People complain about everything to do with the NHL but I think the product is better now than I can ever remember it. There's a lot of great young talent taking over, success has been distributed more evenly across the league, and while scoring still isn't where it was and most likely never will be, the game is far more exciting to watch on any given night than it was in the early part of the decade.
The NHL doesn't have the scandals that the other major professional sports in this country have. There's no referee betting scandals, there's no steroid scandals, there's no cheating scandals, there's no criminal image. The NHL has some fresh faces that have taken the spot light, and we haven't seen their best yet. Imagine what Crosby, Malkin, Ovechkin, and others will be doing when they're 25.
I actually don't mind the NHL on Versus that much either. Versus will never be ESPN, but it's an emerging channel just like the NHL is somewhat of an emerging league. As far as I know, more people are getting Versus by year, and ratings have been improving. The Pens/Red Wings game a couple weeks ago tied their ratings record. Versus is at least emerging as an alternative sports channel. They've got the NHL, they're dipping into college football, they've got MMA, which is another emerging sport. I like that the NHL is on a channel that can dedicate two nights a week to its programming. Perhaps the ideal situation would be for the NHL to be on both ESPN and Versus once the current contract is up. Especially since ESPN has NBA now, there's no way the NHL would ever get the attention it deserves if it's exclusively on ESPN.
It's always going to be an uphill battle for the NHL in the US. It's not part of the culture. Most kids don't grow up playing hockey here. It's just not feasible for a variety of reasons. There are plenty of parts of the country that have little exposure to hockey and thus don't care about it, which is the purpose of expanding to southern markets. It's going to be a slow build but they're at least headed in the right direction.
Another thing that gets ignored is Canada. People look at the NHL as a small organization compared to the NBA or MLB or whatever, but that's just in the US. NHL is ingrained in Canadian culture the way the NFL is here. I think Mark Cuban made the point one time that if you look at the total ratings for NHL games, including both US and Canada, and compare that to what the NBA gets as a whole, the NHL looks stronger.