Thoughts on Thursday: “Diverse” Scheduling, The Olympic Effect, and Training Camp Battles

1. As the calendar has turned over into August, the hockey world has reached it’s slowest point of the year. With the chaos of free agency in the rear-view mirror, and training camps around the league not slated to open for another month and a half, the only thing preventing tumbleweeds from rolling across the NHL landscape are arbitration hearings.

Fortunately, NBC and the NHL dropped a major piece of news on Sunday, as they announced this year’s schedule of games that will be broadcast nationally throughout the season. The Rangers will be making fourteen appearances on the NBC family of networks, highlighted by their Winter Classic matchup against the Buffalo Sabres on January 1st. Six of those appearances will come on Wednesday Night Rivalry, where the team will be facing off against Boston, (twice) Chicago, (since Rangers-Blackhawks is one of the league’s fiercest rivalries the two teams will also square off twice on WNR) Pittsburgh, and Washington.

While the Blueshirts’ number of appearances is a small issue, it pales in comparison to the rest of the broadcast schedule. Gary Bettman, his colleagues at the NHL offices, and Comcast are all in the business of making money. Unfortunately, that comes at the cost of creating a diverse national broadcast schedule, and despite NBC’s claims that the 17-18 slate of games is the “most diverse” one yet, that statement falls flat with a nothing but a cursory glance at the schedule.

Putting teams like Chicago, (17 appearances) Pittsburgh, (16) Philadelphia, (16) Washington, (15) and Boston (15) on national television the most makes sense. Having them on more than once per week gets stale after some time, and isn’t the most effective way to grow the NHL’s brand. Up and coming teams like Toronto, (3 appearances) Dallas, (2) Carolina, (1) may not have large American-based fan bases right now, but giving them minimal national exposure isn’t going to help the matter.

When a team like the Detroit Red Wings, who missed the playoffs last season, didn’t get markedly better over the summer, and only has one truly marketable star in Dylan Larkin, can make twelve appearances on national TV while teams like Toronto, Nashville, and Vegas average five appearances each, something seems wrong. But then again, Detroit won the same same amount of playoff games as the Blackhawks did last spring, and both teams have won the same amount of playoff series over the last two seasons, so having roughly the same amount of national games seems appropriate.

2. Once the NHL came to the decision to abstain from participating in the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, higher numbers of NHL-caliber players have left North America and opted to continue their professional careers in Europe. Russian players are the most obvious examples, with Mikhail Grigorenko, Nikita Nesterov, Sergey Kalinin, and Andrei Markov all leaving the NHL to sign in the KHL. Marginal former NHLer’s such as Nigel Dawes, Brandon Bochenski, and Mattias Weinhandl have all left North America and gone on to have successful careers in Russia’s top league, so legitimate NHL talents such as Grigorenko and Markov should be able to succeed and earn spots on their national team.

In addition to those three players, Ilya Kovalchuk decided against returning to the NHL for the upcoming season. While the issue surrounding his contract with the Devils were the primary factor in his decision, Kovalchuk also cited a desire to represent his country in Pyeongchang as another reason for signing an extension with SKA St. Petersburg.

There have been rumors of other former KHLer’s making the jump across the pond, but other than Evgeny Dadonov and Vadim Shipachyov, none have done so. Chris Lee and former Ottawa Senator Stephane Da Costa were two names rumored to be coming over during the initial free agent frenzy, but both have opted to remain in Europe as of now.

The Rangers have been hit by the league’s Olympic decision harder than most teams. Although Brandon Pirri was never in the teams plans beyond 2017, he left North America entirely and signed with the ZSC Lions in Switzerland. While there haven’t been any public indications from Pirri that his decision is rooted in a desire to don the maple leaf in February, the same can’t be said for former Rangers’ defenseman Kevin Klein.

After “retiring” from New York and walking away from the final year of his contract and leaving $2.75 Million on the table, Klein also signed with the ZSC Lions. His decision to leave the NHL and continue his career in Europe had been known weeks before he made the official announcement, but few would have connected the dots between his “retirement” and a desire to play for the Canadian Olympic team, but that seems to be a factor.

Klein’s name headlined a list of NHL washouts featuring Ben Scrivens, Max Talbot, Cam Barker, and former Rangers Dan Paille and Taylor Beck at a training camp for Team Canada as they look to identify the men who will look to defend the nation’s gold medals from 2010 and 2014. With NHL players unavailable the Canadians for the first time since 1994, Sean Burke will be in for a major challenge as he looks to scrape the bottom of the barrel in search of quality players to bring home a third consecutive gold medal.

3. Jeff Gorton appears to be satisfied with the current makeup of his team, so the roster as it stands now will likely be the same roster that will come to training camp in six weeks. The team still has a hole in their top six after trading Derek Stepan, but Gorton seems committed to letting one of his young players step up and seize an opportunity for increased responsibility after opting against making more trades. Whether it ends up being Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller, or even Lias Andersson who fills the role of 2nd Line center, they’ll struggle to match Stepan’s production and consistency , and all three of them have major red flags that would preclude them from filling the position under normal circumstances.

While the hole in the top six is New York’s most obvious issue, the upcoming training camp is set to be the team’s most competitive in years. With two or three spots to fill in order to round out Alain Vigneault’s defense corps, seven players will find themselves in the battle for playing time on Broadway this fall.

Ryan Graves, Sean Day, and Steven Kampfer are all long shots to make the team, but a strong pre-season performance could shake things up. Nick Holden is likely to retain a spot on the roster one way or another, so Neal Pionk, Alexei Bereglazov, and Tony DeAngelo all seem to be fighting for a depth spot on the team’s blue line along with Holden. Pionk’s status as a free agent signing, Bereglazov’s KHL-out clause, and DeAngelo’s sky-high potential all stand as reasons to keep them in the mix no matter what happens in training camp, but there isn’t enough room for all of them. Gorton, Vigneault, and Lindy Ruff will likely go with eight defenseman until Jesper Fast recovers from his injury.

In addition to the roster spot Fast’s injury creates, it also opens another bottom six spot in New York’s lineup. Matt Puempel is currently penciled in as the 12th forward, but the team’s 13th forward has yet to emerge. Boo Nieves appears to have the inside track due to his ability to play center or wing, as well as his emergency call-up last season. Gorton could also opt to bring in a veteran on a professional try-out, with quality players such as P-A Parenteau and Daniel Winnik still unsigned at the moment.

Whatever the organization ends up doing, they will have question marks surrounding them as they enter their 91st season of play. Henrik Lundqvist will need to have a bounce back season in order for the Blueshirts to have a chance at bringing home the Stanley Cup. Kevin Shattenkirk will need to bring the same game he harnessed in St. Louis and Washington to New York and establish himself as part of an elite defensive pairing alongside Ryan McDonagh. Pavel Buchnevich, Jimmy Vesey, and Brady Skjei will all need to take big steps forward as they all head into their second full NHL season.

If those things don’t happen, the team will be looking at another summer of questions and frustrations in 2018.