Realigned NHL gets under way
Published: Monday, September 30, 2013
Updated: Monday, September 30, 2013 02:09
Since 1998, no team has repeated as Stanley Cup Champion. So much depends on a hot hand in goal or a surging offense that the regular season winds up as a prelude to the long stretch that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But with the pucks set to drop on Tuesday evening, the Daily is here to break down the storylines heading into the season and take a look at which squads will play a part in determining the 2014 champ.
Before looking at how the teams stack up, it’s key to examine just who they’ll be competing against and how the schedule will play out. This offseason, the NHL went through with its delayed realignment plan, splitting into just four divisions over two conferences: the Atlantic and the Metropolitan in the East and the Central and Pacific out West.
The goal of realignment was to line up teams within the same time zone and to make a more logical schedule, one that wasn’t thrown off by years of expansion. The NHL achieved that goal but wound up with 16 teams in the East and just 14 in the West, but eight teams will still make the playoffs from both conferences. Among those eight, the top three in each division and two wild-card teams will make it into the postseason, setting up an MLB-like chase for the wild card that should heat up late season action.
The Eastern Conference
Last year, the Bruins came out of the East by riding an incredible defensive effort throughout the playoffs, and that will likely be the key to their attempts to repeat. They’ve opened with a monstrous 6-1 preseason that demonstrated just what can happen when Tuukka Rask is in top form with Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara in front of him. They’ll be one of the favorites but will have to work hard to improve what was a somewhat middling offense last year.
In addition, they’ll struggle most with overcoming the true favorites in the East, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Although the Bruins were able to shut down Pittsburgh in the Conference Finals, the Penguins were the East’s most consistent team last year and look poised to replicate that success. With Sidney Crosby in great form and Evgeni Malkin continuing to improve, the Penguins should have the strongest offense in the league, a unit that led the East with a +43 goal differential last year.
Expect the Penguins to come out on top in the East, with the Bruins, Rangers and Flyers clustered together near the top.
The Western Conference
The West is still led by last year’s champs, the Blackhawks, who paced the league with 77 points a season ago and look poised to put together one of the most realistic title defenses of the last decade. With Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane still around, it would be incredibly unlikely to see the Blackhawks experience any sort of significant drop off.
But the West is deep, and the Blackhawks will be fending off charges from a number of playoff-tested teams, including the Los Angeles Kings. The Kings possessed the puck for 56.3 percent of play last season, a number that will stay similarly high with Simon Gagne and Jonathan Bernier returning, suggesting that they will be likely to carry on their success from last year.
But the biggest threat may come from the St. Louis Blues, a team that struggled in the playoffs last year but looks ready for success this season. Led by Alex Pietrangelo, the Blues’ defense is what will anchor this team and give it a chance against Chicago’s strong side up front. Furthermore, the Blues added Derek Roy at center in an attempt to shore up an offense that troubled them at times in the last two years of playoffs.
Although there are fewer teams in the West, the conference is extremely deep and will be full of great matchups. The Blackhawks, Kings and Blues look to be the favorites, but the Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks, Vancouver Canucks and Ottawa Senators will be in the hunt, making for an entertaining race for the top seeds.