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The puck has dropped on the 2013-14 National Hockey League season, with 15 teams looking to put their painful playoff defeats behind them, 14 looking to improve and give themselves a shot at playing for the Cup, and one team looking to repeat. That team is the Chicago Blackhawks, who had a relatively quiet offseason. After one of the most impressive regular season runs in recent memory last season that saw the team start 21-0-3 last season, the squad marched to the Stanley Cup with a 4-2 series win over Boston. Chicago returns its same core players, having only lost forwards Dave Bolland, Viktor Stalberg, Michael Frolik, and backup goaltender Ray Emery. Look for the Blackhawks to once again be serious contenders for the Cup this season.
The league introduces its new realignment this year that will see every team play in every building at least once during the season. No more are there six divisions (three per conference) made up of five teams, but now there are four divisions (two per conference) of either seven or eight teams. The top three teams in each division will automatically qualify for the playoffs, plus the two teams per conference with the most points that are not in the top three in their respective division.
Atlantic Division (Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Florida, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa Bay, Toronto)
The Atlantic Division is seen as the toughest division in the new National Hockey League, as five teams from this division advanced to the Stanley Cup playoffs last season. The division is comprised of last season’s northeast division, plus the additions of Detroit and the two Florida teams. Detroit is by far the most intriguing addition, as now four of the Original Six teams are all in the Atlantic. With Boston’s crushing defeat on home ice in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals, the Bruins look to return with a better performance this year. I do not expect the departure of Tyler Seguin will have a negative effect on this team, as they added experience in his place in Loui Eriksson and Jarome Iginla. I look for them to emerge at the top of this division, with Detroit and Montreal securing automatic bids as well. I believe just one of the East’s wild cards will come out of the Atlantic Division, as Toronto will finish fourth, setting up a rematch of last season’s epic first round series against Boston.
Metropolitan Division (Carolina, Columbus, New Jersey, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington)
Another solid division, the Metropolitan has a lot of parity. Columbus is the only team in the division that comes from the Western Conference, and there are a lot of question marks surrounding this team. One that has typically struggled in the West, Columbus has a fresh stock of young players that will really make this team fun to watch, led by rookie 19 year olds Ryan Murray and Boone Jenner. It will be interesting to see how this team handles some of the top notch competition from the Metropolitan. I believe Pittsburgh will come out on top of this division led by superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, with the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals coming in second and third respectively. It won’t be easy, but I believe it will be Columbus that wraps up the second wild card spot.
Central Division (Chicago, Colorado, Dallas, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis, Winnipeg)
This is in my view the weakest division in the new NHL besides the obvious exception of Chicago, and the always under the radar St. Louis Blues. The Blues are really the only team that could potentially challenge the Blackhawks, and they will be led by their captain David Backes, who I believe could put up 40 goals this season. Look for Chicago to run away with this division, with St. Louis coming in second and Nashville in third. I have my doubts about even one wild card coming from this division, but if one does, I expect it to be Colorado.
Pacific Division (Anaheim, Calgary, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose, Vancouver)
This is a very even division and I could easily see any of these teams making playoff appearances, but I think experience and veteran presence is going to be the difference maker in this division. Vancouver and Los Angeles have made it to the Stanley Cup Finals within the past three seasons, and I think these new division rivals will have some epic battles this season. If Vancouver can figure out their goaltending issues revolving around Roberto Luongo, they will be a very solid team, but for now it appears to be more of a question mark. I think the prime-aged Los Angeles Kings will win the Pacific, with San Jose and Vancouver finishing second and third. I predict Phoenix and Anaheim will win the West’s two wild card spots.
With mainly the same core rosters, I actually believe that the Blackhawks and Bruins will meet again in the Stanley Cup Finals in June, with the Blackhawks again coming out on top. Chicago is simply too deep and with how much they dominated last season, it is hard to believe they will not do the same again this season. I look for this season to be another thriller, and it should be interesting to see how it all unfolds.