Head-to-head: NHL preview

By Suneil Sachdeva

The National Hockey League returned on Oct. 1, and unlike last year, hockey fans are looking forward to a full season. Gauntlet sports writers Suneil Sachdeva and Fabian Mayer have answered some burning questions about the next 1230 games.

Will the new division playoff format negatively affect the playoff hopes of Eastern Conference teams, who now have 16 teams in their conference compared to 14 in the West?

Suneil Sachdeva: Yes, not only because of the new divisional format, but also because of the additions of two formidable teams in the form of the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets. The Eastern Conference will be a maze of interesting races this season. Not only do the Eastern teams have a lower statistical chance of making the playoffs, they also face tougher competition this year as the parity that has long been present in the East is starting to disappear. Teams like the New York Islanders, Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens are all getting better and better. Adding one of the West’s powerhouses in Detroit, and an interesting wild card in Columbus, will throw a few wrenches into the mix.

Fabian Mayer: Generally speaking, the Eastern Conference has been the weaker of the two conferences over the past decade or so. Fewer wins were required to secure a playoff spot and fewer teams were competitive. The re-alignment, along with many Eastern Conference teams rapidly improving, is set to reverse this trend. Detroit’s move to the conference adds a team that has not missed the playoffs in two decades. An improved Columbus also joins the East and should figure into the playoff race. However, I would not call them a formidable team just yet. The Eastern Conference playoff race will be very exciting to watch, but some teams that would have made it in other years might suddenly find themselves on the outside looking in.

Will the Edmonton Oilers finally make the playoffs?

FM: The Oilers last made it to the Stanley Cup playoffs in the 2005–06 season. As painful this drought must be for Oilers fans, it granted them three consecutive first-round draft picks which were used to select forwards Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov. As a result, Edmonton has some of the best young forwards in the league. Unfortunately the Oiler’s defence squad is still inexperienced and not very deep. Although Edmonton has enough maturing talent to at least contend for a playoff berth this year, my prediction is that they will fall just short.

SS: The Oilers will be a better team this season without a doubt, but this isn’t the season that they make it into the playoffs. While their almost excessively young and talented core of forwards will have another year of experience under their belts to build on, and their additions of David Perron and new captain Andrew Ference will certainly make them a more well-rounded squad, the Oilers will have a hard time dealing with their newly realigned division. Unable to adequately deal with strong Vancouver Canucks and Minnesota Wild squads last year, this season they’ll also have to find answers for the highly competitive California-trio of the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks — all who finished well above the Oilers in the standings last season. Facing these elite, well-established teams more often will make it too difficult for the rising Oilers to break the playoff wall this season.

Which team is your sleeper pick?

SS: It’s getting harder and harder to ignore the Columbus Blue Jackets. Positioned firmly off the grid where no one thinks to look, the Blue Jackets have been putting together a solid team since finally shipping off franchise cornerstone Rick Nash to the Rangers last season. The team now boasts proven scorers like Marian Gaborik and Nathan Horton, solid secondary scoring in Artem Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky, a strong defensive leader in Jack Johnson and a cage manned by last season’s top goaltender, Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky. After acquiring Gaborik at the trade deadline last year, Columbus closed out the season with nine wins in their last 12 games. Columbus will look to build off that late-season chemistry to make more of an impact this season.

FM: My sleeper pick is the New York Islanders. The team showed flashes of brilliance last year, including a 13-game stretch in which they suffered only one regulation loss. The team is young, fast and determined. These traits were on display in last year’s playoffs as they nearly forced a seventh game against the heavily favoured Pittsburgh Penguins. The Islanders should be an exciting team to watch and with John Tavares continuing to develop into a dominant player, the Islanders will turn some heads this season.

Will the Vancouver Canucks continue to spiral out of Stanley Cup contender status?

FM: I find it difficult to classify a team that has won their division for the past five years in a row as spiraling out of contender status. That being said, the team has not been able to replicate the playoff success that brought them within one game of winning the Stanley Cup in 2011. Having two top-tier goaltenders has been more of a distraction than a blessing for the Canucks over the past couple of seasons. Trading goaltender Cory Schneider to New Jersey in the off-season should allow Vancouver to focus on improving their play, although the team may have traded one media circus for another by hiring the outspoken John Tortorella as their new head coach. The Canucks have too much talent to not be considered contenders. They will no doubt be challenging for another division crown.

SS: I agree — those five consecutive division titles are hard to ignore. The Canucks may be ridiculously underwhelming and are unlikely to be this year’s champions, but they will remain contenders at the very least. While their division is going to be much tougher this season due to the realignment, the fact that the Canucks have the same general team in place means that they will continue to be a team on the doorstep of success. A new leader in media-darling Tortorella could indeed push them over that threshold.

Which team will be the most disappointing?

SS: The team I see as most likely to come up short this season is the Boston Bruins. Coming off a long postseason run that started with a seven-game grind against Toronto and ended with a six-game loss against Chicago in the finals, it will be hard for Boston to not feel worn down — physically and emotionally — this season. While many teams have gone to the finals and come back strong the following year, Boston’s hard-nosed, blue-collar style of play does not lend itself well to quick bounce-backs. Even more pressing is their offseason loss of two essential players. The first occurred when Nathan Horton bolted the club for Columbus in the summer. The second was Boston’s extremely ill-advised trade of Tyler Seguin to the Dallas Stars. Seguin could be one of the league’s brightest stars for a long time to come. Why Boston would trade a young player who is yet to reach his prime and led them in scoring one season ago and almost did it again last season is a mystery to me.

FM: I think the New York Rangers will struggle this year. The Rangers have left many hockey fans perplexed over the past couple of years. They possess a star-studded line-up and one of the best goaltenders in the world, yet they have been unable to make any sort of run at the Cup. Their second-round defeat to Boston last year resulted in the firing of coach John Tortorella. Due to realignment, they have been placed in a tough division with perennial powerhouses Pittsburgh and Washington as well as the quickly improving Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Islanders. Even making it to the playoffs may prove difficult this year for the Rangers, let alone winning a series.

Which free-agent addition will make the greatest impact on his new team?

FM: I believe that Jarome Iginla will have a significant impact as a Boston Bruin. After being traded to Pittsburgh last season, the long-time Flames captain tallied nearly a point-per-game despite averaging only 17 minutes of ice time. This year Iginla gets a fresh start on a team where his physical style of play will fit in perfectly. Iginla, David Krejci and Milan Lucic have the potential to be one of the most intimidating lines in the whole league. Barring injury, I can’t imagine a scenario where Iginla fails to score at least 30 goals.

SS: Stephen Weiss, who has finally escaped the Florida Panthers for the Detroit Red Wings. Weiss has been a reliable scorer, posting over 20 goals four times in Florida, despite being on a team that made the playoffs only once during his decade-long tenure with them. Now Weiss will get a chance to use his skill alongside elite talents like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen and Daniel Alfredsson. Playing on a line with Franzen and Alfredsson specifically, he should be in line to put up some better numbers than he has recently.

Which rookie will have the greatest impact on his team?

FM: I’m going to go with Nathan MacKinnon. The 18-year-old will no doubt need some time to get adjusted to the pace and physical nature of the NHL, but the 2013 first-overall pick has much to offer the Colorado Avalanche. He is a big, fast and talented forward who lead the Halifax Mooseheads to the 2013 Memorial Cup and took home MVP honours along the way. Currently slotted as the third-line centre, it will be interesting to see where MacKinnon lands around mid-season.

SS: I’ll agree with you there — it’s going to be difficult for the rest of the league’s newest class to outshine Nathan MacKinnon this season. With Tampa Bay electing to be patient with third-overall selection Jonathan Drouin by sending him back to his junior team, MacKinnon seems like a near-lock for this year’s Calder trophy for best rookie. While his third-line designation means that he may not start the season with as prominent a role as other rookies such as Florida’s Aleksander Barkov or Dallas’s Valeri Nichushkin, MacKinnon’s pedigree suggests he will find a way to prove his worth to the Avalanche and establish himself as one of the league’s brightest new stars. It seems unlikely MacKinnon remains buried on the third line for long, as a natural and dynamic fit presents itself on the second-line alongside young Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog.

Who is your Stanley Cup favourite?

FM: I’m not exactly going out on a limb by choosing the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Chicago Blackhawks. The Hawks were dominant throughout the last season, running away with the Western Conference title. Their Cup-winning playoff performance was just as impressive and there are few reasons why they would not be able to replicate their success. I don’t think Joel Quenneville will allow any sort of Stanley Cup-hangover that occasionally affects defending champions. Everyone knows that their forwards are enormously talented, but it is Chicago’s back end that makes them such a formidable opponent. They allowed the fewest goals-against in the NHL last season, meaning that to beat the Hawks one generally had to hold star players Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and the rest of the team to less than three goals. The Chicago Blackhawks have all the parts necessary to be the first team to win back-to-back Cups since Detroit did it in 1997 and 1998.

SS: Chicago is a strong team, but I’ve got to disagree here. The Pittsburgh Penguins remain the championship favourites this season, despite last year’s postseason collapse. There are just too many factors to ignore, such as the Penguins finishing among the top of the league’s elite. They have two former scoring champions, MVP and 50-goal scorers down the middle in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The top-two centres in the league are flanked by a group of reliably dangerous secondary scorers that include James Neal and tenacious winger Chris Kunitz, who has five seasons of 20-plus goals on his resume. Backing up that monstrous offensive unit is a strong defensive core that includes Norris trophy finalist Kris Letang. If goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury can deliver solid play, and their offence does not run of out of gas in the first round as it did last season, the Penguins should push through for their second championship of the Crosby era.

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