Complete Preview for the 2013-14 NHL Season

Carol SchramFeatured ColumnistOctober 1, 2013

Complete Preview for the 2013-14 NHL Season

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    The puck is about to drop on a brand new NHL season.

    Last year's four-month regular-season sprint was capped off by a couple of very exciting months of playoffs and a Stanley Cup championship for the Presidents' Trophy-winning Chicago Blackhawks.

    Now, the slate has been wiped clean and all 30 teams begin on a level playing field—or, should I say, sheet of ice.

    Here's what you can expect this season. We'll see familiar faces in new surroundings and brand new divisional rivalries. Some teams and players will exceed expectations, while others will falter.

    After a break for the Olympics and a full-court press to the finish, individual award votes will be tallied and the march toward Lord Stanley's mug will begin once again.

    Let's get started!

     

    All statistics from NHL.com unless otherwise noted, and all salary and contract information from CapGeek.com.

Biggest Free-Agent Signings This Offseason

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    The salary cap dropped this summer, but that didn't stop some teams from spending big money to lure new players. Here are the five most impactful signings of the offseason:

     

    Daniel Alfredsson, Detroit Red Wings: One year, $5.5 million

    The Ottawa Senators joined the NHL in 1992. They operated for just three years before Daniel Alfredsson joined the team in 1995. He's became captain in 1999 and has been there ever since—until this year. Alfredsson shocked the hockey world when he accepted a one-year deal with the Detroit Red Wings for 2013-14, citing a breakdown in relations with Senators management. 

     

    David Clarkson, Toronto Maple Leafs: Seven years, $36.75 million

    Power forward David Clarkson cashed in on one of the biggest free-agent deals of the summer when he signed on with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The signing was a homecoming for the Toronto native, who had spent his entire career with the New Jersey Devils. Clarkson's tenure with Toronto got off to a rough start in preseason when he was slapped with a 10-game suspension for leaving the bench to join a fight. Leafs fans will have to wait until October 25 for their prize signing to make his regular-season debut.

     

    Andrew Ference, Edmonton Oilers: Four years, $13 million

    After playing seven seasons and winning the 2011 Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins, Edmonton native Andrew Ference also elected to return to his hometown, signing a four-year deal with the Oilers. Ference has been regarded as a journeyman defenseman, but Edmonton has put a premium on his veteran leadership qualities, awarding him with the team's captaincy. He should play an important role in the development of a young, talented Oilers squad.

     

    Jarome Iginla, Boston Bruins: One year, $6 million

    The Boston Bruins came thisclose to acquiring Jarome Iginla just before last year's trade deadline. In the end, the former Calgary captain signed on with Pittsburgh, but Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli got a do-over this summer when he inked Iginla to a one-year free-agent deal. Iginla should play a prominent role on the right wing in the Boston offense.

     

    Tim Thomas, Florida Panthers: One year, $3.75 million

    Tim Thomas won the Stanley Cup with Boston in 2011 but has made nearly as many headlines for his unique life off the ice as he has for his goaltending. Before the start of the 2012-13 lockout, Thomas announced that he was taking a one-year sabbatical away from the game to spend more time with his family. Thomas returned to the NHL in September, signing a professional tryout contract with the Florida Panthers. His preseason play was strong enough for the team to ink him to a $3.75 million deal for the year. 

Biggest Trades This Offseason

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    Jonathan Bernier

    Traded by the Los Angeles Kings to the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for Matt Frattin, Ben Scrivens and a second-round pick in either 2014 or 2015

    Bernier has been a top goaltending prospect for a couple of years who has been looking to become a starter. With James Reimer also in net for Toronto, a battle is bound to ensue over the coming months.

     

    Bobby Ryan

    Traded by the Anaheim Ducks to the Ottawa Senators for Jakob Silfverberg, Stefan Noesen and a first-round pick

    The Ducks were facing a cap crunch this summer. Bobby Ryan had long been rumored to be the top forward who didn't fit into the team's plans. With two years left on a deal with a cap hit of $5.1 million per season, trading Ryan for young players gave the Ducks some flexibility and provided the Senators with a scoring winger who is still just 26 years old.

     

    Cory Schneider

    Traded by the Vancouver Canucks to the New Jersey Devils for a 2013 first-round pick (Bo Horvat)

    After trying unsuccessfully to trade Roberto Luongo for more than a year, the Vancouver Canucks finally cleared the logjam in their net by moving their other goalie instead. Cory Schneider is younger, has had better numbers over the past couple of seasons and isn't weighed down by a contract that extends until 2022, so he was much easier to deal. Schneider started strongly with the Devils in the preseason, though he's still slated to play a backup role to legend Martin Brodeur.

     

    Tyler Seguin

    Traded by the Boston Bruins along with Rich Peverley and Ryan Button for Loui Eriksson, Matt Fraser, Reilly Smith and Joe Morrow

    Boston signed Tyler Seguin to a six-year contract extension in 2012 but soured on the young forward after issues arose surrounding his maturity. Seguin played a limited role during the Bruins' 2013 playoff run, then was traded to Dallas in early July. The young players in this deal could turn out to be important down the road, but for now, Seguin gets a fresh start in Dallas alongside old teammate Rich Peverley, while Boston adds a proven threat in Loui Eriksson.

     

    Mark Streit

    Negotiating rights traded by the New York Islanders to the Philadelphia Flyers for a fourth-round pick in 2014

    Once the New York Islanders were eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs last May, they started looking at the roster decisions they'd need to make. Longtime captain Mark Streit was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on July 5 and the Islanders didn't think they'd be able to re-sign him, so they dealt his rights to Philadelphia on June 12. On June 28, the Flyers finalized a four-year, $21 million contract with Streit in hopes that he would help shore up their porous defense.

Other Important Roster Changes

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    Vincent Lecavalier

    As a result of the drop in the salary cap going into 2013-14, NHL teams were offered a window this summer where they could buy out up to two of their existing contracts. The Tampa Bay Lightning exercised the buyout on their captain, Vincent Lecavalier, who had seven years remaining on his deal at a cap hit of $7.7 million per season. The Philadelphia Flyers snapped up Lecavalier as an unrestricted free agent, signing him to a five-year deal with a cap hit of $4.5 million a year.

     

    Danny Briere

    To make room for Lecavalier, the Flyers jettisoned a couple of cumbersome contracts of their own. As well as cutting ties with goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, they bought out the last two years of Danny Briere's contract at a cap hit of $6.5 million. Briere quickly found a new job with Montreal, inking a two-year, $8 million deal.

     

    Ilya Kovalchuk

    Ilya Kovalchuk shocked the hockey world in July when he walked away from his 15-year, $100 million contract with the New Jersey Devils to retire from the NHL and return to Russia. A few days later, it was announced that Kovalchuk had signed a four-year deal with SKA Saint Petersburg of the KHL. The Devils still owed Kovalchuk $77 million on his deal. It was a blow to lose their star forward but a bit of a relief to be free of his contract.

     

    Miikka Kiprusoff

    After much speculation, the longtime Calgary Flames' goaltender announced his retirement from hockey on September 9.

    Other players to retire during the offseason include Andy Sutton, Scott Nichol and Andy McDonald.

Pacific Division Preview

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    Another change for the 2013-14 NHL season is a new divisional alignment. There are now just two divisions in each conference instead of three, with seven teams per division in the Western Conference and eight teams in each Eastern Division.

    We'll start with a look at the Pacific Division:

    Pacific Division Teams: Anaheim Ducks, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, Phoenix Coyotes, San Jose Sharks, Vancouver Canucks

     

    Projections for 2013-14:

    Division Champion: San Jose Sharks

    Other Playoff Teams: Los Angeles Kings, Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers

    Bottom-Dweller: Calgary Flames

    The new Pacific Division should be a tough one, featuring all three California teams, the three western Canadian teams and the Phoenix Coyotes.

    The Los Angeles Kings have proven to be tough playoff competitors over the past couple of years, but they have yet to tear up the regular season.

    Expect the same for 2013-14. The Kings will make the playoffs, but the improving San Jose Sharks will top them in the standings. The Edmonton Oilers will also improve, and the Phoenix Coyotes should get stronger now that their ownership situation is settled.

    Look for the Anaheim Ducks to take a step back from their fantastic season in 2012-13, while the Vancouver Canucks will also drop a but further in the standings.

Central Division Preview

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    Central Division Teams: Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues, Winnipeg Jets

     

    Projections for 2013-14:

    Division Champion: Chicago Blackhawks

    Other Playoff Teams: St. Louis Blues, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild

    Bottom-Dweller: Colorado Avalanche

    Central Division veterans Chicago, St. Louis and Nashville have some interesting company in the new alignment. Colorado and Minnesota join from the old Northwest Division, Dallas from the Pacific Division and Winnipeg from the Southeast Division of the Eastern Conference—their old home when they were the Atlanta Thrashers.

    The 'Hawks and Blues won't be the most welcoming hosts, likely dominating the top two spots in the division. The rest could be up for grabs. Nashville looks like it's treading water, but the other four teams are all on the upswing. The Avalanche will likely need more time, so that leaves Dallas and Minnesota to fight it out for the third playoff spot and potential wild card.

Metropolitan Division Preview

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    Metropolitan Division Teams: Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals

     

    Projections for 2013-14:

    Division Champion: Pittsburgh Penguins

    Other Playoff Teams: Washington Capitals, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers

    Bottom-Dweller: Carolina Hurricanes

    Before the first puck is dropped, teams in the Eastern Conference face a bigger challenge than their Western brothers to make the playoffs this year. In the Western Conference, eight out of 14 teams will reach the postseason, or 57 percent. With eight out of 16 advancing in the Eastern Conference, their odds are only 50 percent.

    For this reason, some good Eastern teams could find themselves on the outside looking in next spring.

    Pittsburgh shows no sign of relinquishing its dominant position atop the league. Columbus and the Islanders are improving, while New Jersey, Philadelphia and Carolina have made changes to rebound from poor showings in 2012-13. Meanwhile, the Rangers and Capitals are perennial contenders. 

    If any of the upstarts hope to grab a playoff spot, their strong play will likely have to be aided by an unexpected slump by one of the favorites.

Atlantic Division Preview

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    Atlantic Division Teams: Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs

     

    Projections for 2013-14:

    Division Champion: Boston Bruins

    Other Playoff Teams: Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators

    Bottom-Dweller: Buffalo Sabres

    The situation is a bit more clear-cut in the Atlantic Division. Florida, Tampa Bay and Buffalo will all continue to struggle this year, but it will be a fight among the other five teams. Toronto is the team that gets left off of the playoff list only because they may have a rocky start after a tumultuous preseason. Detroit could provide some new friction among teams that are generally pretty familiar with each other.

Players Set for Breakout 2013-14 Seasons

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    Here are four players from around the league whose names could be on everyone's lips as the year goes on.

     

    Logan Couture, San Jose Sharks

    Entering his fifth season with the Sharks, 24-year-old center Logan Couture has shown steady, consistent improvement. He followed up his 31 goals in 2011-12 with 20 more in the lockout-shortened season and a point per game in the playoffs. Expect big numbers from this talented scorer.

     

    Loui Eriksson, Boston Bruins

    Loui Eriksson has been quietly carrying the offensive load on some poor Dallas teams for a number of years. The 28-year-old winger had an off year with just 29 points in 2012-13 but is blessed with a ton of talent. Little seen in the Eastern Conference before his trade to the Bruins, expect Eriksson to feature in plenty of highlights this year, especially if he plays with center Patrice Bergeron.

     

    Slava Voynov, Los Angeles Kings

    After just two NHL seasons, 23-year-old Slava Voynov is making a name for himself as one of the league's top defensemen. His steady defensive play and penchant for scoring game-winning goals made him one of the keys to the Los Angeles Kings' playoff success. Voynov is signed for five years at a reasonable cap hit of $4.1 million. Expect that to look like a bargain very soon.

     

    Stephen Weiss, Detroit Red Wings

    Stephen Weiss is a shifty center who has put up good numbers during his career in Florida despite being surrounded by generally lesser talents. In Detroit, the situation will be different. Weiss can dictate the play while relying on his wingers to generate some serious offense. It should be a match that works very well for the Wings.

Players Who Will Disappoint in 2013-14

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    Now, four players who won't live up to their billing:

     

    David Bolland, Toronto Maple Leafs

    Over the summer, Toronto chose to buy out offensive talent Mikhail Grabovski and replace him at center with gritty Dave Bolland. Grabovski didn't mesh with coach Randy Carlyle, whereas Bolland's physical style does. The question is, was Bolland's past success a result of his spot on a supremely talented Blackhawks team? Leafs fans may find that his contributions this year do not live up to their expectations.

     

    Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins

    Marc-Andre Fleury won a Stanley Cup in 2009. His play has been inconsistent ever since. Last season, Fleury basically split the regular-season workload with Tomas Vokoun before eventually losing his spot to Vokoun in the playoffs. Now, Vokoun's sidelined indefinitely and Fleury will need to carry the load, at least for awhile. With two years left on his deal, the Penguins may be forced to make a move in net if Fleury falters again to start the season.

     

    Zack Kassian, Vancouver Canucks

    The Vancouver Canucks acquired Zack Kassian in a 2012 trade-deadline deal, giving up on promising center Cody Hodgson in hopes that Kassian would evolve into a banging, goal-scoring power forward. So far, it hasn't happened. Kassian has occasionally shown great hands, but he has been maddeningly inconsistent and often displays poor judgement on the ice. A careless swing of his stick in the preseason broke Sam Gagner's jaw and earned him a five-game suspension to start the season—not the kind of start that new coach John Tortorella was hoping for.

     

    Vincent Lecavalier, Philadelphia Flyers

    It has been nine years since Vincent Lecavalier won his Stanley Cup and seven years since his lone 100-point season. On a Lightning team that scored goals in bunches thanks to Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, Lecavalier's production was on a steady decline over the past few years. At 6'4", Lecavalier is a big body, but he doesn't play an especially physical style—a combination that could frustrate Flyers fans if he doesn't light the lamp enough to compensate.

The Most Improved Team Will Be…

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    ...the Edmonton Oilers.

    Edmonton has been on the uptick for awhile, but they're poised to break out in a big way in 2013-14.

    New general manager Craig MacTavish has upgraded his team substantially over the summer.

    He hired coach Dallas Eakins, who earned a strong reputation as a developer of young talent during his stint with the AHL's Toronto Marlies. Eakins has already taken bold steps to change the Oilers culture and should be able to bring out the best in Edmonton's crop of young forwards.

    The Oilers also made some savvy deals, signing defensively responsible veteran free agents Andrew Ference and Boyd Gordon and trading for the versatile David Perron.

    With Nikolai Khabibulin gone, underrated Devan Dubnyk assumes the role of starter in net. As always, the Oilers should have no trouble scoring goals with a crop of youngsters including Jordan Eberle, newly converted center Taylor Hall, Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz. When Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Sam Gagner return from injury, the team will get even deeper up front.

    Look for the Oilers to impress in the new Pacific Division and press hard for a playoff spot.

The Most Disappointing Team Will Be…

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    ...the Anaheim Ducks.

    They enjoyed an unexpectedly great season in 2012-13, finishing third overall in the NHL and topping the Pacific Division, but their year ended in bitter disappointment when they blew a 3-2 series lead, losing to the Detroit Red Wings in the first round of the playoffs.

    The Ducks couldn't be happier to send the Wings off to the Eastern Conference, but the hangover from the loss may linger.

    Last year, the Ducks sparkled in net with Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth and enjoyed breakout seasons from players like Emerson Etem, Matt Beleskey, Kyle Palmieri and Andrew Cogliano. Veteran defenseman Francois Beauchemin had arguably the best season of his career.

    If any of those players takes a step back, Anaheim will backslide. Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf are still big talents, but Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu are another year older, and point man Sheldon Souray is on the shelf for awhile with a serious wrist injury. 

    Traditionally, the Ducks are a yo-yo team whose fortunes alternately rise and fall. It looks like this could be a down year in Anaheim.

Sleeper Teams to Watch

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    Here are three teams who could make a move up the standings this season:

     

    Columbus Blue Jackets

    The Columbus Blue Jackets had a terrific season in 2012-13, barely missing the playoffs. Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky led the charge, and the Jackets have been revitalized by their new blood. Expect Columbus to continue to improve. Also, expect their rivalry with their new division mates, the New York Rangers, to intensify quickly after so many trades between the two clubs over the past couple of years.

     

    Dallas Stars

    Now with stable ownership, the Dallas Stars did a major revamp of their franchise over the summer. They hired a new coach and general manager and augmented their young talent with veterans like Sergei Gonchar. Their 2013 first-rounder, Valeri Nichushkin, could be the breakout star of this year's rookie class. Look for big things from the Stars this season.

     

    Minnesota Wild

    Entering year two of the Zach Parise/Ryan Suter era, the Minnesota Wild are nurturing a crop of young talent that's getting close to taking the next step. Players like Jason Pominville have been brought in to provide leadership while youngsters like Jonas Brodin, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund and Mathew Dumba will be given every chance to contribute. The Wild are probably a couple of years away from becoming contenders, but they should take another step forward this year.

2014 Sochi Olympic Storylines to Follow

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    The NHL will shut down from February 9-25 so that its players can participate in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Here are three key storylines to follow.

    1. 2014 marks the first time that the Winter Olympics have been held on Russian soil. Moscow hosted the Summer Olympics in 1980 as part of the Soviet Union but the event was boycotted by the U.S. and other Western nations to protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. A fury erupted this summer about Russia's strict anti-gay laws, but the IOC is satisfied that the legislation does not contravene the Olympic Charter, according to Reuters.

    2. Team Canada will be vying to defend its gold medal from the 2010 games in Vancouver, led once again by Sidney Crosby. 2010 silver medalist Team U.S.A. will mount a strong challenge, as will recent IIHF world champions Sweden, Russia and Finland. Preliminary rosters have been named for all countries, but final decisions won't be made until much closer to the tournament.

    3. The pressure will be on for the Russians to duplicate Canada's feat of winning gold on home soil in 2010. All hands are expected on deck to capture the top medal for Russia. Alexander Ovechkin missed the Washington Capitals' last preseason game to travel to Greece and be the first Russian to carry the Olympic torch, per NHL.com. With national pride at stake, expect Team Russia to pull out all the stops as they go for gold.

Calder Trophy Prediction: Rookie of the Year

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    Rather than listing the top candidates for each trophy, let's take a look at a range of players who may find themselves in the conversation next spring. The Calder Trophy is awarded to the NHL's top rookie.

     

    Long Shot: Seth Jones, Nashville Predators

    The fourth overall pick of 2013, Seth Jones has been playing with Shea Weber during his very first NHL preseason. If that pairing continues, Jones will have every opportunity to get his name into the Calder discussion. Not many 18-year-old defensemen can make the jump straight from the juniors; the Preds will have a nine-game window to decide if they want to keep the youngster with the team or if he'd be better served by returning to the Portland Winterhawks.

     

    Dark Horse: Tyler Toffoli, Los Angeles Kings

    Toffoli is a 21-year-old right winger who stepped capably into the Los Angeles Kings' playoff lineup last spring. With only 10 regular-season games under his belt, he's well under the 25-game cutoff for rookie status. Toffoli has been assigned to the AHL Manchester Monarchs to start the season; a roster hole would have to open up with the Kings for him to have a shot at the Calder.

     

    Winner: Valeri Nichushkin, Dallas Stars

    Nichushkin is only 18, but he played a full season in the Czech league last year, so he's used to playing among men. He's a big man and a dazzling offensive talent who will have the opportunity to log some serious minutes on a rebuilding Stars squad. Because of his age, he can't be sent to the minors, so Nichushkin will have the entire season to impress NHL hockey writers. Nichushkin could be the first Russian to win the Calder since Alex Ovechkin did it in 2006. 

Norris Trophy Prediction: Best Defenseman

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    Long Shot: Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues

    The Blues are poised for a great season, and Pietrangelo is penciled in as a big part of those plans. Just re-signed as the team's franchise defenseman, the big 23-year-old is strong on both sides of the puck and still improving. The Blues should get more attention from the media this year, which means Pietrangelo could build some buzz.

     

    Dark Horse: Slava Voynov, Los Angeles Kings

    Slava Voynov will be 24 by the time Norris Trophy voting takes place next spring. P.K. Subban celebrated his 24th birthday with a Norris win, and Erik Karlsson was just 21 when he won in 2012. There is a current trend toward younger winners. If Voynov's upcoming season is as strong as his performance in last year's playoffs, he could work his way into the conversation as one of the best in the league.

     

    Winner: Shea Weber, Nashville Predators

    Shea Weber had a rough time last year as he and the Predators struggled to adjust to life without Ryan Suter. Weber should be back on form this season, and if he plays successfully with rookie Seth Jones, the pair will get plenty of attention. Suter was nominated for his first Norris last year—look for Weber to get back in the conversation this year.

Vezina Trophy Prediction: Best Goaltender

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    Long Shot: Antti Niemi, San Jose Sharks

    The San Jose Sharks are known more as a team that scores goals than one that prevents them, but Antti Niemi was a Vezina finalist in 2013. He has gotten better and better since he left the Chicago Blackhawks after backstopping them to the Stanley Cup in 2010. If the Sharks become the class of the Pacific Division this season, expect Niemi to be back in the Vezina conversation.

     

    Dark Horse: Mike Smith, Phoenix Coyotes

    Mike Smith passed his early years in the NHL with little fanfare in Dallas and Tampa Bay. His career caught fire with the Phoenix Coyotes two years ago. Now the lanky stopper has a big long-term contract and needs to put up the numbers to justify it. If Phoenix makes a move up the standings or Smith gets a nod from Team Canada for the Olympics, he could get Vezina votes.

     

    Winner: Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins

    Tuukka Rask stepped up as a true top-level goaltender during the 2013 playoffs. His first year as the Bruins' undisputed starter was the lockout-shortened campaign. This season, he'll have a chance to establish himself over a full 82-game schedule. Boston's strong blue line and airtight defensive play should show Rask in the best possible light all season long.

Hart Trophy Prediction: Most Valuable Player

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    Long Shot: Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit Red Wings

    Veteran Pavel Datsyuk is considered by some to be the best player in the game. His skill was a critical part of the very quick rebuild the Detroit Red Wings executed last season. Datsyuk has four Lady Byng awards and three Selke awards to his name. If the Wings climb back to the top of the NHL standings, he may have a chance to add a Hart to that collection.

     

    Dark Horse: Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins

    Patrice Bergeron is one of the league's top two-way centers and won the Frank J. Selke Trophy in 2012. Bergeron is a member of the IIHF's triple-gold club, having won gold medals in the Olympics, the World Championships and the World Junior Championships. He also showed his warrior side when he played with a collapsed lung during Game 6 of last year's Stanley Cup Final. Bergeron has gained league-wide recognition, and his value to his team is unquestionable. Another good season could bring him consideration for the Hart.

     

    Winner: Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

    Sidney Crosby is a dominant superstar in this game, yet has just one Hart Trophy to his credit, from 2006-07. He was beaten by Alex Ovechkin the year he won the Stanley Cup (2009) and again last season, when he missed 10 games after taking a puck to the face just as his rival lit it up. At 26, Crosby now has a good body of experience to go along with his exceptional talent. If Crosby and the Penguins have another strong season, this should be his year for individual recognition.

Who Will Win the Scoring Title?

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    Long Shot: Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks

    Patrick Kane was fifth in NHL scoring during the last regular season and second in the playoffs. Always blessed with copious natural talent, at 24, it looks like Kane has finally matured to the point where he has developed consistency and his off-ice activities have ceased to be a distraction. The Chicago Blackhawks were a powerhouse from start to finish last year. If they can keep it up, Kane could vault up those last few spots to the very top of the scoring race.

     

    Dark Horse: Taylor Hall, Edmonton Oilers

    Taylor Hall scored 50 points in 45 games in the short 2012-13 campaign, good for ninth place in the NHL scoring race. Compared to 42 points in his rookie season and 53 in his second year, his big step forward was obscured by the shortened schedule. Hall has moved to center this year and looks to be taking full advantage of the additional open ice he's finding. If the Oilers improve dramatically this season and Hall stays healthy, he could have a shot at the scoring title.

     

    Winner: Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

    In 2012-13, Sidney Crosby should finish what he started last year. He had a healthy lead in the scoring race before suffering the nasty jaw injury that caused him to miss the last 10 games of the season. Crosby has just one prior Art Ross trophy to his credit—from 2006-07, the same year he won the league MVP. If Crosby manages a full 82-game schedule this year, another double win should be in the cards.

Projected 2013-14 Playoff Teams

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    Under the new division alignments, the top three teams from each division will make the playoffs, as well as two wild-card teams in each conference. The wild cards will go to the two non-playoff teams with the next-highest point totals, regardless of division.

    In the first round, the second- and third-place teams in each division will play each other, while the division leaders will match up with the wild cards based on total points. Second-round series will stay within divisions before the teams play off for the conference championship and the Stanley Cup.

    Here are the 16 teams I expect to make the playoffs:

    Western ConferenceEastern Conference
    Pacific DivisionCentral DivisionMetropolitan DivisionAtlantic Division
    San Jose Sharks Chicago Blackhawks Pittsburgh PenguinsBoston Bruins 
    Los Angeles KingsSt. Louis Blues Washington Capitals Detroit Red Wings 
    Vancouver Canucks Dallas StarsNew York Rangers Montreal Canadiens 
    Edmonton OilersMinnesota Wild Philadelphia Flyers Ottawa Senators 

The 2013-14 Stanley Cup Winner Will Be...

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    ...the Chicago Blackhawks, who will become the first repeat champions since the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings.

    Chicago had a charmed year last season, starting off with their record-breaking winning streak and ending with their last-minute win in Game 6 to capture the Stanley Cup. There are too many bounces in hockey to expect everything to go their way again, but based on the new alignment, it looks like this is how the season will play out.

    Easy to say before we start playing the games, isn't it?

    Chicago's going to get a push from St. Louis this year in the Central Division. The Bruins will from the Red Wings, too, but the Stanley Cup Final could very well be a repeat of last year's matchup.

     

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