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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Embrace the Old School by @BrianK_PI

I'm not sure I need to say much else about the Penguins' new alternate jersey reveal. The black and gold retro third jersey is sick, as Patrick Hornqvist already has beaten me to the punch to say. The team lifted two Stanley Cups wearing the design, and it's the jersey that firmly cemented Mario Lemieux's place in franchise lore. It's a return to the Pittsburgh gold that the team inexplicably left by the wayside for its supposedly more sexy sister color, the Vegas gold. But Vegas gold isn't the Pittsburgh Penguins. It's not Pittsburgh. And regardless of how much the Vegas gold has tried to establish itself into the fabric of this team, including winning a Stanley Cup of its own, it's still takes a back seat. The Vegas gold is the equivalent of the Pigeon logo as far as a secondary color goes. Finally getting to see the Crosby generation of the team in these uniforms is a long overdue surprise and one that will hopefully be made permanent before too long.

Sometimes, the classic look is just the better look, plain and simple. The Vegas gold might have tried to bring a more modern look to the jerseys, or make the sweaters a bit trendier, but occasionally you just get it right and don't need to try so hard to improve. The Penguins franchise has been getting it wrong for twenty years, as far as the jereseys go that is, from the pigeon logo to the Vegas gold, but this is absolutely a step in the right direction. It isn't just Pittsburgh gold; it IS Pittsburgh. They're the colors you've seen the Steelers win an NFL record 6 Super Bowls in, and it's the color scheme you see the Pirates work their way back to credibility wearing. No color scheme resonates with the city more than black and yellow, and nowhere in Southwestern PA are there two colors worn with more pride.

The Penguins are reaching back into the past, rediscovering their roots, and going with a great look that served them well during some of the most successful years in franchise history. As Matthew McConaughey said in possibly the only Oscar worthy performance ever in a car commercial, you can go back but you've gotta look in the right place. The Penguins looked back, and they knew exactly where to look. To find out where they've been, and where they need to go. It's time for the NHL to do a bit of soul searching themselves and take a look back on where they've been, how they've gotten here, and where they need to go. It's time for the NHL to dip a bit into their own old school stash and bring some changes and improvements to the modern game.

A great place to start looking at would be with the current overtime format, specifically the loser point and the shootout. I understand why the league made the moves that they made in both these cases. The NHL instituted the loser point to try to prevent teams from packing it in during the overtime period and settle for a single point instead of risking leaving the game with nothing. The idea was giving each team a point they couldn't lose would give them an incentive to fight for that second point. The shootout came into existence after the lockout, and it started as nothing more than a marketing ploy to get people talking and provide highlight reel type excitement for the game.

The problem is that the loser point has undoubtedly made the game worse, both on the ice and off. Instead of teams packing it in during overtime, teams are now doing that at the end of the third period. The same effect is there, except now it's resulting in more passive play during regulation instead of the extra time period. Also, by awarding a point for an overtime loss the NHL has the possibility for 3 point games, which not only skews team records but takes the excitement away from the playoff drive. It's been made incredibly difficult for teams to get hot at the end of the season and force their way back into the playoff mix. Gaining two points while the teams you're chasing can split three makes catching up a slow process, and the playoff teams are essentially set weeks before the end of the regular season. It's a flawed system that failed to improve upon what was working before. There's nothing wrong with having two equally matched teams end the game with equal results.

Speaking of the postseason, the NHL's return to the four division alignment was a great step in the right direction coming out of the lockout, a throwback to the days of the Patrick, the Adams, the Norris, and the Smythe. The divisional playoff format forces division rivals to face each other to advance, and generally speaking the best rivalries in the league can be found within the divisions. Also, the divisional format breeds familiarity, which breeds contempt, which creates new rivalries as the established division powers keep squaring off against each other to make the conference championship. However, the NHL didn't go back to completely to the old format, instead creating two wildcard spots in each conference. Sometimes this works out, like in the East last year when the wild cards were split between the divisions and finished paired with their own division, but it can also cause problems, like last season when the Anaheim Ducks, top seed in the West and a point back of the Presidents' Trophy, had to travel halfway across the country to face the Dallas Stars instead of travelling somewhere along the West Coast. With the NHL looking to expand to 32 teams to create four 8-team divisions, hopefully this is a change that is made when the divisions are balanced across the league.

And when the league finally does add those next two teams, they need to get it right. The Canadian and northern US markets are where they're going to find passionate fans, and it's where they're going to make money. Quebec City is constructing a new arena; give them the Nordiques back to inhabit it. Seattle is a needed West Coast city in an untapped region with a great sports fanbase, and a new franchise would have an instant nearby rival in the Vancouver Canucks; give them a team. And it's time to admit that the moves to give the NHL exposure in the southern states has produced mixed results at best. Last season, five teams played to less than 85% capacity crowds. Four of those teams (Florida, Carolina, Phoenix, and Dallas) were located in southern states. Granted all of those teams save Phoenix were over 90% attendance the previous season coming out of the lockout, but they've consistently been at the bottom of the league as far as attendance goes and the NHL has gone through great pains to prop up a Coyotes team that hasn't been able to draw fans regardless of what success they've seen on the ice.

It's time to relocate some of these teams to markets that care. Hartford still cares about the Whalers, and wouldn't it make much more sense to have a team in a market passionate about them and hockey in general? The NHL moved the Thrashers to Winnipeg in 2011, and despite being one of the worst run franchises in North America (they ARE still the Atlanta Thrashers after all), the fans in Manitoba still support their Jets, and when the team finally gets into a position to contend the atmosphere and fanbase will be electric. The NHL could use that excitement, that passion, and that support.

Nothing's more exciting than scoring either, yet the league seems content to watch goals become harder and harder to come by. This past season Sidney Crosby was the only player to break 100 points, and no one else in the league even topped 90 points. The average game last season had a total of 5.49 goals scored, a mark not far off from the lack of scoring the league was trying to fix coming out of the lockout in 2005. To compare how bad it's getting, the league averaged 5.35 goals per game in the five seasons prior to the lockout. I'm not saying the NHL should try to get back to the levels of scoring seen in the 80s, but finding a happy medium between the late 80s and late 90s scoring is a must. The NHL can tweak the way it calls penalties and the way the game is played all it wants, but the easiest way to increase scoring would be making subtle changes to the net itself. Goalie pads have been a hot topic of debate, yet decreasing goalie protection could wind up increasing injuries. Let them wear the pads they're wearing now, but move the posts and crossbar and inch or two out from where they currently are. It won't sound like much, but some of the "pings" from previous seasons would sound off goal sirens instead.

The NHL has gotten a lot right over the years. Its popularity continues to soar, moves like the Winter Classic have increased exposure and introduced more people to the game, and the annual salary cap increase is a reminder that the league is moving in the right direction. Players are better conditioned now than they were twenty years ago, and analytics are helping to improve understanding of what's happening on the ice. But even as the game continues to move forward, it's worth noting that some of the things that have been left in the wake of progress would be better served reinstated. It's time to embrace the old school and return some of the best parts of the game from yesteryear to the future versions yet to be played.

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