There's an outside chance that the Stanley Cup Final could be the Tampa Bay Lightning against the Nashville Predators.
Think about that: if you told someone in 1986 that 25 years down the line, Tampa Bay and Nashville would be battling for Lord Stanley's silver, there's no way they'd believe you. In fact, had the writers of Back To The Future been Canadian, they could have made that joke when Marty McFly traveled to the future rather than one about a Florida baseball team.
But it's no joke, and while we're still in the late second round, basic business logic probably has the league's bean counters hoping for the Detroit Red Wings to pull off the miracle comeback against the San Jose Sharks, then best whoever survives Nashville/Vancouver to make it to a Cup Final against the Boston Bruins. Then it's an Original Six battle between Hockeytown and the home of the Beanpot, Gordie Howe vs. Bobby Orr or Steve Yzerman vs. Ray Bourque. That's a slam-dunk when it comes to TV ratings and merchandise sales.
Here's the flipside, though. Those same execs are also probably business-savvy enough to realize that if the forsaken Tampa Bay/Nashville Stanley Cup Final did occur, it wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing in the long run. Tampa Bay's got one Cup to its record, and that 2004 victory did wonders for solidifying its place in the Florida sports landscape. In fact, considering the severe turmoil the Lightning faced under the OK Hockey regime, they still drew pretty well. A deep run this season will bring back all of the outlier fans alienated by Barry Melrose's mullet -- and this time, they'll have much more experience watching the game of hockey to appreciate it and help solidify it for another generation.
And in Nashville, the roots are just starting to take hold with a taste of success. A deeper run into the post-season and a strong follow-up season can do wonders to entrench the previously beleagured franchise into the community. The Predators may never be on the same level of revenue generation as, say, the New York Rangers, but a great playoff run coupled with comunity roots and stability on and off the ice can help the team grow in many ways. The Florida Panthers -- yes, those Florida Panthers -- averaged 18,500 per game at the BankAtlantic Center. Not surprisingly, it was shortly after the Panthers made their 1996 Cup Final appearance as well as acquiring superstar Pavel Bure. This level of succes kickstarts a team's popularity and significantly reinforces its stature in it market -- and healthy teams are good for the league.
In the short term, a Stanley Cup Final of this nature would probably draw much lower ratings than last year's Chicago Blackhawks-Philadelphia Flyers battle. But despite a lack of national presence, it can plant many seeds in the local markets -- and as those seeds grow, more people are exposed to the game, and a certain percentage of those people will be swept up in it, some just to support the local team and others as die-hard hockey fans.
It's easy to think that NBC executives are cringing when they see this potential outcome on the cusp of their 10-year mega-deal. But it does present an opportunity to strengthen other areas outside of the stalwart markets.