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NHL Thoughts – A Season Of Mystery

Looking at how the lockout changes this NHL season.

After 113 days, the NHL and NHLPA finally reached an agreement to bring fans hockey in 2013. Things looked bleak for most of negotiations but once everything came together, they came together quickly. The quick turnaround in the board room has led to a quick turnaround for the season. Instead of the usual 82 game schedule, there will only be 48 games this year, putting more importance on every puck drop.

The condensed schedule makes this season a complete mystery.

A bad two week stretch could badly dampen a teams playoff chances, groin injuries are expected to be a common occurrence, older teams could struggle playing so many games in so many nights, teams with major additions could struggle to find chemistry early, back-up goalies will be relied upon much more than normal, depth guys could be asked to step up and play big minutes, etc….

I’m prepared for anything to happen over the next few months. Usually I’d write off a handful of teams before opening night, but not this year.

The Edmonton Oilers, who have obtained the #1 overall pick in each other the last three years due to their poor record, have a real shot at the playoffs. And I don’t say that as a joke, I say that because they’re a young team with fresh legs who can take advantage of older teams. The Minnesota Wild, who everyone is high on because they signed Ryan Sutter and Zach Parise in the off-season, could miss the playoffs because Parise and Sutter don’t immediately fit in and it’s a team that was very injury prone last season.

My pick to win the Stanley Cup is the New York Rangers, but I’m not as confident in them as I was in my World Series pick of the San Francisco Giants (correct) or my Super Bowl pick of the New England Patriots (looking good so far). While I think that their top line of Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik, and Rick Nash will wear teams out and Henrik Lundqvist is poised for another outstanding season, I do worry about their scoring depth and the brutal New York expectations.

The Los Angeles Kings are bringing back essentially the same team that won the Stanley Cup and they’ve had plenty of time to get over their hangover. Jonathan Quick is coming off back surgery though and their defensive core is rather thin. A lot of people favor the St. Louis Blues and I’m having a tough time disagreeing with those people. They’re returning the same team that that finished 2nd in the West last year and they have the luxury of having two top notch goalies and a fantastic defensive system. The one thing that might hurt them is their lack of scoring though. The Pittsburgh Penguins have a healthy Sidney Crosby and Evgine Malkin, but there are a lot of question marks surrounding Marc-Andre Fleury after his playoff collapse.

The San Jose Sharks are usually a playoff pick for most people, but I think they could see a big drop off given that they’re getting up there in age and their goaltending is extremely suspect. The Detroit Red Wings are another team that could fall off following some key losses and old legs. Then again, every time we want to write off the Wings, they continue to make the playoffs. I’m usually not interested in the Nashville Predators, but this season intrigues me with the loss of Suter and question marks surround Shea Weber’s happiness. I’ve always maintained that Barry Trotz could coach a AHL team to the playoffs, and while the Predators aren’t an AHL team, they’re definitely not a playoff team on paper.

In the East, I look at the Ottawa Senators, a team that surprisingly made the playoffs last season, to take a step back as Daniel Alfredsson gets up there in age and Craig Anderson is still a question mark to me. Look for the New Jersey Devils to really fall off. The loss of Parise obviously hurts and I question just how big of the load Martin Brodeur can carry at his age. The Florida Panthers surprisingly won the southeast division last year, but don’t count on that to happen again. I refuse to trust Jose Theodore in goal and the team is just a mix and match of players with no real identity that I feel like will have a hard time coming together in such a short period of time.

With so many teams likely fighting for a playoff spot until the final week, the trade deadline this year will be very interesting. When the new CBA became official, everyone expected a ton of player movement. Instead the biggest movement was the Toronto Maple Leafs firing GM Brian Burke. I expect a lot of “hockey trades” at the deadline where teams give up NHL talent for NHL talent as bubble teams will be afraid to part with their stars in hopes that they can turn things around after the deadline. The only scenarios in which I could see big name players being moved are if teams who have struggled for years continue to struggle and decide it’s time for a change.

Roberto Luongo is all but gone in Vancouver, although the Canucks would be wise to hold on to him for as long as possible since Cory Schneider has yet to prove himself as a #1 goalie for a full season and this is the year that you want a veteran back-up. If the Calgary Flames and Colorado Avalanche are out of the playoff race again, expect a lot of rumors surrounding Jarome Iginla and Paul Stastny. The Maple Leafs will likely want to continue to get younger if they’re on the outside looking in, while the Montreal Canadiens will want to cut payroll if they’re not in the top 8.

People may put an asterisk next to this season because of the lockout, but I liken this year to a season of street hockey, where there is little practice time and games are played every night. I don’t know about anyone else, but when I was in high school, everyone just got together after school, picked teams, and started playing. You were rarely on the same team twice in a row, which could happen a lot this year with injuries, but you still knew everyone pretty well, and if you didn’t, you learned to adapt. We played up and down hockey, and if you were too tired from school that day, we skated circles around you. We played every game like it was Game 7, because we couldn’t be sure that we would play tomorrow. The weather could keep us inside, we may have a dentist appointment, family may be visiting, maybe we couldn’t get enough people for a full game. Who knows.

That’s what this NHL season is. It’s like street hockey after school. No one knows what’s going to happen. Some players may have just gotten an A on their math test so they play amazing. Some players may have just been dumped so they barely show up. And it all matters. Just like it mattered to us in high school, knowing that we likely wouldn’t play the sport once we went on to college. Every game matters to these players and fans.

This is the season for ultimate hope.

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