Parity. That has been the theme in the NHL. The standings have been packed tightly, and teams have jockeyed for position down to the last day of the regular season. The feeling has been that if you just get in the playoffs, you can win the Stanley Cup.
Still, even with the salary cap, this has been a stratified league with elite teams, middle-tier teams and bottom-feeders. No matter the system, some simply have better management, better coaching and better players. Though there have been upstarts and upsets, generally the cream has risen, and some have stayed at or near the top over time.
Yes, the Los Angeles Kings won the Cup as a No. 8 seed in 2012. The truth is, they underachieved in the regular season and were an outlier. Top-four seeds won the Cup every other year since 1996.
The Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins all have made multiple Cup finals since 2008. The Kings returned to the conference finals last season with the Bruins, ’Hawks and Pens – while the Wings went to overtime of Game 7 in the second round – and the ’Hawks became the first NHL team to win the Cup twice in the cap era.
The stratification has been camouflaged in the regular season by the shootout and the point for an overtime loss – and by a playoff format that seeded teams one through eight in each conference. Almost every team had something on the line to the end – a playoff berth, home ice, something.
Now? We’ll see. The NHL has realigned, going from six divisions to four, giving playoff spots to the top three-to-five teams in each division. At first glance, a hard league has gotten harder – especially in the East, where 16 teams will fight for eight spots, not 14 as in the West, and one will be the Wings, who are moving from the West with their 22-season playoff streak.
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“We haven’t gone through a season with this alignment,” said Ottawa Senators center Jason Spezza. “But to the eye, I think it’s going to be harder to make the playoffs, for sure.”
It will be harder to make the playoffs for some teams. But it might be easier for others, too, and it will be interesting to see how this plays out over 82 games. Even with the salary cap, shootout and loser point, will the top teams pull away and the bottom-feeders fall out more quickly? Will spots be cemented earlier? Will some get bored? Will others lose hope? Will it depend on the division?
In short, will there be more separation in the regular season? With the playoff races in each conference split in half, will the true Cup contenders stand out more than they did before?
The puck drops Tuesday night. The top 10:
1. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
No one has repeated since the 1997-98 Red Wings, but there is no reason to think the Blackhawks aren’t capable of it. They barely made the playoffs in 2011 after winning the Cup in 2010, but GM Stan Bowman did not have to blow up the roster because of the cap this time. The core is back. Most of the supporting cast is back.
With the Wings in the East, the Hawks have only one true foil in the division, the St. Louis Blues. They have to stay sharp, stay healthy and stay the course.
“I think it’s unfair to call 2011 a hangover,” said winger Patrick Sharp. “We had half the team gone to different places. We were dealing with things that season, not the Stanley Cup hangover, more building chemistry and finding an identity as a team. This season there’s really no excuses.”
2. PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
After a Cup final in 2008 and a Cup in 2009, the Penguins seemed on their way to a dynasty. But they haven’t been back to the final since. It has always been something – injuries, defensive breakdowns, goaltending meltdowns, even scoring woes. They scored two goals in the conference final last season. Two.
“Thinking back on it, you take it as a learning experience that you can never have too many of these chances,” said winger Chris Kunitz. “You never know how quick it goes or how quick it leaves you and if you can ever get back there. We definitely know that we failed and we need to improve upon that with the group of guys we have coming back and the chemistry we have as a team.”
The Pens should be one of the best teams in the league again. But can Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin stay healthy? Will Rob Scuderi help solidify the defense? Can Marc-Andre Fleury recapture his form in goal? We won’t know anything until April at the earliest.
3. LOS ANGELES KINGS
These are essentially the same guys who won the Cup in 2012. The question is whether they can play like an elite team on a consistent basis throughout the regular season and into the playoffs. If so, Jeff Carter could win the Rocket Richard, Drew Doughty the Norris, Jonathan Quick the Vezina. They could win the Pacific and, yes, the Cup again.
Where is the weakness? It’s scoring sometimes, but it shouldn’t be. After Carter and Doughty, there is Anze Kopitar and Mike Richards and Dustin Brown. Slava Voynov has been developing into an offensive force from the back end. The bottom six is solid, the defense is deep and the goaltending is as good as it gets.
4. SAN JOSE SHARKS
Losing Raffi Torres to a torn ACL is a huge blow. If you ask the Sharks, they were the better team in the playoffs last season, but they lost to the Kings because Torres was suspended for a hit in Game 1 and Quick was spectacular.
The Sharks improved dramatically after the trade deadline last season when they added Torres’ speed and shipped out some slower players – Ryane Clowe, Michal Handzus and Douglas Murray. If Torres can return from his injury in time for the playoffs, it will be like adding him at the deadline twice in two seasons.
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This team might be hitting a sweet spot. Veterans Dan Boyle, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau still have something left and should have plenty of motivation in the last years of their contracts, while Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski are rising to the fore. The defense is solid. Antti Niemi was a Vezina finalist last season.
“Hopefully we can continue to pick up where we left off last year,” Couture said.
5. BOSTON BRUINS
The core remains from the team that won the Cup in 2011 and went back to the Cup final last season. But there have been significant changes to the supporting cast.
Out: Andrew Ference, Nathan Horton, Jaromir Jagr, Rich Peverley, Tyler Seguin. In: Loui Eriksson and Jarome Iginla, most notably. Eriksson is in his prime and should thrive in Boston with his two-way style. Iginla is fading, but he should be better than he was in Calgary and Pittsburgh, surrounded by better players, playing right wing, his natural position.
The Bruins have to integrate the new pieces and stay focused through the 82-game grind when all that matters is the playoffs. They are built on team play and emotion. When something is out of sync, when they aren’t engaged, they play below their ability. Perhaps the new division and a new rival will help.
“It’s going to be challenging, but at the same time, that’s what you want as a player and as a team,” said center Patrice Bergeron. “You want challenges, and I think Detroit is going to be one of them.”
6. ST. LOUIS BLUES
The Blues are a trendy Cup pick for the second straight season. They are a lot like L.A. – a deep, heavy, defensive team that is a pain to play against. They should have an excellent tandem in goal with Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, if Halak stays healthy and Elliott plays up to his potential. They have a stacked blue line led by Alex Pietrangelo, a Norris candidate, and Jay Bouwmeester, who logs lots of minutes. They can roll four lines up front.
“We feel like we’ve got a great team and we’re poised for a good run,” said captain David Backes.
Yet this is a team that got swept by the Kings two years ago and lost four straight to them in the playoffs last year after winning the first two at home. Have they learned from that? Are they still missing something? They need someone to emerge as a go-to goal-scorer. Can Backes score 30 again? Can Chris Stewart be a dominant power forward? Can Vladimir Tarasenko tear it up in his second NHL season?
7. OTTAWA SENATORS
The Senators weren’t supposed to do anything last year. Their best players were hurt for long stretches – Spezza, Milan Michalek, Erik Karlsson, Craig Anderson. They made the playoffs, anyway, and beat the Montreal Canadiens in a crazy first-round series. Now we will see what they can do with health, experience and expectations.
Captain Daniel Alfredsson is gone. But the Sens added Bobby Ryan and Clarke MacArthur up front. The steady Marc Methot has proven to be an excellent partner for the skilled Karlsson, and Jared Cowen is coming into his own on the blue line. Anderson and Robin Lehner are outstanding in goal.
“It’s easy to be one of those teams that nobody expects to do anything and do something, but when you’re expected to win games, it’s another thing,” Spezza said. “I don’t think we’re surprising anybody now. We have to make sure we’re ready to go. It’s a hard step to go from just being a playoff team to trying to have a chance to win. Hopefully we can make that step.”
8. DETROIT RED WINGS
The Wings had to win four straight to make the playoffs last year. But they made it for the 22nd straight season, and they took the eventual champions to overtime of Game 7 in the second round. They added Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss, and now they’re headed to the East, a move that should invigorate them with easier travel and more Original Six matchups.
Some think the Wings will have to adjust. The Wings are built on skill; six of their seven division rivals were among the top 11 teams in fighting last season. But the Wings feel the rest of the new Atlantic Division will have to adjust to them, and a player from a former Western Conference rival said: “They’ll win that division – easily.”
Maybe. The youngsters will have to keep growing the way they did last season and in the playoffs – guys like Danny DeKeyser, Brendan Smith and Joakim Andersson.
9. VANCOUVER CANUCKS
There will be no bigger soap opera in the NHL – coach John Tortorella trying to get the Sedin twins to block shots while dealing with the Vancouver media, goaltender Roberto Luongo taking back his starting job because the Canucks couldn’t trade him and had to ship out Cory Schneider instead. It could be a disaster. It could also be a heck of a success story if somehow everything clicks. This team came within a win of the Cup in 2011.
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“We still have the same core,” said center Ryan Kesler. “That encourages me. People are doubting us. That encourages me. That motivates us. We’re still an elite team. People think the window’s closed. Who knows? Just something to talk about, I guess.”
Kesler might be the player to watch. If any Canuck was made for Torts, it’s Kesler, an intense, no-nonsense player. He was one of the best two-way forwards in the game when healthy and at his peak, and he’s finally healthy again.
“He wants hard work, and he wants it every night,” Kesler said. “He’s not satisfied, and he wants more of you every night. I’m kind of wired that way.”
10. NEW YORK RANGERS
While Tortorella goes from New York to Vancouver, Alain Vigneault goes from Vancouver to New York. He should be just what the Rangers need – a coach with a less suffocating style, on and off the ice. Tortorella seemed to wear everyone out. The Rangers’ training camp slogan was “clean slate … grab it.”
“The management thought we needed a fresh voice, something that would spark us a little bit,” said defenseman Marc Staal. “I think we got a little stagnant. That happens sometimes. I think we have a lot of skill. I think to be able to open up a little bit is going to get our juices flowing and back at it and get those guys the puck in scoring areas. I think we’re anxious to get into the new system.”
It will help that Staal is back from an eye injury. It would help if Brad Richards can get back to form. Henrik Lundqvist might be the best goaltender in the game, but to win the Cup, the Rangers need to give him more of a margin for error.
“We did have a great run with Torts, some fun years,” Lundqvist said. “It was interesting to have a coach that challenged you the way he did, so I’m really thankful for that. In the end, we didn’t manage to get where we wanted to. We want to win. That’s the ultimate goal now. I guess you can see it a fresh start.”
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