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Why Oilers-Avalanche is the perfect series at the perfect time

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Justin Cuthbert and Julian McKenzie tee up the Western Conference Final between the Colorado Avalanche and Edmonton Oilers, and touch on the implications for the NHL's U.S. broadcasting partners.

Video Transcript

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: But this year, everything fell into place pretty perfectly. And you mentioned the Celtics and Heat. I normally love NBA playoff basketball. Like, I love it.

It's a great-- this year, it's not-- has been as easy to consume, except for maybe the first round, because it's just lined up that way. But usually it is the superior product by a wide margin, especially when you get to the Final Four teams in the NBA Finals, because the superstars are always there. The superstars are always present.

And for the first time in a long, long time, it seems we're getting that in the NHL. I think four of the five best players in the world, for my estimation, are playing in this Western Conference Final between the Oilers and the Avalanche. And I understand that ESPN doesn't wish they had that series instead of the NBA Finals, which are stretching across, like, three weeks, which is ridiculous, but whatever.

But TNT has got something here. They've got a product here between Colorado and Edmonton. It is going to be sensational. And I cannot wait for it.

And honestly, like, this is the first time in a long time that the NHL has outperformed the NBA, I think, in the playoffs just as a whole. And remarkably, at a time when fans really start to disengage from the NHL, when they're down to four markets, and usually it's a contest of sucking the life out of the game, it really sort of like-- all the steam comes out of it.

But we could be reaching the best part of the playoffs right now at a time where I don't-- like, 60 years between Golden State and Boston, two legendary franchises, meeting, I get all that. But honestly, I'm not going to be distracted at all. Edmonton-Colorado is the place to be for me. And I think most hockey fans that do go from hockey to basketball, maybe, this time of year, will be sticking with the NHL.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: You know what the best part about this Western Conference is-- and maybe I could be totally wrong and maybe both coaches have a change of heart-- not only do we have some of the best players in the world in Cale Makar and Nathan MacKinnon and Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl going at each other, both those teams play on teams who thrive on speed and offense.

If they-- if both of those teams decide, we're just going to lock it down and play defensive, super defensive, just stifling New Jersey hockey that totally goes against what we've known about both of those franchises, especially for this season, we could be in for one of the best-- at least on paper, what it could provide-- one of the best Western Conference Finals in a long, long time.

You make up a really good point. This is around the time where people, especially in markets that don't have teams-- I find, in Canada, a lot, especially in Montreal and we're starting to see in other markets as well, once their teams are out of it, they check out of this. But, like, two of the top three players at least, in McDavid and MacKinnon, are going to be there. Maybe you have Leon Draisaitl slotted in the top five. Maybe you also have Cale Makar in the top five.

Like, this is-- this is incredible. And that's no disrespect to Tampa or Carolina or the New York Rangers or whatever that-- or whatever that series is going to be. But if I'm the NHL, if I'm Steve Mayer, if I'm whoever is in charge of marketing the series, if I'm Sportsnet, I'm TNT, this is such a golden opportunity. I care more about how this series will be marketed around the NHL world more than the-- more than, you know, studying both teams in terms of what they'll look like on the ice.

Like, I want to see, with the potential that is there for this series-- and at the end of the day, I get the players have to deliver on that anticipation, but the league has an immense responsibility to add to that promise and overselling as well. Like, I want to see how they handle this.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Well, I think we've seen a little bit of a change too just in their, like, initial sell on social media, on Twitter and on Instagram. We didn't see Avalanche versus Oilers, we saw McDavid versus MacKinnon. And that's something that you will see in any NBA graphic or whatever. It's LeBron versus, you know, Doncic or whatever it is. It's always going to be that. It's always the player first, the main superstar first. And that's something we never see in the NHL, which romanticizes about team and the-- and how the individual is really unimportant in the grand scheme of things.

But in order to have the best product on the ice, it has to be driven by superstars. And you're right. I mean, these two, they can't change themselves. Attack and offensive-minded play is in their DNA. Yes, Jay Woodcroft put some systems in that allowed them to get this-- to this point. Jared Bednar has-- they've always played pretty well. They've got a really strong defensive core. Sam Girard being out hurts them a little bit. But above all else, it is superstar talent that these two teams run on.

And conversely, on the flip side or the other side of that token, it's shady, spotty goaltending for both teams. So there isn't really that opportunity for an Igor Shesterkin to step in and be this great neutralizer which allows one team to play a certain way and make it low-event, park the bus, because they can just lean on one person to change the game.

That's not how these teams are set up. We could see four goals in 71 seconds like we saw between Calgary and Edmonton because the goaltenders might allow for that. And when things like that happen, the game breaks free of its shackles and it becomes open-ended, and fun, and entertaining, and back and forth.

So everything about this series sets up to be wild and fun. And more important than that, underscoring superstar play. And there are many superstars. There's four elite, elite, elite-level players, but there's also a supporting cast on both teams of immense talent as well.

Like we haven't touched on Nazem Kadri or Mikko Rantanen, who's a top-10 postseason performer, by points per game, in his career. Evander Kane, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Zach Hyman.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Zach Hyman. It's crazy how-- Gabriel Landeskog, Devon Toews, Darnell Nurse. Like, there's so much talent in this series. And the goaltending is such that a lot of people don't believe either of them can win a Stanley Cup. One of them is going to go to the Stanley Cup Final, but it is going to be a track meet for pretty much every reason laid out it's going to be incredible.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Can you imagine if game 1 ends, like, 5-4 and-- actually--

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: I thought you were going to say 1-0.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Oh, no, it's-- oh, if it ends 1-0--

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: I'll be shocked. But I think 5-4's are going to be the standard, honestly.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: It's just-- I just want to see the speed. I just want to see guys go end to end. We saw MacKinnon do it in that second round. I want to see McDavid do it. Like, we need to see enough of that. I'm not even asking for them to do a repeat of-- of when Crosby and Ovechkin went at each other and they had the hat tricks in the same game, I'm just asking for high-quality, high-octane puck between these two teams. That's what I want. That's what-- that's what we've desired. That's-- that's what I think a lot of people dream about when they think of this series.

And if this series delivers, any casual fan who might have tuned in this year in America, for example, off of TNT or ESPN-- I know TNT is going to have the series this year-- this is-- like, I feel like this is important. There's an opportunity where, if you were kind of on the fence about being a hockey fan, and if Edmonton and Colorado provide the fireworks that could be expected from something like this, this could be enough to turn a lot of people from casual fans into diehards.

There's a-- there's an immense amount of pressure, I think, that not a lot of people are bringing up with this series. There is a golden opportunity to turn people who are just on the fence with this game into fans.

Playoff hockey can do that with a lot of people. But seeing some of the best players in the world go at each other, and if the play is great, I think that could also swing very favorably into gaining new fans for the sport.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: I think things happen for a reason, honestly. NBC, like, they're obviously not Mickey Mouse. They own the number one TV on television, "Sunday Night Football." They broadcast the Olympics. They are, of course, a Titan in sports broadcasting.

But the platform with which the NHL belonged to should have been ESPN or TNT, which is-- not even not even TNT, but TNT has done an exceptional job. I actually think they're doing better than ESPN. But ESPN, that's where sports lives 24/7. And that-- there is where it can get the proper attention and the attention that it deserves to be compared to NFL, NBA, MLB, so on and so forth. That's where you need to be.

And I think, now that the NHL got to the place that they need to be, the platform where they needed to be, good things happen, like this one, where it's the high-end talent winning over the teams-- two teams that these two teams just overcame that are looking to just suffocate you and play a brand of hockey that is not what you fell in love with the game in the first place for, right?

I didn't fall in love with hockey because of scheme and structure, I fell in love with it because of goal-scoring. And that's what we're going to see in this series. And I think there is no coincidence, if you believe in hockey gods, that this opportunity on a new platform gives them a chance to right the wrongs that we've seen previously.

And you're right. Like, I guess there's a lot of pressure. But that pressure doesn't really belong to anyone. Like, it's not like Connor McDavid is going to be shy of the moment or care about performing for a US-based audience. That's just not how it happens.

If these two teams are just themselves-- as I mentioned, it's in their DNA-- we will see tremendous hockey and we will see a great team and a great collection of players move on to the Stanley Cup Final.

I do think this is the perfect opportunity. It's awesome for TNT. That panel better be pulling out all the stops, and I know they will for this series. It is going to be something that can dominate the off days of the NBA Finals and make some people, if there's a blowout or if they're truly a hockey fan before a basketball fan, switch from ESPN to TNT to watch this.

And I hope ESPN does its job during this. Because you're right. Like, they're competing with TNT. And they've got their own thing right now. But this deserves high-quality coverage. And finally, in the United States, that's what the NHL is getting.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: ESPN has the Stanley Cup Final this year and TNT has it next year. Am I correct?

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Not exactly sure, but I do believe they have the Stanley Cup Final. It's obviously played after the NBA Finals, fortunately, this year. I'm not sure how it's all going to work out. But I know they do have Stanley Cup Finals, and I believe it's this year as well.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Because if the-- because if ESPN has the Stanley Cup Finals this year, you know, them losing out on the Conference Final, like, OK, fine. They--

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: They got Tampa, I think. They get Tampa--

JULIAN MCKENZIE: They have Tampa. That's-- sorry. I mean the Conference Finals in the Western Conference Final. Excuse me. But, like, having either Colorado or Edmonton come out of the West, and then have them play, possibly, Tampa in the final-- if you get a Colorado-Tampa final, fine, it might not-- it might not be the same excitement as-- as Colorado-Edmonton, but that's still going to be a decent amount of excitement in that series if that were to happen.

And if you get Connon McDavid coming out of the other side, like, ESPN still wins out on this because they could still market some of the best players in the final. That's if they have the Stanley Cup Final, which, my understanding, I think they--

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: I'm pretty sure.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: --they do for this year.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Pretty sure.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: I'm pretty sure--

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: I'll check that while-- while you're talking.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Like, I-- like ESPN, I got to say, I know, TNT, they have the funny stuff with the panel. They're trying their best to channel the magic of "Inside the NBA," but I also like the job that ESPN has done with Steve Levy, bringing in Ryan Callahan. He's done a great job. Kevin Weeks has done great. They had a couple of games for PK Subban was making an appearance. Chris Chelios as well, Mark Messier has come in.

They've-- they've done really well. I think they've done a good job with the product. And just hearing, like, the ESPN, like, NHL theme, I get goosebumps all the time.

Sean McDonough has done OK. I think, overall, just collectively, ESPN has done a great job with the product this year, with the games they've shown, the way they've gotten fans into it, the way it's been implemented into their-- into stream of things. Like, I think they've done a good job, and I have no doubt they'll do fine in the final.

Just if I'm ESPN, like, I'm still waiting regardless, even if I don't have the Western Conference Final. Because at the end of the day, you're still going to have-- you're still going have Tampa in the East. If they come out of the East, you know, great. That's awesome. If you get the Rangers in this and they somehow come out of the East in the final, big market, all right, that's awesome. New York fans are going to get all behind the Rangers if they make the Stanley Cup Final.

Carolina, I don't know where they measure up with-- with their media market. I mean, you can argue that NC-- NC State Wolfpack games probably draw a little bit more than the Canes. But their fan base is rabid, they're passionate, diehard fans. Plus, like, we get to see-- probably get to see an ESPN feature on the storm surge during the final or something. Like, that'd be funny.

Like, I don't know, if I'm ESPN and I have the Stanley Cup Final, we're winning regardless. And with the NBA Finals this year, it could be still a good one. I think Golden State's going to win in six. I don't know if it'll be that interesting. But I mean, we have guys on both sides who could do really well.

But I don't know, man, this is a good summer if you like the NBA and the NHL. And ESPN might have both of those? Like, that's insane.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Yeah, it's going be a terrific-- terrific month. And you're right. The Stanley Cup Final is on ESPN. So the beauty of it is this. This is TNT's Stanley Cup Final--

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Yes.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: --Oilers and Avalanche. So they're going to put everything they have into these next seven or less games, and it's going to be fantastic. Then we're going to switch over to ESPN, and it's going to be a immensely talented team from the Western Conference versus either the Tampa Bay Lightning going for the three-peat or the New York Rangers, a massive media market that's going to make things that much-- I won't say more interesting, but interesting nonetheless.

It's-- oh, I guess I just eliminated Carolina from the equation. It would be the worst-case scenario if Carolina got there, just in terms of selling the product, but I don't think they're going. Just a spoiler for our future discussion here on the Hurricanes, Rangers, and Lightning.

But you're right. I mean, this is the perfect situation. You've got competing networks. You've got one putting on what could be the best series of-- I don't want to say our lifetimes, but maybe the Cap era, honestly. Like maybe Pittsburgh-Detroit, the rematch, in terms of like-- like, we're talking about upper-upper-echelon stuff in terms of match-ups. TNT'S got that. ESPN'S got the Stanley Cup Final after that. We could not ask for more as hockey fans.

And I understand we're both north of the border and we'll be tuning in mostly to Sportsnet. If you do have the NHL package, you can watch the other ones. I'll probably try to do that a couple of times, just to mix it up. But you couldn't ask for more. If you're Sportsnet, you could ask for the Leafs. But if you're the NHL in the United States, you couldn't ask for more than what we have right now. Do you have an--

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