Even with a summer altered by last season’s lockout, it seems like it has been an eternity since the NHL has been in action. At long last, hockey has returned and the start of the NHL season is right around the corner.
The new divisional alignment that the league adopted for this season will probably be an awkward transition for most fans. Particularly those who were used to equating the Atlantic Division with teams like New York, Philadelphia or New Jersey. Now the Atlantic spans through Canada and all the way to the Gulf Coast. Then, of course, there is the oddly named Metropolitan Division which manages to incorporate the Tri-State Area with Western Pennsylvania, Ohio and Carolina. Perhaps it is time to abandon the geographical division names, no?
As for the 2013-14 season, the new playoff structure will bring old fans back to the days of the Norris and Patrick Divisions, while younger fans will have to adjust on the fly to the new playoff breakdown.
The Metro Division is choc-full of deep, talented teams who are likely to cannibalize each other on their way to battling for one of the four available playoff spots. Teams like the Islanders and Blue Jackets – who in a conference playoff structure would likely be clawing their way towards a 6-8 berth, are likely to be on the outside looking in once the season wraps. The Penguins, Rangers and Flyers have been perennial playoff teams and are now joined by the Capitals as the likely top four teams in the division.
- Pittsburgh Penguins – Even with Marc-Andre Fleury’s second-straight season of playoff struggles the Penguins still managed to roll into the conference finals before being dispatched by the Bruins last spring. Sidney Crosby and company won’t be much different entering this season and I expect them to snag the top seed in the Metro.
- Washington Capitals – George McPhee, aside from trading away one of his top assets in Filip Forsberg, has done a fine job building his club. While the Caps could get some pressure from the Rangers or Flyers, I expect Washington to own the second best record in the Metro.
- New York Rangers – While Glen Stather is still battling out with Derek Stepan over his contract, the Rangers have a new coach who should hopefully breathe life into their dormant goal scorers. Henrik Lundqvist is capable of carrying any team to the playoffs, and the Rangers top-six forwards make them a very strong club.
- New York Islanders – The Isles are my darkhorse playoff team in the East. They have some great talent up front and have matured nicely over the last few years. The new alignment will make things tricky but I have a feeling that they will beat out the Flyers for the final playoff spot.
- Philadelphia Flyers – I question the Flyers in two areas: defense and goaltending. Should Ray Emery and Steve Mason platoon effectively, I think the Flyers will be a tough out on an nightly basis. While the blueline has some holes that need to be plugged, this is still a team loaded with firepower. Ultimately I think the Isles sneak by for the division’s final spot.
- Columbus Blue Jackets – The Jackets have a nice roster make up with some quality talent in key areas. Whether or not Sergei Bobrovsky continues his Vezina form will say a lot for Columbus’ success this year. In such a talented division, I fear they’ll be on the outside looking in.
- Carolina Hurricanes – The Canes are a good team, no doubt about it. They also happen to be playing in what is likely to be the league’s toughest division. It will be an uphill battle for the Hurricanes this season and I just don’t think they have the horses to run with this division’s elite teams.
- New Jersey Devils – The Devils need some help. They’re missing a handful of key cogs despite having an embarrassment of riches in goal. Despite their strength between the pipes, I wonder if they have the talent to compete on a nightly basis.
The Atlantic Division, while not as rich in top-end talent as the Metro, there is the potential for a nasty battle for playoff positioning in this division. While the Metro’s hallmark is it’s talent, the Atlantic’s might just be it’s depth.
- Boston Bruins – This is a very good hockey team. It’s my opinion that the Tyler Seguin trade aids the Bruins far more than it will aid the Stars. While Seguin has the potential to be a superstar, Louis Eriksson is going to be a phenomenal addition to an already very talented team.
- Detroit Red Wings – The top two in this division will probably be interchangeable for most of the year. The popular opinion last season was the Detroit was heading towards a decline, they proved the opposite of that with yet another impressive run. They should have plenty of success in their new division, helping to elevate them to an easy playoff position.
- Montreal Canadiens – After the Bruins and Wings, there is a bit of a drop off with this division. Depending on team-to-team goaltending, injuries and other extenuating circumstances, any one of five teams could find themselves in the final two playoff spots. I think the Habs are the most talented of the remaining clubs and will find themselves in the postseason yet again.
- Tampa Bay Lightning – At some point the Lightning will figure out this goaltending thing, I’m sure of it. Whether or not Ben Bishop is their guy is yet to be seen, but I think that he gives them the best chance for success. Assuming he’s steady this year, I have little doubt that the Lightning have enough firepower to earn a playoff berth.
- Ottawa Senators – The Sens made a ton of changes this season and are coming off an impressive playoff run led, in large part, by Craig Anderson. The loss of Daniel Alfredsson shouldn’t hurt them much but I think the firepower of the Lightning will bump the Sens back a spot this year.
- Toronto Maple Leafs – A slight regression for the Maple Leafs should be expected this season. Acquiring Bernier was an interesting choice and I’m interested to see how he and James Reimer work as a platoon. While the new alignment shouldn’t hurt the Leafs, I expect them to be watching the playoffs from their couches.
- Buffalo Sabres – The Sabres have some nice pieces. They also have a ton of youth. While Ryan Miller in an Olympic year might be one of hockey’s greatest commodities, Buffalo’s rebuilding process will most likely keep them out of the playoffs.
Florida Panthers – Too many holes in South Florida, in my opinion. They have a number of impressive pieces but I’m willing to bet on another down campaign like they suffered through in 2012-13.