Ducks Quickly Get Up to Seed
Bryan Murray, the Mighty Ducks’ general manager, used to coach high school basketball, and he maintains a healthy respect for the rigors of the other winter sport.
“Hockey players in particular, and athletes in general, are very, very committed at this level,” he said. “Look at the L.A. Lakers. They’re pretty committed too, with all they’ve done.”
Though he admires the fortitude required to survive the NBA playoffs, he believes it’s tougher for teams to get through the NHL playoffs, particularly lower-seeded teams such as the Ducks. And maybe it’s a good thing to be repeatedly forced to prove your initial success wasn’t a fluke -- as the seventh-seeded Ducks hope to do today by finishing off the top-seeded Dallas Stars at American Airlines Center.
The NHL’s format “makes the regular season more meaningful,” Murray said. “We have the toughest road, and we probably should have.”
In the NHL, teams are re-seeded after the first round so the highest-seeded surviving team in each conference plays the lowest. Theoretically, that creates easier matchups for the top teams, rewarding them for their superior performances over the 82-game season.
If the NHL playoffs followed the NBA’s format, the Ducks wouldn’t have faced the top-seeded Stars in the second round after upsetting the second-seeded Detroit Red Wings.
The NBA’s system matches the winner of the series between the No. 1 and No. 8 teams against the winner of 4 vs. 5, with the winner of the 2 vs. 7 series playing the winner of 3 vs. 6. Under that format, after sweeping the Red Wings the Ducks would have played the sixth-seeded Minnesota Wild. Instead, the Ducks played the Stars, a tougher opponent based on Dallas’ 111 regular-season points.
Whereas the NBA’s format makes it easy to anticipate matchups -- for example, the Lakers can’t play the Sacramento Kings this spring until the Western Conference finals -- the NHL’s format allows for more surprises and drama.
“Both formats have pros and cons,” Duck defenseman Kurt Sauer said. “If the No. 8 team upsets the No. 1, it is a tougher road, but the regular season should count for something.
“The other way, the nice thing is, you already know your next opponent, and that’s good for scouting. But this way, it makes you concentrate on one step at a time. You concentrate on your series and if you get through, then you can start thinking about the next one.”
The NBA’s format makes it easier for lower-seeded teams to advance. Taking the 1999 Eastern Conference playoffs as an example, the eighth-seeded New York Knicks upset the top-seeded Miami Heat and then played the winner of the 4 vs. 5 series, the Atlanta Hawks. The Knicks swept the Hawks, then defeated second-seeded Indiana to win the conference title. Had they faced the highest remaining team in the second round, the outcome might have been different.
“I like it this way,” Duck winger Steve Thomas said. “You have to beat some pretty solid teams to advance. If we win this series, we’ll know we beat two of the best teams in the league.”
The satisfaction of knocking off the Nos. 1 and 2 seeded teams will have to suffice for the Ducks because there are few financial rewards at stake for them or the club.
NHL salaries are paid over the 82-game season, so no paychecks are distributed during the playoffs. Not that any player is starving, but it’s a quirky system that, essentially, leaves players to play for bonuses they might have in their contracts and a share of a modest playoff pool.
Nor will the Ducks make a profit even if they go to the Stanley Cup finals.
“For the most part, the way our budget was structured, we don’t have a chance to break even, and we didn’t draw a high average this season,” Murray said, referring to the average of 13,988 at the Arrowhead Pond, 81.6% of capacity.
“But our success this season will produce benefits long-term for the franchise.”
It might also make the Ducks more attractive to potential buyers. The franchise has been for sale for several years but hasn’t attracted any serious offers. The Stars have also been put on the market by their owner, Tom Hicks, who has said he wants to focus on his ownership of the Texas Rangers.
The Atlanta Thrashers and NBA’s Atlanta Hawks are about to be sold by AOL Time Warner to Dallas businessman David McDavid, and perhaps as many as eight other NHL teams are for sale. However, the expiration of the labor agreement between the league and the players’ union next year is likely to make prospective buyers leery. Few are likely to buy a team without knowing their labor costs, or whether they might have to work within a system that imposes a salary cap or luxury tax.
Murray attributed the plethora of “For Sale” tags to the ineffectiveness of the current economic system.
“People who buy teams don’t always do it to make a profit, but they don’t want to lose more money than they expected,” he said. “The way the system is structured now just doesn’t work. There are top markets, like Toronto and Detroit, where you have a chance to make money, but a lot of us have to create interest to make money.”
Murray sees increased interest in many areas, such as the growth of boys’ and girls’ youth hockey leagues in Southern California and the increased attention the Ducks have drawn on TV broadcasts. He was tickled to hear ESPN commentators Ray Ferraro and Barry Melrose discuss the team’s chances of going to the Cup finals, and he looks forward to the end of all those Disney-themed jokes.
“As we play, we see the tone of some newspaper articles changing,” he said. “It used to be, ‘They’re a Mickey Mouse operation,’ or whatever Wayne [Gretzky] once said, but that’s changing. People are now saying, ‘This is a pretty good hockey team.’ If we can do this over a period of years, respect will come from what we earn.”
Especially when they earn it by taking the most difficult playoff path.