Derick Brassard and Filip Forsberg. Image by: Getty Images
Here's why a Stanley Cup final between the two underdogs wouldn't attract much attention outside of their home cities.
The Nashville Predators making it to the Stanley Cup final for the first time in franchise history would be a big deal. Certainly in Nashville, and also for the NHL, with an expansion success story for one of the league’s 1990s sunbelt teams.
The Ottawa Senators making it to the Stanley Cup final for the second time in (modern) franchise history would, likewise, be a big deal. Certainly in Ottawa, and also for Canada, where the most recent Cup memory is a city on fire in Vancouver in 2011, and the most recent Cup championship was the Montreal Canadiens way back in 1993.
But a Nashville-Ottawa Cup final? No big deal.
That’s not meant as a cheap shot at either franchise, but rather a reality check on the NHL and its fandom across North America. If the Preds and Sens reach the Cup final, kudos to them, they deserve to be there and may the best team win. Here’s hoping it’s an overtime-laden, can’t-look-away, seven-game thriller. Because it’s going to have to be a championship series for the ages to have any hope of resonating outside Nashville, Ottawa and hardcore hockeyland.
No buzz. That is to say, Nashville vs. Ottawa isn’t exactly a marquee matchup that will attract casual fans on a Super Bowl scale and send TV ratings through the roof. They’re two of the league’s smallest markets, with two of the league’s lowest profiles. Nashville rates with Arizona, Carolina and Florida among the NHL’s lesser-light U.S.-based teams, while Ottawa comes in sixth or seventh among Canada’s seven NHL clubs. Neither team will ever be mistaken for the New York Yankees of hockey, with a fervent fan following around the world. The biggest base of Preds fans outside Nashville is probably the group of people in Montreal who hate the Habs for trading P.K. Subban, and the biggest base of Sens fans outside Ottawa is probably the group of people in Toronto who hate the Leafs.
No rivalry. Nashville and Ottawa have played a grand total of 23 games against each other in the 18 seasons since the Predators entered the league in 1998-99. That’s a little more than once a year. The only NHL team that Nashville has faced fewer times than Ottawa is Toronto (21 games), and the only teams that Ottawa has faced fewer times than Nashville are Columbus (22 games) and Minnesota (19 games.) It goes without saying that the Preds and Sens have never met in the playoffs. How can they hate each other when they don’t even know each other?
No star power. They have star players, but not star power. On the ice, Erik Karlsson is a game-changing dynamo who belongs in the “best player in the world” conversation alongside Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid. Off the ice, Karlsson doesn’t come close to Crosby or McDavid when it comes to marketability and appealing to casual fans. Why? There’s a few reasons, but mostly it’s because he’s a defenseman who plays in Ottawa. Same goes for Subban, the Preds’ highest-profile player. Gregarious, charming, big personality, and he forged his career in hockey hotbed Montreal. But, now he’s a defenseman who plays in Nashville. Most fans know how great Karlsson and Subban are, and how much of an impact they make. But at the end of the day they’re blueliners, which makes them B-list at best in a sport that glorifies goals – and thus, superstar forwards such as Crosby and McDavid – above all else.
No scoring. Nashville wins with its team defense. Ottawa wins with its team defense. Yay, team defense! Except, that’s a phrase that nobody has ever uttered in the history of hockey (with the possible exception of every NHL coach). The prospect of two defense-first teams battling for the Stanley Cup, without a superstar forward to be seen, is a hard sell for the NHL. Yes, Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson clicked on Nashville’s No. 1 line this season, but among fringe fans they’re still more of a best-kept secret than a household name. Ottawa, meanwhile, is the poster child for scoring by committee, with eight forwards netting between 12 and 27 goals apiece during the regular season. The forward who had 12 goals, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, is the team’s playoff leader with eight. That’s great for Pageau and the Sens, not so great for a league looking to put a face on its signature series.
No best-on-best. The Senators finished the regular season sixth in the East and 12th in the overall league standings, the Predators finished eighth in the West and 16th overall. Hey, why have one underdog when you can have two? Well, for starters, when David-versus-Goliath becomes David-versus-David, there’s no giant left to left slew. Just another little David. And where’s the fun in that?
No problem. Of course, hockey being hockey, if the Preds and Sens face off in the final, it’ll probably be the most exciting Stanley Cup series in memory, one 6-5 game after another, with endless end-to-end rushes and highlight-reel goals, a bench-clearing brawl to ramp up the rivalry, and Karlsson and Subban trading overtime winners in Games 6 and 7. A big deal? You better believe it.
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