Predicting the Biggest X-Factors for the 2013-14 NHL Season
The 2013-14 NHL season could be one of the most interesting in recent memory. While (thankfully) there's no lockout to concern ourselves with, there are several X-factors that will have massive impacts throughout the year.
For instance, how will goaltenders adjust to their smaller pads? Will we see more suspensions as a result of the altered headshot rule? And just how long will it be before the NHL's new fashion rule costs a team an important game down the stretch?
All of these things are worth keeping an eye on as the year unfolds.
Impact of Smaller Goalie Pads on Scoring
In 2013-14, goaltenders won't be able to use their leg guards to protect their belly buttons.
The NHL instituted a new rule that restricts the length the pads, as was explained by NHL.com:
The previous rule, instituted prior to the 2010-11 season, was that a goalie's leg pads could not go higher on his leg than 55 percent of the distance between the center of his knee and his pelvis. So if a goalie's upper-leg measurement was 20 inches, which is roughly the average number in the NHL, the pad could not go higher than 11 inches above the center of his knee.
That number will now be 45 percent, so the same goalie will be able to wear a pad that goes no higher than 9 inches above his knee.
When it comes to closing the five hole, losing approximately 2 inches off each leg pad could result in 4 inches less coverage, depending on the style of the goaltender.
The anticipated impact is an increase in goal scoring, which, according to CBSSports.com, decreased in 2013 yet again.
Four inches of extra space may not sound like a lot, but when there's a lot of lateral movement or a net-mouth scramble, that's when the lessened ability of goaltenders to just take away everything down low will really show.
James Reimer explained the changes to the Toronto Sun:
The goal pads are different. They are really different. You don’t notice it in practice. The direct shot doesn't affect it. If you were wearing shinpads, you’d still stop the direct stop. It’s the deflections and where you open up. That’s where you’re going to be vulnerable.
I can see advantage to the scrambles, advantage to the tips. That’s where you’re going to see the differences.
Defense may win championships, but the NHL knows that goals are what put your average, casual hockey fans in the stands. Coaches are brilliant when it comes to gaming new rules and utilizing them to their advantage, but there's no way around shorter pads.
The NHL's New Fashion Police Rule
You see how Alex Ovechkin's jersey is tucked into his hockey pads? In 2013-14, that's a penalty.
A cursory glance at the box score from the Columbus Blue Jackets and Carolina Hurricanes preseason game from September 18 reveals that Alexander Semin was whistled at 19:27 of the second period for a delay of game.
Semin didn't close his hand on the puck or flip it over the boards from the defensive zone. His crime? His jersey was tucked into his pants.
At that stage of the contest, the Blue Jackets were battling back, trying to recover from a two-goal defect, while the Hurricanes were weathering the storm. Carolina killed off the two-minute minor for jersey tucking, but not before the Jackets totally seized momentum.
Marian Gaborik scored 1:33 into the third period, tying the game.
Since it was a preseason game between Columbus and Carolina, no one cared. ESPN didn't pick up the clip of a game's outcome being altered by what boils down to a fashion preference by the league. Deadspin didn't hop on the chance to point out how stupid something is.
Could you imagine the fallout if this had been the second-to-last game of the season between two teams fighting for their playoff lives, though? The idea of a squad losing a contest because of this new rule should have the NHL's brass tossing and turning as they try to fall asleep at night.
Here's the new Rule 9.5, via CBSSports.com for the uninitiated:
All protective equipment, except gloves, headgear, and goaltenders' leg guards must be worn under the uniform. Should it be brought to the attention of the Referee that a player is wearing, for example, an elbow pad that is not covered by his jersey, he shall instruct the player to cover up the pad and a second violation by the same player would result in a minor penalty being assessed.Rule 9.5 governs all protective equipment, including pants. Players are not permitted to tuck their jersey into their pants in such a manner where the top padding of the pant and/or additional body protection (affixed to the pant or affixed to the Player's body) is exposed outside the jersey. The back uniform number must not be covered or obstructed in any fashion by protruding pads or other protective padding."
Here's another version in the form of a diagram that will be hung in each NHL locker room this season.
Mark our words: A very important game or two will be decided because of a call for jersey-tucking this season, and it isn't going to be pretty.
The Olympic Break
Usually, the NHL All-Star Game is the break at the midway point of the season for players, coaches, fans and the media. That won't be the case in 2013-14. Instead of a getaway weekend in an NHL city, the league will be sending its best players to Sochi, Russia to compete in the Winter Olympics.
Aside from producing one of the ugliest and most cluttered websites since the days of GeoCities, the Winter Games will surely provide onlookers with high-quality puck and many entertaining storylines.
It will also inevitably have an impact on the final standings, as 11-day tourneys between rival nations typically drain players a bit. Where you're lucky to even see a player bend over all the way to exert full force in their skating stride at an All-Star game, the Olympics are usually more akin to war on ice.
The NHL will cease activities—including games and trades—starting on February 9 and will not return to action until February 26.
While almost all of the league's top players are overseas, it means that everyone else will have to find other ways to occupy themselves. For more than two weeks. In the middle of the regular season.
Momentum is huge in hockey, and expecting teams to stay hot—or remain cold—after such a long layoff is irrational. The large gap between games played will make 2013-14 a tale of two seasons. Squads that send a ton of players to the Games may come back tired, and with half a season to go, they could come out flat and find themselves on the outside of the playoff picture.
Good first halves will be a necessity for teams that are sending their top-six forwards, two or three defensemen and a goalie to the Olympics.
Impact of the 2013 Draft Class
It's been a long while since so many kids from a particular draft class were talented and poised enough to jump right into the NHL. As many as a third of the players taken in the first round could be NHL regulars by this time next year, and 14 draftees have made it through training camp cuts so far, according to NHL.com.
Here's a look at the players that could make their respective team's opening-night roster:
- Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers
- Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
- Jonathan Drouin, Tampa Bay Lightning
- Seth Jones, Nashville Predators
- Elias Lindholm, Carolina Hurricanes
- Sean Monahan, Calgary Flames
- Darnell Nurse, Edmonton Oilers
- Valeri Nichushkin, Dallas Stars
- Rasmus Ristolainen, Buffalo Sabres
- Bo Horvat, Vancouver Canucks
- Max Domi, Phoenix Coyotes
- Andre Burakovsky, Washington Capitals
- Michael McCarron, Montreal Canadiens
- Hunter Shinkaruk, Vancouver Canucks
While the likes of Domi, Shinkaruk and McCarron would need small hockey miracles to make it to the NHL this season, stranger things have happened. According to NHL.com, at least half of these players have outstanding chances to stick, and there's no way their respective teams are going to burn a year off of the precious entry-level contract just to stick them on the fourth line.
They will be kept around because they bring something special to the table. The top five selections from the draft have good odds to be impact players right away, and Nichushkin has already gone from Russian bogeyman to media darling in just over a week of time with the Stars.
This could be the most outstanding wave of rookies since 2005. Stay tuned, but don't hold your breath for a 106-point season out of any of them. That would be fun though, wouldn't it?
The Alain Vigneault-John Tortorella Swap
There were seven coaching changes made heading into the 2013-14 season. While all the moves were important, none will be examined as closely or have the same impact as the flip-flop of John Tortorella and Alain Vigneault.
The reason being that the two coaches bring a very distinct coaching style to teams that have played radically different over the last few seasons.
Last season, the New York Rangers scored 2.62 goals per game, according to NHL.com, good for 15th in the NHL in that department. They played staunch defense, though, allowing the fourth-fewest goals against. Tortorella had his team playing a gritty, shot-blocking style in front of arguably the best goaltender in the NHL in Henrik Lundqvist.
On the flip side, Vigneault had the Canucks playing solid, if not unspectacular defense. They were the 10th-best defensive team in the NHL, giving up 2.40 goals per game. They were a middle-of-the-road offensive team as well, scoring 2,54 goals per game.
Now the typically offensive-minded Canucks will be expected to play like the Rangers. Blocking shots, sticking up for teammates and so on. Vigneault, on the other hand, will likely take the leashes off of offensive players like Rick Nash and let the offense flow a bit more.
One of the biggest and most intriguing questions heading into the season: How will these two squads that had very distinct identities under their old coaches adjust to such a radically new approach?
The Altered Headshot Rule
According to a report by the Toronto Star covering a study conducted by Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital, the NHL's headshot rule hasn't reduced the number or severity of concussions in the NHL. The league, always quick to aggressively address player safety issues, responded with a massive re-wording of Rule 48.
Here's the breakdown, via Pro Hockey Talk: “A hit resulting in contact with an opponent’s head where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact is not permitted.”
OK, now forget the “targeted” part, because here’s how the rule will be written this year, according to the CBC’s Elliotte Friedman: “A hit resulting in contact with an opponent’s head where the head was the main point of contact and such contact to the head was avoidable.”
So much for a massive change. Friedman, who originally broke the news about the rule change, thinks that the re-wording will place more "onus on the hitter to avoid recklessness." So far, not so good for the league.
There have already been two nasty hits this preseason, and it's not even a week old yet. Jordan Nolan hit Rostislav Klesla in the head on September 16, causing the Phoenix Coyote to be wheeled off the ice on a stretcher.
Never one to deliver consistency in its suspensions, the league has since decided that Nolan's hit was clean, according to various sources, including NHL.com. Whether it was actually a dirty play or not is another discussion entirely. The fact of the matter is that another NHL player was carted off the ice after receiving a clear blow to the head.
Then on September 18, Detroit Red Wings prospect Teemu Pulkkinen tried to put Mike Kostka of the Chicago Blackhawks through the boards with a hit from behind. Unlike the Nolan check, there's little question that this is a suspendable offense, and Pulkkinen will face an in-person hearing with the league, according to MLive.com.
The NHL is likely to set a tone early and could make an example out of the young Wing. How aggressive Brendan "Sheriff" Shanahan gets will be something worth watching this season.
The Salary-Cap Crunch and Trickle-Down Effect
Heading into the trade deadline last season, Brendan Morrow was one of the more highly sought-after impending free agents. He waived his no-trade clause to join the Pittsburgh Penguins on their quest to win another Stanley Cup.
The price for the rental was a high one. The Pens sent highly regarded defensive prospect Joe Morrow and a fifth-rounder to the Dallas Stars in exchange for the forward.
Seven months later, Morrow can't find a job in the NHL. He's hardly the only veteran in this situation. While the cream-of-the-crop free agents were overpaid, per usual, the sinking salary cap has put quite the squeeze on the unlucky veterans who just so happened to have contracts expire in 2013.
This has led to an explosion (compared to other seasons) in PTOs—professional tryout contracts.
The Florida Panthers have quite the collection of guys competing for jobs while on PTOs. Tim Thomas joined the team this week, as did Tom Gilbert and Brad Boyes.
That's 1,431 games' worth of NHL experience skating around and busting their humps for jobs. While it's likely that a lot of these players will find gigs as injuries occur and teams start to settle into their respective cap situations, it's mildly startling to see so many solid players still sitting at home as training camps roll on.
The Outdoor Game Onslaught
The NHL held its first outdoor regular-season game in 2003. That contest featured the Edmonton Oilers and the Montreal Canadiens and has since been referred to as the Heritage Classic. Five years later, the league unveiled the Winter Classic—an outdoor spectacle to be held on January 1 each year.
It's been one of the highlights of the season since then, and the HBO series 24/7 gives fans a unique and rare look at hockey players behind the scenes.
Of course, the outdoor games generate massive amounts of revenue for the league, so instead of holding just one or two games like this a year, the NHL has decided that we need six of them across a two-month span—including a game between the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks.
As per NHL.com's report on the so called "Stadium Series":
The Winter Classic returns to its New Year's Day spot when the Toronto Maple Leafs face off against the Detroit Red Wings at Michigan Stadium. The Anaheim Ducks play the Los Angeles Kings at Dodger Stadium the night before the Grammy Awards, and the games between the Rangers and the New Jersey Devils and then the Islanders at Yankee Stadium take place during the lead-up to the Super Bowl at Metlife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
According to Gary Bettman, the NHL is just giving fans what they want. He told NHL.com that "I don't think we're overdoing them at all. We're actually responding to the incredible interest and demand we're getting."
That's all fine and well, but the conditions in Winter Classics gone by haven't exactly been perfect. The 2011 game between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins featured something that was closer to slush than ice, and if that's the best they can do in Pennsylvania (average January temperature: 38 degrees Fahrenheit), then why would Los Angeles (average January temperature: 68 degrees Fahrenheit) fare any better?
A quick glance at the final standings from 2013 should be all the evidence one needs to determine how important two points are. If the Rangers drop both of their outdoor games in 2013-14 and miss the playoffs by three points, how unhappy do you think they'll be?
That's all that kept the Winnipeg Jets out of the postseason last year. It took a tiebreaker to put the Minnesota Wild in over the Columbus Blue Jackets. We're speaking strictly hypothetically here, but what if the Wild had played in two outdoor games and lost them in part due to weather conditions?
Just something to keep in mind while you're watching the advertising spectacle that these outdoor games have become every three weeks from January through March.
New Divisions and the Impact of Realignment
The Vancouver Canucks can say goodbye to the cushy Northwest Division. The Washington Capitals no longer have the Southeasy (oops—we mean Southeast) Division to beat up on every year. In 2013-14, the NHL will usher in a new divisional era as realignment moves the Winnipeg Jets out of the same division as the Florida Panthers.
Aside from the "who got screwed and who was helped" arguments, there's no doubt that realignment will be the biggest X-factor of the upcoming season.
Despite fans (and hockey writers) being forced to memorize new divisions (flashcards, anyone?), new alignments will give birth to new rivalries. Remember those?
While folks bemoan the loss of the classic Detroit Red Wings/Chicago Blackhawks rivalry, could the Wings foster some hostilities with the Boston Bruins? How will the aforementioned Capitals deal with suddenly having to face playoff mainstays such as the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers on a nightly basis?
The list of questions is more or less endless, which should lead to a lot of entertaining discussions over the next year as we wait to see which two cities are awarded franchises and tacked onto the Western Conference.