2013-14 NHL Season Preview: Our picks to win it all

The Blackhawks won the Cup last year, but can they repeat as champions? Credit: Getty Images
The Blackhawks won the Cup last year, but can they repeat as champions?
Credit: Getty Images

New divisions, new rivalries and a new playoff format — welcome to the NHL, circa 2013-14.

When the drops the puck on Oct. 1 to begin its 96th season, the league will have realigned into four mostly geographically based divisions.

“We know this realignment was extraordinarily important to some of our clubs,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a March 14 conference call with reporters to announce the realignment. “On balance, if you look at the rivalries and geographic groupings, this appeared to make the most sense.”

The Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets were shifted from the Western Conference to the newly reformed Atlantic and Metropolitan Divisions, while the Winnipeg Jets moved from the now shuttered Southeast Division to the Central.

As part of the realignment, the Top-3 teams in each division will qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs along with two wild-card teams.

It is a new era and Metro prepares you for it by taking a look at the league, team-by-team.

Eastern Conference …

1.) Pittsburgh Penguins (36-12-0; 72 points; lost to Boston in Eastern Conference finals): Arguably no player in the National Hockey League has more to gain — or lose — in 2013-14 than Marc-Andre Fleury after a playoff campaign that saw the former No.1 overall pick replaced as the starter in goal by Tomas Vokoun. Fleury compiled a 2-2-0 mark in five games with a 3.52 goals against average and .883 save percentage.

2.) Boston Bruins (28-14-6; 62 points; lost to Chicago in Stanley Cup Final): Two goals in a 17-second span is all that separated the Bruins from forcing Game 7 in Chicago. Instead, the Bruins watched the Blackhawks hoist the Cup on their ice. Despite divesting themselves of Tyler Seguin, the core of a team which has reached the Stanley Cup Final in two of the last three seasons remains mostly intact.

3.) Washington Capitals (27-18-3; 57 points; lost to New York Rangers in Eastern Conference quarterfinals): There is one question which supersedes all others when the subject of the Capitals arises: Can they win in the playoffs? Washington blew 2-0 and 3-2 series leads in a seven-game Eastern Conference quarterfinal series loss to the Rangers last spring. The Caps scored 12 goals in the first five games before being shutout in Games 6 and 7. By comparison, the Rangers scored 16 goals in the series.

4.) Detroit Red Wings (24-16-8; 56 points; lost to Chicago in Western Conference semifinals): Western Conference, Eastern Conference, it doesn’t matter, as the primary objective stays the same in Detroit: winning Cups. To that end, the Wings signed Daniel Alfredsson (one year, $5.5 million) and Stephen Weiss (five year, $24.5 million) in free agency to lessen some of the offensive load for those already in place.

5.) New York Rangers (26-18-4; 56 points; lost to Boston in Eastern Conference semifinals): The 20th anniversary of the Rangers’ last Stanley Cup championship sees a franchise in flux. Hyper-demanding John Tortorella has been replaced at head coach by Alain Vigneault, who has been charged with improving a middle-of-the-pack offensive attack.

6.) Ottawa Senators (25-17-6; 56 points; lost to Pittsburgh in Eastern Conference semifinals): Forget the NHL, Paul MacLean might be one of the bet coaches in all of professional sports today. The Senators lost 2011-12 Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, center Jason Spezza, right wing Milan Michalek and goaltender Craig Anderson to injuries last year and still reached the Eastern Conference semifinals. The acquisitions of left wing Bobby Ryan and right wing Clarke MacArthur should add potency to a team whose 2.33 goals per game average ranked 27th in the NHL.

7.) Toronto Maple Leafs (26-17-5; 57 points; lost to Boston in Eastern Conference quarterfinals): Ten minutes away from advancing to the second round for the first time since 2004 before an epic collapse, the Leafs are going to be a fascinating study in 2012-13. Toronto led the NHL in fighting majors last season with 44, and added two gritty players in Dave Bolland (trade from Chicago) and David Clarkson (free agent signing from New Jersey), along with acquiring goaltender Jonathan Bernier from Los Angeles.

8.) Montreal Canadiens (29-14-5; 63 points; lost to Ottawa in Eastern Conference quarterfinals): The regime of general manager Marc Bergevin and head coach Michel Therrien entered last season believing the Canadiens’ culture had to change. And it did, as the Habs were a close-knit group that reached the playoffs. The 2013-14 season is about building on last year’s accomplishment. Danny Briere and George Parros were brought in for offense and physicality, respectively.

9.) Columbus Blue Jackets (24-17-7; 55 points; did not qualify for Stanley Cup playoffs): The Blue Jackets enter their first season in the Eastern Conference feeling confident, and why not? Last season was only the second time in 12 years that the Blue Jackets finished with a winning record, which included goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky winning the Vezina Trophy. Right wing Nathan Horton was signed to a seven-year, $37.1 million contract to add offense to a top-six forward corps that includes ex-Rangers Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky and Marian Gaborik.

10.) New York Islanders (24-17-7; 55 points; lost to Pittsburgh in Eastern Conference quarterfinals): The Islanders spoke confidently throughout the truncated 2013 season about playing meaningful games, which they did by qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs. Now the question is whether they can repeat the feat in an 82-game season. The Islanders locked up restricted free agents Josh Bailey (five years, $16.5 million) and Travis Hamonic (seven years, $27 million), traded for hitting-machine Cal Clutterbuck and signed Pierre-Marc Bouchard.

11.) Tampa Bay Lightning (18-26-4; 40 points; did not qualify for Stanley Cup playoffs): The Lightning are the ultimate good news, bad news team. Tampa was prolific offensively, averaging 3.06 goals per game last season, and the additions of Jonathan Drouin (draft) and Valtteri Filppula (free agency) won’t hurt in that department. But the Lightning allowed 3.06 goals per game and general manager Steve Yzerman was unable to bring in a defenseman in free agency or a trade. At least the Lightning have the tallest goaltending tandem in 6-foot-7 Ben Bishop and 6-foot-6 Anders Lindback.

12.) Carolina Hurricanes (19-25-4; 42 points; did not qualify for Stanley Cup playoffs): Have the Hurricanes improved appreciably since the end of last season? On paper, yes. The draft-day trade for defenseman Andrej Sekera and the free-agent signings of defenseman Mike Komisarek and goaltender Anton Khudobin should strengthen a team that collapsed after Cam Ward suffered a season-ending knee injury on March 3. But have the Hurricanes improved enough to contend in the Metropolitan Division?

13.) Philadelphia Flyers (23-22-3; 49 points; did not qualify for Stanley Cup playoffs): General manager Paul Holmgren confounds. He did well to amnesty Ilya Bryzgalov and Danny Briere, but the signings of Vincent Lecavalier (five years, $22.5 million) and Mark Streit (four years, $21 million) are quizzical at best. As of this writing, the Flyers were $2.053 million over the cap ceiling.

14.) New JerseyDevils (19-19-10; 48 points; did not qualify for Stanley Cup playoffs): No team had a more newsworthy summer than the Devils. General manager Lou Lamoriello landed Martin Brodeur’s replacement in goal, Cory Schneider, at the draft for the ninth-overall pick, and signed Michael Ryder, Jaromir Jagr and Ryane Clowe in free agency. But they lost Ilya Kovalchuk to the KHL and David Clarkson to the Leafs. New ownership should mean the franchise’s financial problems are a thing of the past.

15.) Buffalo Sabres (21-21-6; 48 points; did not qualify for Stanley Cup playoffs): Perhaps only the Washington political industrial complex is in worse shape than the Sabres. Buffalo could not score nor keep the puck out of their net, as they finished the season tied for 22nd in the NHL in those categories. There are persistent rumors general manager Darcy Regier may deal starting goaltender Ryan Miller and top-line left wing Thomas Vanek as part of a rebuilding process.

16.) Florida Panthers (15-27-6; 36 points; did not qualify for Stanley Cup playoffs): The Panthers believe they have building blocks in Calder Trophy-winning left wing Jonathan Huberdeau and goaltender Jacob Markstrom. But you have to wonder why general manager Dale Tallon passed on Seth Jones at the draft.

Western Conference …

1.) Chicago Blackhawks (36-7-5; 77 points; Stanley Cup champions): Chicago won the Cup in 2010. They won it again last spring. So what is the difference between the 2013-14 version and the 2010-11 one which lost in seven games to Vancouver in a classic seven-game Western Conference quarterfinal series? The squad that beat Boston last spring returns mostly intact.

2.) Los Angeles Kings (27-16-5; 59 points; lost to Chicago in Western Conference finals): You have to look hard to find a weakness with the Kings. Los Angeles is deep, skilled, physical and playoff tested. Left wing Matt Frattin and reserve goaltender Ben Scrivens — acquired from Toronto in the Jonathan Bernier trade — might be the only Kings under a microscope this season.

3.) St. Louis Blues (29-17-2; 60 points; lost to Los Angeles in Western Conference quarterfinals): St. Louis enters this season following consecutive playoff losses to the Kings. The Blues signed Derek Roy and Maxim Lapierre in free agency, and traded for Magnus Paajarvi to add depth to one of the deepest teams in the NHL. The three-man logjam of Brian Elliott, Jaroslav Halak and Jake Allen in goal gives general manager Doug Armstrong a bargaining chip should he need to make a trade.

4.) Vancouver Canucks (26-15-7; 59 points; lost to San Jose in Western Conference quarterfinals): Welcome to the John Tortorella Era, Canucks. Since being hired as head coach on June 25, Tortorella has said he wants the team as a whole to be “stiffer,” and envisions the Sedin twins blocking shots and playing on the penalty kill.

5.) Minnesota Wild (26-19-3; 55 points; lost to Chicago in Western Conference quarterfinals): What do you do if you’re general manager Chuck Fletcher and your team bowed out of the playoffs in five games last spring after spending more than $200 million in free agency? Add personnel. Fletcher signed ex-Penguins agitator Matt Cooke (three years, $7.5 million) and Keith Ballard (two years, $3 million) in free agency, while trading for former Islanders prospect Nino Niederreiter.

6.) Anaheim Ducks (30-12-6; 66 points; lost to Detroit in Western Conference quarterfinals): A seven-game first round series loss to Detroit does not overshadow what Anaheim accomplished last season. The Ducks won the Pacific Division last year for the first time since 2006-07, and return virtually the same squad outside of Bobby Ryan, who was traded to Ottawa for Jakob Silfverberg, and Harry Zolnierczyk, who was traded to Pittsburgh.

7.) San Jose Sharks (25-16-7; 57 points; lost to Los Angeles in Western Conference semifinals): The optimist says the Sharks advanced to Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals. The pessimist says San Jose is the third-oldest team, by average, in the NHL and is, of this writing, $406,667 over the cap ceiling. Both are right, which should make the Sharks an exceptionally interesting team to follow.

8.) Dallas Stars (22-22-4; 48 points; did not qualify for Stanley Cup playoffs): First-time general manager Jim Nill did not waste time rebuilding the Stars. He traded for the rights to Sergei Gonchar and subsequently signed the defenseman to a two-year, $10 million contract. Nill also landed Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley from Boston in a blockbuster trade, dealt for former Oilers center Shawn Horcoff, signed reserve goaltender Dan Ellis and hired Lindy Ruff as head coach.

9.) Edmonton Oilers (19-22-7; 45 points; did not qualify for Stanley Cup playoffs): Operation playoff is in full effect in the City of Champions. At his introductory press conference, new general manager Craig MacTavish vowed he would move quickly to get the Oilers back in the playoffs for the first time since 2005-06. MacTavish was able to trade for David Perron while signing defensively responsible center Boyd Gordon and goaltender Jason LaBarbera.

10.) Nashville Predators (16-23-9; 41 points; did not qualify for Stanley Cup playoffs): Nashville finished last season having scored 109 goals, tied with Florida for the fewest in the league. Of the 109 goals the Predators scored, 20 came from the back end. Predators general manager David Poile brought in four forwards — Viktor Stalberg, Matt Cullen, Eric Nystrom and Matt Hendricks — who combined for 28 last season. The draft-day selection of Seth Jones strengthens an already solid defense corps.

11.) Phoenix Coyotes (21-18-9; 51 points; did not qualify for Stanley Cup playoffs): Let’s start with the obvious. The Coyotes have new ownership and will stay in Glendale, Ariz., for the next five years after the city council approved a new lease agreement with IceArizona. With the “will they or won’t they move” uncertainty shelved, general manager Don Maloney signed free agent center Mike Ribeiro (four years, $22 million) and reserve goaltender Thomas Greiss (one year, $750,000).

12.) Colorado Avalanche (16-25-7; 39 points; did not qualify for Stanley Cup playoffs): When Patrick Roy was hired by his former team in May in the dual role of head coach and vice president of hockey operations, the Hall of Fame goaltender announced he will handle trades. Factoring in that Joe Sakic is the executive vice president of hockey operations, it is fair to wonder how much power general manager Greg Sherman has.

13.) Winnipeg Jets (24-21-3; 51 points; did not qualify for Stanley Cup playoffs): Head coach Claude Noel told The Canadian Press at the NHL Draft that the Jets are “trying to get that cycle of development going. As a young franchise [that] cycle hasn’t completely started.” In a division that includes Chicago, St. Louis, Minnesota and Dallas, it should mean a third straight season of not qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

14.) Calgary Flames (19-25-4; 42 points; did not qualify for Stanley Cup playoffs): A new era has begun in Calgary. Gone are Jarome Iginla, Jay Bouwmeester, Alex Tanguay, Cory Sarich and Miikka Kiprusoff. In their place are role players (David Jones, T.J. Galiardi, Shane O’Brien), journeymen (Karri Ramo), prospects and draft picks.

Predictions …

Eastern Conference Champion: Pittsburgh Penguins
Western Conference Champion: Los Angeles Kings
Stanley Cup Champion: Los Angeles Kings

Hart Trophy: Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

Ted Lindsay (Players MVP): Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

Art Ross Trophy: Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

Maurice Richard Trophy: Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning

Calder Trophy: Seth Jones, Nashville Predators

Norris Trophy: Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild

Vezina Trophy: Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins

Selke Trophy: Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins

Jack Adams Award: Paul MacLean, Ottawa Senators

Follow NHL beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.



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