Had it not been for a strong finish led by a group of exciting young players, missing the NHL playoffs could have been much worse for the Edmonton Oilers.
It will cost a few extra million at the gate and some merchandise sales, but the Oilers’ late spurt and the fine play of youngsters like Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano likely saved their season-ticket base and their place in the hearts of fans.
When asked to assess the damage of missing the playoffs, Oilers president Patrick LaForge said “not much.”
“We had a really good run at the end, 14 and four,” he said Friday. “There’s a lot of optimism about the future of the team.
“Fans in Canada are so wise. They get it. They say ‘it’s all right, we’re coming back next year.”‘
Making or missing the playoffs can be big for NHL clubs, both in cash and in reputation when it comes to signing unrestricted free agents in the summer. After all, how many free agents say they want to play for teams with little chance of winning?
Among Canadian teams this season, Edmonton, Vancouver and Toronto are out while Montreal, Ottawa and Calgary are in.
The Oilers went all the way to the Stanley Cup final only two seasons ago, losing to Carolina. LaForge said that was probably worth $20 million in ticket, gear and other sales in the first year alone.
“And if you’re Montreal, it’s probably double that,” he said. “Everyone who doesn’t own a jersey or a tuque will want one. You can sell a million pieces in one year.”
With playoff fever heating up in Montreal, there are already thousands of fans flying Canadiens flags on their cars and wearing jerseys and hats in the streets.
It has been 15 years since a Canadian team has won the Cup. Montreal was the last to do it in 1993.
LaForge said the boom in ticket prices and sales of merchandise and other team brand items has grown so much that the windfall for the next one to do it will be “unbelievable.”
“Things have really changed,” he added. “There’s not a closet of any 16-year-old boy or girl these days that doesn’t have one sports brand in there.”
The effect that playing in the post-season has on attracting free agents is more difficult to gauge. Edmonton has had migraines over free agents despite going the Cup final in 2006. Since the league expanded to 30 teams, nearly half of the clubs miss the playoffs each season.
“Colorado missed one year and now they’re back – I don’t think that had any effect on their fan base or anything,” said Doug Armstrong, the former Dallas Stars general manager who is now assistant GM of Canada’s world championship team.
“Year to year it doesn’t make a difference. Only if you get into a trend.”
He said smart players and agents look more at where a team is headed in terms of its young talent than where it sits in the standings in a given year.
One example is Chicago, which is out of the post-season, but has youngsters like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane to build upon.
“They’ll miss (the playoffs), but they have a really good feeling about themselves,” said Armstrong. “It’s just where their organization is now.”
Armstrong said that under the collective bargaining agreement signed after the 2004-05 lockout season, teams look for windows of opportunity either to go for the Cup or rebuild.
And older players looking for one last long-term contract may go with the team that makes the best offer, regardless of its playoff position, he added.
While Canada jumped right back into hockey after the lockout, many U.S.-based clubs have had to entice fans back, so it has been tougher for them to jack up prices in the regular season or at playoff time.
LaForge said there is no such problem in Canada.
He recalls putting playoff tickets on sale and getting thousands of calls in the first hour alone.
“Each was looking for two tickets and we only had 700 or 800 available,” he said. “You can charge whatever you want. We charge a few hundred, but a scalper is getting $2,500 per ticket.”
But whatever the income, a team’s first priority is winning for its own sake.
“Winning, someone once said, makes the cheeseburgers taste better,” he said.