched, there are pluses and minuses both.

THREE TO WATCH

Washington at Detroit (Wed., 8 EST, NBCSN [en], TVA-S [fr]): The Caps and Wings get the Wednesday Night Rivalry treatment from the Peacock Jock Network. I’m not sure the Caps rise to the level of the Avalanche, Maple Leafs or Blackhawks when it comes to Detroit hatred, but they didn’t ask me. I’m not complaining about seeing the game nationally, though: having Alex Ovechkin take on Dylan Larkin will be lots of fun.

Los Angeles at Detroit (Fri., 7:30 EST, Fox-West, Fox-Detroit Plus): A second Detroit game? We think yes! Especially when they take on a Kings club that has shot to the top of the Pacific, even if Johnathan Quick has looked a bit mortal in goal.

Detroit at St. Louis (Sat., 7 CST, Fox-Detroit, Fox-Midwest): It’s Wing Watch Week! This time, they hit the road to take on one of their more loathed rivals from the grand old days of the Norris Division. Sadly, Bob Probert and Tony Twist aren’t here to throw down, but we do have some great talent to watch.

THREE TO DODGE

Anaheim at Florida (Thu.,7:30 EST, Prime, Fox-San Diego, Fox-Florida): See the lead story above – most of the arena will be dodging it, too.

Toronto at Carolina (Fri., 7 EST, SN-Ontario, Fox-Carolina): There is a real possibility that both teams could lose.

San Jose at Columbus (Sun., 5 EST, CSN-California, Fox-Ohio): The Sharks might be feeling the effects of a long road trip, and I don’t think the Jackets are totally back yet. Could be a close, but drab, affair.

GIRLFRIEND QUESTION OF THE WEEK

Every week, I watch dozens of hockey games with my girlfriend, who is also a big hockey fan. Unlike other girlfriend-viewing situations, her questions tend to be about finer points of tradition, strategy and technique, and not the typical “What’s ‘Offsides’? Is that like it is in football?” type. Here’s this week’s question:

She: “Don’t player’s pads and equipment get really gross from all the sweat? How often do they clean them, or do they EVER clean them?”

Answer: Yes, they wash them, and not just for that fresh, clean feeling. Aside from the typical sweat and occasional blood that finds its way onto padded equipment, pads (which are built for comfort as well as damage absorption) can easily be a vector for spreading bacterial disease, including the ever-present threat of MRSA. It needs the full gamut of washing, drying, deodorizing and disinfecting every 2-4 games/practices.

Except for gloves. Never, ever clean your gloves. That face wash you give some third-line center after the whistle needs to send a message of death and germs.

COACH DEATHWATCH

Players get cut, traded and sent to the AHL all the time. If you REALLY want your team to stop sucking, it starts with firing the coach. Here are the coaches around the NHL that should get their resumes in order and buy the Rosetta Stone Swedish program, listed in descending order of their imperilment.

Todd Richards, Columbus

Patrick Roy, Colorado

Bob Hartley, Calgary

Claude Julien, Boston

Bruce Boudreau, Anaheim

Dave Tippett, Arizona

Mike Babcock, Toronto

Darryl Sutter, Los Angeles

Ken Hitchcock, St. Louis

Todd McLellan, Edmonton

Paul Maurice, Winnipeg

Bill Peters, Carolina

Welcome to the club, Bill Peters! Sure, you were given a crap team to start last season, but so was Dave Cameron, and look at the Sens now. God help you if you fall behind the Blue Jackets.

THE WEEKLY GOAL HORN REVIEW

Push play! Turn it up! Cheer!

Speak of the Devil, it’s the Carolina Hurricanes! Let’s see how they amp up the home crowd after scoring. After all, you gotta get the crowd into it after you draw back to within three against the Capitals…

Let’s be clear: very good horn, and any self-respecting sports team in North Carolina MUST find a way to use “The Nature Boy” Rick Flair – no issue with that at all. But the EDM song in the background has no edge to it. It fits better as filler music while the Zamboni works the ice. It’s not the reason that the Canes are playing to half-empty crowds, but it ain’t helping. Great start, then falls apart.

Grade: C

“YOU HAD TO KNOW THAT WAS GONNA HAPPEN…”

For the 30th season in a row, the NHL is trying to cut down on fighting. Instead of simply penalizing players, the NHL Blueline Review believes we should study the CAUSES of hockey violence. Each week, we’ll look at a fight and how it could have been prevented. Increase the Peace!

We at the Blueline Review enjoy some tag team action, and here we have Adam Lowry and Scott Thornburn of the Jets take on the Preds’ duo of Colton Sissons and Barrett Jackman. Let’s watch:

Evidently the fight strategy for Nashville is to injure your opponent’s hand by attacking it with your face, but back to the cause of this: Winnipeg’s Mark Stewart goes right off the faceoff to send Nashville wonderchild Seth Jones airborne with an awesome (and interfering) hip check. The shoving contest spreads across both lines on the ice and the Jets, down 5-0 with half the game still left to play, takes the opportunity to let off a little steam.

HOCKEY FOR VEGAS DEGENERATES

We see how it is; now that the DFS apocalypse has come to pass, you gamblers want to come crawling back to betting on games? Very well: every week, we’ll give you a Wednesday night game to plop money on with our for-entertainment-purposes-only expertise!

Let’s see if changing days will break the losing streak for the picker! The Captials (-135) are a good favorite on the road (5-2-0 this season outside of the Beltway) against the Red Wings. The over/under is at 5, and seems to be daring the Caps to go nuts.

Blueline Review Season Record: 2-3

HOCKEY COURT

Hockey Court is a semi-regular feature of the NHL Blueline Review wherein our crack legal experts critique suspensions and disciplines laid down by NHL VP of Player Safety Stephane Y. Quintal. This week, we look at…

Gabriel Landeskog? Are you sure about this? If there’s an Avs player I wouldn’t suspect of violence, it would be him. And against Brad Marchand, of all people? Are we sure we didn’t switch the order up here?

Wow. Defenseless player? Check. Hit to the head? Check (hee hee). Not trying to do ANYTHING to avoid it? Check. The isn’t so much about malice, but laziness. Congratulations on your first suspension, Gabe.

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