SI.com's 2013-14 NHL Crystal Ball predictions
Some things haven't changed since Jonathan Toews and the Blackhawks took the Cup for a celebratory spin around Boston's Garden last spring. Chicago remains the league's preeminent power and is favored by many to repeat, with the Bruins, Kings and Penguins nipping at their heels. Sidney Crosby is poised to battle Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos for the scoring title. And Hockey Night In Canada will still be on the CBC every Saturday night (at least for this season).
But there were plenty of offseason moves that will make the 2013-14 season feel very different when it gets underway.
Realignment was the big story of the summer, with Detroit and Columbus moving to the East, creating an imbalance in conference sizes (16 teams in the East, 14 in the West), but finally rectifying the inequities that existed when those two Eastern time zone teams were forced to bunk with clubs thousands of miles away. That move led to the creation of a new playoff format that will see the top-three teams in each division advance, along with the two clubs with the next-best records, and will bring back a divisional flavor to the first two rounds of the postseason, with the winners advancing to the Conference finals.
There was the usual horse trading over the summer that led to several old faces in unexpected new places: Daniel Alfredsson bolted Ottawa for Detroit; Jarome Iginla finally said yes to Boston; Vincent Lecavalier was spurned by Tampa Bay, but quickly found a new home in Philadephia; Bobby Ryan was Plan B for Ottawa; Tim Thomas came in from the cold to play for Florida; Cory Schneider became the heir apparent to Martin Brodeur in New Jersey.
And we'll be introduced to the next generation of stars, including first-overall pick Nathan MacKinnon (Colorado), top American player Seth Jones (Nashville), Valeri Nichushkin (Dallas), Aleksander Barkov (Florida), Tomas Hertl (San Jose), Rasmus Ristolainen (Buffalo), and Boone Jenner (Columbus).
We've got a new hybrid-icing rule (voted in just yesterday) that, in theory, will significantly reduce the likelihood of a horrific injury caused by a race to the boards for the puck, and a new player usage rule that wasn't voted on by anybody, but seemed like a perfectly fine idea when it was cooked up by the good folks at the league's player discipline office in the wake of the Buffalo/Toronto preseason brawl.
We have new nets that are shallower (to create more room for playmaking in behind) and with different angles on the corners to allow more shooting space. We have new regulations limiting the height of goalie pads that will, in theory, create a larger five-hole when the keeper drops into the butterfly position.
We have new ownership in Phoenix, New Jersey and Florida that will, in theory, stabilize those franchises and put them on better financial footing. And so now Anaheim is officially on the clock as the team most likely to relocate to Seattle.
We've got a boldly expanded outdoor schedule (gotta do something to make good for all of the sponsors hurt by last year's lockout) that will see six games played al fresco. Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor will host the Red Wings and Maple Leafs in the Winter Classic, with Soldier Field, BC Place, Dodger Stadium and Yankee Stadium each providing a setting that will turn a regular-season snoozer into a marquee event.
We've got a two-week Olympic break in February that doesn't just carve a gaping hole into the schedule, it dwarfs the importance of every game played before it. Whether they'll admit it or not, for the more than 100 NHL players who will dominate the national team rosters, every night will be as much about auditioning for a spot in Sochi as it is about winning two points for their clubs. (And remember to enjoy this one, folks. Insurance costs, among other issues, may mark this as the last appearance of NHLers at the Winter Games.)
And how's this for something different: every team will play 82 games. A real full season with a rejigged schedule that will see each club host every other in the league at least once.
It's gonna be great. Let's get it started. -- Allan Muir