Editor’s note: The 2013-2014 NHL season kicks off Tuesday night with three games, including Toronto at Montreal and the defending Stanley Cup champs Chicago hosting Washington. Popblerd’s resident hockey scribes Jay Kumar and Stephen Mapes take a look at what to expect this season.
Jay: Summer flew by and here we are, about to dive into another season of NHL hockey. What are your thoughts entering into this full season after last year’s exciting shortened season and playoffs? There are plenty of changes this year, not the least of which is the realignment that has Detroit in the East and created new divisions and a new playoff eligibility process.
Stephen: I’m excited to see how the four new divisions play out. Some teams, like Winnipeg, are in far better shape thanks to realignment, and some teams, like the Capitals, are I’d argue worse off. Having the Wings share a division with the Bruins, Habs and Leafs is exciting, and it’s going to lead to some good hockey.
Jay: What do you think about the new playoff system? Instead of the top eight teams in each conference making the playoffs (a system that’s been in place since the early ’80s), the NHL has gone back to the old divisional playoff system. Now it’s the top three teams in each division who make the playoffs, plus the two teams with the next highest point totals in the conference. Could make for some interesting races.
Stephen: Absolutely. It’s really going to fuel those divisional rivalries, because even if you have a good season, it’s impossible to make the playoffs unless you place at least 5th. There’s always the possibility of having divisional mismatches, where three teams squeak by thanks to softer play, but to my eyes the balance is pretty solid in both conferences.
Jay: Another interesting factor this season will be the Olympics. The NHL will once again take a two-week break in February to participate in the Sochi Games in Russia, which always makes for great hockey but also has an impact on the playoff races when players return to their teams. There’s the possibility of major injuries to key players on contending teams, which can certainly affect who makes the playoffs and how well they fare.
Stephen: It’s a definite factor, but I think to a lot of these players, gold for their home country trumps drinking the nectar of Lord Stanley. Last time around I can’t remember too many big injuries during the Olympics, but I also know the players on the US and Canada teams returned looking pretty gassed. And from what I recall, the eventual winners that year, the Hawks, didn’t have too many players on the Olympic team (at least none at the level of Crosby, Miller, or Luongo).
It will be interesting too to see how all the coaching and player changes in the off-season will play out. Of course, the Vigneault/Torts switch comes to mind. Then of course your Leafs snagged goalie Jonathan Bernier (perhaps to the confusion of many) and the Flyers drop Ilya Bryzgalov. And my Pens recently saw Vokoun drop indefinitely thanks to a blood clot, putting a ton of pressure on Fleury.
Jay: Then there’s the Devils, who lost their best player in Ilya Kovalchuk after he decided to bolt for the KHL and traded for Cory Schneider of Vancouver, thereby ending the Canucks’ long-running goalie controversy and creating one in NJ. Well, that’s a good segue to talk about the new divisions. Let’s start with the Atlantic, which consists of Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Florida, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa and Toronto. How do you see this one ending up?
Stephen: My shoo-ins for the division are Boston and Detroit, for obvious reasons. They’re storied franchises and mostly intact from last year, especially the surprising young guns from the Wings last year. My likely teams are the Leafs and Ottawa, the Leafs because they have a lot of talent in the likes of Kadri, Kessel, et al, and now have two strong goalie options. Ottawa, too, has a great coach and a lot of unsung talent. My wildcards are Montreal, who need to bounce back from a disastrous season, Buffalo, who have the always dangerous Miller, and Florida, who also fared poorly last year by now boast Tim Thomas, fresh from his bomb shelter. Rounding out the pack is Tampa, who has no answer in sight for their goalie woes. They’ll score a ton, but they’ll let even more in.
Jay: I think it’s going to be a battle. I haven’t been too enamored of what the Leafs have done in the offseason; I feel like they lost a lot of speed with the departures of Grabovski, Frattin and MacArthur. They paid a lot to get Clarkson and Bolland, two guys who are good role players but not superstars. I liked their signing of Mason Raymond, who’s still young and gives them some much-needed speed and offensive flair. The Bernier trade was interesting; many have argued that it was pointless since James Reimer had established himself as a number one goalie, but I still felt like he was shaky against the Bruins in the playoffs last year. You can never have enough goaltending, so hopefully they’ve now got two good goalies. Like you said, Boston and Detroit are stacked teams who will be impressive. Ottawa will likely be very competitive, especially now that they’ve added Bobby Ryan from Anaheim, and Montreal, Buffalo, Tampa and Florida each could make a run. Should be a dogfight. What about the Metropolitan, which includes your Penguins, Carolina, Columbus, New Jersey, the Islanders, Rangers, Philly and Washington?
Stephen: Barring a rare regular season meltdown by Fleury, the Penguins seem a shoo-in for what is arguably the weaker of the two Eastern divisions. You have a lot of teams look to build of bad showings last year: Philly (now free of Bryzgalov), Carolina and New Jersey. Then you have the surprises from last year: the young gun Islanders led by 22-year-old Tavares and who nearly upset my Pens last year and the Columbus Blue Jackets, who came dangerously close to the playoffs after years of futility. Rounding out the pack are two perennial contenders coming off somewhat disappointing seasons. The Caps will look to avenge a poor season, and Ovi especially will look to continue his scoring ways after finishing last season on fire and winning the MVP. And the Rangers will rely on the raw talent of Lundqvist (who is as close to a playoff blue chip as they come) and an infusion of energy from their new coach Vigneault.
If I didn’t make it clear, though, I think the Rangers and Caps are going to put up a hell of a fight for top dog in the division.
Jay: I’m interested to see how Fleury bounces back after a disastrous playoff run in which his team totally lost faith in him. That said, Pittsburgh is still loaded. The Rangers will be contenders, but after that it’s a free-for-all. The Islanders have a ton of young talent and look poised to do something good, but the Flyers, Caps, Devils, Blue Jackets and Hurricanes are all on the bubble.
Let’s move to the West, specifically the Central, with Chicago, Colorado, Dallas, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis and Winnipeg. Obviously the defending Cup champ Hawks are the favorites over everybody, but how does the rest of it shake out for you?
Stephen: Interestingly enough, EA’s recent NHL 2014 simulation (which is worth all of nothing) picked the Blues to win the Cup this year, and while I am not quite so high on them, I think they’re a sound, defensively minded squad who will rise to the top of the Central. From there, who knows? Winnipeg made it close to the playoffs last year and no longer are forced to travel to the Southeast for half their games. Nashville is coming off a rebuilding year, as is Dallas. Colorado is still trying to turn their young talent into solid contenders (though adding the leadership of new coach Patrick Roy is going to be interesting). Minnesota is a perennial wild card though they showed some life in round one of the playoffs last year. Basically, once you pass the Hawks and Blues, it’s anyone’s division to lose.
Jay: Yeah, the Hockey News picked St. Louis to win the Cup, too. I thought they’d do a lot better last year than they did. Unlike the previous time they won the Cup, Chicago didn’t lose many pieces. But you’re right, the rest of the division is a free-for-all. How about the Pacific, which remains the same: Anaheim, Calgary, Edmonton, LA, Phoenix, San Jose and Vancouver?
Stephen: I’m tempted to pick the Kings here thanks to Quick alone, but I think there’s a lot more parity in the Pacific. You have the Ducks, who had a fantastic regular season and nearly beat the Wings in round one. They lost Ryan in the offseason and I still don’t know if I believe Hiller is a franchise goalie, but if he can perform again, they could do damage. San Jose is always a contender, but I don’t believe Niemi will come close to his banner year from last season, and at this point a deep run by the Sharks just seems unfathomable, if only for tradition’s sake. Calgary and Edmonton usually get lost in the shadow of Vancouver, and while I’m not sure they’ll make a ton of noise this year, I could see Edmonton being a dark horse. Vancouver has a new coach and a solution to their goalie problems, but I don’t think they’re a disciplined enough squad, and I don’t know how Luongo and Tortorella will fit their egos into the same arena. But they’re always a threat. And then there’s Phoenix, who can be happy to not be in Quebec right now. They’re a strong defensive team, but I haven’t seen enough changes in the offseason to warrant much hope.
Jay: The Kings look tough to beat here, but the Sharks and Ducks should present a decent challenge. Edmonton’s gotta make the leap to contender this year; there’s so much young talent on that team that it seems inevitable. Vancouver’s still got a lot of talent, and we’ve seen Tortorella succeed in his first few years with a team before they get sick of his ways. Phoenix could do something. But Calgary should still suck big time.
So who do you have winning the Cup?
Stephen: I picked them last year and got nothing out of it, but I’m sticking by my guns that the defensive play of the Blues and their tandem goalie system are bound to win out. I’m jumping on the bandwagon and picking them to take it in 6 games, beating out the Rangers.
My Penguin heart wants us to get it, but with Vokoun out indefinitely and Fleury still being Fleury, I don’t think we have the netminder we need to go all the way.
Jay: I’m tempted to pick Chicago and Boston to meet again in the finals, with the Bruins coming out on top. Adding Iginla and having some of their younger players step up, plus newcomer Loui Eriksson should make the difference. Any thoughts on the slew of outdoor games that are happening this year?
Stephen: It’s exciting to see them really branching out, and there are so classic matchups to look forward to, including the Pens/Hawks battle, and two New York City battles at Yankee stadium with the Rangers facing the Devils and the Islander. I’m curious to see how the West coast game will work (it’s never really cold in LA), and it’s nice to see Canada getting its own match, even if I would’ve preferred it to be Leafs vs. Habs.
I know some people think it cheapens the matchups to have so many, but I’m all for it.
Jay: The Leafs-Red Wings game that was postponed from last season is going to be amazing, with 110,000 in attendance at Michigan Stadium. I worry that it might be too much of a good thing with all those games, but I’ll guess we’ll have to wait and see.
Well, let’s hope our teams kick ass and end up doing something good this year.
Stephen: And let’s hope Sidney Crosby can keep his head on straight for a whole 82 games just once.
Jay: That would be good.