NHL season preview

LONDON – After months of seemingly unjustified arguing and debating between the league’s bosses and the players, the puck will finally strike the ice Saturday afternoon to commence a shortened 48-game NHL season. The reigning Stanley Cup holders from Los Angeles will get to unveil their first Cup banner at Staples Center, after a rather lengthy delay to being able to do so.
 
The Kings take on 2010 winner Chicago in a barn-burning matinee opener in California. Also on ice in the afternoon will be Pennsylvania rivals Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and Winnipeg begin their second season back in the big time with the visit of the Ottawa Senators. With ten other games making up the schedule for Saturday, the best hockey league around will be back with an almighty bang. We go division-by-division to view the chances of these American and Canadian sides for this sprint season.
 
Starting off with the extremely competitive Atlantic Division , you’d think that it is advantage New York Rangers after they added All-Star Rick Nash to their roster in the offseason. A tremendous signing and they didn’t have to give up a star to get him; it was Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Yim Erixon and a first-rounder who went to Columbus. For a team that finished atop the East with a massive 109 points, they only tallied 2.71 goals on average per game (11th in the league), showing that an offensive boost was still required to give them a better chance at the Cup. Winger Nash will give them that unquestionably. They’re a strong all-round side, with one of the league’s best in King Henrik backstopping them and outstanding defencemen in McDonagh, Del Zotto and Staal. They’ve got the experience of going to the conference final now, which will stand Tortorella’s team in good stead for a repeat or an extra step or two.
 
Despite falling at the first hurdle in the playoffs last April, the Penguins will surely be running them close now that they have a healthy Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal to play with. The fans in Pittsburgh are incredibly fortunate to have three of the NHL’s most exciting players in their forward line-up. Netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, whose play faded off in the series with the Flyers last year, has help this season after GM Ray Shero snapped up the steady Tomas Vokoun. Though Zbynek Michalek has gone, the defence still remains very solid with Letang, Martin, Orpik and Niskanen. A somewhat interesting (maybe odd) trade was getting centre Brandon Sutter from Carolina and prospects for young star Jordan Staal.
 
New Jersey needs to pick themselves up from the loss of star Zach Parise to his hometown Minnesota. No doubt about it that he leaves a large gap in the Devils’ offence, but they have to make the best of what they’ve got. Travis Zajac has signed an extension to show his commitment to the cause, and Kovalchuk, Elias and Clarkson can all produce well. Youthful Adam Henrique has shown good promise too, with 64 points in total last term. Their real strength lies in the back-end; they let very few goals in with a good top six D-men and Martin Brodeur between the pipes. If they can make the playoffs again, another run is possible, as they’re built as a strong defensive playoff team.
 
Philadelphia are the fourth strong side in the division and performed well once again in 2011/12. They have an elite group of forwards, containing a perfect mix of youth and experience, finesse and power. Claude Giroux is their “leader” and will be called upon to put up many points once again. Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn are set to have big seasons I’d suggest. Schenn is joined by his defenceman brother Luke, who was intriguingly traded for James van Riemsdyk with Toronto. It was a tough offseason for the Flyers as they lost out on many of the top players available in the market and Jaromir Jagr decided to leave for Dallas too. Ilya Bryzgalov had a difficult and testing season in his first as a Flyer and needs to respond quickly in 2013 if the Pennsylvania side want to make the playoffs.
 
The firepower they have and the solidity of D should make sure they’re fine for that though. The New York Islanders complete the Atlantic and once again hope that they can push on up the standings this season. John Tavares again leads the line for the Rangers’ big geographical rivals, with Matt Moulson too, who needs to carry on where he left off. It’s difficult to see where lots of goals are going to from though really; unless Brad Boyes plays as well as we know he can in his new location. One great defensive prospect is Griffin Reinhart, who is starting to come into his own now. If they can start well in this shorter season, who knows, they might be able to hold out for a playoff spot. I can’t see it myself though unfortunately with the lack of depth.
 
Sticking in the East, we head to the Northeast Division and the favourites for the divisional title once again, who were forced into a change of starting netminder this season. The Boston Bruins are going with Finnish-born Tuukka Rask au lieu de double Vezina trophy winner Tim Thomas, who is having a little break for a year. Fans of the Bruins should be confident in the ability of Rask. He has backstopped the side on many occasions before and this will give him the chance to get out of the shadow of veteran Thomas. If the Finn shines through in 2013, Timmy may never be number one for Boston again. Looking at the rest of the side, not a lot has altered from last season. The core group remains with the impressive Tyler Seguin (I bet he’s glad he got picked 2nd in his draft now really) leading the forwards, with Krejci, Lucic and Bergeron. Much will be expected of Nathan Horton too. The towering blue-liner Zdeno Chara brings his intimidating presence and powerful shot also. Couch Claude Julien will be expected to deliver his team to a strong season in pursuit of the Cup again. They’ve got most of the pieces of the jigsaw in place. But will it transfer to another Stanley?
 
Moving to the French-Canadian province of Quebec, the most successful NHL club of all time, the Montreal Canadiens, had what can only be referred to as a nightmare last campaign. After finishing in last place in the East, new GM Marc Bergevin has unsurprisingly revamped the roster. Brandon Prust and Colby Armstrong have been brought in to provide some character and grit to the team. Pacioretty, Desharnais and Cole were excellent last season and the Habs need them to do similarly in 2013 if they are to get anywhere near the playoffs. Rookie Alex Galchenyuk could be vital at centre for the side, after being selected to the roster after the short training camp. Carey Price is the undisputed number one goaltender and Montreal can rely upon his shoulders. One thing is for certain, the vocal, passionate fans at the Bell Centre won’t take another year like the last; they’ll be a lot of boos all round otherwise.
 
The Senators from Canada’s capital battled hard in 2011/12 for a playoff spot and pushed the Rangers all the way to a Game 7 in the opening round. They look to have two excellent forward lines with Michalek, Spezza and Alfredsson, and Latendresse, Turris and Neil. They have arguably the best offensive defenceman in the whole NHL with Erik Karlsson and Craig Anderson will be between the sticks again. Ontario rival Toronto stack up well up front, particularly after adding the promising James van Riemsdyk from Philadelphia. They have lots of options and a good balance of skill and toughness. However, gone is Luke Schenn and the D is lacking some depth. Problems also remain in net where the unproven James Reimer continues to reside. It’s still going to be tough for Toronto to get into the post-season again. This shortened schedule is going to change the dynamics of the league though and there could be some shocks from the somewhat inconsistent sides therein.
 
Lindy Ruff’s Buffalo Sabres couldn’t quite propel themselves into a playoff spot last year so something had to be done. Steve Ott and Adam Pardy have come in from the Dallas Stars and a key centre, Derek Roy, has gone in the opposite direction. Ott will provide some grit and he can score well too. Those guys that seem to have been around for decades – Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville and Drew Stafford – can still contribute a lot to the team. There are some young guys coming through as well. Tyler Ennis is now seemingly the number one centre; Cody Hodgson, acquired mid-season from Vancouver, should hopefully play a larger role for the team this season; Marcus Foligno is promising too. Defensively, it looks strong. Tyler Myers and Christian Ehrhoff are elite NHL defencemen, and are perfectly complemented with the strong, rugged Robin Regehr and Andrej Sekera. Ryan Miller is one of the league’s best goaltenders too. If all these areas perform to their potential, if injuries don’t strike and if they get a good start (like they haven’t done for the last couple of seasons), they’ve got a great chance of challenging for the division and getting into the fight for the Stanley Cup.
 
Last season’s Southeast Division champions Florida Panthers were 27th in the league in terms of goals scored on average per game, despite their playoff berth. For the team to take that next step this campaign, they need to find more secondary firepower. The top line is great with Fleischmann, Weiss and Versteeg. But where else are the goals going to come from? That aside, there is every reason to be very positive if you’re a Panthers fan and it’s pleasing to see the huge strides of improvement they’ve made in making themselves a top club. The defence has some real leaders on it: Brian Campbell is crucial offensively from the back end, particularly on the powerplay; Weaver, Kuba and Jovanovski too. Jason Garrison, who was tremendous last term, has been tempted away to the Canucks. If the Sunshine State side can get some points out of Jonathan Huberdeau, Peter Mueller and newly-signed Alex Kovalev, the Panthers can make a real splash this year and maybe retain their divisional title.
 
Two of the brothers Staal are to be united in Carolina this upcoming season and, add in a bit of the talented but unpredictable Alex Semin, the Canes’ offence seems improved. Justin Faulk is one of the ones to watch in 2013 too on the blue line. Additionally, Cam Ward has got some help in Dan Ellis. Those few little improvements here and there may help the Hurricanes back into the playoffs. Tampa Bay boast possibly the league’s top player. With Steven Stamkos you always have a chance, but he can’t do it all on his own. The Bolts, along with another Southeast team, Winnipeg, lack some depth offensively and defensively. Lindback could potentially be a cunning little pick-up by the Lightning though. Winnipeg pushed hard at the end of the year for the playoffs but didn’t quite have enough skill to pull it off. They were strong at home in front of that raucous crowd and they’ll need that solid home form once again in this tough-to-call division.
 
Finally, we come to a team that are always in the headlines for one reason or another. If it’s not their superstar Alex Ovechkin scoring another ridiculously good goal, it’s their coach being fired or them being caught up in a close playoff race, like in 2012. Adam Oates is the new boss in charge and he’s tasked with getting the Washington Capitals back to being the cup contender they were two to three years ago when they were superb throughout the regular season. Braden Holtby is surely the new number one goaltender for the team, after he was quite simply brilliant in the 2012’s post-season. He’ll be backed up by Michal Neuvirth. There’s real quality throughout the roster that Oates has inherited and he’s got a couple of new additions too. Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green, Carlson and the second line centre that they’ve been crying out for in Mike Ribeiro. There’s some great depth in there too. With the roster that they have, the Capitals really should be challenging for the Cup and I think we could see a return to the top of the division and maybe the conference if Oates can get some consistency from his talented team.
 
The Southeast is unquestionably one of the toughest to call. Many are predicting the return of the Capitals to where they were a couple of years ago under Boudreau with Ovechkin and Backstrom firing. Carolina and Tampa Bay are improved though so they also may try and take Florida’s title off them. The Jets are in pretty much the same position they were this time last year I feel. But get off to a good start in this 48-game sprint, you could squeak into the post-season.
 
Going out west, the Central Division is seen by many as the best and most competitive one that the National Hockey League has to offer. St Louis Blues triumphed last year, employing a stingy defence and having more than stellar goaltending from both Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott. This is where they really have to rely though. Make no mistake about it, there is quality up front with Perron, Backes and Oshie. Vladimir Tarasenko is hoped to be a big hit for the Blues too. They have to prove it wasn’t just a fluke season and back it up with another strong showing in this shorter campaign.
 
Recent former champion Chicago pose a strong threat to St Louis with many of their cup-winning team still in their ranks. Captain Jonathan Toews, who only managed 59 league games last year due to injury (still with 57 points in those games), and the Patricks, Kane and Sharp, lead the Blackhawks’ offence. Secondary scoring is there for Joel Quenneville’s side in Marian Hossa and Viktor Stalberg. On the blue line, there’s a solid top six, with Duncan Keith (infamous for losing most of his teeth) leading the way. A few concerns have been aired about the goaltending tandem that is being gone with again in 2013. Corey Crawford and Ray Emery both have to perform better between the pipes for the Blackhawks to go deeper. Things look good for the Hawks though and they should put in a very good challenge for the division and be nearer the top of the conference.
 
The third team up in the Central Division is probably the most respected (and maybe feared) franchise in the NHL. Mike Babcock’s Detroit Red Wings are always in there come mid-Spring and consistently require their opposition to work very hard if they want any points at all against them. The Wings have done exceptionally well to maintain such a terrific core of players over the years; none more so as we commence this shortened season. Technically-superb Russian Pavel Datsyuk will again be present to steal pucks off defencemen and dazzle them with his silky-smooth hands. Swede Henrik Zetterberg joins him and he’ll be extra motivated this season after being named the new captain. Of course, he has been made captain due to the retirement of surely future hall-of-famer Nick Lidstrom. He leaves a gigantic gap there on the blue line but Babcock has some tricks up his sleeve and Niklas Kronwall will step up to fill his number one D-man boots. The defence remains very strong all the same – Kyle Quincey, Ian White, Jonathan Ericsson and Carlo Colaiacovo are among those in the defensive unit. Jimmy Howard will be more than satisfactory between the pipes. Then, there’s the young talent coming through up front: Abdelkader, Brunner, Nyqvist and Tatar. Coach Babcock has lots of options out there; they arguably have the most depth in their forward lines than any of the other 30 outfits. I really can’t see why the Red Wings won’t be in the playoffs and extend that streak. One thing that makes it just a bit more challenging is that they’ll be playing all their games in the trickier Western Conference.
 
They knocked the team they’ve looked up to for so long out of the playoffs in the first round in 2012, and now have the Nashville Predators got what it takes to clinch the division title? They have the stud, work-horse goaltender; they have the franchise defenceman (who nearly got pinched away like Ryan Suter); they’ve got the youngsters starting to come through and make a name for themselves. What are they missing then? Goals. You still feel that more firepower needs to come from somewhere. Still, the Preds look strong enough behind Rinne, Weber, Ellis, Hornqvist et al to make the playoffs once again and try and extend that Stanley run.
 
One of the most talked about stories of the off-season involved the team from Ohio that is residing at the basement of the division. Did the Columbus Blue Jackets get a good deal for their absolute driving force and superstar Rick Nash? They got a couple players capable of putting some points up on the board. Energetic and skilful Brandon Dubinsky is joined by Artem Anisimov at Columbus. But let’s face it, there’s still a problem for goals there on the forward lines. Off-season acquisition Nick Foligno might help a little though. The D looks better though, it must be said. Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski are two excellent players, and they’re joined by Nikita Nikitin, Tim Erixon, Adrian Aucoin and last year’s 2nd draft pick Ryan Murray (who unfortunately is out for the year). They have to better in goal though as Steve Mason was not good enough last season, with GAA of 3.39 and a save percentage of .894. Enter Sergei Bobrovsky. He could be good pick-up for the Jackets as Mason isn’t performing as a number one as of yet, so they can share the work-load. I think the team will better last year’s output but again miss out on the springtime fun.
 
The Northwest Division has been won by the same Canadian outfit for the past 4 seasons and I can’t see that changing this year. Vancouver have been dominant in the regular season in recent times but this hasn’t translated to the playoffs, except when they went all the way to a home Game 7 in the Final but got wiped off the ice by the Boston Bruins (yes, you remember the riots well). This time around, though, it looks as if Roberto Luongo will no longer be the main man in the crease for the Canucks, with Cory Schneider taking up the mantle. It’s unsurprising that they want to go with the younger netminder who is performing slightly better than gold medal winner Luongo, but it’s still relatively shocking for a player that has so many years left on his contract and has been pretty solid over the years for the team. Toronto have displayed some interest but it’s believed Roberto wants to go back to Florida.
 
Helping Schneider to keep the goals out will be ex-Florida D-man Jason Garrison, who signed on a big-money contract in the summer. Then, offensively, not much has changed. The Sedins are still around and ready to team-up again, along with Alex Burrows. Unfortunately Ryan Kesler and David Booth will be absent through injury as the season begins, so Mason Raymond and Zack Kassian will need to rise up to the occasion. I’d be quite surprised if the Canucks did not triumph in the Northwest yet again and make it cinq in a row.
 
Vancouver’s friendly rivals Calgary and Edmonton will both be looking to improve on pretty mediocre campaigns last time around. The former have fired a new coach, Bob Hartley, and have snapped up many new players to try and gain those few points needed to get into the playoffs. Offensive defenceman Dennis Wideman will effectively quarter-back the powerplay and hopefully score some much-needed points. Jiri Hudler was raided from Detroit, as was Roman Cervenka from the KHL. The old faces are there too – Jerome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff in the crease for most of the time. Mike Cammalleri is to be relied upon highly this year too, to really propel the Flames into the top eight of the West. Edmonton has one of the (if not ‘the’) most exciting young sides in the entire league. RNH, Taylor Hall, Eberle, Gagner, and now Nail Yakupov (1st pick in 2012) and very promising D-man Justin Schultz. The Oilers really have a chance this year to do some damage and get themselves a playoff berth, particularly with this sprint-finish season, which could favour a more explosive offense instead of huge consistency across the normal 82-game campaign.
 
The other two sides Colorado and Minnesota are tough to call also. The Wild did some exceptionally impressive business in the summer, by anyone’s standards. They managed to entice both Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to sign on the dotted line, without losing anyone. Parise immediately adds a lot more firepower, starting to solve that problem; Suter will lead the defence. The team started off so well last season and had the best record in the league in December. Then, they fell apart and dropped outside the playoffs once again. If they can streak like they did though at the start of last term, that would be enough to make the postseason in this 48-game year. The Avalanche have some great young players who can hopefully push them into Cup contention in the coming years. Last season’s top rookie Gabriel Landeskog is back as captain. Ryan O’Reilly and Matt Duchene also add lots of offence. PA Parenteau, who had an excellent season last time around, has been brought in from Long Island. These young players are getting better with every year so look for Colorado to climb again this season.
 
Finally, we arrive to some California heat by considering last season’s Stanley Cup champions from Los Angeles. The Kings have kept in-tact the majority of their winning roster, including signing star goaltender Jonathan Quick to a long extension. They can’t afford to rely on just squeaking in the playoffs this year though, with other non-playoff teams for last season improving. Having that strong core back could lead them far however. Kopitar, Penner, Brown, Gagne, Carter are all big weapons to have in defence of a championship. We’ll get a glimpse of if they can handle the pressure when the Blackhawks come to town on opening night.
 
The Pacific Division winners from 2012, the Phoenix Coyotes, will be looking to build on a brilliant season last time, where they reached the last 4 of the playoffs. The D remains strong, with Zbynek Michalek a new addition. He joins Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, amongst others. Mike Smith had a revelation year in goal for the Coyotes and it’s hoped he can produce again. The questions remain within the forward lines and where the goals are going to come from. Steve Sullivan has come in, as a replacement for Ray Whitney, and will need to bring offence. The management also managed to keep the influential Shane Doan in the desert. Phoenix fans have great reason to be optimistic for another stab at the Stanley Cup this season, if Mike Smith can deliver solid numbers again.
Bruce Boudreau got the Anaheim Ducks to perform much better when he took over mid-way through the 2011/12 season. Now the team is all his and he’ll be expected to try and get the best out of those huge three offensive players – Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan and Corey Perry. If those three can sparkle, the Ducks might be able to make some headway in a tough division. Jonas Hiller is back and healthy, and has the potential to flourish behind new additions Sheldon Souray and Bryan Allen on defence. It’s certainly going to be tough and I just don’t think the Ducks have got enough to beat out the other improved sides.
Fourthly in this division, we come across the Dallas Stars who have made some bold moves over the summer. The saluting veteran that is Jaromir Jagr has decided to head out west and give it a shot with the Stars. He’s undoubtedly still got a lot to give in the NHL, at the mere age of 40. Another 40-year-old snapped up by Joe Nieuwendyk was Ray Whitney, who had a top 77 points for Phoenix last year. Those pair join an already impressive core of Loui Eriksson, Jamie Benn and ex-Sabre centre Derek Roy. Roy has been described as a “proven point producer” by the franchise and should fit in nicely on the second line. He could also help a struggling powerplay that was last overall in the league in 2012. Dallas were close last season to winning the division and just maybe those changes could squeeze them in, particularly in this shortened term.
 
Our 30th team to ponder over is the Sharks from San Jose, who have consistently been up there in the NHL for many years now. They have a strong set of forwards with Marleau, Thornton and Pavelski once again leading the lines. Throw in the very promising Logan Couture and Ryan Clowe and there is some solid secondary scoring in there. Defensively, the outlook is pretty good too. Brent Burns and Dan Boyle are still two of the best, and Brad Stuart has been added from the Wings to eat up some ice time. Antti Niemi is a proven Stanley Cup winner between the pipes but can he backstop the side consistently all season long? You can’t see too many issues with the Sharks’ roster and they should enjoy another playoff berth come April, with some electric atmospheres inside the Shark Tank.
 
All of the thirty sides bidding to get their gloves on that famous piece of silverware have been briefly looked at then.
 
This 48-game regular season will inevitably blow up some surprises and shocks. Perhaps teams we thought weren’t going to make it to the postseason will and vice versa. Teams have to fly out of the blocks as they’ll be no room for a few bad games at the start of the year; that could prove very costly as the 16 playoff places fill up. It’s brilliant to see the NHL back. As they say, good things come to those who wait. Enjoy opening night.
 
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