NHL season preview: Who will challenge the Blackhawks?


The new NHL season kicks off on Tuesday night.

It was not a huge surprise to see the Chicago Blackhawks lift the Stanley Cup in June, but the lock-out-shortened season included a fair few surprises.

Not many expected the New York Islanders to make the play-offs and give Pittsburgh a headache in the opening round, while equally few expected the Philadelphia Flyers not to make the postseason.

New York Rangers were Stanley Cup hopefuls at the start of the season, but they crashed out in the second round after struggling to make the play-offs in what was a disappointing season for the Manhattan team.

2013-14 will be a full 82-game season, but the NHL has a somewhat new look to it. The league revamped its divisional makeup, introducing four new divisions – the Pacific, Central, Atlantic and Metropolitan – to be played inside two conferences. The three best teams in each division will make it to the play-offs, rendering the divisional games very important. The remaining two postseason spots in each conference will go to the conference’s best two teams, regardless of division, outside the automatic play-off spots in their respective divisions. Confusing much?

Perhaps it is. But what the new system does do is ease the travelling burden on some teams while others have to spend more time on the road than before. However, the road miles are now spread more evenly. Arguably the biggest winners are Detroit Red Wings, Columbus Blue Jackets and Winnipeg Jets. Having moved over to the Eastern Conference, the Red Wings no longer have to make their previously all-too-frequent trips across three time zones. Instead, they only head to the west coast once. The same applies to the Blue Jackets, who also moved to the east.

Moving the other way are the Winnipeg Jets, who were regular visitors in Florida and Carolina in the old system. Those journeys are now replaced by much less tiring and time-consuming trips to fellow Canadians Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks.

The overhaul has its downsides though. The revamp left the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings in different conferences, meaning that their traditional rivalry will only be played out twice during the regular season.


EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlantic Division

Stanley Cup finalists Boston Bruins were hard done by the salary cap. They lost four key players in Andrew Ference, Nathan Horton, Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley, but the Bruins remain 2.90 favourites to win the Atlantic Division and third favourites to win the Cup at 11.50. They have a talented core: Tuukka Rask is as good a goalie as anybody, giant defenceman Zdeno Chara is also one of the league's top defencemen and young blueliners Torey Krug and Matt Bartkowski made a great breakthrough last year. Offensively, Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Brad Marchand are also forces to be reckoned with. They have also made good signings, acquiring Loui Eriksson from Dallas and veteran forward Jarome Iginla from Pittsburgh.

The Detroit Red Wings (5.00 to win division) have bags of experience in forwards Daniel Alfredsson, Pavel Datsjuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzén. The average age in their roster is 29 years, which makes you wonder whether their best before date is in the past. They're well-equipped for a postseason run anyway.

Also keep an eye on the Canadian trio of Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators and the Toronto Maple Leafs. All are good teams, and especially the Canadiens and Senators can catch other teams off guard if they have a good run. The Leafs have been improving steadily in the past few years and should make it into the play-offs, but whether they can actually challenge for bigger things than that is a mystery.


Metropolitan Division

Expect the Pittsburgh Penguins (1.92 to win division, 6.50 favourites to win the Stanley Cup) and the New York Rangers (6.50 to win division) to rule here, as they are one or two classes above the others. The Penguins’ finishing let the team down in last year’s play-off series against the Bruins, which is alarming given their firepower. Head coach Dan Bylsma was given one more chance. Star defenceman Kris Letang and world class forwards Sidney Crosby and Jevgeni Malkin are under great pressure to perform, having failed to do that in the spring. Their team is so talented that finishing very high in the East should not be an issue. The postseason will decide whether the Pens’ season has been a success or disappointment.

The Rangers also have a talented roster, and the dressing room atmosphere probably took a turn for the better as the passionate but unpredictable John Tortorella got the sack. He was replaced by Alain Vigneault from the Vancouver Canucks, who hired Tortorella as their next coach. Under Vigneault, the players will get greater creative freedom, and that will probably get the best out of their classy forwards.

The Philadelphia Flyers (10.00 to win division) could be a good outside bet. They have lots of quality in their ranks, but on-ice performances are too often disjointed and disorganised. Changing that will be key to any success they might have. Goalscoring shouldn’t be a problem for the Flyers, but their opponents also have a little too much fun at the other end. Their goalkeeping raises one or two questions. Steve Mason is not exactly a star on this level. Ray Emery is a decent goaltender, but it has now been six years since he’s pulled off more than 50 games in one season.

Behind these three teams, the Columbus Blue Jackets have been improving steadily after hiring GM Jarmo Kekäläinen in the spring. The New York Islanders had a good season last year, and after years in wilderness, the Long Island team are now something to keep on eye on. Both teams are unlikely to achieve greater glory just yey, however.


WESTERN CONFERENCE

Central Division

At 1.78, Stanley Cup Champions Chicago Blackhawks are clear favourites to win the division. The organisation is excellent at handling the salary cap. This helped the Hawks hold on to most of the key players on their Cup-winning team. Losing Dave Bolland and Michael Frolik will hurt, but when you still have the likes of defencemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook and forwards Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in your ranks, it’s not the end of the world. On paper, the Hawks seem to have everything, and last season they also did a fantastic job demonstrating their quality on the ice. At 8.00, the Blackhawks might just become the first back-to-back Stanley Cup winners since the Detroit Red Wings in 1998.

As far as divisional odds are concerned, however, it might be better to jump on the St. Louis Blues’ (3.80 to win division) bandwagon. They have been a good regular season team for a couple of seasons. Now their job is to carry that form over to the postseason. The Blues’ roster is a well-balanced blend of experience and youth.

The Minnesota Wild also have a talented roster, but their lock-out season was a disappointment. Star signings Ryan Suter and Zach Parise did what was expected of them. So did star center Mikko Koivu, but the trio would have needed more support. They have potential, but at this point, the Wild are a bit of a mystery.


Pacific Division

The odds are not huge, but go for the Los Angeles Kings (3.00) to win the Pacific Division. They have a number of stars on their roster, but at the same time, Darryl Sutter is a very tough, demanding coach and will not tolerate egoism. The Kings’ goalscoring let them down last season. If they can improve that, everything is possible with the excellent Jonathan Quick minding their own net.

At this point, steer away from the Vancouver Canucks (4.20 to win division). The Nucks are a team that seem to have it all, but still they cause a disappointment year after year. Their roster is more than capable of achieving great things, but how will the skilful roster and new head coach John Tortorella fit in the same dressing room? Tortorella thinks defence first and doesn’t allow too much creative freedom – which is what the likes of Daniel and Henrik Sedin need to thrive. New York Rangers kept blocking shots like crazy under Tortorella. Expect the Canucks to do that as well, but what else to expect from the Canucks? That’s anyone’s guess.

In fact, the San Jose Sharks (5.00) could be the value pick here. The latter half of last season was good for them. If the Sharks can build on that, they will be a force to be reckoned with. A Stanley Cup run might be too much to ask for them, but a divisional challenge is not out of the question. Also keep an eye on the Anaheim Ducks (5.00). They suffered a big loss in the summer, losing Bobby Ryan to Ottawa in exchange for Jakob Silfverberg, but they still have a host of good players. You’d like slightly better odds for the Ducks though.

Who are you backing this season? Check the latest Stanley Cup odds here.