It’s a Shame You’re Not Watching the NHL’s Connor McDavid

The best hockey player on the planet is having a season for the ages — and the NHL’s still struggling to attract viewers

Connor McDavid celebrates a goal with teammates
Even while its biggest star and best player puts up record-breaking numbers, the NHL's struggling with visibility.
Ben Jackson / Contributor, Getty Images

Don’t look now — and you probably won’t — but Connor McDavid is in the home stretch of what might turn out to be the finest season an NHL player has had in the 21st century. Last night, the Edmonton Oilers’ all-world center scored two goals and registered an assist, leading his team to a 5-2 victory over their Canadian rivals the Toronto Maple Leafs. It was the fifth-straight game in which McDavid scored multiple goals, making him just the fifth player to ever achieve such a feat, and the first to do it in 30 years.

If the All-Star lacks in any category of his game — critics say he does — he makes up for it in humility.

“Sometimes [the puck] just goes in,” McDavid said of his current scoring run last night. “I felt like I was playing good hockey before and it just wasn’t going in for me. You kind of get a bounce and it seems to go in for you. It is a funny game that way.”

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While a few maniacal provocateurs say McDavid needs to play better on defense, the dude’s putting up offensive numbers this season that, when all is said and done, only two guys named Lemieux and Gretzky might be able to say they tallied more.

Per an Axios Sports newsletter, if McDavid scores multiple goals against the Winnipeg Jets tomorrow, he will join Punch Broadbent as the only players to do so in six straight games. Ol’ Punch played so long ago he served in World War I, Axios noted, presumably punching-out some of the Kaiser’s men on a muddy battlefield as though he was still in an ice rink.

The 26-year-old McDavid leads the NHL in goals, with 52, and assists, with 66. His 118 points, Axios noted, are 28 more than any other player. He just needs 11 points in his team’s final 20 games to surpass Nikita Kucherov’s 128-point season in 2018-19 to give him the highest points total in a season this century. And if McDavid continues at his current pace of 1.9 points per game, he’ll log 156 points, which would pass Steve Yzerman’s 155-point season in 1988-89 for the 14th-most in a season, all-time. Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux are the only players to ever have higher scoring seasons than Yzerman.

In spite of all of McDavid’s heroics this NHL campaign — and those of Boston Bruins goaltender Linus Ullmark, who may also be in the midst of the best season a keeper’s had this century, or maybe ever — the league’s overall viewership is down significantly.

Citing Sports Business Journal reporting, The Athletic wrote last month that U.S. national TV viewership in the second season of the league’s deal with ESPN and TNT — broadcast rights that went for a combined $635 million — is down 22 percent from the first. “That’s a big drop regardless of the context, and it probably doesn’t bode all that well” for the league, The Athletic observed. “Anything the NHL says or does in that space should be treated with a healthy level of skepticism.”

(The upstart-stop-startup-again-stop-let’s-try-one-more-time XFL even topped the NHL’s viewership last week.) 

The Athletic outlined some sensical reasons behind the NHL’s TV ratings drop, though. ESPN put its NHL games up against “Sunday Night Football” during the past NFL season in a “counterprogramming” effort that it did not engage in last year. On the TNT side of the coin, a number of NHL games have also been blacked out in major markets, such as Boston and New York, where the teams’ local broadcast rights belong to different networks. 

Furthermore, as The Athletic wrote, the dip occurred over the earlier parts of the NHL season and the numbers have a chance to rebound. Some markets, like Tampa Bay, where the Lightning play, might see record-high viewership across this season, and the NHL’s All-Star Game enjoyed a sharp year-over-year ratings hike of 31 percent.

Regardless, you should catch Connor McDavid’s fire before it goes out — March Madness, the NFL Draft, the NBA Playoffs be damned, I guess.

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