How much blame with a low-rated playoff series rests with the competition itself and how much of it lies with the broadcast arm? I don't think it's a question without an answer knowing that game 1 of said-series was the second highest rated for NBC Sports Net while game 7 of the same series was the lowest rated integral game in the broadcast history of the station. Well, technically on station - 2006's Eastern Conference Finals were broadcast on Outdoor Life Network/OLN which morphed into Versus and later became NBC Sports Net.
Low ratings in 2006 were justified by way of smaller station reach and the general National Hockey League fan base (ardent fans and casual alike) still recovering from the 2004-05 NHL lockout. It was like starting over at that point and the Carolina Hurricanes and Buffalo Sabres were part of the playoff crew charged with the task of trying to bring back health to fan opinions of the game.
2016, though? In general, it was the first year since 2006 With one club repeating as an Eastern Conference Finalist (the Lightning) and the opposing team happening to be based in the northeast corridor of the United States (Penguins), there's ample reason to put broadcast qualities into discussion when news comes out that a pivotal game 7's television ratings drew a new low.
Game 7 of the Lightning/Penguins NHL Eastern Conference final had 2.5 million viewers on NBCSN Thursday night, down 23% from last year's Lightning/Rangers Game 7, which took place on a [Friday] night (3.3M).
Bias was touched on in the game preview we ran Thursday, with that section written before the events of Wednesday night played out: The fact the NHL came down on the Lightning for holding a watch party and forced it cancelled. Lightning fans were not going to be able to congregate under the team's official view, in favor of trying to boost in-the-gutter broadcast ratings for NBCSN...which had been lauding the Penguins heavily during the duration of the series.
To present the Penguins as the only team that mattered in the series is part of why ratings would be down - if the station doesn't see a competition, then why watch it? I'm not talking Tampa Bay fans, I mean general NHL viewership.
The National Football League has things down right with regards to coverage. While personalities and athleticism can loft teams on-air, TV networks still find a balance and a narrative from game to game. The NBA, on the other hand, has smaller and tighter rosters and personalities matter as well as competitive entertainment (scoring entertains, but so does sound defensive displays in crucial moments. An NBA game setup is more intimate in itself, with fans closer to the court and cameras able to get in tight, tight with footage.
On the national level, the NHL struggles in general with thanks to its lack of intimacy and lack of broadcast competitiveness. While Canada has the CBC, TVAS and Rogers Sportsnet broadcasting games (and TSN news coverage of the sport too), everything done by the league on the national level in the US is aired on NBC Sports (NBC Sports Net and NBC itself). Previously, everything had been held by ABC Sports/ESPN. The national broadcast station in the US doesn't need to give a care about what the Canadians do on-air, nor does it have to care about local TV rights; a national monopoly kills the need for mass appeal, up until it's near the end of a broadcast contract.
It's not about who won the series, or how many games were played. It comes back to coverage - the quality of the broadcast leading to and during the game - and connecting viewers/fans with the clubs playing on ice. With heavy preference slanted toward a single franchise, there's no mass-appeal in a broadcast of a heavyweight contest that should cater to a wide viewership.
An inability to market the sport in such a heady game to the national hockey fan population shows there is a problem. For the broadcasting arm and perhaps the league itself giving preference to more populated areas, it further shows issues at hand - incompetence and general failing at marketing the sport. The game itself (on ice rules, amount of scoring) isn't the aspect that needs to be changed to draw in more fans. The marketing angles and lack of a wide, general appeal attempt, is.