Going out west, the Central Division is seen by many as the best and most competitive one that the National Hockey League has to offer. St Louis Blues triumphed last year, employing a stingy defence and having more than stellar goaltending from both Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott. This is where they really have to rely though. Make no mistake about it, there is quality up front with Perron, Backes and Oshie. Vladimir Tarasenko is hoped to be a big hit for the Blues too. They have to prove it wasn’t just a fluke season and back it up with another strong showing in this shorter campaign.
Recent former champion Chicago pose a strong threat to St Louis with many of their cup-winning team still in their ranks. Captain Jonathan Toews, who only managed 59 league games last year due to injury (still with 57 points in those games), and the Patricks, Kane and Sharp, lead the Blackhawks’ offence. Secondary scoring is there for Joel Quenneville’s side in Marian Hossa and Viktor Stalberg. On the blue line, there’s a solid top six, with Duncan Keith (infamous for losing most of his teeth) leading the way. A few concerns have been aired about the goaltending tandem that is being gone with again in 2013. Corey Crawford and Ray Emery both have to perform better between the pipes for the Blackhawks to go deeper. Things look good for the Hawks though and they should put in a very good challenge for the division and be nearer the top of the conference.
The third team up in the Central Division is probably the most respected (and maybe feared) franchise in the NHL. Mike Babcock’s Detroit Red Wings are always in there come mid-Spring and consistently require their opposition to work very hard if they want any points at all against them. The Wings have done exceptionally well to maintain such a terrific core of players over the years; none more so as we commence this shortened season. Technically-superb Russian Pavel Datsyuk will again be present to steal pucks off defencemen and dazzle them with his silky-smooth hands. Swede Henrik Zetterberg joins him and he’ll be extra motivated this season after being named the new captain. Of course, he has been made captain due to the retirement of surely future hall-of-famer Nick Lidstrom. He leaves a gigantic gap there on the blue line but Babcock has some tricks up his sleeve and Niklas Kronwall will step up to fill his number one D-man boots. The defence remains very strong all the same – Kyle Quincey, Ian White, Jonathan Ericsson and Carlo Colaiacovo are among those in the defensive unit. Jimmy Howard will be more than satisfactory between the pipes. Then, there’s the young talent coming through up front: Abdelkader, Brunner, Nyqvist and Tatar. Coach Babcock has lots of options out there; they arguably have the most depth in their forward lines than any of the other 30 outfits. I really can’t see why the Red Wings won’t be in the playoffs and extend that streak. One thing that makes it just a bit more challenging is that they’ll be playing all their games in the trickier Western Conference.
They knocked the team they’ve looked up to for so long out of the playoffs in the first round in 2012, and now have the Nashville Predators got what it takes to clinch the division title? They have the stud, work-horse goaltender; they have the franchise defenceman (who nearly got pinched away like Ryan Suter); they’ve got the youngsters starting to come through and make a name for themselves. What are they missing then? Goals. You still feel that more firepower needs to come from somewhere. Still, the Preds look strong enough behind Rinne, Weber, Ellis, Hornqvist et al to make the playoffs once again and try and extend that Stanley run.
One of the most talked about stories of the off-season involved the team from Ohio that is residing at the basement of the division. Did the Columbus Blue Jackets get a good deal for their absolute driving force and superstar Rick Nash? They got a couple players capable of putting some points up on the board. Energetic and skilful Brandon Dubinsky is joined by Artem Anisimov at Columbus. But let’s face it, there’s still a problem for goals there on the forward lines. Off-season acquisition Nick Foligno might help a little though. The D looks better though, it must be said. Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski are two excellent players, and they’re joined by Nikita Nikitin, Tim Erixon, Adrian Aucoin and last year’s 2nd draft pick Ryan Murray (who unfortunately is out for the year). They have to better in goal though as Steve Mason was not good enough last season, with GAA of 3.39 and a save percentage of .894. Enter Sergei Bobrovsky. He could be good pick-up for the Jackets as Mason isn’t performing as a number one as of yet, so they can share the work-load. I think the team will better last year’s output but again miss out on the springtime fun.
The Northwest Division has been won by the same Canadian outfit for the past 4 seasons and I can’t see that changing this year. Vancouver have been dominant in the regular season in recent times but this hasn’t translated to the playoffs, except when they went all the way to a home Game 7 in the Final but got wiped off the ice by the Boston Bruins (yes, you remember the riots well). This time around, though, it looks as if Roberto Luongo will no longer be the main man in the crease for the Canucks, with Cory Schneider taking up the mantle. It’s unsurprising that they want to go with the younger netminder who is performing slightly better than gold medal winner Luongo, but it’s still relatively shocking for a player that has so many years left on his contract and has been pretty solid over the years for the team. Toronto have displayed some interest but it’s believed Roberto wants to go back to Florida.
Helping Schneider to keep the goals out will be ex-Florida D-man Jason Garrison, who signed on a big-money contract in the summer. Then, offensively, not much has changed. The Sedins are still around and ready to team-up again, along with Alex Burrows. Unfortunately Ryan Kesler and David Booth will be absent through injury as the season begins, so Mason Raymond and Zack Kassian will need to rise up to the occasion. I’d be quite surprised if the Canucks did not triumph in the Northwest yet again and make it cinq in a row.
Vancouver’s friendly rivals Calgary and Edmonton will both be looking to improve on pretty mediocre campaigns last time around. The former have fired a new coach, Bob Hartley, and have snapped up many new players to try and gain those few points needed to get into the playoffs. Offensive defenceman Dennis Wideman will effectively quarter-back the powerplay and hopefully score some much-needed points. Jiri Hudler was raided from Detroit, as was Roman Cervenka from the KHL. The old faces are there too – Jerome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff in the crease for most of the time. Mike Cammalleri is to be relied upon highly this year too, to really propel the Flames into the top eight of the West. Edmonton has one of the (if not ‘the’) most exciting young sides in the entire league. RNH, Taylor Hall, Eberle, Gagner, and now Nail Yakupov (1st pick in 2012) and very promising D-man Justin Schultz. The Oilers really have a chance this year to do some damage and get themselves a playoff berth, particularly with this sprint-finish season, which could favour a more explosive offense instead of huge consistency across the normal 82-game campaign.
The other two sides Colorado and Minnesota are tough to call also. The Wild did some exceptionally impressive business in the summer, by anyone’s standards. They managed to entice both Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to sign on the dotted line, without losing anyone. Parise immediately adds a lot more firepower, starting to solve that problem; Suter will lead the defence. The team started off so well last season and had the best record in the league in December. Then, they fell apart and dropped outside the playoffs once again. If they can streak like they did though at the start of last term, that would be enough to make the postseason in this 48-game year. The Avalanche have some great young players who can hopefully push them into Cup contention in the coming years. Last season’s top rookie Gabriel Landeskog is back as captain. Ryan O’Reilly and Matt Duchene also add lots of offence. PA Parenteau, who had an excellent season last time around, has been brought in from Long Island. These young players are getting better with every year so look for Colorado to climb again this season.
Finally, we arrive to some California heat in the Pacific Division by considering last season’s Stanley Cup champions from Los Angeles. The Kings have kept in-tact the majority of their winning roster, including signing star goaltender Jonathan Quick to a long extension. They can’t afford to rely on just squeaking in the playoffs this year though, with other non-playoff teams for last season improving. Having that strong core back could lead them far however. Kopitar, Penner, Brown, Gagne, Carter are all big weapons to have in defence of a championship. We’ll get a glimpse of if they can handle the pressure when the Blackhawks come to town on opening night.
The Pacific Division winners from 2012, the Phoenix Coyotes, will be looking to build on a brilliant season last time, where they reached the last 4 of the playoffs. The D remains strong, with Zbynek Michalek a new addition. He joins Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, amongst others. Mike Smith had a revelation year in goal for the Coyotes and it’s hoped he can produce again. The questions remain within the forward lines and where the goals are going to come from. Steve Sullivan has come in, as a replacement for Ray Whitney, and will need to bring offence. The management also managed to keep the influential Shane Doan in the desert. Phoenix fans have great reason to be optimistic for another stab at the Stanley Cup this season, if Mike Smith can deliver solid numbers again.
Bruce Boudreau got the Anaheim Ducks to perform much better when he took over mid-way through the 2011/12 season. Now the team is all his and he’ll be expected to try and get the best out of those huge three offensive players – Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan and Corey Perry. If those three can sparkle, the Ducks might be able to make some headway in a tough division. Jonas Hiller is back and healthy, and has the potential to flourish behind new additions Sheldon Souray and Bryan Allen on defence. It’s certainly going to be tough and I just don’t think the Ducks have got enough to beat out the other improved sides.
Fourthly in this division, we come across the Dallas Stars who have made some bold moves over the summer. The saluting veteran that is Jaromir Jagr has decided to head out west and give it a shot with the Stars. He’s undoubtedly still got a lot to give in the NHL, at the mere age of 40. Another 40-year-old snapped up by Joe Nieuwendyk was Ray Whitney, who had a top 77 points for Phoenix last year. Those pair join an already impressive core of Loui Eriksson, Jamie Benn and ex-Sabre centre Derek Roy. Roy has been described as a “proven point producer” by the franchise and should fit in nicely on the second line. He could also help a struggling powerplay that was last overall in the league in 2012. Dallas were close last season to winning the division and just maybe those changes could squeeze them in, particularly in this shortened term.
Our 30th team to ponder over is the Sharks from San Jose, who have consistently been up there in the NHL for many years now. They have a strong set of forwards with Marleau, Thornton and Pavelski once again leading the lines. Throw in the very promising Logan Couture and Ryan Clowe and there is some solid secondary scoring in there. Defensively, the outlook is pretty good too. Brent Burns and Dan Boyle are still two of the best, and Brad Stuart has been added from the Wings to eat up some ice time. Antti Niemi is a proven Stanley Cup winner between the pipes but can he backstop the side consistently all season long? You can’t see too many issues with the Sharks’ roster and they should enjoy another playoff berth come April, with some electric atmospheres inside the Shark Tank.
All of the thirty sides bidding to get their gloves on that famous piece of silverware have been briefly looked at then. This 48-game regular season will inevitably blow up some surprises and shocks. Perhaps teams we thought weren’t going to make it to the postseason will and vice versa. Teams have to fly out of the blocks as they’ll be no room for a few bad games at the start of the year; that could prove very costly as the 16 playoff places fill up. It’s brilliant to see the NHL back. As they say, good things come to those who wait. Enjoy opening night.