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The Top Storylines for the 2013-14 NHL Season

Carol SchramFeatured ColumnistSeptember 29, 2013

The Top Storylines for the 2013-14 NHL Season

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    The puck drops Tuesday for the start of the 2013-14 NHL regular season.

    After losing the first three months of last year's campaign to the owners' lockout, fans were eager to get back to the game. According to hockeyattendance.com, NHL arenas averaged 17,766 fans per game after the lockout, an increase of just over 300 bodies from the 2011-12 average of 17,454.

    Further growth could be in the cards this season. The league has made plenty of changes to try to increase scoring and make the game more fan friendly. In addition to the action on the ice, look for new divisional alignments and schedules, rule changes and special events like more outdoor games.

    Here's a look at the top 10 storylines in the NHL as the new season gets under way. 

     

    All statistics courtesy of NHL.com unless otherwise noted.

New Faces in New Places

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    Longtime Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson signed as a free agent with Detroit.
    Longtime Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson signed as a free agent with Detroit.Dave Reginek/Getty Images

    The NHL has seen plenty of player movement over the summer. The catalyst for much of the movement has been the drop in the salary cap as a result of last year's new collective bargaining agreement.

     

    Buyouts 

    Teams were granted a maximum of two amnesty buyouts to help get bloated contracts off their payrolls. This resulted in some very good players suddenly becoming unrestricted free agents and signing with other teams.

    2004 Stanley Cup winner and former Tampa Bay Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier has joined the Philadelphia Flyers. In turn, the Flyers jettisoned goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, who's still without a contract, and winger Daniel Briere, who signed with the Montreal Canadiens.

    The Toronto Maple Leafs also moved two significant players to create cap space for themselves. Defenseman Mike Komisarek landed with the Carolina Hurricanes, while forward Mikhail Grabovski signed on with the Washington Capitals.

     

    Free-Agent Signings

    Every summer, a crop of free agents cash in with big contracts, often with new teams. Here's a list of the top free-agent signings of 2013:

    PLAYERPOSITION2013-14 TEAM PREVIOUS TEAM
     Daniel Alfredsson Forward Detroit Red Wings Ottawa Senators
     David Clarkson  Forward Toronto Maple Leafs New Jersey Devils
    Andrew Ference DefenseEdmonton Oilers Boston Bruins
    Valtteri Filppula ForwardTampa Bay Lightning Detroit Red Wings
     Nathan Horton Forward Columbus Blue Jackets Boston Bruins
    Jarome IginlaForwardBoston BruinsPittsburgh Penguins
    Jaromir JagrForwardNew Jersey DevilsBoston Bruins
    Tim ThomasGoalFlorida PanthersNew York Islanders
    Stephen WeissForwardDetroit Red WingsFlorida Panthers

     

    Trades

    There have been plenty of old-fashioned trades over the summer as well. These are some of the key players who changed addresses via the trade route.

    PLAYERPOSITION2013-14 TEAMPREVIOUS TEAM
    Jonathan Bernier GoalToronto Maple LeafsLos Angeles Kings
    David Bolland ForwardToronto Maple LeafsChicago Blackhawks
    Loui Eriksson ForwardBoston BruinsDallas Stars
    Sergei GoncharDefenseDallas StarsOttawa Senators
    David Perron ForwardEdmonton OilersSt. Louis Blues
    Bobby RyanForwardOttawa SenatorsAnaheim Ducks
    Cory SchneiderGoalNew Jersey DevilsVancouver Canucks
    Tyler Seguin ForwardDallas StarsBoston Bruins
    Devin Setoguchi ForwardWinnipeg JetsMinnesota Wild
    Mark Streit DefensePhiladelphia FlyersNew York Islanders

     

    Off to the KHL

    Ilya Kovalchuk of the New Jersey Devils chose to void his long-term contract, retire from the NHL and return to Russia to play for SKA St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League in 2013-14. The KHL has expanded to 28 teams this season, which means there are more good jobs available than ever before. Here are some of the other players who have crossed the pond this year:

    PLAYERPOSITIONFORMER NHL TEAM
    Nik Antropov ForwardWinnipeg Jets
    Eric Belanger ForwardEdmonton Oilers
    Alex Burmistrov ForwardWinnipeg Jets
    Ruslan Fedotenko ForwardPhiladelphia Flyers
    Sergei Kostitsyn ForwardNashville Predators
    Ryan O'Byrne DefenseToronto Maple Leafs
    Alexei Ponikarovsky ForwardNew Jersey Devils

      

Schedule Highlights

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    The Winter Classic between Toronto and Detroit will be one of many outdoor games this year.
    The Winter Classic between Toronto and Detroit will be one of many outdoor games this year.Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

    Opening Night

    The NHL is kicking off its 2013-14 season on Tuesday, October 1 with three games. U.S. viewers will see the Washington Capitals visit the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks on NBC Sports Network. In Canada, CBC presents Face-Off, starting with a live outdoor concert from Kings of Leon in Montreal, then an all-Canadian double-header featuring the Toronto Maple Leafs visiting the Habs, followed by the Winnipeg Jets at Edmonton. 

     

    No All-Star Game

    The Columbus Blue Jackets were scheduled to host the 2013 NHL All-Star Game, which was cancelled as a result of the lockout. There will also be no All-Star Game in 2014 due to the NHL's participation in the Winter Olympics. The Jackets should finally get their event in January 2015.

     

    Winter Classic and Other Outdoor Games

    The NHL is presenting a record six outdoor games in 2013-14. The New Year's Winter Classic remains the crown jewel, this year featuring the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. In addition, the league has announced its inaugural Stadium Series, with four games in baseball fields in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. The Heritage Classic also returns, with the Ottawa Senators visiting the Vancouver Canucks at B.C. Place stadium on March 1, 2014. 

     

    2014 Winter Olympics

    The NHL will shut down from February 9-25, 2014 to allow its players to participate in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Sidney Crosby and Team Canada will look to defend their 2010 gold medal, while Team USA will try to avenge its loss. Recent IIHF World Championship winners Sweden, Russia, Finland and the Czech Republic should also be in the medal mix.

Top Championship Contenders

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    The Chicago Blackhawks won their second Stanley Cup in four years in 2013.
    The Chicago Blackhawks won their second Stanley Cup in four years in 2013.Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

    In the 2013 playoffs, the final four teams in contention for the Stanley Cup were the last four champions: the Los Angeles Kings from 2012, Boston Bruins from 2011, Chicago Blackhawks from 2010 and Pittsburgh Penguins from 2009.

    Chicago emerged triumphant. In a shortened lockout season, it appeared that past success was a good predictor of future success.

    All four of those teams continue to boast star-powered scoring and strong goaltending. Expect them to be in contention again in 2014.

    If you're looking for a new team to join that elite group, the St. Louis Blues might be a good pick. Each year, EA Sports runs a full-season NHL simulation on the latest version of its hockey video game. This story from the National Post reports that NHL 14 has awarded the Blues their first Stanley Cup in franchise history.

Top Contenders for Major Awards

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    Sidney Crosby is back in top form for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
    Sidney Crosby is back in top form for the Pittsburgh Penguins.Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

    Last year's shortened season and non-interlocking schedule made it difficult to truly judge the NHL's best. 

    Now that the league has increased the amount of interconference play, it will be interesting to see how the stars from the Eastern and Western Conferences stack up against each other.

    Here's a look at some names to watch in each of the major trophy races:

     

    Hart Trophy: Most Valuable Player

    • Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins
    • Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
    • Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals
    • John Tavares, New York Islanders
    • Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks

     

    Art Ross Trophy: Leading Scorer

    • Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
    • Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks
    • Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals
    • Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning
    • Taylor Hall, Edmonton Oilers

     

    Norris Trophy: Best Defenseman

    • Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators
    • Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks
    • Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues
    • P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens
    • Shea Weber, Nashville Predators

     

    Vezina Trophy: Best Goaltender

    • Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators
    • Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets
    • Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks
    • Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings
    • Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins

     

    Calder Trophy: Rookie of the Year

    • Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks
    • Seth Jones, Nashville Predators
    • Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
    • Valeri Nichushkin, Dallas Stars
    • Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets

Teams on the Upswing

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    Alex Pietrangelo is poised to become one of the NHL's top defensemen.
    Alex Pietrangelo is poised to become one of the NHL's top defensemen.Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

    Here are five teams that have made solid moves in the offseason and appear poised to become contenders. 

     

    1. Boston Bruins

    The Boston Bruins made it to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final last year and look poised to take it up another notch this season. Star goaltender Tuukka Rask is armed with a new contract, the offense has been boosted by the arrival of Loui Eriksson and Jarome Iginla and Boston's young group of defensemen are ready to contribute for a full 82-game regular schedule.

     

    2. Dallas Stars

    New Dallas Stars owner Tom Gaglardi is working hard to improve the fortunes of his team. This summer, he brought in a new general manager, Jim Nill, and a new head coach, Lindy Ruff. The management group named budding star Jamie Benn the team's captain and acquired an array of players who should help the team improve both offensively and defensively. Look for the Stars to return to playoff contention this year.

     

    3. Edmonton Oilers

    After stockpiling talented young forwards through the draft for several years, the Oilers made summer moves to strengthen their depth. Veteran players like new captain Andrew Ference, Boyd Gordon and David Perron, as well as new coach Dallas Eakins, should keep the Oilers on a more even keel this season.

     

    4. New York Islanders

    After nearly upsetting the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of last year's playoffs, the New York Islanders are poised to move to the next level. Captain John Tavares is showing that he's a top-level superstar, and the team is a tight-knit bunch that has developed great chemistry playing in relative obscurity on Long Island. The Islanders will deserve the extra attention that they receive this year.

     

    5. St. Louis Blues

    There's a reason why EA Sports' NHL 14 simulation looks so kindly upon the St. Louis Blues. The team is strong from top to bottom. It's big and mean up front, talented on the blue line and boasts one of the NHL's best tandems in net. Look for the Blues to give the champion Chicago Blackhawks a run for their money in the new Central Division.

Teams That Could Drop off

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    Goaltending is a question mark for the 2013-14 Calgary Flames.
    Goaltending is a question mark for the 2013-14 Calgary Flames.Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

    For every team that moves up the standings, another team must come down. These are five that could struggle:

     

    1. Buffalo Sabres

    There were rumors at the end of last season that the Sabres would move All-Star goaltender Ryan Miller and leading scorer Thomas Vanek to gain salary-cap relief and load up on prospects. Unfortunately for them, the salary cap dropped and other teams didn't have the space to take on hefty contracts. Vanek and Miller are both unrestricted free agents next summer, so the season could take on an unsettled air as the team waits for the inevitable trades to occur.

     

    2. Calgary Flames

    With goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff and longtime captain Jarome Iginla gone from Calgary, the Flames are now in the midst of a serious rebuild. The focus for new president of hockey operations Brian Burke and general manager Jay Feaster will be on acquiring talent for the future rather than winning in the present. As a result, expect the Flames to fall even further in the standings than their 26th-place finish last year.

     

    3. New York Rangers

    The Rangers are struggling to find their identity under new head coach Alain Vigneault. His style couldn't be more different from the fire-and-brimstone approach of previous bench boss John Tortorella. The Rangers haven't looked great in the preseason. They also start the year on a long road trip due to renovations to Madison Square Garden. Look for New York to endure a rough start before it eventually gets on track.

     

    4. Toronto Maple Leafs

    The Maple Leafs had a banner season in 2012-13, but before they advance up the Eastern Conference ladder, they'll probably have to take a step back. Toronto is constantly faced with the pressure of playing in the NHL's most intense market. To start the season, everything from the team's salary-cap challenges to a crowded goal crease to an early suspension for pricey free agent David Clarkson will keep the local media humming and the team's every move under the microscope.

     

    5. Vancouver Canucks

    Just as the Rangers are changing course under Alain Vigneault, New York's old coach, John Tortorella, is a bit of an enigma to the Vancouver Canucks. In addition to adjusting to a brand-new system, the Canucks have yet to find the right complementary players to work alongside their aging core group. They're also counting on disgruntled goaltender Roberto Luongo to put aside his desire to be traded and play to his full potential. 

Key Injuries

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    Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

    Pittsburgh Penguins backup goaltender Tomas Vokoun became the team's starter during the 2013 playoffs and was expected to play a major role for the team again this season.

    Everything changed on September 21 when Vokoun entered hospital to be treated for a blood clot near his pelvis. The veteran Czech netminder has now been released from hospital, but CBSsports.com has a translation of a Czech interview in which Vokoun says he almost died. Vokoun is pondering both his mortality and his future in hockey, so he may not be back with the Penguins any time soon.

    Pittsburgh plans to fill Vokoun's spot from within the organization for the immediate future.

    Here's a list of other notable NHLers who look like they'll be on the shelf for a while as the season begins (source: tsn.ca):

    • Sheldon Souray (Anaheim Ducks): right wrist surgery, will miss at least two to three months
    • Marc Savard (Boston Bruins): post-concussion syndrome, has not played since 2011 and is expected to miss the entire season
    • Joni Pitkanen (Carolina Hurricanes): left heel surgery, expected to miss the entire season
    • Nathan Horton (Columbus Blue Jackets): left shoulder surgery, expected to miss three to four months
    • Sam Gagner (Edmonton Oilers): broken jaw, expected to miss six to eight weeks
    • Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Edmonton Oilers): left shoulder surgery, out indefinitely
    • Ryan Callahan (New York Rangers): left shoulder surgery, expected to miss one to two months
    • Carl Hagelin (New York Rangers): left shoulder surgery, expected to miss one to two months
    • Chris Pronger (Philadelphia Flyers): post-concussion syndrome, has not played since 2011 and is expected to miss the entire season
    • Kris Letang (Pittsburgh Penguins): lower body injury, out indefinitely
    • Martin Havlat (San Jose Sharks): groin surgery, out indefinitely
    • Raffi Torres (San Jose Sharks): right knee surgery, out indefinitely
    • Mattias Ohlund (Tampa Bay Lightning): left knee surgery, has not played since 2011 and is out indefinitely

     

    Thanks for reading. Follow me on Twitter for lots more NHL news throughout the 2013-14 season.

New Rules

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    A look at the new, shallower NHL net.
    A look at the new, shallower NHL net.Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sport

    The NHL Competition Committee has made several significant changes to the NHL rulebook as the 2013-14 season gets under way. Here are some changes to look out for:

    • Shallower Nets: The new nets will sit four inches further away from the back boards, creating more space behind the goal to make plays. This could provide a boost in offense, as it provides scorers with a greater opportunity to execute wraparounds or make passing plays.

    • Smaller Goalie Pads: The new restriction on goaltenders' leg pads states that the upper part of the pad can no longer extend more than 45 percent of the distance between the knee and the pelvis. Some goalies weren't much above that previously, but it's expected that most are losing about two inches of the top of their pads.

      Since many top goalies use the butterfly style, it's believed that the smaller pads will leave more space when a goalie drops to his knees, which should lead to an increase in scoring. 

    • Mandatory Visors for New NHL Players: Starting this season, any player with less than 25 games of NHL experience will be required to wear a visor, while veterans will still be allowed to decide for themselves.

      This is the same method the NHL used to introduce mandatory helmets in 1979. Current Edmonton general manager Craig MacTavish was the last NHLer to go without a lid, playing his entire career without a helmet right up to his retirement in 1997.

    • Video Review on High-Sticking Penalties: For the first time, NHL officials will be allowed to call on video review for on-ice events other than goals. At this point, only four-minute high-sticking double-minors will be available for review. 

    • Extra Penalty for Removing Helmet Before a Fight: In an effort to further discourage fighting, a player will receive a two-minute minor in addition to a fighting major if he removes his helmet before fighting.

      It's hard to say if this will have the desired effect. In the first place, if both players remove their helmets, the penalties become offsetting, so there's no real hardship for either team. Secondly, Krys Barch (then of the New Jersey Devils, now of the Florida Panthers) and Brett Gallant of the New York Islanders figured out how to subvert the rule in a September 19 preseason game. They fought three times that night. According to this story from TSN.ca, during the second fight, they simply removed each others' helmets before the fisticuffs began.

    • No More Tucked-in Jerseys: The league is making an effort to crack down on players' jerseys getting tucked into the top of their pants. The rule states that warnings will be issued to offending players on a sliding scale, starting with a warning but potentially progressing all the way to a game misconduct. 

      Enforcement has been inconsistent through the preseason. The fact that jerseys sometimes go askew during a player's shift doesn't seem to be helping matters any—it's not like anyone should be forced to abandon a scoring chance to tidy his clothes. 

    • Hybrid Icing: On September 30, the NHL Players' Association voted to approve the implementation of hybrid icing after a trial run during preseason. Seen as a way to prevent injuries during races for the puck, under hybrid rules, a linesman can blow a play dead if he thinks that a defending player has a clear advantage to reach the puck at the end of the rink before the other team's forward. 

      Hybrid icing will be the new standard when the regular season gets underway.

New Divisions and Realignment

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    The Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets have moved from the Western to the Eastern Conference.
    The Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets have moved from the Western to the Eastern Conference.Dave Reginek/Getty Images

    Another major change this year has been the realignment of NHL divisions.

    Touched off by the Atlanta Thrashers' relocation to Winnipeg in the summer of 2011, the Jets have now joined the 14-team Western Conference. Meanwhile, the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets have moved to the 16-team Eastern Conference.

    Each conference is now made up of just two divisions instead of three and every team will now play each other at least twice (home and away). That means Western Conference fans will have a chance to see every Eastern Conference team at their home rink and vice versa.

    Eight teams from each conference will make the playoffs: the top three seeds in each division and two wild cards, chosen by total points.

    Here's a look at the new NHL divisions:

    Western ConferenceEastern Conference
    Pacific DivisionMetropolitan Division
    Anaheim DucksCarolina Hurricanes
    Calgary FlamesColumbus Blue Jackets
    Edmonton OilersNew Jersey Devils
    Los Angeles KingsNew York Islanders
    Phoenix CoyotesNew York Rangers
    San Jose SharksPhiladelphia Flyers
    Vancouver CanucksPittsburgh Penguins
     Washington Capitals
    Central DivisionAtlantic Division
    Chicago BlackhawksBoston Bruins
    Colorado AvalancheBuffalo Sabres
    Dallas StarsDetroit Red Wings
    Minnesota WildFlorida Panthers
    Nashville PredatorsMontreal Canadiens
    St. Louis BluesOttawa Senators
    Winnipeg JetsTampa Bay Lightning
     Toronto Maple Leafs

     

     

Changes in the Collective Bargaining Agreement

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    NHL owners locked out their players on September 15, 2012 after failing to reach consensus on a new collective bargaining agreement.

    A deal was finally ratified on January 12, 2013. The league played a 48-game regular season before its usual four rounds of playoffs, with the Chicago Blackhawks winning the Stanley Cup.

    The biggest change in the new collective bargaining agreement was a rollback in the salary cap, effective this season. In 2011-12, teams had $64.3 million to work with, and last season, they operated under a pro-rated cap of $70.3 million. That number was based on a full 82-game schedule; players were paid only for the 48-game season.

    For 2013-14, the salary cap has dropped back to its 2011-12 level of $64.3 million. While the cap is expected to rise again in future years, this lower ceiling has put pressure on a number of franchises that are struggling to remain compliant as the season opens.

    Other CBA changes see new term limits on contracts: seven years when signing a free agent or eight years when a team re-signs/extends its own player. Front-loaded contracts, which became popular as a way for teams to ease short-term salary-cap burdens, have also been effectively eliminated. New contracts can't vary by more than 35 percent from year to year, and the difference between the highest- and lowest-salaried years can't be more than 50 percent.

    One concession the players received is a significant improvement to their pension plan.

    The new CBA has a 10-year term, with an opt-out option for either side after eight years.

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