The National Hockey League released its schedule for the 2013-14 season. As expected, it features a break in February so players can participate in the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Once they return, the mad dash for the playoffs will begin.
Along with the release of the 2013-14 schedule, the NHL also announced the names of its four new divisions. These will be the Pacific, Central, Metropolitan and Atlantic divisions.
With the bulk of the offseason activity complete, including the draft and the early free-agency rush, the countdown to the new season begins. As always, the fresh slate comes with renewed expectations and high hopes for teams and fanbases around the league.
The season is scheduled to begin Tuesday, Oct. 1, which is less than three months away.
On opening night, the Toronto Maple Leafs will travel to face the Montreal Canadiens, the Washington Capitals will head to Chicago to face the Blackhawks and the Winnipeg Jets will make the trip to Edmonton to face the Oilers. You can check out the rest of this season's slate at NHL.com.
Now that the schedule is ready, let's check out some of the main storylines heading into next season.
Chicago Blackhawks' Title Defense
The Blackhawks posted the best record during the lockout-shortened regular season. They proceeded to back it up with a run through the playoffs that concluded by defeating the Boston Bruins in six games to win their second Stanley Cup in four years.
While the Hawks begin to eye back-to-back championships, other contenders are lining up with hopes of ending those dreams. The Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings are among the teams poised to make a run.
Then there are always a few teams that exceed expectations to make the postseason. And, as the Kings illustrated two seasons ago, all it takes is a playoff spot and a couple lucky bounces to transform from a pretender to a contender. A new season is always filled with possibilities.
Division Realignment (via NHL.com)
|Metropolitan Division||Atlantic Division||Central Division||Pacific Division|
|NY Islanders||Florida||Minnesota||Los Angeles|
|Philadelphia||Ottawa||St. Louis||San Jose|
The NHL is scraping the six-division system in favor of a new four-division system. One of the most notable changes, aside from the movement of teams, is that the Eastern Conference now has two more franchises than the West.
For the playoffs, the top three teams in each division will automatically earn a berth. The remaining two spots in each conference are wild cards, given to the teams with the most points outside of the top three in the divisions.
While the new setup should create a fresh batch of rivalries, final judgment will be reserved until the season is completed. Having two extra teams in one conference means the path to the playoffs is more tricky. Hopefully it doesn't result in a worthy team missing out.
Bonanza of Outdoor Games
Hockey struck gold with its Winter Classic series. Playing games outdoors allowed the league to steal the spotlight when it's usually forced to the background by the NFL, NBA and college football. It provided much-needed attention.
But can there be too much of a good thing? The NHL is going to find out. A total of six games are scheduled to be played outdoors, reports Mike Brehm of USA Today. They stretch from Jan. 1 to March 2 next year and are highlighted by the Winter Classic between the Maple Leafs and Red Wings at Michigan Stadium.
The more common the games become the less outside attention they will generate. The league is obviously trying to capitalize on the success, but it could backfire. At some point the unique events will no longer be unique and begin to lose their luster. It could happen in 2014.