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2013 NHL Preview

 

For years and years, North American sports fans have openly wondered why the basketball and hockey playoffs are so long. After all, regular seasons of at least 80 games in length make it seem that four long playoff series are just too much. Why not reduce a regular season to, say, 60 games or perhaps 50 games?

Or 48.

Yes, the 2013 National Hockey League season will last just 48 games. A truncated regular season could actually give puckheads a taste of what a sprint-like format will do for the rhythms and contours of the journey to the Stanley Cup. Longtime hockey observers will be able to see if a short regular season favors offensive teams or defensive teams; teams with hot goalies or teams with comparatively little depth; teams that dominate the balance of play during the regular season, or teams that get hot in May and June, lifting the most cherished trophy in North American professional sports.

This season will be one fascinating hockey laboratory, a chance to measure how teams respond to these adjusted dynamics, to 32 fewer regular season games than they're used to.

In 2013, will we see a defense-first team such as the New York Rangers control the regular season and then thrive in the playoffs, something they weren't quite able to do last season? In 2013, will a team like the Vancouver Canucks be able to roll into the playoffs without the same pressure it felt last season?

Let's go in depth in discussing the Canucks. Vancouver knew, after 48 regular season games in the 2011-2012 campaign, that it would still have to push to the finish line and then endure the playoff grind. Will this shorter season give the Canucks the ability to turn the playoffs into an extension of their regular season? Will the mental strain of the playoffs not apply to an elite team that motors through the regular season schedule with few problems? Vancouver looked slow and spent in the first round of last year's playoffs against the Los Angeles Kings. Conversely, the Kings played like a reborn team in the spring after finishing eighth in the Western Conference. Whereas the top teams in each conference felt taxed, tired and stale after 80 games last season, the lower-seeded teams hit the postseason with momentum, belief and optimism.

This is the essence of the new and fascinating hockey laboratory that will be opened to the NHL community over the next six months: Will the 48-game season turn the NHL into a realm where favorites are able to dominate in the playoffs as well as the regular season? This is and has been a league that, over the past decade (2003 through 2012), has not been very friendly to top seeds in each conference. Only two top seeds have won Stanley Cups over the past 10 years, and only three have even reached the Stanley Cup Final in that span of time: Tampa Bay in 2004 (won), Detroit in 2008 (won), and Vancouver in 2011 (lost). When Los Angeles defeated New Jersey in last year's Cup finals series, the NHL witnessed the most improbable matchup by seeding in the history of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The eighth-seeded Kings and the sixth-seeded Devils took the NHL's volatility to another level.

Let's realize this about recent NHL seasons: The reality of seeing a low seed crash the Cup finals party was not a rare or isolated occurrence over the past decade. In 2004, Calgary made the finals as the sixth seed in the West and took Tampa Bay to seven games before losing. In 2006, a very similar narrative unfolded, as Calgary's Alberta neighbor, Edmonton, made the finals as the eighth seed in the West. The Oilers also took a Sun Belt region team – the Carolina Hurricanes – and lost in seven games. In 2007 and 2009, a No. 4 seed made the finals, with Pittsburgh taking the title in 2009. In 2010, seventh-seeded Philadelphia made the Cup finals after beating eighth-seeded Montreal in the Eastern Conference Finals. It was typical to see one low seed in North American hockey's showcase championship series, as you can plainly tell. When 2012 put a six seed and an eight seed in the Stanley Cup Final, however, the landscape had changed. This was new, an indication that the long and grueling regular season seemed to matter even less than before.

Now, we'll get to see if the landscape will change again in favor of high seeds.

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Here are some questions to go over before the puck drops for real on January 19, the opening night of this 48-game race to the playoffs:

First, will Martin Brodeur – after this long layoff – be able to remain a force in the NHL after unexpectedly leading the New Jersey Devils within two wins of another championship? The Devils were even more of a surprise in the 2012 playoffs than the Stanley Cup champion Kings in that Brodeur looked like a player who was well past his prime. New Jersey, in fact, played a relatively poor series against the Florida Panthers in the first round of the 2012 postseason. The Devils, though, were able to win Game 6 and Game 7 in overtime to escape. It was only in Game 2 against Philadelphia in the second round that New Jersey found a higher level of performance. The Devils became a different team after that point in time, and when they somehow scored against the run of play to beat the New York Rangers in Game 5 of a 2-2 series, they surmounted yet one more obstacle on the road back to the Cup finals. This year, the Devils will be without Zach Parise, the superstar who signed with the Minnesota Wild in the offseason. Few teams in the league will be more interesting to watch than New Jersey, with Brodeur being at the center of the action, as usual.

The second big question is about the aforementioned Wild: Will Parise and new teammate Ryan Suter be able to transform this non-playoff team into an instant Cup contender? Minnesota shelled out an unholy amount of dollars to bring aboard Parise and Suter. If, in this short season, the Wild can't at least find a way to win one playoff series, they're going to view this truncated season as a waste of time. They don't just need Parise's production; they need New Jersey's former anchor to provide the kind of leadership that helped the Devils navigate many storms last year on the road to the Eastern Conference championship.

A third major question is if the Detroit Red Wings can stay healthy. Detroit started brightly last season but then got wiped out by injuries in the middle third of the season. The Red Wings were never really able to recover as the season went on. In the first round of the playoffs, they were shut down by Nashville Predator goalie Pekka Rinne. It's true that Rinne starred in the series, but it was still telling that the Red Wings committed a few lapses and were not able to overcome a less experienced team with their puck possession and veteran skill. The Red Wings have something to prove this season, and what adds to a sense of pressure in the Motor City is that the franchise is going to build a brand-new hockey arena to replace the organization's current home, venerable Joe Louis Arena. The Red Wings want to make the transition from one arena to another with a sense that their future is (and can be) as bright as the past.

There are other questions that have to be dealt with before this season begins: Will the Phoenix Coyotes, fresh off the first Western Conference Finals appearance in franchise history, be able to back up one good season with another? The Coyotes were overtime masters in the 2012 playoffs, a great competitive virtue by any measurement. Yet, Phoenix also won by very narrow margins and did not outclass its opponents to a considerable degree. Pardon the pun, but the Yotes will be walking on thin ice, and they need to be better in 2013 than they were in 2012 in order to maintain the same standard of success in the Valley of the Sun.

Will the Chicago Blackhawks get stronger in net and receive the kind of goaltending that can return them to the top tier of the sport? The 2010 Stanley Cup title ended a 48-year championship drought, but it's clear that the Hawks have not been able to generate any consistency after that glorious season. Will this shorter campaign give Chicago the ability to find a firmer foothold in the West?

Will the Washington Capitals – long blessed with Cup-winning talent – be able to break through this season under coach Dale Hunter? Washington, thanks to Hunter, switched from an offense-first approach to a defense-first approach last season, and the change fundamentally worked. If the Caps had simply been able to stay out of the penalty box in the final minute of Game 5 of their second-round series against the Rangers, they might very well have faced the Kings for the 2012 NHL title. Washington, which has never won the Stanley Cup (like Vancouver and a few other snake-bitten franchises that have been around for at least 30 years if not more), could be on the cusp of something special, but the Caps and their fans have been cruelly teased on many occasions in the past.

The Tampa Bay Lightning made the 2011 East Finals but then missed the playoffs last season. The Bolts will certainly be expected to make the playoffs this season, regardless of the 48-game schedule.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, after last season's disastrous first-round flameout against the Philadelphia Flyers, don't know what they have in net, with Marc-Andre Fleury – a Stanley Cup winner from 2009 – facing the downside of his career.

The St. Louis Blues, one of the breakout teams in 2012, have to wonder if the short season in 2013 will work in their favor or not. Will the Blues find it hard to back up one good season with another, or will the extended offseason (due to the lockout) give them a degree of mental freshness that in turn makes them an even better Cup contender?

Will the Buffalo Sabres, led by head coach Lindy Ruff, be able to turn the corner? Ruff is the longest-tenured coach in the league, having served with the Sabres since 1997. He took Buffalo to the East Finals in 1998, 2006, and 2007 while lifting the franchise to the Stanley Cup Final in 1999. However, after a few particularly disappointing seasons, there is a sense in Western New York state that Ruff's reign is becoming stale. If Buffalo doesn't deliver the goods this season (as defined by making the playoffs and providing a stiff challenge to its opponent), Ruff could very well be out of a job, although he probably wouldn't be on the unemployment line for very long, given his considerable credentials.

The Boston Bruins won the Cup in 2011 but then lost to the Washington Capitals and their young wunderkind goaltender, Braden Holtby, in the first round of last year's playoffs. The folks in Beantown will expect a lot of their hockey heroes. As is the case with so many other teams around the league, it will be fascinating to see if the 2013 schedule enables the Bruins to be an emotionally revived and psychologically renewed team over the next six months.

Finally, no survey of an NHL season is complete without a word on the San Jose Sharks. This team regularly brings Cup-winning talent to the table, but lapses in goal and a penchant for squeezing the stick too tightly in the playoffs have kept the Sharks at bay. This franchise has never even made one Cup final, let alone winning one. The Sharks might find that a shorter season will enable them to keep their eyes on the prize with more clarity and concentration than in the past.

 

By: Matt Zemek
ProHockey-fans.com Staff Writer