With the NHL season set to begin Saturday, questions and predictions surrounding the abbreviated season are aplenty. Here is what's on the minds of NHL fans around the world.
How will the shortened schedule affect this season? Who will benefit the most?
Teams will play a 48-game schedule in just 99 days this season. That means more back-to-back games than ever before and less time to recover from injuries. Teams with depth on defense, special teams and in net will benefit more, while older teams will have to find a way to stay healthy and consistent. Changes in this year's schedule also mean that teams will play less games in their division, just 18, while the other 30 will be against other teams in their conference. This means that division rivals will have less familiarity with one another come playoff time, which could create some high-scoring playoff action. But teams that struggle will have less time to snap out of their slumps if they want to reach the playoffs.
"Teams that start the season slow will be doomed," said ESPN-affiliated blogger Rob Abruzzese. "Last year, the Kings rode a hot streak into the playoffs and they won the Stanley Cup because of it. That could very well happen again this year. The shortened schedule affects teams like the Rangers the most, with a goaltender like Henrik Lundqvist who plays a lot during the season. With less games, he'll be fresh for the playoffs."
Who wins the Stanley Cup?
With the shortened season and less divisional matchups, the question of who takes home the Stanley Cup is a difficult one. The Rangers and Wild made big time signings; The Kings have the same championship team from last year and several teams, including the St. Louis Blues, Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins have plenty of potential. So who wins it all?
“I think the St. Louis Blues have a great shot," veteran hockey writer BD Gallof
said. “The Kevin Hitchcock system tends to wear itself out after a few years, but the Blues have a great defense and even better goaltending. The only team close to them in both categories is the Rangers, but I think they are a trade deadline move away from being the team they want to be. They needed Bryce Salvador much more than the Devils did. For that reason, I think the Blues have potential.”
Is Rick Nash the “missing piece” for the Rangers?
Can the Los Angeles Kings repeat?
The Kings shocked the NHL last year after they snuck into the playoffs. They continued to baffle the hockey world with a huge win over the New Jersey Devils in the Stanley Cup finals. With a nearly identical roster to last year’s team, can the Kings win a second consecutive championship?
“It’s the million dollar question,” Gallof said. “A couple of weeks before the trade deadline last season, people were calling for (Kings General Manager Dean) Lombardi to be fired. Then they went on that playoff run. It’s really a mixed bag. I don’t think anyone is sure of who is going to show up this year. It could be a playoff team with potential, or a Stanley Cup contender. I think you may see them struggle at times this season, but if they make the playoffs, they’ll be a dangerous team. Because when the chips are down, they have proven that they can win.”
Without Nash last season, the Broadway Blueshirts were a win away from the Stanley Cup finals. After the Rangers acquired the high-scoring winger from the Columbus Blue Jackets this offseason, many hockey scribes see Nash as the player that can get the Rangers into the Stanley Cup finals.
“They paid a steep price to get him, but given the goaltending and everything else the Rangers have going for them, it makes sense. He could be the difference maker,” said Hall of Fame NHL broadcaster Jiggs McDonald. “But so much will hinge on this condensed schedule and how healthy teams can remain in light of that number of games in the limited number of days. Regardless, Nash just might make them the team to watch coming out of the East.”
There are plenty of people out there however that feel the Rangers need more than the dangerous scorer to truly be Stanley Cup contenders.
“Nash isn't necessarily the final piece for the Rangers,” The Hockey News writer Adam Proteau said. “He's only played four career NHL playoff games, and the Rangers will only be successful with a deep playoff run. He definitely makes them more dangerous, though.”
How will Zach Parise and Ryan Suter affect the Minnesota Wild’s offensive attack?
This summer, the Wild captured the heart and soul of both the New Jersey Devils and the Nashville Predators, signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to long-term contracts. Although acquisitions of the forward and d-man make the Wild a favorite to make the playoffs, many hockey pundits aren’t yet convinced the team is a Stanley Cup contender.
“Both Parise and Suter are special players,” said HockeyBuzz.com writer Dee Karl
. “They make everyone around them better. They will have an immediate impact on the Wild. But I don’t see them as Stanley Cup contenders yet. There is simply too much work to be done there. A 48-game season may not be enough time for them.”
How will Nicklas Lidstrom’s retirement affect the Red Wings?
Arguably the greatest defenseman to ever lace up the skates, Lidstrom’s retirement leaves the Red Wings with a big hole in the defense. However, it wouldn’t be the first time the Wings have had to replace an elite player. After Brian Rafalski’s retirement, Niklas Kronwall stepped up beautifully as the number two defenseman the team needed. Can he or someone else pick up the slack for the retired Lidstrom?
“Lidstrom's retirement could have a massive effect on the Wings,” The Hockey News writer Adam Proteau said. “Beyond the minutes he plays nearly perfectly, the absence of his quiet leadership by example will also have an effect, and not a good one, on the organization's youngsters. If there's one absence that could hurt a team most this season, it's Lidstrom's.”
Can Tuukka Rask pick up the slack in the net for the Bruins?
Goalie Tim Thomas’ “year off” put the talented Bruins in a tough spot, but Rask has been waiting in the wings for quite some time now. This may be the time when he holds on to the number one spot, for good.
"There's certainly a lot of pressure for him to perform," said New York-based hockey blogger Derek Felix. " Especially in a condensed schedule. It won't be easy for a young netminder to just take over on a team with high expectations. He's capable of stealing games. It should help having leaders like Chara and Bergeron in the room. Plus he's been in the league a few years and knows what to expect. The Bruins scoring will be a key. They didn't score consistently last year."
How long will Roberto Luongo be a Vancouver Canuck?
Luongo’s playoff disaster and the rise of Cory Schneider have created a wacky situation in Vancouver. With two number one goaltenders on their roster and a bevvy of teams looking for an upgrade, the question remains. Will Luongo last the season with the Canucks?
“I think he’ll spend at least a month in Vancouver,” Hockeybuzz writer Dee Karl said. “With so many players having not played during the lockout, there’s going to be plenty of injuries and a goaltender like Luongo will be a necessity for other teams. Every team is going to try to fly out of the gate and you’re going to see a lot of injuries and eventually the Canucks will find a suitor for him.”
Will Brent Burns shave his beard?
The San Jose Shark’s defenseman was recently named one of Cosmopolitan magazine’s “Hottest players of 2013.”
That piece must have been written before he took his team picture this week, appearing more like Star Wars’ Chewbacca than the heartthrob he’s been since his debut in 2005. With females in Minnesota screaming bloody murder, when will the hunk go back to his pretty boy self?
“I’m not sure when he’s going to shave,” Hockey scribe BD Gallof said. “But when he does, they’re going to need to call a landscaping company. That thing needs a lawnmower, shears and a garden hoe. It’s quite the hairy piece.”
There is another explanation behind Burns’ stimulus in facial hair.
“It’s a reverse playoff beard,” Karl said. "Once the team makes the playoffs, Burns will shave it off."