The buzz on Opening Day in Florida is that the small-market Tampa Bay Rays will be able to contend with the Goliaths of the AL East.
The Rays have generated excitement by reaching the World Series in 2008; however, people on Florida’s west coast should not forget about their hockey team, the Lightning, who won the Stanley Cup six years ago and employ 20-year-old Steven Stamkos.
This year the sophomore shared the Rocket Richard Trophy—which is awarded to the athlete with the most goals in the regular season—with Sidney Crosby and should become recognized by the NHL community as one of the best players in the world. It may come as a surprise to fans in Tampa, but in all likelihood the Bolts have a better future ahead of them than the Rays.
It is understandable that this may be difficult to believe.
The Lightning just finished the season second-to-last in their division and are outside of the playoffs for the third straight year. However, as long as Stamkos and Hedman continue to improve they should complement the play of Tampa mainstays Martin St. Louis—who had 94 points this season (the same number he had when the Bolts won Lord Stanley’s Cup in 2004) and Vincent Lecavalier—who was considered the “Michael Jordan of hockey” when he was picked first overall in 1998—the Lightning stand to benefit from the parity in the NHL.
The problem with the Rays is not their front office management (skipper Don Maddon and GM Andrew Friedman have effectively created a contending team with their limited resources) or how their prospects have developed (homegrown Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford, and BJ Upton have grown into legitimate superstars) but that they play in a poorly-run, big-market dominated league.
As nationally-recognized columnist Jay Mariotti articulated in his latest article people are progressively losing interest in what he calls the “national past-its-time.” Cities in which baseball used to generate significant interest—such as Baltimore, Cleveland, and Toronto—have parks full of empty seats. Last week Baltimore had 9,129 fans in attendance, the smallest crowd in Camden Yards history.
The reason for this is simple: small-market teams like the Rays—whose payroll is approximately $72 million this year—cannot retain the players they develop (see: Scott Kazmir) because they are offered blockbuster contracts by large-market teams like the Yankees and Red Sox (and to a lesser extent the Cubs, Dodgers, Angels, Mets, and Phillies), with who have payrolls of $206 and $162 million respectively. These East Coast behemoths throw around dollar bills like Pac-Man Jones at a gentlemen’s club.
Of course there are exceptions. The Twins have won the AL Central five times since Selig tried to banish them in 2002 (were threatened with closure by league contraction) and were able to reach the ALDS with $65 million last year only to be slain by the Yankees and their mammoth $201 million payroll.
Despite their perennial success the Twins have been treated as a glorified minor league team by having to relinquish ace pitcher Johan Santana and dynamic fielder Torii Hunter to the Mets and Angels, respectively.
The Twins were fortunate to keep hometown hero Joe Mauer in Minnesota, who signed an eight-year, $184 million extension this year. Even with a new ball park and an avid fan base Minnesota’s increased payroll—up $33 million from last year—is less than half what the Yankees are spending on their team.
Knowing that the NHL is fueled by puckheads in small-market cities like Calgary, Edmonton, Minnesota, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh, Commissioner Gary Bettman continues to distance his policies from Selig’s pay-per-win guiding principle. He has created a league where the most successful teams in the league must be well-coached, have excellent scouts, and make crafty transactions.
Bettman is not without fault. The NHL is still recovering from the 2005 lockout, the Phoenix Coyotes are losing astronomical amounts of money, and the commissioner has failed to acknowledge the importance of having his players compete in Russia’s 2014 Winter Olympics. However he has created a fan-friendly league that is a couple years—and an ESPN television contract—away from attracting fans in warm weather, non-traditional markets.
NHL coverage on Versus, which has limited viewing because it is excluded from the basic DirecTV package, went up 17 percent between 2008 and 2009 and NHL attendance increased 1.5 percent between 2007 and 2008.
Scores of people in warm weather areas are flocking to NHL arenas in places once considered unsuitable for hockey. The Washington Capitals (100 percent), Los Angeles Kings (93.6 percent), and Dallas Stars (92.9 percent) all had above 90 percent attendance in the 2010 regular season. The San Jose Sharks, who occupy the same market as the absurdly unpopular Oakland Seals, sold out every game this year and “This is Sharks Territory” signs are posted throughout the Bay Area.
Residents of Tampa Bay and the surrounding area should get on board with the Lightning. They have a head start on the Carolina Hurricanes and the Atlanta Thrashers who look like they will contend for the Capitals in the Southwest Division as soon as their prospects mature.
Carolina took an inexplicable nosedive in the beginning of the season after upsetting the New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins before being swept by the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins in last year’s playoffs. The team captaincy has been removed from longtime Hurricane Rod Brind’Amour and was awarded to a young stalwart in Eric Staal.
The team traded away Joe Corvo and Matt Cullen—who were both part of the 2006 Stanley Cup team—but retained winger Ray Whitney and goaltender Cam Ward, along with Brind’Amour and Staal, who will bestow their winning ways on a slew of young prospects.
The Atlanta Thrashers—who occupy the same market as the Atlanta Flames before they left for Calgary in 1980—set their quest to dethrone the Capitals a few years back by dealing Ilya Kovalchuk to the Devils at the trade deadline. However, they did acquire Nicklas Bergfors and prospect Patrice Cormier, who should complement young standouts Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian in the near future.
While the Hurricanes and the Thrashers have question marks about their young players’ productivity in the NHL, the Lightning know that Stamkos and Hedman are NHL-ready and, as long as they continue to add players like veteran Ryan Malone as a supporting cast and shore-up their goaltending, the Lightning should continue to win as the Rays are victimized by big-market teams Selig is allowing to destroy the great sport of baseball.
Tampa Bay, this is your invitation to ride the Lightning.