Another season of NHL hockey has begun and on time this year. In order to get everyone ready for the upcoming season, I offer this primer. We will look at some of the major changes the NHL has instituted. We will also look at the current and potential story lines this season might bring. And for good measure I will include some absolutely, not going to happen predictions (only because I never get any predictions right). OK, maybe a couple will come to fruition.
The disclaimer from last season still applies. These are my opinions; if you don't like them, tough.
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The biggest change going into the 2013-2014 NHL season is re-alignment. After the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg prior to the 2011-2012 season (second time an Atlanta team has moved north of the border), re-alignment was basically going to be forced to occur. There were a number of teams in the Western Conference who had wanted to ease their travel schedules for years and this was going to be the opportunity to achieve that goal. The League, looking to create more intense rivalries, had decided at that point to go back to a divisional format used prior to the 1993-1994 season using 4 divisions. Rivalries tend to be built in the playoffs when games are at their most intense. By using a divisional format where the first two rounds of the playoffs are against divisional opponents rather than conference opponents allows a better chance to have the same teams face each other in multiple years building up better rivalries. The one problem with this format is that there are now 30 teams, a number not divisible by 4. This would create two divisions with 8 teams and two with 7 teams. It was determined that the Eastern Conference would be comprised of 16 teams and the Western Conference would have 14 teams. No one outside the discussions really knows on what they based their decision, but considering there are 16 teams in the Eastern Time Zone and both Detroit and Columbus wanted to have most of their games in that time zone, they would both move to east in order to avoid the specter of the League playing favorites with either team. Even with the new divisional format, there is still one oddity in the set up. The two Floridian teams had to join a division with all 6 eastern teams north of NYC.
Normally in a divisional format, the top 4 teams in each division would advance to the playoffs and play the first two rounds to determine a divisional champion. However, with the unevenness of the Conferences, a wild card method was added to determine the final two teams making the playoffs. Thus the top three teams in each division make the playoffs and the next two teams with the highest point totals in the conference would join as the final two teams. This should make for a lot more intense games through out the season.
Another new aspect of the 2013-2014 season is a balanced schedule where each team would play at least once in each building. Fans and the League had long wanted to be able to see all the teams play in each building so that all the top players would be able to show off their talents to all the fans live. With re-alignment, it became easy to set that up.
Another major change to the rule book is that all players entering the 13-14 season with less than 25 NHL games played will be required to wear a visor on their helmet. After a recent spate on eye injuries including one to Rangers defenseman Marc Staal (kept him out most of last season), the League and the players decided the chance of injury was just too great. This was the first major equipment rule change for skaters since helmets were required beginning in the 1979-1980 season. Like back then, any current player with more than 25 games experience is grandfathered in and can continue to play without a visor. To give you an idea of how long it might be until the last player without a visor might play, Craig MacTavish, who retired in 1997, was the last player to play without a helmet. A full 18 years after the helmet rule came into effect.
There are a few other rule changes for the current season. Again goalie equipment has been reduced slightly. Whether this leads to more goals that in prior remains to be seen. Also the depth of the nets was reduced to allow for more playmaking from behind the net. A rule about taking helmets off before fights was changed. And finally, the icing rule was altered. That one is somewhat complex to describe. If you are interested in a full explanation, mention it in the comments and I'll answer it there. Also they made aslight change in the wording of the rule dealing with head shots.
One final rule change that really isn't a rule change is that referees will be enforcing uniform infractions. Anyone who has watched any hockey has probably noticed that some players tuck their jersey into their pants exposing the protective pads. While this hasn't been allowed since 1964, it was never really enforced. The League and the owners have had enough and will now force the refs to warnings or penalties to anyone not conforming to the uniform rules. Some players are angered especially since they were never consulted about the enforcement.
A number of other major changes happened over the summer. One of the most notable was the New Jersey Devils top forward, Ilya Kovalchuk, opted to retire and sign in the KHL. Unfortunately for the Devils, he did this about a week after free agency opened hand-cuffing their GM into scrambling to find forward help. They signed a still highly talented, but aging, Jaromír Jágr. They did, however, shore up their goaltending for the future by trading for the Vancouver Canucks goaltender, Corey Schneider. That was a surprising move, in and of itself, as everyone expected the Canucks to trade Roberto Luongo after a couple of contentious seasons where he did not play up to expectations. However, Luongo's massive contract proved too much for other GMs to take on and Schneider ended up being moved.
There were coaching changes all over the league over the summer. The two most notable changes were 1) what was essentially a coaching trade as the Rangers hired former Canucks coach Alain Vigneault and the Canucks hired former Rangers coach John Tortorella and 2) Hall of Famer, and former Colorado Avalanche goalie, Patrick Roy getting his first chance to head coach an NHL team with the Colorado Avalanche. Many people expected Philadelphia Flyers coach, Peter Laviolette to be fired in the off-season after the Flyers terrible performance last year, but they went into the season with him at the helm. Unfortunately after a terrible preseason and awful first three games, GM Paul Holmgren pulled the trigger and fired Laviolette. This gave him the dishonor of being the quickest fired coach to start a season in NHL history.
And now for some quick early season predictions:
Here are my predictions for who will come out on top of each division.
In the Metropolitan division, the team to beat is clearly the Pittsburgh Penguins. They have the most complete hockey team in the division and as long as their goaltending is at least average, they should finish first.
In the awkwardly named Atlantic division (considering only two team are actually near the Atlantic Ocean), the Boston Bruins seem to have the inside track to repeat at the top. However there are two other teams who could compete to be at the top. The Ottawa Senators, who are coming into their own, could be a force if they continue to get the kind of goaltending they did last season. One can never count out the Detroit Red Wings. It remains to be seen how they adjust to the high scoring Eastern Conference.
In the Central Division, it will be a battle between the St. Louis Blues and the Chicago Blackhawks for the top spot. As much as I'd like to think the Hawks can repeat, I have a feeling the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover will allow the Blues to take the division.
And finally the Pacific Division. Many people are predicting this is San Jose's last shot at making a run and if they fail, the team will be broken down and rebuilt. I don't agree, but I do think the pressure will propel them to the top spot in the division.
As for my Stanley Cup Final prediction, I am going boldly out on a limb. The Sharks will finally break through their ceiling and make the final playing against the Detroit Red Wings, who find a way to navigate through the East. Sharks make it a good final, but Detroit takes the Cup.
Enjoy the season everyone. I'll be back later on with more.
PS If I am slow responding, the Isles are playing the Blackhawks right now so my attention is divided. ;)
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