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Madkour: A lot to take in as NHL hits postseason

Some hits and misses that stood out to me from the NHL’s regular season:

BIGGEST BUSINESS SURPRISE: Florida Panthers. The team had a strong business turnaround under owner Vinnie Viola and President Matt Caldwell. It became the first U.S. pro team to get into NIL sponsorship through its signing of Miami Hurricanes QB D’Eriq King last August. It also signed a new media rights deal with Bally Sports Florida that more than doubles revenue. On the ice and at the gate, the Panthers had a record-setting season and their per-game announced attendance (14,811) is their best in years.

MOST INTERESTING TEAM: Seattle Kraken. I’ve been criticized for giving this team too much coverage in its first season, but I still admire how it has established a unique profile on the Pacific Northwest sports scene. It opened the most environmentally advanced arena in North America and hit the ground running with a culture-based approach focused on DEI — successfully transforming a brick-and-mortar venue into a lifestyle destination. The talent of Tim Leiweke on the building side and Tod Leiweke on the holistic/human side is evident in every piece of the Kraken’s business plan — buying time for the surprisingly poor on-ice product to catch up in the years ahead.

WHAT I LIKED ABOUT THE NHL’S NEW MEDIA PARTNERS, TURNER AND ESPN: Turner’s NHL studio show doesn’t match the effortless hilarity of its NBA studio show, but there is hope. Paul Bissonnette has been fun in poking the bears with outrageousness that Rick Tocchet and Wayne Gretzky are only too happy to rebuke. Tocchet is solid, Anson Carter has provided both wit and wisdom and Gretzky adds gravitas. But I keep coming back to Bissonnette, who can be both pithy and preposterous in breathing energy into a fairly placid broadcast.

I like that power-play time graphic that is superimposed on the ice, which Turner borrowed from the 24-second clock graphic it deploys for NBA games. Also the shot-speed indicator that appears above a goalie’s head. 

ESPN has a strong, diverse talent base — Emily Kaplan, A.J. Mleczko, Hilary Knight, Linda Cohn and Leah Hextall. Kaplan adds a strong storytelling/sideline reporter element and a youthful component that make the broadcast and soundtrack more appealing. 

Game production on ESPN feels more polished, from custom intros to more scenes from arena concourses. … ESPN has bigger and more readable graphics and puts the upper-third score-bug area to interesting use. I have noticed everything from an ad to a forward lineup to a stat about a player they’re talking about to Caesars Sportsbook odds. … Finally, I thought I’d like Mark Messier and Chris Chelios a lot more than I do.

WHAT I’M WATCHING: The initiatives of a truly international league have stalled, if not stagnated. There’s no blame, but it’s noticeable. No Olympics since 2014. No World Cup since 2016. And, of course, no games in Europe since 2019. While the NHL’s broadcast profile overseas is robust, its visible presence through touch-and-feel events has been nonexistent in recent years. That will change significantly next season, but I’m sure Commissioner Gary Bettman and his executive team believe it will take years to return the league’s international energy in a meaningful way. A resumption of the Global Series games in 2022 is a good start and potential games in Mexico and South America provide intrigue as the league attempts to jump-start momentum and begin recovering ground that its global initiatives have lost.

BIGGEST STORY: The Arizona Coyotes’ audacious, aggressive move to the Arizona State University campus for the next three seasons. There are significant revenue implications as they relocate to Tempe (where they likely always should have been) and will play at a 5,000-seat rink. Team officials rave about the setup as all seats should be great, the sight lines amazing and the camera-angle opportunities remarkable. This will be one of the league’s most fascinating stories, and the team still needs to push through its $1.7 billion mixed-use development that already is facing headwinds.

THE TEAM EXECUTIVE I’M WATCHING IN THE POSTSEASON: Toronto Maple Leafs President Brendan Shanahan. No team is under more scrutiny in the playoffs than the Maple Leafs, who haven’t won a playoff series since 2004 or the Stanley Cup since 1967. This is the fourth season for GM Kyle Dubas and the third for coach Sheldon Keefe. Would Shanahan move on either of them if the Maple Leafs underperform again? Just recall Shanahan’s words in a preseason interview with Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun: “We know the ultimate judgment for this team will come in the playoffs.”

Abraham Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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