June 7, 2023

To start the 2022-23 NHL season, the New York teams have been great. The New York Rangers, New York Islanders, and New Jersey Devils have a combined record of 22-12-3 and all three are above .500 to start the season. The three teams are on pace to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs, something that hasn’t happened since the 2006-07 season, making this year a unique and potentially historic one.

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The New York teams are good, but the question is if that is a good thing for the NHL. Does it even matter if they are good or if any team in any city for that matter is playing well? The league loves good storylines but is it dependent on certain teams defining those storylines? Let’s look at the reason why it could benefit the NHL and at the same time, might not.

Why New York Dominance is Good for the NHL

For years, the New York teams have either been disappointments with underachieving rosters or failed to put together strong seasons. In the past six seasons, only one team from the city and general metropolitan area has reached the playoffs while the other two, notably the Devils, were still in the middle of rebuilds (interestingly, the teams have also struggled in the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and National Basketball Association, with the last champion coming in 2012 with the NFL’s New York Giants). However, the three NHL teams are finally back with competitive rosters and look poised to compete for the Stanley Cup. The Devils, in particular, boast one of the best records in the NHL with a 9-3 record and led by Jack Hughes and a young, fast-paced offense, look tough for any team to stop.

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With the NHL relevant in one of its biggest markets, it’s benefitted in a multitude of ways, especially on a night-to-night basis. Attendance is up, the TV ratings are higher and, most importantly, the matchups are better. On Oct. 26, the Rangers faced the Islanders in a nationally televised game on TNT, putting the two teams in the spotlight for the broader hockey audience. While the Islanders pulled away with a 3-0 victory, the game showed two talented rosters that could easily contend for the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Ultimately, the NHL is looking for teams in the bigger markets to be great. Toronto, Montreal, New York, and Chicago are the cities that not only have a greater population to help the league but they drive up the interest both locally and nationally when they are playing well. When the teams are playing great, they can play nationally televised games but not in a forced manner or one that provides disappointing games to the national hockey audience.

Rangers, Devils & Islanders Rivalries Are Back

Along with the better games to televise, the NHL has a lot of rivalry games to look forward to. The most historic rivalries feature the Original Six teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Montreal Canadiens or the Chicago Blackhawks against the Detroit Red Wings. However, some of the best have also been between the New York teams.

The Rangers and Islanders have a unique history that includes Stanley Cup titles and droughts, fueling the rivalry for decades. The Rangers won three titles from 1928-40 but the Islanders’ four consecutive championships from 1979-83 prompted the fans to chant “1940! 1940!” as a taunt for the long title drought or the curse of 1940, which lasted until 1994. Recently, the rivalry has been highlighted by two teams that not only are carried by their defenses but also by world-class goaltenders in Igor Shesterkin, who won the Vezina Trophy last season, and Ilya Sorokin, who is a frontrunner to win it this season.

Ilya Sorokin New York Islanders
Ilya Sorokin, New York Islanders (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Rangers’ rivalry with the Islanders is defined by previous eras but their rivalry with the Devils involves more recent significance. Since the Rangers won the Cup in 1994, the Devils have won three titles and appeared in five Stanley Cup Finals. Moreover, whenever they appeared to have a contending team, the Devils seemed to get the better of them, notably defeating them in six games in the 2012 Eastern Conference Final.

This season, however, the matchup will be defined as a clash of styles and team-building philosophies. While the Rangers win with defense, goaltending, and occasionally slowing the game down, the Devils win with speed and a high-octane offense.

These matchups are interesting not just for their history but for the games that will be played on the ice. However, there are plenty of reasons that the New York matchups might not be good for the NHL or simply not a big deal.

NHL Doesn’t Rely on Big Markets

As much as the league might appreciate teams in bigger markets playing well, the NHL doesn’t need the teams in big cities to be great to succeed. Of the past 10 teams to win the Stanley Cup, only three of them were Original Six teams and none of them were from Canada, New York, or Philadelphia (another big market with a noted history in the NHL). Moreover, many of the winners in the past 20 years were from small markets or cities not often associated with hockey including Tampa Bay, Los Angeles, and Anaheim.

Jon Cooper Tampa Bay Lightning
Head coach Jon Cooper of the Tampa Bay Lightning hoists the 2020 Stanley Cup (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

The bottom line is that the NHL doesn’t need its best teams to be in the biggest markets to succeed, rather it’s a bonus. On the contrary, the most exciting teams, regardless of where they play, are the ones that garner national fanbases. Specifically, a lot of hockey fans can rally behind the Colorado Avalanche, knowing they can watch Cale Makar and Nathan MacKinnon, two of the most dynamic players in the league. Likewise, fans can often root for the best players like Connor McDavid or players that deserve to hoist the Cup after a long career of coming up short, like Alexander Ovechkin, who finally won it in 2018 with the Washington Capitals.

Ratings Aren’t the Same as Viewership

A game between the Rangers and the Islanders might have more viewers, with both teams playing in large markets, but it doesn’t mean they will have a higher television rating per se. Small market teams with more passionate fans, like the Winnipeg Jets or Nashville Predators, can garner a higher rating, and similarly, teams with a national audience can attract a larger audience and higher ratings altogether.

Recently, an article in The Athletic looked at whether the New York teams boost the ratings for the NFL (from ‘Do good New York teams boost NFL ratings? Here’s why it’s not that simple’, The Athletic, 10/13/22). While there are a lot of caveats and differences between the NFL and the NHL, there were a few key points that pointed to the sport, and sports in general not being dependent on specific teams being great. One of the interesting differences is between viewership, which New York teams have a lot of, and ratings, which smaller but more passionate markets have. Likewise, in an age where fans can essentially watch any team on any night, they can easily gravitate towards better or more exciting teams instead of being dependent on their local teams being great to enjoy quality games.

It’s a long season and a lot can change from now until the end of the year. The New York teams can all make the playoffs or they can struggle and fall apart as the season progresses and it might not make a difference for the league. However, all three teams being great will be an interesting storyline to monitor and one the NHL might embrace if they continue to play well.

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