6 NHL Teams Built for a Shortened Season
Thank the hockey gods, the Stanley Cup will have a home in June.
The NHL lockout had many of us convinced that, for the second time in eight years, Lord Stanley's eternal contribution to the sport would sit in the Hockey Hall of Fame, touched by no one in the sport for a full calendar year. But thanks to the league and the NHLPA coming to an 11th-hour negotiation, hockey has returned in full force.
The Cup will be kissed. The names will be etched. The legend will live on, uninterrupted.
With teams one month into the new NHL season, we are beginning to see who the favorites to capture the prize will be.
For much of the NHL, simply having a well-rounded team is not enough this season. A shortened year means a condensed schedule, limited practices, no training camp and fewer days off.
These are all challenges that every NHL team faces equally, but the unique circumstances give an advantage to certain teams.
Teams with a plethora of new faces, no matter how talented, seem to lack the chemistry they could have been building since September in a normal year (case in point, the Minnesota Wild).
On the other hand, opportunistic, high-powered offenses are more important than ever. Sloppy play in the defensive zone can result in a multitude of scoring chances for faster teams with the firepower to pepper netminders with shots.
Young teams can bounce back more easily in back-to-backs, but being too young means lacking the fine-tuning it takes to compete at the NHL level.
This year more than ever, we see that the older teams are too old, the younger teams are too young, time to build a team is a luxury no franchise has and bold, sometimes rash decisions need to be made to round out the squad.
Here are the six teams who seem to have an added advantage against their opponents in this chaotic hockey year.
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The Chicago Blackhawks have begun the 2013 season with points in 17 consecutive games, setting an NHL record. Clearly, something about this team prepared them for the shorter, more condensed schedule of the lockout-shortened year.
A huge part of Chicago's success is the number of returning players. The core of the team is made up of players left over from the team's 2010 Stanley Cup victory, including Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.
The players know each other well, meaning their team chemistry was not greatly impacted by the lack of a full-length training camp.
Furthermore, Chicago is a fresh team. According to the blog quanthockey.com, Chicago boasts the 12th-youngest roster in the NHL, putting them right in the range of teams that are youthful and energetic without being too new to be effective.
Throw in some surprisingly stellar goaltending from Corey Crawford and Ray Emery, and this team's point total at the end of 48 games might be good enough for a playoff spot in a full season.
Like the Chicago Blackhawks, the Bruins have the core of a championship team intact to make another major playoff run.
Most teams that lost their starting netminder, as the Bruins did with madman Tim Thomas, would face some disheartening questions entering the season. However, Boston backup Tuukka Rask has spent time as a starter before, having played in more than 100 games in his NHL career before the puck dropped on the 2013 season.
The majority of the Bruins' roster looks the same as it did last season, and youngsters like Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton used the extended offseason to sharpen their skills and further their development to be ready for the year.
The defending Northeast Division winners still have one of the best defenses in the league, a lethal combination of experience, size, skill and toughness that will make opposing offenses work and wear out on the second night of back-to-backs.
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The Anaheim Ducks have one huge disadvantage thanks to the shortened season, and that is the mission of re-signing the team's two biggest stars, Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf.
Because the front office was unable to negotiate with Perry and Getzlaf before the lockout, the team began the year with less than six months (and counting) to keep them both in Duck uniforms.
Aside from that small distraction, Anaheim has proven to be well-suited for the shortened season. The team is the 11th-youngest in the league, making it unlikely that back-to-backs and condensed schedules will fatigue the team to the point of severely affected game play.
The aforementioned Perry and Getzlaf, along with winger Bobby Ryan, make the team capable of putting together one of hockey's most formidable top lines, or spreading the wealth among the top six forwards. The three have combined for 37 points in the first 15 games of the season.
The role of some veterans like Teemu Selanne, Saku Koivu and Sheldon Souray would appear to be a concern, but in the past, Selanne and Koivu have proven to be timeless. The team's well-rounded defense allows Bruce Boudreau to keep Souray's ice time low, and he may stay relatively fresh throughout the year.
In net, Viktor Fasth has proven to be the X-factor, as the former unknown is unbeaten in regulation and has a sub-2.00 goals-against average.
Tampa Bay Lightning
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When NHL teams have little time to prepare in training camp and few chances to practice during the season, it tends to be the defense that suffers most.
Sloppy play in the offensive zone results in some missed chances. Sloppy play in the defensive zone allows offenses to pounce and score, and the Lightning are designed to do just that.
We should find that this shortened season favors teams with potent offenses, and none is more potent than the Lightning. The team has scored 61 goals in 16 games, the first team to break 60 this season.
Led by Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, the Lightning have picked apart defenses all season and are especially adept at overpowering PK units, having scored on nearly one in four man-advantages this season.
Tampa Bay certainly needs its defense to be good, but as a fiery offensive team that plays a tried-and-true trap style under Guy Boucher, the Bolts have the resources to overcome opponents who find themselves in more chaotic waters against this squad's snipers.
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The Coyotes rode a hot goaltender to the Western Conference Finals last season, and Mike Smith came into 2013 prepared to get his team hot in the desert all over again.
Last season, only four goaltenders whose teams qualified for the playoffs started more games than Smith, who was not expected to be such an impact player for Phoenix. His 67 starts in 82 regular-season games have him equipped to play most of the shortened schedule this season, which will keep the Coyotes more competitive on a nightly basis.
In addition, the core of the Phoenix team that went to the Western Conference Final is still there, with captain Shane Doan re-signing in the offseason. The team is not unfamiliar with one another and they have a very effective defensive corps.
Phoenix is one of the league's more well-rounded teams and possesses the ability to win in defensive struggles and in high-scoring shootouts.
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The Penguins were well-equipped for a cup run in 2011-12 before they were trounced by the hated Philadelphia Flyers in a first-round matchup, but the team's early exit is more a reflection of how they match up with Philly, not where they stand in the grand scheme of the NHL.
Much has been made of the Pens getting a "full" season out of both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, something that hasn't happened since 2008-09, the last time that both players played at least 70 regular-season games for the Penguins (and, not coincidentally, the year the team won the Stanley Cup).
Thus far, both Crosby and Malkin have played in every game for the Pens this year, and the Pittsburgh faithful are knocking on wood that it stays that way.
The only two big roster moves for the Pens have been the trade of Jordan Staal, which yielded a comparable player in Brandon Sutter, and the addition of Tomas Vokoun to give the team more depth. Neither player has had much trouble fitting into the Pens' plans.
This team has maturity and experience, and they play with an intensity that will wear on tired opponents without causing this energetic group much fatigue in the long run.
For the Pens, the key is discipline, and while head coach Dan Bylsma didn't have much of a training camp to pound that mantra into the team's collective psyche, it appears that most of the group still has a pit in their stomachs from the undisciplined series last year that dashed their championship dreams.