The Detroit Red Wings carried the Western Conference, and in some cases, the NHL on television for many, many years.
It's not the case anymore, partially because the Red Wings have progressively lost superstars -- though are still stocked with the 1-2 punch of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg -- to retirement, a little bit to complacency from a fanbase that has gotten used to winning and winning big, and also because of Chicago -- the third-biggest market in the country -- finally coming back to the fold and flexing the kind of ratings muscle they should. But for many years, and especially for much of the early years of the NBC contract, the Red Wings did a lot of the heavy lifting in the Western Conference on TV.
They're still a big draw as far as the NHL goes, however, so the Red Wings leaving the Western Conference hurts. That takes 10-15 TV appearances per season, between NBC and NBC Sports Network, out of the West and into the East, which is already saturated with big market clubs. So the question is ... who replaces that?
We'll forget about the Blackhawks, who are their own entity at the moment. Let's look at five other teams that are going to have to develop into big-time ratings teams -- through club improvement, or better promotion, or whatever -- to fill that void.
St. Louis Blues
The Blues are the most obvious candidate because, aside from the Red Wings and Blackhawks, they consistently have the best local television ratings in the Western Conference. They're also natural rivals with Chicago, so it creates an instant made-for-TV matchup out West. The Blackhawks and Blues take the NBC stage for the first time on April 7, and it'll be interesting to see if those two teams have the same appeal as say ... if not Penguins-Flyers, at least past Red Wings-Blackhawks games (excluding the monster from a week ago that was on steroids from the Hawks' point streak).
Nationally televised games on NBC Sports Network this season have been a tad disappointing for a team that draws so well locally. Take a look:
Jan. 27, Minnesota vs. St. Louis - 401,000 viewers
Feb. 13, St. Louis vs. Detroit - 453,000 viewers
Feb. 20, St. Louis vs. Colorado - 291,000 viewers
Aside from the game against Colorado, those are games against teams with pretty solid local ratings, and the Blues are coming off a second-round playoff appearance for the first time in a while, so these numbers are a little surprising. Perhaps the Blues lack star power? David Backes is a known American Olympian, but wasn't quite on the top tier of stars that made the most out of that tournament, like Parise, Kane and Miller. He should be back in Sochi, so maybe that's when his name awareness will increase.
Another problem may be that the Blues are a little on the unsexy side when it comes to who leads the team. Their bigger stars, like Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk, are on defense. They score a decent amount of goals, but their top point-getter is 39th in the NHL rankings, and their top goal scorer, Patrik Berglund, is hardly a household name. That all said, the Blues are a team capable of making a difference. They're drawing their best local ratings ever on cable, and maybe just a few showcases on NBC will do the trick in terms of making them a bigger draw.
We all laughed when the Minnesota-Chicago game in late January was selected as a "rivalry" game by NBC Sports Network, but the fact is, they were likely thinking to the future when they did it. Minnesota and Chicago will, in almost all certainty, be divisional (or conference, whatever we're calling it) rivals next season, and with the Wild on the rise, there will likely be more games like the one on Jan. 30 that drew 827,000 viewers. It was an increase from a Chicago-Minnesota game last season that drew an already stellar 540,000 viewers on Dec. 14, 2011.
Minnesota can be a big NHL market. The hockey fans are all there already, they just need something exciting enough to draw their eyeballs away from the college ranks. Let's face it, Minnesota still has the stench of a Jacques Lemaire team on them, even though it's been nearly half a decade since he coached them. Even with the signings of Zach Parise (a bona fide, American superstar) and Ryan Suter (a guy who could become one with a big playoff run), they are still the lowest-scoring team in hockey. Though Niklas Backstrom is a solid goaltender, he is still the second-most renowned player in the league with that name.
Parise and Suter are a start for the Wild. As of today, they reside in first place in the Northwest Division, and they are a hockey market that produces enough players and has enough potential eyeballs that they would be an ideal candidate to replace the Red Wings in the Western Conference. For now, though, there's still a stigma associated with playing solid, defensive hockey. The names and the viewers are there, however.
The Dallas Stars (along with the Colorado Avalanche, whom we'll get to next) were once huge players in the NHL's national television schedule. They had Mike Modano, Ed Belfour (and later Marty Turco), Brett Hull for a time, and they were very popular. In the 2001-02 NHL season, they made 17 national television appearances between ABC, ESPN and ESPN2. Nine of those games were on ESPN itself, and by that time in the network's history with hockey, you had to be a big market franchise to even get on The Worldwide Leader.
Nowadays, the Stars aren't much for actual, you know, star power. Jaromir Jagr is there, perhaps hockey's most colorful superstar ever, but he's past 40 and well past his prime, so they really can't market a game around him, unless it's in Pittsburgh. Jamie Benn is nice, and so is Kari Lehtonen, but Dallas lacks a lot of names. Unlike Minnesota and St. Louis, their local rating aren't great (though they are improving!) and their game against Colorado earlier this season still stands as the least-watched NHL game on NBCSN this season.
It's a shame, because much like Colorado, Dallas was a team that could be used as a gateway team to clubs further out West. They played in the Pacific Division, so when they were hot, you could show teams that had weaker local ratings (Anaheim, San Jose, Los Angeles, Phoenix) and still justify it by saying "Well, they're against the Stars." That won't happen with the team in the Midwest/Whatever they're calling it, but putting them in a division with teams like Chicago, Minnesota, St. Louis, etc. will definitely bring them back into the fold of teams we can use on TV more often.
Man, it was really disheartening to see that the Avalanche/Blackhawks game drew just an 0.9 rating in Denver. This used to be a pretty decent market for the league back in the days of Sakic, Forsberg and Roy. Even as late as 2010-11, the teams was doing OK on Altitude (a 1.56 rating for a season when the team missed the playoffs), but I was really disappointed in that 0.9.
Here's why: not only did the Blackhawks get all they could handle from the Avalanche (and got even more of it on Friday), all of their young talent (Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan O'Reilly) shone through. You saw that there was hope for the future with this team. If anything, this should've been a re-entry point for some fans the team has lost since Sakic retired and the team has fallen on hard times. However, I am told that the team is promoted very poorly, so I don't see this as a market failure, but a failure by the franchise to keep their base engaged.
It stinks, because unlike Dallas, the tools are here for Colorado to rise again. All of their best players (Duchene, Landeskog, O'Reilly, Stastny) are young, offensively-gifted, and from what I've seen, fairly personable. However, when the only news your team makes is from playing it cheap with one of those stars, it's hard to get folks back into the fold. If they ever have a Blackhawks-esque turnaround, however, things could be big in Denver yet again, and that would be really, really good for the league.
Los Angeles Kings
It's hard to deny that Los Angeles, more than any other market, was hurt -- or at least stalled -- by the lockout. The Kings were more popular than they'd ever been, the Dodgers and Angels failed to make the postseason, and the beloved Lakers were a disaster. Last October was the right time for the Kings to strike their claim to a permanent big piece of the Los Angeles winter sports scene. Instead, we've seen very middling ratings for the Kings return, at least as far as games on NBC go. They're also one of the few teams to release "looky here at these big ratings increases!" stories so far this season.
It would be really big for the league to take a bigger hold on Los Angeles. It's the second-biggest market in the country, and the region is finally starting to yield NHL talent as a product of the Gretzky era. One would hope it wouldn't take another generation for the Kings (and Ducks, secondarily) to grow. Hopefully the Kings get another chance at a Stanley Cup run and another chance to enthrall casual fans out in Southern California yet again.
As far as the future goes, the Kings are very necessary to keeping that Pacific/Pacific Northwest Division relevant on US TV. The division already has three Canadian teams, and one (Phoenix) that is likely not long for its home city. The Sharks are OK, but never capable of drawing blockbuster numbers before their window started to close. Anaheim will always play second fiddle to the Kings. The Kings need to continue to play the Pied Piper for hockey fans out West, just so people south of the Canadian border will continue to keep track of them.