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The puck has officially dropped on the 2013-14 NHL season and The Stack is here on this Wednesday to preview what should be an exciting season.  Let's not waste a moment and get to the NHL season preview that you demand (maybe) in "the stack" for today, Wednesday, October 2:

2013-14 NHL Season Preview

Seems like just the other day that the Chicago Blackhawks were having a ticker-tape parade down the streets of Chicago celebrating their second Stanley Cup championship in three years.  Wait, it wasn't that long ago?  Due to the lockout, the season was pushed back and extended a bit after the new deal and the season didn't get done until late June.  And just like that, a new season is upon us.  Some has changed, but much remains the same.  

What has changed though is the division layout of the NHL.  There are no longer six divisions.  The NHL instead has four divisions with sixteen teams in the eastern conference and fourteen teams in the west.  The four divisions are the Atlantic, Metropolitan, Central and Pacific.  The breakdown is as follows:

  • Atlantic Division: Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Rays, Toronto Maple Leafs.
  • Metropolitan Division: Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals.
  • Central Division: Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues, Winnipeg Jets
  • Pacific Division: Anaheim Ducks, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, Phoenix Coyotes, San Jose Sharks, Vancouver Canucks.

How the playoffs work then is a little complicated to understand though it shouldn't be.  Sixteen teams still make the playoffs.  The top three seeds in each division make the playoffs and the remaining two spots in each conference will go to the team that finishes with the most points.  It won't be impossible then for one division like the Central Division to have five teams in the playoffs and the Pacific Division send only three teams to the playoffs.  The Stanley Cup Finals will still feature the western conference champion against the eastern conference champion so nothing changes there.  NHL.com has a good article explaining the entire new format.

Initially looking at the divisions, it appears that the eastern conference is far more difficult than the western conference.  You add two new teams to the conference in Detroit and Columbus.  Detroit we know is a perenial powerhouse and a playoff team almost every single season while Columbus was on the cusp of the playoffs last year and appear set for another good year.  Plus with Pittsburgh, Washington and both New York teams in the conference, it is going to be very difficult this year for some teams to break through.  Not saying that the western conference won't be significantly easier, but with Detroit gone, all of the other western conference teams have to feel like there is one more playoff spot that opened up.

Something else new in hockey will be the new hybrid icing rule which was voted on and approved just a couple of days before the start of the year.  The linesman has the authority to whistle the play dead on a potential icing if a player from the defending team reaches the dot inside the faceoff circle in the far zone before a member of the clearing time reaches the dot (source NHL.com).  The official rule can be found here

A couple of the major storylines coming into the NHL this year will be the new divisional alignment, but also will Chicago win back-to-back Stanley Cups?  No team has done that since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.  The Blackhawks have essentially the same team that they had last year when they started off the year earning a point in 24 consecutive games and winning the cup.  They've already won their first game this season (6-4 last night over the Washington Capitals).  This team is poised to do great things again this year.  

Who is going to be the odd team out in the eastern conference?  With Detroit moving over to the conference, which is the right move considering both them and Columbus play in the eastern time zone, Detroit is a perenial playoff team.  Whose spot will they take or will they not even make it?  Going to be tough to take out teams like Washington and Pittsburgh.  Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto sure look to be tough again this year.  Philadelphia is looking to return to the playoffs.  Both New York teams, the Islanders and Rangers, will certainly be in play to return to the postseason.  It's going to be a fascinating race.

Can Alex Ovechkin lead the Capitals to a Stanley Cup appearance?  Until he does, I'm going to say no.  He hasn't been able to show he can even get out of the first round of the playoffs most of his career.  Hope he does.  That would be great for the game.  Can't say it will happen until they show it.

Of course, we have the Olympics this year and the NHL will once again take a three week break in February so players can go represent their country in the Winter Olympics which are in Sochi, Russia, this year.  The NHL benefited greatly from the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.  It boosted the popularity tremendously.  Granted the games were all live at times when most people could watch.  With Russia being, what, eight hours ahead? It's going to be a little more difficult, but certainly the NHL should benefit some from these Olympics once again.

Now, it's time to breakdown the division and pick some playoff teams...

Eastern Conference

In the eastern conference, it is going to be a dogfight for playoff spots.  The Atlantic Division appears to be the more difficult of the two divisions.  The three Canada teams (Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal) all made the playoffs last year.  Factor in teams like Detroit and Boston and some team is bound to get left out.  Florida is an interesting team simply because goalie Tim Thomas is attempting a comeback with them.  Can he and he alone get them back to the playoffs?  I don't know.  Can Boston make a return run back to the Stanley Cup Finals?  They made a big trade with the Dallas Stars in the offseason, sending young star Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverly to the Stars for Loui Eriksson and prospects.  Seguin has a ton of talent, but didn't always play up to his talent level.  The Bruins clearly re-tooled a little, but they will be back for a playoff run.

Locks: Detroit, Toronto, Boston

Possible playoff teams: Montreal, Ottawa

Beter luck next year: Buffalo, Florida, Tampa Bay

The Metropolitan Division is also going to be difficult, but definitely a lot of fun.  Pittsburgh as we know is a very talented team led by Sidney Crosby.  Washington has Alex Ovechkin and the two New York teams are going to right there competing until the very end.  Can the New York Islanders build on the momentum of last year and return to the playoffs?  Can Columbus break through?  This division has a chance to send five teams to the playoffs and will leave several very good teams wishing they were in the postseason.

Locks: Pittsburgh, Washington

Possible playoff teams: New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Columbus, Philadelphia

Better luck next year: Carolina, New Jersey

The eight teams I like to make the playoffs, and I says this with new confidence, are:

1. Pittsburgh

2. Toronto

3. Boston

4. Washington

5. New York Rangers

6. Detroit Red Wings

7. New York Islanders

8. Montreal Canadiens

Again, complete guessing here.  It's going to be a fascinating race this year in the eastern conference.  Makes the year that much more intriguing. 

 

Western Conference

The defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks reside in the fourteen team in western conference...and they're looking to repeat. They have talent all across the board. Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews, Bryan Bickell, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith.  Solid all the way around.  There is no reason to think that this team won't be as good as they were last year.  The only difference is that they have a big bullseye on their backs now.  They are the reigning owners of Lord Stanley's cup.  They have what everybody else wants.  As for the rest of the Central Division, the St. Louis Blues will be good like last year.  The Minnesota Wild are an interesting bunch to watch.  With a full offseason to work, big prized free agents in 2012 Zach Parise and Ryan Suter will develop far more chemistry with their teammates.  Gone is Cal Clutterbuck, Devin Setoguchi and others, but they have a lot of young talent who if they step up their game, will do good things for this team.  Could be a dogfight in the rest of the division.  Nashville is improved.  Colorado has some young talent.  Dallas has revamped and Winnipeg will be better.

Locks: Chicago, St. Louis, Minnesota

Possible playoff teams: Dallas, Nashville

Better luck next year: Colorado, Winnipeg

The final division, the Pacific Division, will be tough as well.  The Los Angeles Kings are becoming a dominant force in the western conference.  Great goalie in Jonathan Quick and key players at all positions.  Anaheim and San Jose are right up there.  It will be interesting in Vancouver where the Canucks have a new head coach in John Tortorella who was fired in the offseason by the Rangers.  Coincidentally, former Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault now is the head coach for the Rangers.  The Sedin twins are getting older and the Canucks have questions in other areas.  Robert Luongo looked good as gone last year, but he is back and is the starter for the team now.  Don't know if the Canucks have all of the other pieces they need, but Tortorella will certainly show some passion on the bench.  Can never count out the Phoenix Coyotes and Edmonton has a lot of young talent that at some point should break through.  The Calgary Flames? Sorry.

Locks: Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Jose

Possible playoff teams: Vancouver, Phoenix, Edmonto

Better luck next year:  Calgary

The eight teams that I think will make the playoffs out of the western conference are...

1. Chicago

2. Los Angeles

3. Anaheim

4. St. Louis

5. Minnesota

6. San Jose

7. Phoenix

8. Dallas

Nashville, Vancouver and Edmonton will just miss out.  Like the eastern conference, the western conference will be very entertaining.  Only difference is they have two fewer teams.

 

Stanley Cup Finals

Chicago Blackhawks vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

I really want to take Washington, but until they can show me and the rest of the hockey world that they can get out of the first round of the playoffs, it's very difficult to pick them.  This would be a great series. If Chicago played any one of the other original six teams (Detroit, Boston, Toronto, Montreal or New York Rangers) it would also be great.  The Kings will push the Blackhawks in the west, ultimately coming up short.

Stanley Cup Champions

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

Perhaps I should have gone out on more of a limb.  Not so much.  Going to be tough to knock off the 'Hawks this year.  It will be a great year in the NHL with six outdoor games (maybe four too many, but oh well) and the Olympics and some fantastic hockey.  Enjoy the season everyone. 

 

Award winners...slapshot style:

Hart Trophy: Sidney Crosby- Pittsburgh

Art Ross: Steven Stamkos- Tampa Bay

Norris: Shea Weber- Nashville

Vezina: Jonathan Quick- Los Angeles

Calder: Valeri Nichushkin- Dallas

Jack Adams: Mike Yeo- Minnesota

 

Coming up Thursday: MLB playoff reaction and predictions plus TNF preview

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