By Sean Hartnett
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The new NHL comes to life when the puck drops on Tuesday night. Four brand spanking new divisions (some with geographically confusing names) will be introduced. A fresh playoff system allows the top three teams in each division to qualify automatically for the playoffs as well as two additional "Wild Card" teams with the remaining best records. Hybrid icing has been approved for the new season. Detroit and Columbus have moved into the Eastern Conference and Winnipeg is now in the West.
Thank goodness there isn't a lockout, as there will be 82 regular season games to savor and enjoy.
Got it? Good. Without further adieu, here are my 2013-14 NHL divisional and playoff predictions, award winners and ultimate Stanley Cup champion.
EASTERN CONFERENCE PREVIEW:
1) New York Rangers -- The hiring of uptempo-system head coach Alain Vigneault is exactly what was needed to get the most out of a talented Rangers roster that underachieved in 2012-13. There will be less pressure on all-world netminder Henrik Lundqvist to stand on his head in net every night. Short-term injuries to key wingers Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin aren't a major concern for the Blueshirts. Vigneault's current plan is to experiment with alternate captain Brad Richards on the wing to begin the season. The Rangers are extremely deep at center and the return to health for shutdown defenseman Marc Staal is a major boost for a team with high ambitions and a fresh outlook under Vigneault.
2) Pittsburgh Penguins -- Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury melted down in sensational fashion in the opening round of last season's playoffs. The pressure is on Fleury to shake off doubts that he can return to form in 2013-14. Backup Tomas Vokoun will not serve as a "security blanket" for head coach Dan Bylsma. Vokoun revealed to Czech outlet iDNES.cz that he "nearly died" after undergoing a procedure to remove blood clots from his thigh to his heart. There is no timetable for Vokoun's return. Even if Fleury struggles, the Penguins' high-octane scorers in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal will ensure a high finish in the division and the return of Rob Scuderi will help solidify a questionable blue line.
3) Philadelphia Flyers -- The big question in Philadelphia is always goaltending. That hasn't changed this season as all eyes will be on the unfolding battle between Ray Emery and Steve Mason. Head coach Peter Laviolette will likely allow each to audition for the starting role during the early weeks of the new season, before deciding on a permanent starter. Emery's experience and 17-1-0 record posted last season as a member of the dominant Blackhawks gives him the edge to eventually beat out Mason. The expensive arrivals of free agent center Vincent Lecavalier and ex-Islanders captain Mark Streit has added a tremendous amount of optimism and veteran poise to the roster. Many are overlooking Philadelphia in the division. There's reason for genuine optimism given the likelihood of improved netminding and Lecavalier added to a solid group of scorers in Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Wayne Simmonds.
4) Washington Capitals (Wild Card Playoff Team) -- Reigning Hart Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin exploded down the stretch, scoring 23 goals in his last 23 regular season games in 2012-13. Ovechkin's illuminating talents may have obscured the impact of goaltender Braden Holtby, who quietly enjoyed a tremendous season. The Caps' power play will suffer through the loss of Mike Ribeiro, though the signing of Mikhail Grabovski adds a more complete center to the fold. I still see the Capitals as being too reliant on Ovechkin and not enough of a well-rounded team to contend for the Stanley Cup. General manager George McPhee would be wise to address depth issues on defense.
5) Columbus Blue Jackets -- Columbus comes East and will probably suffer a similar fate as last season. The Blue Jackets narrowly missed out on making the playoffs in 2012-13. A stacked Metropolitan will doom Columbus to another playoff-less season. Sergei "Officer" Bobrovsky must repeat the outstanding play that won him the Vezina Trophy last season. Besides ex-Ranger Marian Gaborik, the Jackets lack another standout scorer. The time isn't now for Columbus, though its long-term future remains bright. Former Bruins power forward Nathan Horton signing a seven-year deal is proof that the Blue Jackets are going in the right direction.
6) New Jersey Devils – Elite offensive force Ilya Kovalchuk "retired" over the summer and then bolted to the KHL, and powerhouse winger David Clarkson signed with on with his native Toronto Maple Leafs. General manager Lou Lamoriello chose to replace the loss of Clarkson with a near-identical player in Ryane Clowe and opted to add sniper Michael Ryder and aging 41-year-old legend Jaromir Jagr to combat losing Kovalchuk's effectiveness on the power play. Lamoriello's most notable acquisition was the draft day steal of goaltender Cory Schneider via a trade with the Canucks. Schneider will likely steal the starting job away from 41-year-old Martin Brodeur at some point during the season. What is concerning about the Devils is the possibility of injury prone stars missing significant time. Jagr isn't capable of playing an 82-game season, Clowe's injury history has been well-documented, and 37-year-old alternate captain Patrik Elias has been bothered by groin troubles throughout the preseason.
7) New York Islanders -- The Islanders shocked everyone by qualifying for the 2013 playoffs, then earned the respect of the entire league by pushing the Penguins to six games before their opening round exit. Newly appointed captain John Tavares will again compete for the Hart Trophy, though the loss of veteran Streit means that the Islanders will rely on youngsters like Griffin Reinhart and Matt Donovan to adjust to the NHL right away. The biggest reason why the Isles will miss out on the playoffs is their failure to upgrade their goaltending position. Losing offseason addition Cal Clutterbuck for up to six weeks due to a skate laceration won't help matters either.
8) Carolina Hurricanes -- Losing key defenseman Joni Pitkanen was a major blow to the Canes. While Carolina has plenty of scorers, its weak defense could not afford the loss of Pitkanen. It could be another tough year for Cam Ward in net.
1) Boston Bruins -- The Bruins got to the Stanley Cup finals last season and have a strong chance of repeating as Eastern Conference champions. General manager Peter Chiarelli didn't stand pat with his strong roster, making two very gusty moves that should benefit the Bruins. He dealt promising center Tyler Seguin to the Stars for sniper Loui Eriksson and allowed Nathan Horton to leave via free agency to pave the way for the signing of veteran power forward Jarome Iginla, who should fit right in with the Bruins' physical style of play. Zdeno Chara remains a force all over the ice. Blue line youngsters Torey Krug, Dougie Hamilton and Matt Bartkowski showed what they were all about while eliminating the Rangers during the playoffs. Tuukka Rask is probably the best goalie in the Eastern Conference whose name isn't Henrik Lundqvist.
2) Detroit Red Wings -- The Red Wings are now in the East. Sounds unusual, does it? Yet, that's not going to be nearly as odd as the sight of Daniel Alfredsson skating around with the "winged wheel" on his chest. The Wings can score with the best of them and boast a collection of solid blue liners, including 23-year-old defenseman Danny DeKeyser, who could be primed for a breakout year.
3) Montreal Canadiens -- The fast-skating Habs exceeded expectations last season by finishing second overall in the Eastern Conference. That's going to be a tough act to follow. The addition of ex-Flyer Danny Briere will excite the fans and add some extra leadership in the locker room. It was surprising to see general manager Marc Bergevin allow Ryder to leave for New Jersey, though the Habs' power play, led by the dynamic P.K. Subban, will still be a force without him. Losing bruising defenseman Douglas Murray for up to six weeks will temporarily hurt Montreal's effectiveness on the penalty kill.
4) Ottawa Senators (Wild Card Team) -- Jack Adams Award winner Paul MacLean always seems to squeeze the most out his teams. Having a healthy Erik Karlsson is a huge boost to the Sens. The loss of beloved captain Alfredsson looms largely over this team, though the addition of Bobby Ryan will certainly create a buzz. Look for Ryan to establish a quick understanding with linemate and new captain Jason Spezza. Don't expect Craig Anderson to produce ungodly numbers again in net. He'll take a step back.
5) Toronto Maple Leafs -- Ask any Torontonian what it's like to be Leafs fan. They'll tell you it's full of false hope and unending misery. That misery briefly ended when the Leafs made the playoffs for the first time since 2004. Then, the false hope came when Toronto took a three-goal lead over the Bruins in the third period of Game 7 in the opening round, only to suffer an epic collapse. More misery came when big free agent signing Clarkson decided to illegally leave the bench during the preseason, triggering a 10-game ban. That combined with Detroit entering the division makes Toronto's road to the playoffs that much harder. The Leafs will be cursing Gary Bettman (if they aren't already) for dragging the Red Wings into the Atlantic.
6) Florida Panthers -- The Panthers are certainly improved and showed genuine ambition by signing former Stanley Cup winning and always polarizing veteran goalie Tim Thomas. Florida's new owner, Vincent Viola, brings bravado and fresh resources to the table. The progression of Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau must go hand-in-hand for the Panthers to eventually thrive in South Florida.
7) Tampa Bay Lightning -- Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis are hockey gods, but as long as the Lightning have either Anders Lindback or Ben Bishop standing between the pipes they will not be a playoff-caliber team. Tampa's defense also tends to leak goals at crucial times.
8 ) Buffalo Sabres -- The upcoming Sabres season can be described in one word: "rebuild." It's going to be a long year for Sabres fans. Expect contending teams to fight hard for the services of scoring ace Thomas Vanek and goaltender Ryan Miller.
WESTERN CONFERENCE PREVIEW:
1) St. Louis Blues -- Despite yet another disappointing playoff exit at the hands of the Kings, the Blues have their best chance of ending their 46-year Stanley Cup drought. The defense-first philosophies of Ken Hitchcock will be eagerly embraced by this group led by captain David Backes. Scoring may dry up at times, and dealing away popular winger David Perron was a risky move by general manager Doug Armstrong. Still, Vladimir Tarasenko is expected to take positive steps forward in his second NHL season. If the Blues can generate enough offense, they will be an extremely difficult team to beat given their dominant top-six defensemen.
2) Chicago Blackhawks -- Heavy is the head that wears the crown. The last team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions was the 1997-98 Red Wings. Still, this team is loaded. Kane, Toews, Sharp and Hossa are a handful. Outside of the Blues, the Blackhawks possess the deepest blue line in the NHL. The pressure will be on starting goaltender Corey Crawford to carry a larger load throughout the regular season now that Emery has departed for Philadelphia.
3) Minnesota Wild -- Zach Parise and Ryan Suter have one year under their belt in Minnesota. The honeymoon, though, is over. It's time for the marquee signings to deliver. With the exception of Suter, there aren't a lot of household names on the blue line. Whether you know their names or not, the Wild boast a very strong group of defensemen. Jonas Brodin, 19, established himself as a talented puck-mover last season. The Wild could use more production out of Dany Heatley, especially on the power play, which will be a major concern again this season.
4) Dallas Stars -- New uniforms. New coach. New captain. Fresh optimism in "Big D." The Stars are banking on the potential of Seguin after dealing away skilled winger Eriksson to the Bruins. Seguin will have to mesh well with center and new Stars' captain Jaime Benn. Veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar will help solidify a defense that struggled mightily last season. The Stars could surprise some people under new head coach Lindy Ruff. Kari Lehtonen is probably the most underrated goaltender in the league.
5) Winnipeg Jets -- Moving to the Western Conference should be a big boost for the Jets. They're also deep thanks to the additions of Michael Frolik and Devin Setoguchi. However, Winnipeg has struggled on special teams. Head coach Claude Noel must prove he can figure out a way to get its dreadful power play turned around this season.
6) Nashville Predators -- "The Seth Jones Show" is coming to an arena near you. The Preds aren't a roster full of big names, though head coach Barry Trotz gets his players to buy into his defensive system. Strangely, it hasn't translated to a sufficient penalty kill. The Predators are very fortunate to have talented netminder Pekka Rinne backing them. Jones will shine through and win the Calder Trophy.
7) Colorado Avalanche -- The Avs lack a true number one goalie and are bare on defense. It's a recipe for disaster even if Colorado has two strong forward lines. It will be a learning year for top overall pick Nathan MacKinnon and the Avs under inexperienced head coach Patrick Roy.
1) Los Angeles Kings -- Goaltender Jonathan Quick is worth his weight in gold. Don't let last season's inconsistency fool you. Quick thrived during pressure games throughout the playoffs. LA is probably the best team in the Pacific, but its forward depth tails off after the top two lines. Captain Dustin Brown has been slowed by knee and hamstring issues. That's something to keep your eye on. The Kings can't afford to lose Brown for an extended time.
2) San Jose Sharks -- Playoff failings tend to be an annual event for the Sharks. Eventually, a team with this kind of star power should be able to get over the hump and into the Stanley Cup Finals. The Sharks are very strong down the middle at center (Thornton, Couture, Pavelski) and their power play is electric. Losing enforcer Raffi Torres for up to five months due to ACL surgery and Martin Havlat's unclear timetable are significant blows that will hurt San Jose's chances of winning the Pacific Division.
3) Vancouver Canucks -- John Tortorella comes charging into Vancouver and he could either become a "cult hero" among fans or get run out of town pretty quick. It's a curious appointment given his contentious relationship with the media. Vancouver's coverage of the Canucks dwarfs New York's coverage of the Rangers. It's only a matter of time until Torts pops off at the media after a tough loss. And should any player-coach controversy develop, his stay in Vancouver could be very short. The blue liners available to Tortorella are willing to do all the dirty work required of a Tortorella team. It's the star forward that might question Torts should the Canucks struggle out of the gates in 2013-14. The Tortorella timebomb could go off at any moment. Complicating things is the possibility that Roberto Luongo might never regain his once-dominant ways in net. Still, Tortorella is a very prepared and meticulous coach -- and the Canucks possess a lot of talent.
4) Edmonton Oilers (Wild Card Playoff Team) -- It's obvious that the Oilers are young and talented. Winger Perron and defenseman and new captain Andrew Ference were acquired to add much-needed experience. This might be the year that Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov all come together to mount a legitimate playoff push. While goaltender Devan Dubnyk isn't spectacular, he's certainly solid.
5) Phoenix Coyotes (Wild Card Playoff Team) -- Head coach Dave Tippett would be near the top of the list of every coaching vacancy if general manager Don Maloney was crazy enough to ever let him go. Thankfully for Coyotes fans, that hasn't been the case. Playmaking center Mike Ribeiro re-joined Tippett in Phoenix after a fruitful relationship in Dallas. Captain Shane Doan must have been delighted to hear that he'd finally be paired with a top centerman. Mike Smith is a capable goaltender and he has a talented group of blue liners in front of him, led by a strong top four of Zbynek Michalek, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Keith Yandle and Derek Morris.
6) Anaheim Ducks -- It's painful to predict the Ducks finishing this low considering that it's Teemu Selanne's final NHL season. How can the Ducks fall from second place in 2012-13 to out of the playoffs entirely? Simple -- defensive talent is missing, largely due to Sheldon Souray's wrist injury that will keep him out until December. Jakob Silfverberg, who was acquired in the Bobby Ryan trade, is a player who will entertain fans at the Honda Center.
7) Calgary Flames -- Just like the Sabres, it will be a very, very long year for the Flames. The talent on the roster is very bare, but they hired the right man in President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke to help preside over what will be a lengthy rebuilding process.
Bruins over Rangers in seven games.
Blues over Sharks in six games.
STANLEY CUP FINAL PREDICTION (THE BIG ONE!):
Bruins over Blues in six games. Patrice Bergeron wins the Conn Smythe.
END OF SEASON AWARD WINNERS:
Hart Trophy – Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers has an excellent chance of leapfrogging more traditional Hart Trophy candidates due to his potentially huge impact in getting the Flyers back into the playoffs after missing out last season.
Art Ross Trophy -- Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Vezina Trophy – Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers could post a record win total in 2013-14 under new head coach Alain Vigneault. This could conceivably be the best statistical year of his illustrious career. Lundqvist's salary demands are likely to skyrocket into a stratosphere unforeseen by goaltenders. Rangers' general manager Glen Sather better be prepared to write a very large check.
Norris Trophy -- Alex Pietrangelo of the St. Louis Blues signed a lucrative seven-year extension and will be worth every penny. He's established himself as one of the foremost two-way defensemen in the league through his unique combination of size, skating and power play prowess.
Selke Trophy -- David Backes of the St. Louis Blues is the best two-way forward on the league's most defensively sound team. His case seems to be hurt by voters favoring more offensively skilled forwards in recent Selke votes. Backes is a tremendous, shutdown center and often draws the matchup of top-line centers in the defensive zone.
Jack Adams Award -- Dallas Eakins of the Edmonton Oilers.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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