There’s going to be a lot of hockey on the air in the U.S. during the 2018-19 season. ESPN+ has a game a day throughout the regular season, to go along with our nightly In The Crease show. NHL Network will have its annual slate of games.
Then there’s NBC, which released its 2018-19 schedule on Monday with some significant tinkering from last season. And copious amounts of the Blackhawks. More on that in a bit.
NBC and NBCSN will air 109 NHL games this season, which the network said is the most since it acquired the league’s U.S. broadcast rights in 2005. Fans that have clamored for a greater variety of teams to be featured should be happy — for the most part.
As we have done each time the TV schedule is released, here are the winners and losers from the new NHL on NBC docket:
WINNER: Loathers of the “Rivalry Night” concept
For several years, “The Night You Love To Hate” was one of the most gloriously ironic taglines in hockey, as NBC’s square-peg-in-a-round-hole “rivalry” matchups stretched the definition of the word like Elastigirl. Last season produced such blood feuds as [checks notes] Buffalo vs. Columbus and St. Louis vs. Pittsburgh.
Well, we’re finally rid of it: NBC is rebranding it “Wednesday Night Hockey” and will feature 17 doubleheaders and (gasp) multiple appearances by Toronto, Edmonton and Winnipeg after featuring just two Canadian teams last season.
NBC will also attempt to do a College Gameday riff in which its studio crew will hit the road for live pregame and postgame coverage on site. Which is probably why it isn’t going to Edmonton until March.
RIP, “Rivalry Night.” We’ll always remember your inexplicable Wild vs. Sabres game from a few years back.
There are few more anticipated dates on the NHL calendar than Feb. 28, 2019, when John Tavares is scheduled to make his first appearance in Brooklyn since his traitorous signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs. How will Islanders fans react? How will Tavares react? Will there be a giant video screen tribute?
Be sure to tune in during the Lightning vs. Bruins game on NBCSN that night to find out during intermission.
If you’re looking for the new torchbearers in the NHL, look no further than the Predators and Lightning. Both are preseason favorites to win the Stanley Cup. Both have significant star wattage on their rosters, including recent award winners. Both had the NHL All-Star weekend spotlight on them, and both have had recent postseason runs.
Hence, Tampa doubled its appearances season to season (from six to 12) and Nashville nearly did the same (from seven to 12). An NHL source told me that the league and NBC view these teams as the “next wave” of championship contenders as the recent glamour franchises regress, and that this schedule reflects that. Now, about those outdoor games …
The Kings added one of the biggest names in free agency (Ilya Kovalchuk) to a playoff-qualified roster that includes Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty. Also, at last check, they play in Los Angeles. But the Kings had the largest decline in appearances from year to year, going from 12 down to five.
Why? A source with knowledge of the scheduling process tells ESPN that the Los Angeles Lakers have priority when booking Staples Center, and have nine Wednesday night home games next season; the Kings play once on Wednesday for the entirety of their season, home or away. Since many Western Conference teams are featured on Wednesday night doubleheaders, the Kings got shorted. Thanks, LeBron.
WINNER: The NHL All-Star Game
For the first time since 1997, the NHL All-Star Game will be shown in prime time on broadcast television, as the Jan. 26 game in San Jose will be carried by NBC. Here’s where we thank the glory that is 3-on-3 hockey for shaking up the annual classic.
LOSER: Diversity of teams on broadcast
NBC has 11 days on which it will air games on the main network. How many of them do not feature either the New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers or Chicago Blackhawks? Three, with Boston facing Washington, St. Louis against Nashville and the Blues facing the Wild.
The Jets earned a reputation for being one of the most exciting, fast-paced teams in the NHL last season, especially in their battles with the Predators. They don’t have Nashville on their NBCSN docket, but they do have five national games in the U.S. after not having a single appearance since at least 2014. That includes the Jets’ game in Finland against the Florida Panthers, in their lone appearance in NBC for the season.
Only two teams don’t have at least one game on NBC this season, and they are the Senators and the Canucks. The Sens appeared once last season, but clearly a post-Erik Karlsson Ottawa isn’t something NBC found appealing.
The Canucks haven’t appeared since before 2014, so they certainly weren’t going to appear in a post-Sedins (anticipated) tank season.
The Hart Trophy finalist helped the Colorado Avalanche jump from one game last season to six games on NBCSN, including four appearances on Wednesday Night Hockey.
The Hart Trophy winner helped the New Jersey Devils jump from one game last season to … two games this season, including a road game in Edmonton to face his former team.
WINNER: Chicago Blackhawks
The running joke among some NHL fans is that it’s the National Blackhawks Channel, and there’s been ample evidence to support that fact. Since 2014, Chicago had averaged 20 games on the network’s initial schedule.
The Blackhawks fell to 17 appearances last season, and finished with the seventh fewest points in the league. They’re back to 19 games in 2018-19, including the Winter Classic at Notre Dame, their sixth outdoor appearance. That’s one more game on NBC than the reigning Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals have.
On the one hand, they’re still a ratings driver, and at the very least draw heat from those that loathe them. On the other hand, is this oversaturation warranted for a team that might be past its expiration date as a contender?
LOSERS: Two other members of the Original Six
Last season, the Montreal Canadiens were featured prominently, with eight appearances that featured rivalry games against the likes of the Boston Bruins. This season, the Canadiens face a few months without Shea Weber and see their appearances down to one game, the second-largest decline season to season.
The third largest? The Detroit Red Wings, who went from 12 games last season to six this season. For the second year in a row, the Red Wings — for years, one of the most dependable national draws in sports — will not be featured in a broadcast game on NBC. The mighty have fallen.
Here’s the full list of team appearances on the NHL on NBC schedule, including games that may be flexed out, along with how many of each team’s games were on that schedule in 2017-18: