2013 NHL Season Preview

As the nation has gotten caught up in the beginning of football season and the dramatic conclusion of the regular season in baseball, sports is back in a big way. But all of a sudden, people wake up today and BOOM, it’s October, yes that means playoff baseball but it also means that the NHL drops the puck on their regular season tonight… what? yep, that’s right it’s hockey season already. Perhaps a bit sooner than normal, gotta find a way to squeeze some extra games in with the Olympics this year, but alas the zambonis are movin’, sticks are taped, and clean sheets of ice await 30 teams across North America. It’s hockey season!

Let’s get right to it, lots of new faces in new places, but the real story here is division realignment. Detroit’s no longer in the West, Columbus too, and somehow Boston and Montreal find themselves new local rivals in… FLORIDA? yes, it will take some getting used to, but new rivalries will take shape, and we’ll all get used to Washington and Carolina being in the same division as the Atlantic teams from PA, NY and NJ. Enough already, let’s jump into some pre-season picks:

METROPOLITAN
1. Penguins*
2. Rangers*
3. Capitals*
4. Devils*
5. Flyers*
6. Islanders
7. Blue Jackets
8. Hurricanes
* indicates playoff team
This division combines some intrastate rivalries with some new blood. The Ovechkin v Crosby thing will get new life, but my sense is that the newcomers will be a bit surprised at how competitive things are in this division. Teams like Pittsburgh, New York and Philly are all used to grinding out games late in the season against division rivals. The Caps have simply coasted through the Southeast in recent years. Perhaps Adam Oates and pick up where he left off and get that offense back to prominence.

ATLANTIC
1. Canadiens*
2. Bruins*
3. Senators*
4. Red Wings
5. Maple Leafs
6. Lightning
7. Sabres
8. Panthers
Yes it seems like a mish-mosh of teams but the original 5 from the Northeast simply get an O-6 team in Detroit, plus two from the Southleast. The Tim Thomas tending the net across the team he won a Cup with is the most tantalizing storyline for me, but Alfredsson v Ottawa is another juicy one. This looks like it could be a really physical division night in and night out.

CENTRAL
1. Blackhawks*
2. Blues*
3. Predators*
4. Stars*
5. Wild
6. Jets
7. Avalanche
This seems like an easy division to call, but after the Hawks, we don’t really know what to expect from a lot of these teams. Many pundits are high on St. Louis, but they also were last year and that season saw more than a few highs and lows. Nashville and Dallas look like revamped clubs to me. Deeper lines make for better hockey teams and I think both are ready to compete in 2013-14.

PACIFIC
1. Kings*
2. Ducks*
3. Sharks*
4. Canucks*
5. Oilers
6. Coyotes
7. Flames
This could be the most difficult division in hockey to predict. The Kings and Ducks SHOULD be good, and the Sharks are a sleeper pick for many (as always), but in the end there are so many question marks surrounding Vancouver, Edmonton, and the rest of the bunch.

After that we come to the post-season. In the East, the Penguins are a popular pick to make is back to the conference finals, while the Capitals would be a team I think could get over the hump this year. While the Hawks are a really solid team, it’s just going to be really hard for these guys to do it again. This time around I like the Sharks defeating the rival Kings in the Western Finals. I really think Pittsburgh will be punching through teams to battle to the Cup this year especially after the embarrassment of getting swept in the Conference Finals last season, so I’ll take the Pens over the Sharks in the Cup Finals

Finally, instead of making boring prognostications like “Stamkos will win the Rocket Richard” or “Jose Theodore will win the Vezina” (it happened folks), I am going to do something a little different this year:

10 BOLD PREDICTIONS FOR THE 2013-14 NHL SEASON
– No Penguin player will lead the NHL in scoring
– Brad Richards finds new life on the wing and returns to scoring ways
– Martin Brodeur retires at the season’s end
– Blues go into the season as a potential Cup contender, but lose in the 1st round of the playoffs
– The Sharks squeeze into the playoffs, and then make a deep run
– Alex Ovechkin makes another run at 60 goals (with more than half coming on the PP)
– Maple Leafs start a new streak of season’s without a playoff appearance
– Marc Andre Fleury leads the league in wins
– Luongo will be in Vezina talk at season’s end
– Peter Laviolette is the first NHL coach fired, but the Flyers still make the playoffs

1 NOT SO BOLD PREDICTION
– The NHL has ice problems at the outdoor game between the Ducks and Kings

Well, that about wraps it up folks. I hope everyone enjoys the season, and that the Olympics are a welcome addition to the hockey calendar as always.

2013 NHL Preview

Ok, we’ve all gotten the lock-out bitterness out of our systems right? ok, well if you’re still angry, please read elsewhere because WhitSport is moving forward! I’m proud to present a quick look at what to expect for the 48 game season that the NHL will conduct in the coming months.

The last time the NHL salvaged a strike-shortened season (1995) there were also 48 games played, with the Devils taking home the Stanley Cup in the end. Many teams think their teams can get hot and make a run at the playoffs this year, despite disappointing results in 2012. Back in ’95 this was not the case, as only 3 teams who made the playoffs in ’94 failed to do so after the lockout. This does not bode well for teams like the Maple Leafs, Oilers, and Islanders who are looking to end long playoff droughts. Last year saw tons of drama with more upsets than ever before in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The LA Kings took home Lord Stanley’s trophy, and in the process, became the first 8th seed to win the Cup.

With the amount of craziness that continues to go on display once the Playoffs roll around, it becomes nearly impossible to predict who will be vying for the Cup in June. Nevertheless, let’s have a go!

EASTERN CONFERENCE

1. Penguins– with Crosby healthy, and Malkin already warmed up after playing in Russia, the Pens, who finished just 1 point behind the Rangers for the top spot in the East last year, look to avenge their early post-season departure with a deep run this season
2. Bruins– the B’s are a fairly young team and showed some consistency last year after winning their division for the 2nd straight season. Plus, with Tim Thomas on sabbatical, it’s Tuuka time!!
3. Capitals– with new coach Adam Oates around, the culture should improve in Washington. Ovechkin seems to be returning to normal, and may be given a longer leash than he had under Dale Hunter.
4. Rangers– John Tortorella certainly won’t let his foot off the pedal now. The Rangers have the personnel to make a great run, only questions surround whether Rick Nash, Marian Gaborik, and company can all live up to their billing.
5. Devils– it’d be hard to put the reigning Conference Champs any lower, with Brodeur back and rested, this young team could prove why last spring was no fluke. Watch out for emerging young stars like Henrique and Larsson.
6. Sabres– Nice additions in the offseason. If Ryan Miller steps back up to the level we know he can play, Buffalo has a shot to make some waves.
7. Flyers– with the goaltending situation at a crossroads, there could be bumps along the road. A solid scoring department may barely save them
8. Lightning– I’m expecting a big year from Stamkos. If the defense can improve, even just slightly, they’ll be in the mix.
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9. Panthers– they’re just one of those teams who played well last year, but a shortened season could prove fatal, only saving grace is their division
10. Jets– I like what they’re doing here. Their young consortium of talent is progressing nicely, but might be a goaltender away from the playoffs
11. Senators– I just don’t see enough here to warrant another playoff run, especially since the odds of Eric Karlsson putting up similar #’s to last year are slim
12. Canadiens– slight improvement over last year, but seriously need some scorers to contend for the playoffs again.
13. Islanders– this high? really? I think Tavares has his break out season, but a hefty schedule against the rest of the Atlantic keep the Isles humbled.
14. Hurricanes– the decline has been quick, and shows no signs of turning around this year. Contracts like Jordan Staal and Alex Semin have bad news written all over them.
15. Maple Leafs– goaltending is too flaky, and scoring is too thin behind Kessel. Bottom of the barrel here.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

1. Blues– Ken Hitchcock was St. Louis’ savior a year ago, and they aren’t about to turn back now. Expect the Blues to continue stifling defensive play throughout the year.
2. Canucks– Roberto Luongo is as good as gone, but Schneider is more than capable, and all of the offensive weapons are back. They should contend for the President’s Trophy again
3. Coyotes– this team continues to impress despite a major lack of star power. I like Mike Smith to have another great year in net.
4. Blackhawks– I think the Blackhawks, now healthy, should put together a nice season. Patrick Kane is poised for a bounce-back campaign.
5. Ducks– yep this is my sleeper pick. Bruce Boudreau had this squad playing back up to their potential last year, but ran out time to snag a playoff berth. Look for bounce back years for Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf
6. Red Wings– losing Nik Lidstrom might take more of a toll than some people think. I like their young talent a lot, but it’d be crazy to put them too much higher.
7. Predators– With Rinne back, they’re pretty much a lock for a playoff spot. Some worries about loss of Suter, but signing Hal Gill and re-signing others will help.
8. Stars- could repeat last year and get off to a red-hot start, but this time, a shortened schedule means they make the cut in April.
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9. Kings- what?! how could I leave the defending champs out of the playoffs? First off, they sneaked in as an 8-seed, and secondly, they’ve still got some major questions on offense
10. Sharks– we saw the decline begin last year, they have some good young players, but not enough depth.
11. Wild– two huge signings, but you need 4 full lines to make a decent NHL team. They could make things interesting if net-minder Niklas Backstrom stays healthy.
12. Avalanche– lots of good young talent, but really just too young for a playoff sprint (their Captain is only 20 years old!).
13. Oilers– just too much talent to finish any lower. Looking forward to seeing Yakupov and his new friends in action, even if the wins aren’t plentiful.
14. Flames– last year they did their normal routine and limped out of contention as the months dragged on. With an aging squad I don’t see much improvement on the horizon
15. Blue Jackets– just nothing here to think they’ll finish above bottom. With Nash gone they can begin to rebuild

In terms of pre-season Cup picks, I have never even been close to correct, but I’ll made some silly picks anyway…

Rangers fans hope to light em up with King Henry this summer

Stanley Cup: Rangers over Blues
Conn Smythe (Playoff MVP): Henrik Lundqvist
Hart (Reg Season MVP): Claude Giroux
Art Ross (Most Points): Claude Giroux
Rocket Richard (Most Goals): Steven Stamkos
Vezina (Best Goalie): Mike Smith
Norris (Best Defenseman): Kris Letang
Calder (Best Rookie): Nail Yakupov
Jack Adams (Best Coach): Adam Oates

Any comments, disagreements, praise, questions, quips, queries, and quandaries are all welcomed here. Looking forward to the puck finally dropping!

Total Winter Classic Preview

Forecast, January 1, 2011: Temperatures around 50°F… Cloudy with Rain Showers likely… Hardly the weather NHL execs had hoped when deciding on having their annual bonanza in Pittsburgh. However, it seems as though the game may go off, and could still be a huge success. Should the game be delayed until Sunday, the teams will still likely come out with the same tenacity and put on a brilliant display of outdoor hockey. Sure TV ratings will likely dip, especially when pitted against the media giant known as the NFL. But who cares? 90% of people planning on watching the game will still likely tune in, at least for a period or two.

NHL Execs are hoping for more of a winter wonderland

But first, I need to address the issue with the selection of the decision made months ago, mainly the teams and location involved in the 2011 Winter Classic. As a Penguins supporter/defender, some might be surprised at my chagrin towards the choices made by Bettman and company. By no means am I a Bettman hater, the man is trying to bring back the sport that stooped to the lowest of lows in 2004, when a lockout cost the league an entire season, and with it TV contracts, sponsorship, and millions of fans across the United States. So monetarily the choice of Penguins vs Capitals was a slam dunk… it brings in the most mula. When you can showcase the leagues two most recognizeable players on the biggest stage, you’ll jump at the chance. Bettman will never get to see Crosby and Ovechkin duke it out in the Stanley Cup Finals, so he’s settling for this. But hockey purists, and even casual fans recognize that this media stunt is a bit forced, and frankly unfair to many other teams, cities, and markets across North America. Fans in Montreal would kill to host a Winter Classic; instead they’ll have to settle for the Flames in a much less hyped “Heritage Classic” in February.

Avery: clearly peeved that the Rangers have yet to play in a Winter Classic

Hockey purists will argue that the annual game should include Original Six Teams first, with NY Rangers, Montreal, and Toronto still having yet to feature in one. But, the main argument is equity. Why should the Pens get a second Winter Classic, before 25 other teams even get to play in one?! I already answered that question above ($). Regardless, let’s take a look at some other matchups that could still draw huge crowds, garner interest, and showcase some of the NHL’s lesser known players and teams:

NY/NJ Rivarly: Rangers vs Devils (New Meadowlands Stadium or Yankee Stadium)

Ovi vs Stamkos: Capitals vs Lightning (FedEx Field)

Battle for Canada: Maple Leafs vs Canadiens (Rogers Centre… roof open)

Gretzky Game: Oilers vs Kings (Commonwealth Stadium)

If the NHL was still insistent on having Crosby vs Ovechkin, why not have the game in Washington? FedEx field, RFK, Nationals Park… they’d all be great locations. How about this for a radical idea… have the game on the national mall… right there, in front of the most iconic monuments in America. If DC can cram a million people in for the Obama inauguration, I’m sure they can fit 80,000 in for a hockey game.

Back to business: HBO’s coverage of the two teams have provided more hype than usual, has let us into the inner workings of a hockey team, and especially what coaches say when their teams struggle (see Bruce Boudreau). The Pens are flying high, winning 16 of their last 20 games, and scoring the second most goals in the NHL. The Caps are reeling, after losing 8 in a row, they’re just now starting to recover, and still cling to their division lead. So what should we expect? For starters, expect a close game: 9 out of their last 13 contests have been decided by just 1 goal, with 6 of those games going to Overtime.

The rivalry continues? Expect a calmer game, for the sake of the NHL

With that being said, let’s get into the game itself:

Injury Report:

Capitals: Matt Bradley, Boyd Gordon OUT… Tom Poti, Mattieu Perrault QUES.

Penguins: Mike Comrie, Jordan Staal OUT… Eric Godard DOUBTFUL

Expected Lines:

Capitals:

Off: 1-Ovechkin, Backstrom, Knuble… 2-Laich, Johansson, Semin… 3-Chimera, Beagle, Fehr… 4-Hendricks, Steckel, Perrault

Def: 1-Green, Hannan… 2-Erskine, Schultz… 3-Carlson, Alzner

Goalie: Varlamov

Penguins:

Off: 1- Kunitz, Crosby, Dupuis… 2- Talbot, Malkin, Cooke… 3- Conner, Letestu, Kennedy… 4- Rupp, Adams, Asham

Def: 1- Orpik, Letang… 2- Martin, Michalek… 3- Goligoski, Engelland

Goalie: Fleury

Players to watch:

Capitals: Jason Chimera (right)- one of the fastest skaters in the NHL, and is the only Capital with experience playing in a pro game outdoors (1st Heritage Classic with Edmonton).

Penguins: Sidney Crosby- coming off his first point-less game in over a month, he’ll be looking to get back on the score sheet. He also stole this show 3 years ago, scoring the shootout winner in Buffalo.

Well, that’s that. Enjoy the show ladies and gents, no matter when the puck ends up dropping.

Promotion/Relegation Possibility

Zack Greinke would get the chance to play for a team that people actually knew existed

As the curtain closes on the Premier League season I’d like to reflect a bit and take a look at the concept of relegation. As a blogger for all-things sports here in the USA, I contemplated what life in the American Sports would be like if relegation were in play. There are so many factors to how the system would work that I had a hard time keeping track of them all. Let’s break it down into Pros vs Cons.

PROS

#1. More to play for at the end of seasons. Right now, when a team in pro- basketball, hockey, or football is struggling, they might as well lose the remainder of their games to ensure a good draft pick in the off-season. The Pirates and Nationals fighting it out late in the season to survive in a top flight division, now sounds a bit more interesting.

#2. Plays in with Free Agency. Players are always looking to go to a place where they’ll compete at a high level, and garner higher wages. Promotion and relegation are major proponents of this system. Bigger name English players typically try and remain in the Premier League and will fight for a trade to a team remaining in the top division.

#3. Place for aging veterans to still play. Guys like Barry Bonds, Brett Favre, and Chris Chelios can go somewhere and play out their 40s and 50s while still being the big men on campus. Washed up ballplayers may be over the hill, but their experience is still valued and they can still compete at the lower levels.

#4. Support of revenue sharing. Being in an upper league would benefit teams that normally couldnt afford to pay players higher salaries. Promotion would void this completely, as “lesser teams” would now have an influx of money to help improve the club, and keep it competitive.

#5. Excitement is essentially doubled. Attendance would be boosted to watch teams in the majors and minors battle it out for promotion or relegation. Fans would be treated to bonus exhilaration after things at the top of the leagues were decided weeks earlier.

#6. More divisions = more teams.  With the addition of relegation comes more teams looking to get into the mix, local fans already follow their home-town teams; LA could finally have their football team, Kansas City could finally get their hockey team, and new basketball teams could spawn in places like New York, Philly, and Detroit. Many smaller English teams are even owned by the locals of the town.

CONS

#1. Lack of history for a large number of newly promoted teams. Imagine the Toledo Mudhens or Albuquerque Isotopes playing big league baseball? Tough to do isn’t it? Although these histories would be built over time, just as they were in Europe.

#2. Waffling fan bases… sure teams in England suffer a hit in attendance and merchandising when their teams take the drop, but the majority of the fan base will stick with their team, and follow their performance in the lower league. American fans won’t have that same patience.

#3. Economic hardships are magnified. Every once and a while, a fairly wealthy team like Newcastle gets relegated. Imagine the N.Y. Mets down in AAA, they’d likely be back up the next season. Most of the smaller teams wouldn’t have the same luxury. If the Predators or Coyotes of the NHL got sent down, that’d be all she wrote. Teams would file for bankruptcy; not good for the sport.

#4. Perennial powerhouses out of the spotlight. If a teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs (highest grossing team in the NHL) were to go down, all hell would break loose in Canada. Imagine one bad year for the Cowboys could equal an exit from the country’s biggest sports league.

#5. Loss of the farm-systems. With baseball teams now all in play for who’s going up or down, baseball and hockey teams would be forced to create new pools to which they can draw young players to replace under-performing or injured ones. Plus, sports with non-existent farm systems like Football and Basketball would need time to build up lower divisions.

With every pro exists a con. Is it the best system? Probably not, but it may just be better than the one we’ve got now! Whitsport has had it’s take, now what’s yours?

Promotion advocates look no further than Burnley last year to support their cases... exciting underdog stories would run rampant