2013-14 NHL Preview: 5 Things to Watch

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The offseason for the NHL was much less nerve-racking for fans as there was no debate surrounding the start of the season. Instead of an offseason full of meetings between people in suits this season was about preparation for a new season. That doesn’t mean that the offseason didn’t have its share of meetings between people with suits but the CBA was not the main conversation. Instead the conversations were exactly what they were supposed to be for analysts and fans alike. The conversations turned to the key offseason acquisitions and the losses of their teams. It went to how their teams will do and how likely it is that they will win the Stanley Cup. The long grind towards the Stanley Cup is about to start for all of these teams and everyone as always will start at 0-0 with an equal chance of making it. The NHL will once again be back as players navigate through the ups and downs of a season and will have to go through a number of hurdles this year. A new alignment, new rivalries, more outside games, a winter break spent in Russia, the continuing struggles of teams, and a threat from outside the NHL will highlight this season. There are plenty of stories to look at and these will all be big storylines as the season continues. Despite the distractions and the off-ice changes to the league there is still a job to do for all 30 teams. Winning the Stanley Cup is the ultimate goal for every team in the NHL and although some teams may not have the best chance there is always hope at the start of the season. Months from now two teams will meet for the ultimate prize and will finish off one of the toughest grinds to a championship in the world. After 82 games these two teams will have gone through three rounds of playoffs to get to the final series of games. It is a tough grind and one that truly weeds out those teams that don’t have it and don’t deserve the Stanley Cup. That fight begins soon as teams and players alike prepare for the long road that is the NHL season. As they prepare there will be plenty to watch out for including these five stories that will be sure to make headlines throughout the year.

 

The New Alignment

149819-650-366 With the addition of the Winnipeg Jets in 2011 the NHL would see an uneven alignment as the Jets, located further in the West, playing in the East. It would immediately bring the debate about how the NHL should change the alignment to take away an insane travel schedule for the Jets. Winnipeg would need to move to the West to have a much more reasonable travel schedule but that created uneven conferences. That meant someone had to move to the East from the West and that created the biggest issue. Both Columbus and Detroit have wanted to move to the East for years and both geographically could do this. After discussion throughout last year the NHL would make their decision. They would give both teams their wishes as Detroit and Columbus would move East while the Jets would join the Western conference. The NHL would decide also to throw out the six divisions and instead create two divisions in each conference. The Pacific, Central, Metropolitan, and Atlantic Divisions will make their debut this year with plenty to talk about. In the East there will be 8 teams in each division while in the West there are 7 teams in each division. For the Western Division teams there will be less competition to earn one of the eight spots in the playoffs leaving many to wonder why the NHL would create uneven conferences. Whether it is for future relocation or expansion or simply to try to put every team where they belong geographically it will be a point of contention all year. Along with a new alignment the NHL will introduce a new playoff format that will see a new way of doing things. The top three teams from each division will automatically make the playoffs while the rest of the conference will fight for the last two wild card spots. From that the usual 8 team tournament will continue. The changes continued to come this year as teams get used to new rivalries, new schedules, and a new format that will be a major story all year.

 

Overkill Outdoors

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Last year was a strange one for the NHL as they continued to grow and earn money but left a lot on the table. The lockout was not a great thing for the business as it quickly stalled what the NHL had built over the past few years. One of the biggest losses in the season was the Winter Classic between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings. Two Original Six teams facing off in the biggest stadium the NHL has ever been in was a massive game but one that would have to be cancelled. So the NHL would bring the game back for 2014 as the Winter Classic would return to the Big House in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Heritage Classic would also returned as scheduled in Vancouver at B.C. Place between the Ottawa Senators and the Vancouver Canucks. Then the NHL would announce a long list of other outdoor games planned for the 2013-14 season. Named the Stadium Series the NHL announced an additional four outdoor games for the season bringing the total to six outdoor games for the 2013-14 season. Many believed that the NHL had done this to try to recoup some of the money they had lost during the lockout but a memo leaked before the season would seem to hint at this becoming a regular occurrence. The NHL loves these games as to them they bring back memories of the old times of hockey and even though they do not reflect the history of the NHL, no NHL game was held outdoors before the first Winter Classic, they brought back memories of pond hockey. The games would be popular as they were a unique addition to the middle of the season to bring the interest levels back up. Along with the HBO documentary following the team the Winter Classic would be one of the more profitable ideas of the NHL and now they run the risk of destroying it with an overkill of games this season.

 

Winter Holidays Hotspot

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The NHL will get some midseason vacation time and all NHL players will hope they get an invitation to Sochi, Russia. It took a while to get done but the NHL, NHLPA, IIHF, and the IOC would finally come to an agreement to allow NHL players to participate in the 2014 Winter Olympics. Sochi, Russia will host the Olympics in 2014 and were waiting with bated breath to see if Russian heroes would be able to play in front of the home crowd. Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, and Pavel Datsyuk will all be there to represent their country in Russia’s Olympics but it may be the last time any of these players and the rest of the players will attend an Olympic Games.  The NHL took a long time to get this deal done and allow players to go to the Olympics and the negotiation process for the 2018 Olympics may not be as successful. The fact that owners despise the Olympics do not help much and with the NHL planning on reviving the international series and the World Cup the Olympics might be on the outs. This year there will be a break in the schedule though as players go to the Olympics and play for their countries. The story will remain a headline as teams and fans debate who belongs on the team and players look to have a great year to prove they belong on these teams. As the season progresses there are the usual selections for national teams but there are always surprises that can come out of nowhere and have a great season putting themselves into the conversation. Every player in the NHL wants to play for his country and they will all be looking to have a great start to this year to try to solidify their spot on their team. It will be an interesting aspect to watch as the debates continue and the Olympics creep closer as the NHL is once again, and maybe for the last time, involved in one of the biggest events of the year.

 

Continuing Struggles

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The Phoenix Coyotes are no longer under the ownership of the NHL and many are very relieved to not talk about them again. That is not necessarily the case though as many more people are looking to Phoenix to see if the new owner, George Gosbee and IceArizona Acquisition Co., will survive. The Coyotes are still a team that many believe should move and the NHL should give up on. They lose an estimated $25 million before they even start the season and if they cannot turn things around a new team in a new place may be next. The Coyotes would not be alone this year though as a team that is not in what is considered a non-traditional market would also be owned by the NHL. Just after the NHL sold the Coyotes to a new owner they would begin ownership of the New Jersey Devils. The Devils were struggling in embarrassing fashion in 2013 as they would not even be able to make payroll only one year after making the Stanley Cup Finals. They would need to borrow $30 million to pay their players and would not be able to call up players when injuries depleted their roster because they could not afford to pay anyone else. The Devils would have to sell and the NHL would take over control but unlike the Coyotes the Devils would find an owner quickly. An ownership group led by Josh Harris and David Blitzer, owners of the Philadelphia 76ers, would purchase the team this summer and would clear the debt built up by the team. It was a quick solution but would highlight a very big issue in the league. There is a massive separation between the rich and poor in the NHL and there are many teams that could fold in the very near future. The NHL continues to struggle in areas and with more and more cities preparing for an NHL team the league can only resist moving teams for so long as changes may be coming in the NHL.

 

The KHL Threat

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The NHL is the premier league in the world as they contain the best players in the world with the highest level of competition. So when the Kontinental Hockey League was announced in 2008 the NHL was not too concerned. There have been leagues in Europe for years including the Czech Extraliga, SM-liiga, DEL, and the Swedish Hockey League. None of these professional leagues had ever challenged the NHL with the talent not focusing on the other leagues. These European leagues served as development leagues for young European talent or a league where North Americans could go to play when they could not make the NHL. It did just seem like another European league but behind this European league was a host of very wealthy oil barons from Russia. These multi-billionaires would be the threat that the NHL should have been scared of as they had the money to compete with a major North American league. The KHL has the money to offer the best talent in Russia much more than any NHL team could afford. Although they are not to the level of the NHL yet the writing seems to be on the wall as the NHL struggles to create successful teams and to spread the wealth the KHL continues to grow. The money in the KHL is a tempting aspect to any Russian star and the contracts are being offered to some of the biggest stars in the NHL. Although this generation of stars seems to be more comfortable in the NHL there may be something to be said for the young stars coming up staying in Russia and playing for the KHL. With players like Nikita Filatov and Ilya Kovalchuk now playing in the KHL stars in the primes of their careers may find the money tempting. It is something to watch for as the KHL continues to grow and will only be a bigger threat as they look to take the best talent in Russia and eventually Europe away from the NHL and tries to become the rival league to the North American league.

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