It will be back to normal for the NHL this season. Well, sort of normal anyway. As normal as one could expect considering the league is going to introduce significant changes into the same old 82-game regular season that people were used to before the billionaires (NHL owners) and millionaires (NHL players) decided to have it out in the board room last winter.
Now realignment has brought the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets to the Eastern Conference, and kicked the Winnipeg Jets out west where they always belonged in the first place. The Wings will slide into a new Atlantic Division that includes all five Northeast Division teams plus Detroit, the Florida Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning in an interesting geographic mix of hockey clubs.
The coolest thing about the Atlantic Division: It features four of the Original Six teams and should host some of the best rivalries across the league with Boston/Montreal, Detroit/Toronto and Tim Thomas/Barack Obama. The division will also feature great goalies -- Tuukka Rask, Thomas, Craig Anderson, Jimmy Howard, Ryan Miller and Carey Price -- making goals hard to come by each and every night.
All teams will each of the other 29 teams at least twice with a home and away tilt scheduled, which means the Bruins will be headed out to places like Vancouver, Los Angeles and San Jose every single season.
During the postseason, the NHL has gone back to the old divisional playoffs where teams must battle out of their division for the first two rounds of the playoffs prior to advancing to a conference showdown. It’s still impossible for the Bruins and Rangers to play each other in the Stanley Cup Final given that they’re both in the same conference, but it should make for some impassioned divisional showdowns in the postseason as it did in the old bloody Adams Division days.
So some things are different, or actually much closer to the way they used to be in a happy, simpler time for the NHL. What's back to normal is that this year will feature a hockey schedule with room to breathe over an 82-game schedule plus the playoffs.
Let’s drop the puck on the 2013-14 NHL season with some league-wide predictions including a Stanley Cup winner that shouldn’t surprise anybody after the way they impressed last spring.
1. Boston Bruins – New faces in Jarome Iginla and Loui Eriksson make a Stanley Cup Final team even better in the short-term, and that’s all that matters for a hockey club with a 3-4 year window for Stanley Cup titles.
2. Ottawa Senators – A healthy Erik Karlsson and Craig Anderson combined with new power forward Bobby Ryan and a cast of young, up-and-coming characters could give Boston a run for their money this year.
3. Detroit Red Wings – Daniel Alfredsson joins the Swedish Mafia otherwise known as the Winged Wheels, and adds to what is already a formidable, if aging, lineup of hockey players.
4. Toronto Maple Leafs – The Leafs will be better for their playoff collapse against the Bruins last year, but also enter a pretty important season with Phil Kessel possibly approaching free agency. David Clarkson has all the makings of a monumental bust given his weighty contract.
5. Montreal Canadiens – The Habs have some of the NHL’s best players and have the most rabid fan base in the league, but something just doesn’t ripple with excitement about this team. Unless Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher really take a step forward or Daniel Briere hits the fountain of youth, Montreal may be middle of the pack.
6. Florida Panthers – They are ranked this low because of last year’s dismal season and some pretty unremarkable players on their roster combined with a tough division, but Tim Thomas can cure a lot of ills. It wouldn’t be shocking for this team to sneak into the playoffs with its Land of Misfit Toys roster.
7. Tampa Bay Lightning – The Bolts are still capable of scoring with anybody as long as Steve Stamkos and Marty St. Louis are on the roster, but I’m not a big believer in their defense, or their exceedingly tall goaltending duo of Anders Lindback and Ben Bishop.
8. Buffalo Sabres – The Sabres have a lot of work to do clearing out some of the roster deadwood, and won’t be able to use John Scott to bully their way to wins this season. It’s time to rebuild even though GM Darcy Regier seems to be resisting it.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins – If the Penguins have any measure of pride, they will rip through the NHL like an arctic animal gone berserk. But the big question is who will stop the puck? The rumors about Ilya Bryzgalov are intriguing.
2. Washington Capitals – Alex Ovechkin and crew are back for another run, which means they should at least be a playoff team. Curious to see what young Tom Wilson can bring to the table as the kind of surly power forward Washington hasn’t employed in a long, long time.
3. New York Rangers – A new coach in Alain Vigneault should bring a new attitude, and they will always win their share of games with Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes. But has their window closed to venture deep into the playoffs?
4. Philadelphia Flyers – As always there are goalie questions involving the Flyers, but the rest of the team should be good enough to get them into the postseason led by Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds. The defense just needs to hold up its end of the bargain.
5. New York Islanders – It’s a top heavy division that will make it a battle for the Isles to simply stay in the postseason picture, and I feel like they’re going to miss Mark Streit more than they realize. It may be a step or two back for an Islanders club that surged forward last year.
6. Columbus Blue Jackets – The Blue Jackets did it last season with defense, the goaltending of Sergei Bobrovsky and a bunch of hard-working players, but it will be difficult to repeat that magic in a tough division. Even if they have a good luck charm in Nathan Horton when he finally returns from shoulder surgery.
7. Carolina Hurricanes – They still have Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner along with a talented young defensemen corps, but Kirk Muller will need to do a masterful job to kick this team up in the standings. There hasn’t been a lot of you-know-what and vinegar in Carolina’s game lately.
8. New Jersey Devils – Trading out Ilya Kovalchuk for Jaromir Jagr should work out really well for the Devils. Jersey has taken a lot of hits over the last couple of years, and this might be the season when things really drop out from under them. Martin Brodeur is probably starting to wish he walked away a couple of years ago.
1. Chicago Blackhawks – The reigning Stanley Cup champs have the bragging rights, and should hold the top spot heading into the season. Pat Kane and Jonathan Toews form a difficult combo to beat, and Corey Crawford might be their only weak spot behind a loaded team. The glove don’t lie.
2. St. Louis Blues – There’s no reason to think the Blues won’t be near the top of the division with their stifling defense and team depth, but I’m still not a believer they have enough offensive oomph to beat good teams in the playoffs.
3. Nashville Predators – Shea Weber, Seth Jones and Pekka Rinne along with some interchangeable parts at forward should be good enough to get Barry Trotz into the big dance once again. But does anybody believe they could knock Chicago off?
4. Minnesota Wild – Zach Parise and Ryan Suter brought respectability back to the Wild last season, but they need to take the next step this season.
5. Dallas Stars – Tyler Seguin could bring a lot of explosive talent and excitement to the Dallas hockey market, or he could bring a bulky contract and unfulfilled potential. The choice is his, and the rest of the Stars' talented cast like Jamie Benn.
6. Winnipeg Jets – The Jets locked up Blake Wheeler, Andrew Ladd and Zach Bogosian among others in the offseason, a nice thing for them. But it’s kind of nonsensical given that nucleus weren’t even good enough to push Winnipeg into the playoffs over the last few years.
7. Colorado Avalanche – The Avs have enough talent to climb out of the basement, but this is a difficult division with some very top heavy hockey clubs. It won’t be easy for a Colorado team that finally made some changes that were a long time coming.
1. Los Angeles Kings – The Kings didn’t have enough in the tank to get back through the playoff field last year, but they still have the same cast of characters along with goalie Jonathan Quick. Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown and Drew Doughty can play with anybody.
2. Vancouver Canucks – A lot of question marks on this team with the Sedins unresolved contract status, Roberto Luongo’s state of mind after a rough couple of years and the health of Ryan Kesler. But there is still a boatload of talent on this team, and a sea wall for Luongo to walk along in times of trouble.
3. Edmonton Oilers – This is the season when the young Oil crew comes of age, Andrew Ference’s leadership helps get them into the playoffs and they start living up to their potential. Should be fun to watch, and they’re off to a great start handing Ference the 'C’ on his sweater.
4. Anaheim Ducks – One last ride for Teemu Selanne should be enough to get the Ducks into the playoffs along with Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf in their prime. But it won’t be easy in a division where every team is good enough to be a playoff club. Well, almost every team.
5. San Jose Sharks – The Sharks have had a zillion opportunities to make the step toward the Cup if it was ever going to happen. It just doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen for Jumbo Joe and his band of merry men, and it will be instructive to see how long it takes before Doug Wilson starts trading guys.
6. Phoenix Coyotes – Tough to put the Coyotes down this low given the solid seasons they’ve put up over the last couple of years, but the new regular season wrinkles may make it tough on them.
7. Calgary Flames – The Flames are in a long-term rebuild that should have been done years ago, but the presence of Brian Burke should make it a certainty that it will happen. It could be a long year after watching their former greats leave for greener pastures (Iginla) or the comfort of retirement (Kiprusoff).
Penguins over Bruins in Eastern Conference Final – It’s a rematch of last year’s four-game sweep with Pittsburgh looking for revenge this time around, and somehow getting the goaltending to take it away from Boston.
Chicago over Edmonton in Western Conference Final – The Blackhawks are a wagon that’s going to be difficult to derail. They should waltz into the Stanley Cup Final again provided they’re healthy, whooping up on Edmonton in the process. It will be a nice Cinderella run for the Oil, who is still a year or two away from being ready to run for the Cup.
Chicago over Pittsburgh in Stanley Cup Final – The Blackhawks impressed last season with their mix of skill and grit along with star-studded personnel, and that should give them enough to become the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champ in 16 years. The Wings last pulled it off in the glory days of Niklas Lidstrom, and that speaks to meaningful back-to-back Cups could be for Chicago.
Hart Trophy – Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
Norris Trophy – Mike Green, Washington Capitals
Calder Trophy – Seth Jones, Nashville Predators
Vezina Trophy – Tim Thomas, Florida Panthers
Selke Trophy – Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins