When Stephen Douglas, a person I have not met in real life, asked if I would do the NHL preview for The Big Lead, I instantly said yes. I then inquired about why Stephen, one of the leading hockey minds of this or any generation, wouldn’t write the preview himself. He admitted the entire conversation was just an excuse for him to IM me because he loves chatting with me.
Two hours and 15, “Ummm, I gotta run”s later, I escaped the conversation and began preparing the most comprehensive NHL preview the world has ever seen. I should note that my definition of comprehensive is, “Very general, exceedingly broad and filled with setups for bad jokes.” With that in mind, here are 15 questions (5 NHL, 5 East, 5 West) to help get you excited for the 2013-14 season, the first season in nearly one year that won’t be affected by a lockout.
1. What is up with these weird new divisions?
Well, the NHL being the NHL, it is contractually required to rearrange the league every decade or so just to cause confusion. After years and years of complaining about their travel situation, the Detroit Red Wings (and some other team that resides in Ohio) moved to the Eastern Conference while the Winnipeg Jets rightly headed West. The four divisions – Atlantic, Metropolitan (this will take 24 years to get used to), Central and Pacific have an uneven amount of teams, so there are two wild cards in each conference. So it’s like old school 1 vs. 4, 2 vs. 3 divisional playoffs, but not really, as the 1 in the Central could play a team in the Pacific depending on how the wild cards shake out. The important thing here is the Western divisions with just seven teams are set up for expansion in the near future with one of the cities is almost guaranteed to be Seattle.
2. Is the NHL sending players to the Sochi Olympics?
You bet they are. It took forever for all the parties to get what they wanted, but the NHL will shut down from Feb. 8-24 and send its best players to a land of cool snow, ice, and maybe the most intolerant land for homosexual people outside of Hategaysistan. As you may recall, Canada won gold in 2010 by the beating the United States in overtime in Vancouver. This time around, things will be different. Look for the U.S. to win gold, and hey, everyone, let’s remember that the players heading to Sochi are there to represent their countries, and what players feel about the abhorrent anti-gay laws does not matter. Let’s just focus on hockey and not on which players hate the gays.
3. So which NHL players hate the gays?
I’m glad you asked! Chances are if a Russian player was asked about the anti-gay laws in Sochi this offseason, chances are they gave answers like, “hey the law is the law,” or “my religion says what it says and I’ll go by that,” or “eww gays that’s gross chicks rule I love boobies!” But it’s not all the Russians, either. The Swedish team was asked similar questions, and the answers weren’t that much more encouraging.
A lot of guys – Henrik Zetterberg, Douglas Murray, Patric Hornqvist, to name a few – answered like human beings, but others ducked it, including Henrik Lundqvist, a spokesman for the You Can Play program. Apparently his beliefs in gay rights aren’t that strong when the threat of punishment in Sochi is looming. He did speak out later, but this was all very disheartening, much like 72 of the past 73 years for the Rangers. This seems like a good place as any to include the fact that Ilya Kovalchuk retired from the Devils and now plays in the KHL.
4. What are some of the new rules in the NHL?
Sadly, if a puck is shipped over the glass from inside your own zone, it’s still a two-minute penalty, also the only penalty referees are willing to call in the postseason. There was a slight rewording to the rule about targeting the head, but it’s still essentially the same rule. If you fight, you can’t take your helmet off before throwing punches, a rule two guys worked around in the preseason. The nets are more shallow, which creates more space behind the net and better angles for passes.
The big change is hybrid icing, which is very, very silly. It’s designed to prevent injuries that occur when two guys are racing to touch a puck and one guy wipes out and breaks his leg, like Joni Pitkanen of the Carolina Hurricanes. Is it safer? Sure. But the NHL is asking linesmen to determine who is the first player to an invisible line in order to determine if it’s icing or not, and they have a hard time determining if a guy is offside with a real, huge, thick blue line.
5. Why does my goaltender look so tiny? After years of goaltenders wearing bigger and bigger pads, the NHL cracked down on it this summer. Just about every goaltender had to trim inches off some of their pads to be in compliance. You know how the top of Corey Crawford’s leg pads touched his throat? They are now normal-sized. Lundqvist looks noticeably smaller in net as well. Craig Anderson in Ottawa too. The idea is this will increase scoring and is a better solution than making the nets a few inches bigger. It’s weird to me that Steven Stamkos is allowed to use a stick made of Adamantium but Roberto Luongo has to shave a half-inch off his pads, but it’s clearly not a goaltender’s league.
1. Now that the Red Wings are in the East, will they lose a game?
We all know that in the NHL, the Eastern Conference is absolute garbage compared to the West. Since the (second) lockout, the West has owned the East in the head-to-head matchups, but now Detroit is lurking like a lion that was accidentally placed in the zebra habitat at the world’s most poorly run zoo. Are zebra habitats even a real thing? I don’t know. A big reason the Wings won’t go 82-0 is they will still have to play West teams. It’s impossible to account for injuries, but 75-5-2 is not out of the question for Detroit.
2. Are the Penguins still the class of the East?
If you’re like me, you enjoy a good Marc-Andre Fleury joke. Knock, knock. Who’s there? Marc-Andre Fleu…GOALLLLLLLL!!!!!!! Tomas Vokoun has a serious blood clot issue, so the Penguins’ safety net in net is out indefinitely. The Penguins still have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but their bottom-six group of forwards is a real question mark. But at the end of the day, Fleury doesn’t become a train wreck until the playoffs, the Penguins have the two best forwards in the world, and they play in the East. There’s no reason to think they won’t win the …*sigh*… Metropolitan Division.
3. Will the Bruins regress after all their offseason moves?
Maybe. Zdeno Chara turns 37 this year, and while Tyler Seguin is young and enjoys partying and has no idea how to lock his phone, he was really good at the whole scoring thing and now plays for Dallas. Nathan Horton left and Rich Peverley was a key role player. How all the new faces (Jarome Iginla, Loui Eriksson) come together will come down to Claude Julien’s coaching ability. The Bruins are in a competitive division with Detroit, Ottawa and Montreal, so the sledding will be tough. They may slide back a little, but they still have plenty to be a playoff team again.
4. Are the Senators the sexiest pick in the history of sexy picks?
Picking the Sens to win the East is basically Lizzy Caplan lying naked on a pile of burritos (Hey, we all have our definitions of sexy). Yeah, they lost Daniel Alfredsson, their long-time captain who essentially quit during the Penguins playoff series, but they swung a deal for Bobby Ryan and made a nice value signing in Clarke MacArthur. They reached the second round last year essentially without Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson, who returned but were never at 100 percent. Throw in the fact that they have Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner in net, and you can pass me the Tabasco and allow me to introduce myself to Lizzy Caplan.
5. What are the Rangers going to do this year?
There seems to be a lot of pessimism around the only team besides the Los Angeles Kings to reach at least the second round of the playoffs the past two seasons. They took part in the NHL’s Coaching Exchange Program, firing John Tortorella, who is now in Vancouver, and hiring Alain Vigneault after the Canucks fired him. The Rangers caught fire down the stretch last year with essentially the team they have now. If the Rangers can tread water in October as they get up to speed on Vigneault’s system, they should be fine once Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin return from offseason surgery.
1. Can the Blackhawks win a second straight Cup?
Oh, absolutely. In 2010, they had to dismantle. In 2013, they had to part ways with some depth guys (Dave Bolland, Viktor Stalberg, Michael Frolik), but they are well-equipped to win it all again. The Central Division is also far less daunting than it has been in the past, as the Blackhawks and Blues should spend the season kicking the tar out of everyone else. The key will be Corey Crawford, who signed a comical contract this summer after playing 50 really good games, and how he handles being the unquestioned No. 1. If Crawford is proven to be a 48-game fluke, the Blackhawks could scuffle, as 57-year-old Nikolai Khabibulin is now the backup.
2. What is Vancouver going to do this season?
What a potential mess this could be. After about a year of trying to trade Roberto Luongo, the Canucks instead dealt the younger, better Cory Schneider to the Devils at the draft. John Tortorella is the new coach and wants Henrik and Daniel Sedin to block shots and kill penalties, which should result in one of them shattering before November is over. Tortorella wants to toughen up the Canucks, and really, they could use some toughness, but they managed to win the Presidents’ Trophy in 2011 and 2012 by just being really good at hockey and diving. Tortorella may not have the personnel to play Tough Hockey like he did in New York, but he certainly has more talent. It’ll be interesting to see if he breaks it.
3. Wait, Patrick Roy is a coach? Just how old am I?
Oh, you are very old and someday we – you, me, Lizzy Caplan and everyone else – will all be dead. Yes, Roy is coaching in Colorado after years of success at the junior level, a stark reminder that all once-great athletes get old and so do we. Sports are awful in this regard. He’s got some great young talent over there (Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon) but the blue line is rough and Semyon Varlamov could be anything at this point, but he’s been mostly bad. The last coach to go from juniors to the NHL was Guy Boucher, who took the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Eastern final in 2011 but is now unemployed. The Avs may not be great, but watching Roy deal with the media if this team is bad should be delightful.
4. Is this the year the Oilers are finally good?
Yes! Every year, some pundit tells you that all those No. 1 picks are finally going to come together and make the Oilers fun, exciting and a deadly team when the playoffs roll around. Sadly, while the Oilers are always fun, they haven’t made the playoffs since losing in the Cup Final in 2006. But I’m finally ready to push the Oilers bandwagon. They have a new coach (Dallas Eakins), signed a real-live defenseman this summer (Andrew Ference) and added more offense (David Perron) in a trade with the Blues. They have some issues at center to start the season with Sam Gagner and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins out for two months and one month, respectively, but I remain bullish. And really, even if they are bad, they’re one of the most entertaining teams to watch.
5. Are the Flames really the worst team in the NHL?
Oh boy are they ever. After years of refusing to rebuild, they finally traded Jarome Iginla and Jay Bouwmeester at last year’s deadline and now they look like an above-average AHL team. But that’s just how it goes in hockey. It’s better to be the 30th-best team for three years than it is to be the ninth-best team in your conference all the time. The Flames will stockpile picks and slowly get better. But for now, they have a cavalcade of mediocre players up front and a slew of terrible defensemen (Mark Giordano not included) and Karri Ramo in net. The goal for Flames fans this season should be Don’t Ruin Sean Monahan, their 2013 first-round pick who may start the season with the team.
2. N.Y. Rangers
5. New Jersey
2. St. Louis
1. Los Angeles
2. San Jose
Eastern Final — N.Y. Rangers vs. Ottawa
Western Final — Chicago vs. San Jose
Stanley Cup Final — N.Y. Rangers over Chicago
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