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Watling: Isles, Barzal have big chance to shine with NHL’s ESPN deal

Five days ago ESPN announced it reached a seven-year deal with the NHL to bring hockey back to the Disney cable network for the first time since 2004. With 25 games on ESPN or ABC throughout the regular season, the bigger news comes in three parts: one being that the Stanley Cup Finals will have a brand new look, akin to the College Football Playoff mega casts, two the NHL is the first league to take advantage of streaming via Hulu and finally, there will be a second TV partner for ESPN, perhaps the most important aspect of the deal. 

While the salary cap is expected to stay relatively flat over the next four years as Arthur Staple wrote in a piece on The Athletic, it will not stay like that for long. The cap will eventually increase due to the multi-partner deal, which is critical for league revenue. Beyond the cap and on-ice ramifications, Islanders fans should be excited about the move. A bigger platform means more fans of the sport, a bigger spotlight for players and the ability for personalities to shine.

ESPN is by far the biggest sports channel, and its reach to new viewers will be crucial for the sport. While most people in New York have loose ties to teams like the Rangers, Devils or Islanders, the Isles have a great chance to seize popularity in the market as the premier team. With more reach on ESPN, it is conceivable to see meddling fans strike new allegiances, and what better team to align with than the East divisions leading team? 

One concern is the infamous “boring hockey” the Islanders play. Sportscenter and ESPN does not show low-scoring, low-chancing games, so for the Blue and Orange, this means no more 2-1 games if they want to gain some popularity. Obviously, Barry Trotz does not care about media reach, he cares about winning, but despite this, the Islanders are not playing this lame, shut-it-down hockey they seem to be known for. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Isles are fifth in expected goals with 54.78 and have the third most scoring chances among NHL teams. Now that is certainly not boring. The hope is that the Islanders keep their foot on the gas pedal, showing off the flashy young talent they have like Mat Barzal, Oliver Wahlstrom and even Kieffer Bellows who has woken up in the last two games.

Speaking of Barzal, he might be the one Islander who benefits the most from the new deal. The Isles’ best player is also their biggest personality, even if he does not show it through traditional means. The man has style on and off the ice, so imagine how incredible a feature in the ESPN magazine might be, similar to what The New York Times wrote on him as a rookie. With a more permanent role in the NHL, Barzal can afford to flaunt his off-ice personality without the “repercussions” associated with a sport notorious for being afraid to show its stars. 

From a personal note, I would die for a GQ-esque article highlighting Barzal. I mean, who wouldn’t want to see where Barzy gets his signature look?

Beyond Barzal’s style, a “This is Sportscenter” commercial would do wonders for him. He is surely a local and NHL star, but a Sportscenter ad could bring him to a whole different level. As a noted James Harden fan, a Nets/Islanders crossover segment on ESPN would be TV gold on Long Island. 

The final player who hopefully gets a second chance off a deal like this is Josh Ho-Sang, the Islanders’ maligned prospect. After hearing the groans from every reader of this piece, I do not think this cements Ho-Sang in any NHL team’s lineup. But, I wonder if the deal could convince a mediocre team to give him a shot. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman certainly wants eyeballs on his product and Ho-Sang is a human highlight reel. Perhaps Bettman might be able to push a team like Detroit to take Ho-Sang, just to get on Sportscenter. 

Regardless of the future of Ho-Sang, the NHL’s deal with ESPN is undeniably positive for the league and the Islanders. The NHL has stars across North America, from personalities like Barzal and PK Subban, to on-ice freak shows like Connor McDavid, the exposure ESPN will provide is critical. 


Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattWattling99

About Matt Watling

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