The NHL season is finally back and with a new season comes new predictions! Can the Chicago Blackhawks become the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions since the 1997-98 Red Wings? Who will be the biggest beneficiaries of realignment? Who are the key players and coaches to keep an eye on in each new division?
Former BR writer Jacob Born and I answer these questions and more in our 2013-14 NHL Preview. We will give our division-by-division breakdowns, including the division favorite, runner-up, dark horse, player to watch and coach to watch. Following our divisional insights will come our conference finals and Stanley Cup predictions.
Team to Beat: Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins fell flat on their faces in the second round of the postseason, but this team is still loaded with talent. Pittsburgh will have no trouble scoring with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, James Neal and Kris Letang on the roster.
Pittsburgh's season will depend on its goaltending situation. Marc Andre-Fleury bowed out of the postseason after struggling mightily in the first series against the Islanders, prompting head coach Dan Bylsma to insert Tomas Vokoun into the lineup. Vokoun suffered a blood clot in his pelvis and was placed on injured reserve, meaning it will be Fleury's net for a good chunk of the season.
Runner-Up: New York Rangers
The Rangers could get the better end of their head coach swap with the Vancouver Canucks. Alain Vigneault's offensive style is much more fitting for this squad. This team still has plenty of talented forwards and has one of the deeper defensive units in the NHL. Marc Staal, Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Michael Del Zotto are one of the better defensive foursomes in the league and you can't go wrong with Henrik Lundqvist in net.
Dark Horse: Washington Capitals
The Caps were one of the worst teams in the league during the first half of last season, but caught fire and rode a huge wave of momentum into the playoffs. Alex Ovechkin obviously makes this team go, but Nicklas Backstrom is starting to fall under the radar after registering 101 points in the 2009-10 campaign. Braden Holtby went 23-12-1 as the starting goalie last season and could take the next step into being an elite goalie.
Player to Watch: Marian Gaborik, Columbus
With all of the star power in this division, Gaborik kind of slips through the cracks. After being dealt by the Rangers to the Blue Jackets, Gaborik scored eight points in 12 games and almost helped get Columbus a playoff spot. In a full season, Gaborik will emerge as the leading scorer on an intriguing team.
Coach of the Division: Alain Vigneault, New York Rangers
There are a handful of coaches on the rise in this division and there's obviously Bylsma, but I think Vigneault could have great success with New York's roster in his wide-open system. The Rangers can afford to be aggressive with the best goaltender in the NHL between the pipes.
Team to Beat: Pittsburgh Penguins
The Pittsburgh Penguins will once again be the division champs. Sidney Crosby suffered some significant injuries last season, but this time around he will be healthy and put up some big numbers. He and Evgeni Malkin will lead the team and will be the best tandem in the NHL hands down. Add them to the mix of Chris Kunitz and James Neal and the Penguins have one of the strongest forward cores in the league.
Manning the blueline is Kris Letang, who is becoming one of the favorites to win the Norris Trophy at season's end. The lone question mark is Marc-Andre Fleury. MAF has always been strong in the regular season, but the last postseason shows some serious holes in his game. He will have to be strong for the Pens to win the division.
Runner-Up: New York Rangers
The New York Rangers will give the Pens a run for their money, but they will come up just a bit short. Henrik Lundqvist will continue to show he is the best goaltender in the game, the question is if the Rangers have the pieces to make a deep run and keep him around for years to come. The Rangers have Brad Richards and Rick Nash up front, as well as the young talents of Derek Stepan and captain Ryan Callahan.
On the blue line is Michael Del Zotto and Marc Staal, both very qualified D-men who could contend for the Norris. Head coach Alain Vigneault will bring the offensive system that will allow Richards, Nash, Stepan and Callahan to get the most out of their offensive power, something John Tortorella didn’t do.
Dark Horse: Columbus Blue Jackets
Quietly out in the West, the Columbus Blue Jackets were building a roster to contend for the playoffs and this year could be the year they finally make it back. It starts with Marian Gaborik, the unquestioned offensive leader of the team. Nathan Horton may be out until December, but he adds a bunch of grit and a little bit of a scoring touch to the team. Cam Atkinson is primed for a breakout season and Brandon Dubinsky will add to his production from last season.
On the defensive side of the puck, one of the best young defensemen, Jack Johnson, runs the show. Johnson, who should be named captain, is a great shutdown guy who can light the lamp. To back them up is Sheriff Sergei Bobrovsky. The reigning Vezina winner will have to silence the critics to help the team to a playoff spot, but he will be up to the job.
Player to Watch: John Tavares
John Tavares was just named the captain of the New York Islanders and there’s a reason why. Tavares was drafted first overall in 2009 and has been in the league for a few years. This is the year he breaks out. He’s got some great speed, great hockey sense and can find the back of the net no problem. Last season, the Islanders made the playoffs and he was a big reason why. Tavares is a classic guide of leading by example. He had a strong case to win the Hart Memorial last season and will do it again this season.
Coach of the Division: Alain Vigneault
Vigneault will try to do what Tortorella could never do—bring the Rangers to a Stanley Cup Final. Vigneault is a very offensively-minded coach, something that the talent in New York desperately needed. The Rangers have a great deal of talent that should be used in the offensive zone and not starting from behind their own net. Vigneault had something similar and was able to win the President’s Trophy in Vancouver, and that was with a shaky goaltender. Now he has the best in the game and doesn’t need to worry about it. With Vigneault at the helm, the Rangers are going to be scary good.
Team to Beat: Boston Bruins
Boston lost Tyler Seguin but picked up Loui Eriksson and Jarome Iginla over the offseason. This team is defense-oriented and as long as Zdeno Chara and Johnny Boychuk are manning the blue line, this team will be tough to score against. Tuukka Rask cemented himself as one of the top goalies in the NHL and could become elite this season. The defending Eastern Conference champs shouldn't miss a beat this season.
Runner-Up: Detroit Red Wings
One of the biggest beneficiaries of realignment, Detroit gets a better travel schedule and doesn't have to deal with the Blackhawks or Blues any longer. Despite their age, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg continue to play at a high level. The Wings were one win away from knocking off the defending champions in the Western Conference Semifinals, but couldn't complete the upset. However, last season proved Mike Babcock's sheer brilliance as a head coach. The Red Wings also picked up Daniel Alfredsson, who will be another veteran asset.
Dark Horse: Ottawa Senators
It will be interesting to see who emerges as the top scorer with Alfredsson joining a division opponent. Kyle Turris could be the guy, but don't forget about Jason Spezza, who played only five games during the regular season due to a herniated disk. Cory Conacher could develop into a very nice winger as well. Can we please acknowledge Craig Anderson as an elite goaltender?
Player to Watch: Ryan Miller, Buffalo
He might not even be the second-best goaltender in his division, but the trade rumors will keep all eyes on Miller this season.
Coach of the Division: Paul MacLean, Ottawa
We all know how great Mike Babcock is. Let's show some love to MacLean, who got his team into the playoffs despite not having Spezza and Erik Karlsson for most of the season. With those guys healthy for a full season, MacLean could take his Senators to the next level.
Team to Beat: Boston Bruins
The reigning champions of the Eastern Conference are going to be the team to beat again. Tuukka Rask stood on his head during the playoffs and will show he is one of the best goaltenders in the league, despite only being 26 years old. In front of him is the giant of the league, Zdeno Chara. Chara is a great stay-at-home defenseman who can clear the garbage out of in front of Rask. Plus, his big body is great for the physical game.
Dougie Hamilton and Torey Krug add youth to the blue line, so the defensive play will be great for the Bruins. And for the offense, they are stacked. In the offseason, the Bruins added Jarome Iginla and Loui Eriksson to the team. With the likes of Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand in the scoring zone, the Bruins will be able to light the lamp whenever they want.
Runner-Up: Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings moved over from the West to the East and they will welcome the change with open arms. Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen and Henrik Zetterberg provide leadership to a team that is adding youth to an aging lineup. Daniel Alfredsson joined the team in the offseason, adding another touch of finesse to the team. Tomas Tatar is a young guy who will learn well from these older vets and could be the first wave of new stars for the Red Wings.
On the blue line is Niklas Kronwall and Kyle Quincey who will be showing the ropes to young guns Danny Dekeyser and Jakub Kindl. And the last line of defense for the team is Jimmy Howard, who will see probably the most games in a season in his career. But, with the shortened amount of travel, the Red Wings will flourish in the East.
Dark Horse: Ottawa Senators
The Ottawa Senators lost Daniel Alfredsson this offseason, who had been with the team for 17 seasons. In order to replace him, the Sens brought in Bobby Ryan, who will definitely fill his shoes. Ryan is the same type of player as Alfredsson, yet will be getting the most minutes of his career and will produce bountifully for the Sens. With Ryan is Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek and Cory Conacher. The mix of old experience and youthful talent will greatly help the club.
On defense is former Norris winner Erik Karlsson. The 23-year-old is an offensive weapon for the club and mixes well with guys like Chris Phillips and Marc Methot. And in net for the Senators is Craig Anderson. Anderson had his own coming-out party last season as he held the lowest numbers for the majority of the season. If he can do that again, the Senators will be very happy with their playoff picture. But, if he returns to his old self, times could get rough in Ottawa.
Player to Watch: Tomas Tatar
Tomas Tatar may be the second coming of Pavel Datsyuk. The 22-year-old has only played 27 games at the NHL level, but the dude has shown he can make some moves and score some goals. Last season, combined with the AHL and NHL, he scored 27 goals and 29 assists for a whopping 56 points in 79 games played. But, what you can’t see on the score sheet is his hands. Tatar has absolutely filthy mitts. He can work his way from the circle into the slot and roof it on goaltenders. Tatar is going to have a breakout season and will easily fill the shoes Datsyuk leaves.
Coach of the Division: Mike Babcock
Mike Babcock isn’t just the coach of the division, but is the best coach in the entire NHL. Babcock knows his hockey, knows what systems work and don’t work, but most importantly, he knows how to utilize every player's talents to better the entire team. Babcock has had the same group of guys for the majority of his time with the Red Wings and now is the transition where he finds his new core for the years to come. He will start to utilize more youth around his aging stars and have a more balanced team. Every year critics say the Red Wings are too old and they won’t get anything done, but Babcock makes it happen. This year is no exception.
It's hard not to say the Blackhawks are the team to beat in this division. In 2010, the Hawks were decimated by the salary cap and lost many of the role players that helped the core on the title run. This year, Chicago brought back almost everybody, aside from Dave Bolland, Michael Frolik and Ray Emery.
The Hawks have the obvious talent of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, but Chicago also has a plethora of young talent chomping at the bit to get a full-time chance in the NHL. Jeremy Morin, Ben Smith, Jimmy Hayes, Andrew Shaw, Brandon Saad, Adam Clendening, Brandon Pirri, Drew LeBlanc and Teuvo Teravainen are some youngsters to keep an eye on this season.
Runner-up: St. Louis Blues
Not only will St. Louis be Chicago's top competition in the Central Division, it also might be the biggest threat to the Blackhawks getting back to the Stanley Cup Finals. St. Louis doesn't have a high-powered offense, but prides itself on stingy defense. Ken Hitchcock's squad has one of the deepest defense units in the league, with Alex Pietrangelo leading the way.
Offensively, the Blues should get a boost from Derek Roy and Magnus Paajarvi. Vladimir Tarasenko scored 19 points in his rookie season and could have a breakout season. The biggest question is in goal, where a physically reformed Jaroslav Halak will begin the year as the starter, but injuries have hampered him the past two seasons.
Dark Horse: Nashville Predators
Nashville has been projected two different ways: Some (like myself) have claimed the Predators to be a dangerous team in 2013. Others have them as the Central Division doormat. The team is slightly re-tooled on offense and 19-year-old Filip Forsberg could be the big-time scorer Nashville is craving. Barry Trotz's defense got a great boost when Seth Jones fell to the Preds at the fourth pick in the draft. You can't win if you don't score and Nashville will need to put more pucks in the net.
Player to Watch: Tyler Seguin, Dallas
The Bruins gave up on Seguin after a 32-point 2013 season and dealt him to Dallas. He is entering the first of a six-year, $34.5 million contract and should thrive with the Stars. Some would say Seguin wasn't worth his extension, but expect him to prove he's worth every penny in Texas.
Coach of the Division: Joel Quenneville
It's hard to argue with two championships in four seasons. Quenneville has done a great job meshing together his young talent and his decision to move Kane and Toews onto the same line might have saved his team's season. Coach Q should have even more weapons to play with this season.
Team to Beat: Chicago Blackhawks
The Chicago Blackhawks are the defending Stanley Cup champions and they will be the team to beat once again in the West. Jonathan Toews is the best captain in the league and is one of the best players in the game. He brings a complete game to the table and makes everyone around him better.
Patrick Kane has some of the best hands in the league and can score at will. Marian Hossa is a big-bodied player who can score and play great two-way hockey. Patrick Sharp can also light the lamp while playing great defensive hockey.
New guys like Andrew Shaw and Brandon Saad bring youth, scoring ability and grit. On defense, there’s Duncan Keith, a great offensive power on the blue line. Nick Leddy is a young gun who has great presence on the ice. Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson are great two-way defensive players. The final line of defense is Corey Crawford, who had an outstanding lockout-shortened year. If there were any team to repeat as Cup champions, it’s going to be the Blackhawks.
Runner-Up: St. Louis Blues
The St. Louis Blues are going to give the Blackhawks a hell of a time trying to win the division, but will ultimately fall short. Where the Blues hang their hat is on defense. Alex Pietrangelo is a favorite to win the Norris trophy this season, and he brings the perfect blend of a big body with offensive power and a stay-at-home defensemen with great vision and hockey sense.
His linemate is Jay Bouwmeester, a high-powered offensive guy who can move bodies from in front of the net. Jordan Leopold and Kevin Shattenkirk complement the first line with speed, passing and an offensive touch, while Barret Jackman and Roman Polak are physical D-men who will block shots.
Up front is a homegrown core of young players who specialize in two-way play. David Backes is a lead-by-example captain who plays some of the best two-way hockey in the league. T.J. Oshie is a physical guy who can score gritty goals, same with Chris Stewart.
Vladimir Tarasenko, the team’s biggest question mark, should be the guy who will light the lamp for the Blues and Jaden Schwartz is set for a breakout year. In net is Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, the best tandem in the league. The Blues are a team that is primed for a deep Cup run and should be a very tough team to play all year.
Dark Horse: Minnesota Wild
The Minnesota Wild made a splash two offseasons ago when they signed Ryan Suter and Zach Parise to identical 13-year, $98 million contracts. After a year of getting in sync and building chemistry, the Wild are ready to make the push to regular playoff team. Parise leads an offense with a mix of different skills, but it's a mix that works together. Parise is the offensive leader, putting the puck in the net like it’s his job. (Editor’s note: It is.)
Captain Mikko Koivu is a faceoff mastermind and is a great team player who can pass and score. Dany Heatley has not lived up to his years in Ottawa where he put up 100-point seasons. The Wild dealt Cal Clutterbuck in the offseason, but adds Nino Niederreiter, a player who has dominated the AHL and is ready for the big leagues. In net for the Wild is Niklas Backstrom. Backstrom has never been a lights-out good goaltender, but has always put up solid numbers.
The major question is the defense. Suter is more than capable on the blue line, but after him and sophomore Jonas Brodin, who will step up and be vital to the Wild?
Player to Watch: Jaden Schwartz
Jaden Schwartz is set for a breakout year this season and could be vital to a playoff push for the Blues. Schwartz has shown he can be a scorer, but also can make some passes no one sees. He plays great two-way hockey and fits incredibly well into Hitchcock’s system. Throughout the preseason, Hitchcock has said that Schwartz has been the best player on the team.
The Blues traded away David Perron in the offseason because they knew Schwartz could step up and fill the void he left in the team. Schwartz is ready to be one of the team’s highest scorers and could be the difference between a first-round exit and a Stanley Cup Final appearance.
Coach of the Division: Barry Trotz
When talking about coaches in the division, Ken Hitchcock and Joel Quenneville are always talked about. But, Barry Trotz is one of the most underrated coaches in the league and should be in the same talks. Trotz has been the coach of the Predators for their entire history and has led the team from basement dwellers to divisional threat. Two seasons ago, he led them to their first playoff series win. Now he has the challenge of leading a team with stellar defense, but no offensive power to be a playoff threat. The team will have its work cut out for it, but if there’s anyone who can do it, it’s Trotz.
Team to Beat: Los Angeles Kings
Los Angeles is the top team in the NHL's toughest division. The Kings' depth sets them apart and Jonathan Quick always gives you a chance to win. Los Angeles is stacked with forwards and Drew Doughty and Slava Voynov could become a high-scoring defensive pairing. The Kings were banged up during the postseason and ran out of gas against Chicago in the Western Conference Finals. A full offseason of rest and recovery should have the Kings poised for a great season.
Runner-Up: San Jose Sharks
The Sharks are stacked at center, but have some serious questions to answer at wing. Brent Burns should be making the move from defenseman to winger, but it still might not be enough to balance with San Jose's centers. The Sharks are solid defensively and Antti Niemi is one of the better goaltenders out there. No matter what Todd McLellan's team does during the regular season, it will be judged by its postseason performance.
Dark Horse: Edmonton Oilers
This is a tough choice since every team in this division, aside from Calgary, could make the playoffs. The Oilers are so young and talented offensively, but still need to shore up their defense. I'm not convinced Devan Dubnyk is the answer in net, but if he is, look out.
Player to Watch: Roberto Luongo, Vancouver
No more Cory Schneider, no more excuses. Luongo has a big contract to back up, but his confidence could be shattered even more by new head coach John Tortarella.
Coach of the Division: Dave Tippett, Phoenix
Tippett and Shane Doan are the two reasons the 'Yotes have not been relocated. After a trip to the Western Conference Finals two years ago, Phoenix disappointed in the lockout-shortened season. Tippett is still one of the best minds in hockey and he will need to be at his very best in this brutal division.
Team to Beat: Los Angeles Kings
The Los Angeles Kings will once again prove they are the Kings of the Pacific (puns are fun). The Kings are led by goaltender Jonathan Quick, arguably the best goaltender in the league. Last season, he was a brick wall in the playoffs, but ran into the wrecking ball Chicago Blackhawks. Quick has flexibility, a great glove and fantastic rebound control. He will keep the puck out of the net.
Up front the Kings have a mixture of great two-way players and snipers. Guys like Dustin Brown. Mike Richards and Anze Kopitar play a very physical game and get into the dirty areas to get some gritty goals. On defense, Slava Voynov is another great, young defender who can dissect opponents on both sides of the puck. Drew Doughty plays a great offensive game and has the ability to lay the hammer on any player that he wants.
Runner-Up: San Jose Sharks
The San Jose Sharks have a tendency to play very well in the regular season, but fizzle out in the playoffs. This year is not the case. The Sharks are led by a couple of old veterans who are ready to pass the torch to the homegrown young guys entering their prime.
Joe Thornton is the passer, which every team wishes they have, along with a big body that he likes to throw around. Patrick Marleau is leaving his prime, but still has some filthy mitts and can light the lamp often. The young guns are Brent Burns, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture. Burns is making the jump from defense to right wing because of his ability to score. Pavelski is scoring more and more and will make the jump to leading the team in goals. And the youngest of the group with the most potential is Couture. He has blinding speed, a fantastic shot and an ability to find his way to the slot.
In net is Antti Niemi, a former Cup-winning goaltender with an itch to get back to the show. He can be a big time goaltender, he just needs a little help from his defense, which is led by Dan Boyle, an aging star who can still be a big time player. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is entering his prime and is ready to take the step to become the team’s next Boyle. Brad Stuart adds more experience to a defense that is embracing the youthful movement.
Dark Horse: Phoenix Coyotes
The Phoenix Coyotes never really gain as much respect as they deserve, but they have the ability to run the table if the pieces fall in the right place. The Coyotes made a big move this offseason in grabbing Mike Ribeiro in free agency. Ribeiro is a great passer who can also bury the puck when he needs to. Shane Doan is still alive and skating and is not showing his age out on the ice. Guys like Radim Vrbata and Martin Hanzal add the scoring touch to the team.
But, on defense is where the Coyotes are set for the years to come. Their big two is Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Both guys will be Norris contenders for years to come. Yandle has the offense where Ekman-Larsson has the hockey sense and two-way grit. The problem with the Coyotes is the depth at defense after those two, because there aren’t a lot of guys on the same tier as them.
In net is Mike Smith, another vastly underrated goaltender. Smith led the Coyotes to the Western Conference Finals against the Kings two seasons ago and still has the game to do it again for the ‘Yotes. The Coyotes could make a serious run at the Pacific.
Player to Watch: Taylor Hall
Taylor Hall was the first overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft for the Oilers and will prove to be one of the best forwards in the game. He’s going to be playing on the first line in between David Perron and Jordan Eberle. These three will make up one of the best first lines in the entire league and will be the best combination of players under the age of 25.
Perron can dangle any defender in the game and Eberle is great at finding open ice and getting the puck there. Hall can snipe the lights out, sets up great plays and can just flat out play. Hall will put on an offensive clinic this season and will crack the 82-plus point plateau this season.
Coach of the Division: John Tortorella
John Tortorella is known for his antics with reporters in post-game interviews, but in a new city and with a new team, all eyes will be on the Canucks’ performance. Tortorella has Roberto Luongo as his starter in goal and no one to challenge the No. 1 spot. His system, which is designed on defense, will help Luongo become the elite goaltender he once was.
Up front Torts has the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, two guys with insane chemistry that he hasn’t seen since his days in Tampa with Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier. Tortorella will show that he knows what he is doing and will be a contender with the Canucks throughout the season.
Eastern Conference Finals Prediction: Detroit Red Wings over New York Rangers
Western Conference Finals Prediction: Chicago Blackhawks over Los Angeles Kings
Stanley Cup Finals Prediction: Chicago Blackhawks over Detroit Red Wings
I'm rarely one to pick a repeat. I'm rarely one to pick that sexy matchup. It just ended up like this. Starting in the East, the Red Wings may have a tough adjustment to its new conference, but by the time the postseason comes around, Babcock will have his team more prepared. Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Alfredsson all have one last great run in them.
Chicago's depth at forward is unmatched. Chicago's youth is second to none. If Marian Hossa or Patrick Sharp go down again, there are plenty of guys who can step in and produce. The 2010 champions were young, a bit immature and shell-shocked by rapid success. The stars are in their prime and a short offseason means a shorter celebration. Corey Crawford will prove he wasn't a fluke and the Blackhawks will be the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions since the Red Wings did it in the 1997-98 seasons.
Eastern Conference Finals: New York Rangers over Boston Bruins
Western Conference Finals: Chicago Blackhawks over St. Louis Blues
Stanley Cup Finals: New York Rangers over Chicago Blackhawks
The New York Rangers will be the 2014 Stanley Cup Champions. The reason why is because of the offensive system Alain Vigneault will bring to the club. Brad Richards is going to become the scorer that the Rangers thought he would be when they brought him in. Rick Nash will become even better than he was in Columbus because of the talent around him. The younger guys will prove to adapt very well to the NHL and the realignment. But, what will help the club the most is that it will make moves at the trade deadline to add some depth to the blue line.
Chicago will put up a heck of a fight and certainly have the offensive power to win. The difference will be King Henrik, who will be much better than Corey Crawford will in the finals. The gap between the Hawks and Rangers offensive capabilities isn’t as large as the difference between Lundqvist and Crawford. The series is going to go six games, with the Rangers claiming the Cup on home ice.