COMMENTARY Realignment and four all new divisions add a new wrinkles to the upcoming 2013-14 NHL season. Big changes are coming; Detroit moves the new Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference, while the Pacific Division brings back memories of the old Smythe Division with Los Angeles, Vancouver, Edmonton, and Calgary together again.
Beyond the impact of the divisional realignment, there are numerous questions that hockey fans are asking as the season approaches: Can the Chicago Blackhawks Repeat? Will Syndey Crosby stay healthy enough to lead to Penguins to the finals? Will Daniel Alfredsson’s move to Detroit mean anything? (I say no.) Is it fair that the Eastern Conference has two more teams, but the same number of playoff spots as the West? (no!) Will Dallas miss the playoffs again? (spoiler alert – yes!) Here is one fan’s take on the chances of each team to make the playoffs and reach the Stanley Cup final.
30. Florida Panthers – Poor showing last year, no real upgrades in the offseason, and a more difficult division (5 of the 8 teams made the playoffs last year) makes for another long season in South Florida. At least they have LeBron.
29. Nashville Predators – Staying in the Western Conference, even though they play in the Eastern time zone. Offeason moves suggest little improvement over the 41 points tallied last season.
28. Tampa Bay Lightning – Same story as Florida. Fans will have to look back fondly on the days of Martin Saint Louis, as the current roster shows little promise for the future.
27. Phoenix Coyotes – New, stable ownership will help this team return to competing for a playoff spot year-in and year-out. This year will be tough though with the Kings, Ducks, Canucks, and Sharks leading the way in the Pacific Division.
26. Colorado Avalanche – Another team that will need to look to the past for glory while hoping for the future. More games against the Blackhawks and Blues will lead to more losses and another lost season.
25. Dallas Stars – Mike Modano, where have you gone? A shift to the new Central Division and more games against Chicago, St. Louis, and Minnesota will not make it any easier for the Stars to return to the playoffs in 2014.
24. New Jersey Devils – New owners should be able to inject more money and hopefully smarter moves in future seasons. Last year’s .500 record was disappointing, and it is a real question whether a 41-year-old Jaromir Jagr will be the missing piece to get the Devils back to the playoffs.
23. Carolina Hurricanes – Eric Staal and the Hurricanes hope that a move to the new Metropolitan Division will be helpful for the team’s playoff hopes. If the ‘Canes can get past one or both of the New York teams, they might have a shot at a 7 or 8-seed.
22. Calgary Flames – Last year’s trade of Jarome Iginla means that the Flames have accepted their transition to full rebuilding mode. No chance for the playoffs this year, but a couple of good drafts could return this proud franchise to relevance soon.
21. Edmonton Oilers – Don’t call them a young team. Whatever you call them, they are still a work in progress and probably a couple of years from a playoff berth.
20. Philadelphia Flyers – There is no joy in Mudville, or in Philadelphia this year. The Flyers have regressed over the past few years and signing aging stars like Vincent Lecavalier isn’t going to change anything soon.
19. Buffalo Sabres – The addition of Rasmus Ristolainen as the 8th pick the 2013 draft should help the Sabres defense in the future. This year, improvement over the .500 finish from last season would be good progress.
18. Winnipeg Jets – I see opportunity for improvement this year from the Jets. They are my choice for “most likely to surprise” this season, with a chance for the team to make the playoffs for the first time since moving to Winnipeg.
17. Columbus Blue Jackets – The second team that will shift to the Eastern Conference this year. More competition won’t make it any easier for the Blue Jackets to make it to the playoffs.
16. Detroit Red Wings – Big shift to the Eastern Conference this year should help with travel logistics. Alfredsson’s addition is an interesting move, but the Red Wings don’t seem to have enough weapons to overcome Pittsburgh and Boston.
15. Minnesota Wild – Made a strong showing last year in the old Midwest Division. The Wild probably don’t have the firepower to overcome Chicago and St. Louis in the new Central Division, but should return to the playoffs as a 5 or 6-seed.
14. San Jose Sharks – Strong regular seasons followed by poor playoff performances have become a cliché for the Sharks. With Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau both hitting 34 this year, the Sharks window for overcoming their playoff demons is closing rapidly.
13. Vancouver Canucks – Winners of the Northwest Division last year, the Canucks may be staring at a 5 or 6-seed this year, going head-to-head in the Pacific with the Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, and Anaheim Ducks. The Sedin twins aren’t getting any younger, so this may need to be the Canucks’ year.
12. Washington Capitals – The Eastern Conference doppelganger of the Sharks, strong regular season performances followed by early playoff flame-outs. Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom hold the keys to the Capitals taking the next step to the Stanley Cup Finals.
11. New York Islanders – The Islanders are looking to build on a strong season last year and maintain their winning ways. Evgeni Nabokov in goal is the strength of this team and will decide how far they go this year.
10. St. Louis Blues – This is a team focused on defense, which is its core strength. Good defense and strong goaltending could lead to a long run in the playoffs this year.
9. New York Rangers – An early season return for Ryan Callahan would help the Rangers in their pursuit of a good playoff seeding. Can they finish in front of their rivals in Philadelphia and on Long Island though?
8. Toronto Maple Leafs – A tough first-round loss to Boston in the playoffs last year should not discourage fans of the Leafs. A return to the playoffs and a better showing this year would bring some much needed joy to long-suffering Leafs fans.
7. Ottawa Senators – The loss of Daniel Alfredsson will hurt the team offensively, but there remains enough weapons here to ensure a strong season. A full season from Jason Spezza and acquisition of Bobby Ryan from Anaheim will help to offset Alfredsson’s departure.
6. Los Angeles Kings – The 2012 Stanley Cup Champions remain a threat in the Western Conference. The question is if they have the firepower to overcome the Blues, Ducks, and Blackhawks.
5. Boston Bruins – Played a spirited final against the Blackhawks, but lost several keys players this offseason. Patrice Bergeron will play a key role in keeping the Bruins focused on a return to the Stanley Cup Finals.
4. Montreal Canadians – Along with Boston and Pittsburgh, the Canadians are a strong Eastern Conference contender for the Cup this year. Danny Briere and Brian Gionta will lead the charge.
3. Anaheim Ducks – The Ducks are probably glad they won’t have to face the Red Wings in the playoffs this year. Is this the year that Ryan Getzlaf steps up and helps the team fulfill its Stanley Cup potential?
2. Pittsburgh Penguins – Loaded with one of the best players in the league and deep roster, the Penguins always appear to be a threat to make a run at the Cup. If the team’s health cooperates, maybe this will be the year.
1. Chicago Blackhawks – Repeating is hard to do, but when you bring back most of the same roster from a dominant team, you have a better chance than most. Corey Crawford knows that the Blackhawks’ chances at a repeat rely on his performance this year.
Eastern Conference Playoff Teams
Detroit Red Wings
Toronto Maple Leafs
New York Islanders
New York Rangers
Western Conference Playoff Teams
San Jose Sharks
St. Louis Blues
Los Angeles Kings
Stanley Cup Finalists
Eastern – Pittsburgh Penguins
Western – Anaheim Ducks
Stanley Cup Winner
As always, this NHL season should bring lots of fun and excitement on the ice. All you need is a ticket to the playoffs, and a hot team at the right time can look forward to a fun summer with Lord Stanley’s Cup.