2014-15 NHL Preview: 5 to Watch

la_kings_2The NHL season is right around the corner as teams once again prepare for the long haul towards the Stanley Cup. It is one of the toughest roads to a championship as the physical nature of the game claims plenty of casualties. It is not only the team that has the most skill but the team that has the most tenacity that will survive the season and find their way to the Stanley Cup. As important as the skill is in the NHL, more often than not the team with the guys that can grind out wins are the ones that win championships. That makes it a difficult thing to build the right team. It is the balance of two sides that will be the difference for teams as they went through the offseason looking to strike that balance. With the offseason done and the building process essentially over teams now have to put the product on the ice. With the new offensive trend in the NHL teams need to find the playmakers that can score goals and keep pace with the offensive powerhouse. Yet they also need the durable guys that can provide a bit of grit in the lineup that can give some room to the skill players. It is something that every team has tried to do throughout the offseason and when they step on the ice it will be seen if their efforts were worth it. That is where everything comes to the coaches and the players to do their part in order to get the team to the playoffs and to the Stanley Cup. The coaches have to put together the right system that will suit their players best and will give them the opportunity to put their best foot forward. The players must buy in to what their coach and the rest of the organization wants them to do. Only then will the team be able to push through and earn a spot in the playoffs where they get the opportunity to pull off one more sprint to the Stanley Cup at the end of the year. When there is no by-in from the players or even the coaches that is when a team can fall apart before they are even in the playoff hunt. Teams will look to avoid that problem but nothing will be known until the season officially starts and every team finds out what they have on their roster. Will it be a collection of great team players that is the perfect mix of skill and grinder or will it be a team full of individuals with an imbalance in grinders and skills players? Only time will tell but the excitement that they may have the team to win the Stanley Cup has fans and teams ready for the new season as the pursuit of the greatest trophy in all of sports begins once again with the start of the 2014-15 NHL season.

 

The Power Couple

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The Western Conference has long been the better conference in the league as the style of play on the left coast reflects the best way to get through the playoffs. It is a defensive style that does not depend on the skill a flashiness that disappears when the ice gets smaller during the playoffs. That style of play has led to a sense that the Western Conference is the better Conference. In the last ten years it has been shown with the West winning 6 of the last 10 Stanley Cup Championships. Even with the Western Conference being the more dominant conference there is a division forming in the West between the top teams and the rest. Those top teams can be dwindled, essentially, to two teams in the West that account for four of the last five Stanley Cups. The Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings have been the two best teams in the last five years and this year they both look to continue that pattern. It is always a challenge to continue playing at such a high level in the salary-cap era but both teams have accomplished just that. They constantly put together teams that are just built to win at the most important times. They are slightly different though as the Kings build their teams with grinders in mind while the Blackhawks have a core of skill players surrounded by role players. The two teams enter the new season with high expectations as they continue to be favourites year after year and nothing changes in this new season. Both will be watched closely to see if the pattern can continue with the Kings defending their Stanley Cup and the Blackhawks look to get back to the Stanley Cup to win their third in the last six years. It will be a major story to watch as parity continues in the NHL except for the final prize where two teams from the West continue to dominate but can they do it again this year?

 

Expansion Talk

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The NHL made a massive shift in the 2013-14 season when they rearranged the divisions to create four divisions. The league went from three divisions in each conference that had five teams in each division to a four division conference with an uneven amount of teams in each conference. With the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets moving to the Eastern Conference the West was left with 14 teams, 7 in each division, and the East moved to 16 teams, 8 in each conference. The change in the conferences may have come by design though as it was reported in the offseason that the league is investigating potential expansion options. Since the reports began the talk has increased of where the NHL could possibly expand and the conferences can provide a big hint of where they are thinking. As much as Canada wants more teams, the only viable places would be a second team in the Toronto area and Quebec City. Those are both eastern cities and with the imbalance in the Conferences it seems clear that the NHL is looking West. A number of theories have come out of the expansion talk but the most likely places could be Las Vegas and Seattle. Las Vegas has been a city that the NHL has wanted to go for years as they have expressed interest in a team there to try to become the only professional sports team in the state. Hosting the NHL Awards show in Vegas and plans to host exhibition games in the city seem to make it clear that the league wants to be there. Seattle is a newer thought for the NHL but with the sports culture growing after the Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl win it seems like the right move for a city with only one professional sports team. Of course none of the expansion talk has been confirmed by the NHL and it is not likely to happen soon as they try to stabilize places like Dallas, Florida, and Arizona before they add more teams.

 

Battle for the Bottom

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The ultimate goal in the NHL is to win what is widely considered the best trophy in sports in the Stanley Cup. Every team looks to find the best combination on their team to bring them to a Stanley Cup. People are fired because they can’t get them there and people are hired because they believe they can make the difference. With teams going to so much trouble to win it is hard to believe the thought that some teams might try to lose. It has been said in many leagues across North America that teams can sometimes look to bomb their season in hopes that they finish last. The only reason for doing so is to get the one positive in finishing as the worst team in the league, the #1 draft pick. Of course that draft pick is not guaranteed in many leagues now as draft lotteries have become a popular way to try to curb a team losing on purpose. This year the NHL may be involved in a massive debate over this very issue as for the first time in a while the prize for finishing last is a can’t miss prospect. There have been many prospects since in the past that have looked good and are clear #1 pick material but none have the hype that Connor McDavid has heading into his final season in Major Junior hockey. Not since Sidney Crosby has the hype been built this high as McDavid has been pegged as a #1 pick since he was in his early teens. Earning and Exceptional Player Status to enter the OHL at age 15, only four players have received this status as McDavid joined John Tavares and Aaron Ekblad while Sean Day joined the other three in 2013. He is considered one of the best players in the world and a player that will be taken first overall in next year’s NHL draft. As teams progress in the season this year the accusations will fly for some of the teams that many may suspect will lose for McDavid.

 

Continuing to Change

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It is becoming commonplace in the NHL now as rules are changed every year as they continue to try to adjust to the new age of hockey. The trend began after the 2004-05 NHL strike that produced a number of major changes to the game. One of these changes was the establishment of a test camp that looks at new rules and tests them on the ice with NHL players. Player safety has taken most of the headlines in recent years as ways to avoid major injuries, specifically head trauma, have been the focus of these rule changes. Another focus has been the changes to try to curb the trend of the goal droughts. The NHL has attempted to make their game more offence friendly in the last few years. The NHL continues to tweak the rules in an attempt to make the game better every year. This year the changes were not as widespread as they have been in the past but there were still a few to note. The biggest, most notable change will be the elimination of the “Spin-O-Rama” move from shootouts. The move has become a much bigger part of shootouts in the last few years but has never been relegated. The controversy surrounding the move is that it moves the puck backwards when the rules state the puck must always move forward. The change is just one of the multiple rule changes on the season but again none are major. The goalie trapezoid has been expanded, goal replay rules have been expanded, while game misconducts have become stricter and can now result in suspension. Another major change will be the change in tripping as any player diving and tripping an opponent will be called for tripping whether they hit the puck or not while diving has received much stricter punishment. The rule changes are not as major as they have been but they will still have an effect this year as the NHL continues to adjust to continue to improve the sport.

 

The World Cup

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The Winter Olympics are still four years away in Pyoengchang, South Korea but the NHL has already seemingly made up its mind on player participating. Last year the NHL took their usual two-week break in the season for the NHL players to travel to Russia for the Winter Olympics. The discussion about players participating had reached a new level before the games as the NHL, IOC, and IIHF participated in lengthy discussions about NHL players going. The decision was made to let the players go with one major reason being that the games were in a major hockey market in Russia. When the Olympics travel to Korea that motivation is gone and there is little to convince the NHL that letting their players go is a good idea. The games will not be on at good times for North America and hockey may finally not be the premier event of the Olympics with a country that never makes the Olympic tournament. With this and the fact that the NHL owners do not like to see their players that they pay millions of dollars to go and play for a team that makes them no money with the risk of being injured. It is a lot against Olympic participation but there is still one issue that the NHL will have to solve if they don’t go to the Olympics. Fans love international hockey and want to see the best players in the world play against each other. If the Olympics are not a possibility and the World Championship remains during the NHL playoffs the NHL may decide on reviving an old tournament. The World Cup of Hockey was only played twice in 1996 and 2004 and it was not a very successful tournament. The NHL is looking to revive the tournament and put more focus into it while placing it at a time when NHL players can go and owners agree to let them go. Nothing is official as of yet but the talk will continue with a decision potentially coming this year regarding the World Cup and in turn the Olympics.

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