By Jake Shoemaker
The 2013-2014 NHL schedule will bring about an entirely new dynamic to the league. With many traditional division rivalries disrupted, teams having changed conferences, and teams now prepared to face some foes with more frequency and others with less frequency, NHL fans are in for some changes.
Teams that will benefit from realignment:
New York Islanders:
A fringe playoff team in 2013, the Islanders are likely salivating at their 2013-2014 schedule. The Islanders dominated play against the Southeast Division last year and their new schedule has them playing two former Southeastern teams with more frequency. Additionally, the addition of the Columbus Blue Jackets who, although a decent team in 2013, have been a historically unsuccessful franchise, will soften New York’s schedule even further. And, to top it off, the Islanders landed in what looks to be the weaker of the two eastern divisions, making a wildcard spot more attainable for the young, talented squad. My prediction for the Islanders: 3rd in the Metropolitan, 7th in the East. Good enough for a first round upset against the Capitals.
A move to the Western Conference should undoubtedly aid the Jets for the simple fact that they will not have to travel nearly as much for away contests. To add to their cause, the Jets also are moving to the smaller of the two conferences which simply increases their playoff odds. The Jets will face the challenge of playing two powerhouse teams in the Blackhawks and the Blues with a new regularity, but the newly aligned Central Division appears to be one with a lot of question-marks. Will Minnesota gel in year two of the Parise-Suter era? Can Tyler Seguin emerge as the superstar and leader that the Stars were hoping for? Will the Predators bounce back to form after a shockingly disappointing 2013 season? Will a young Colorado group find its groove and compete for a playoff spot for the first time in 4 years? Winnipeg has to like its odds at competing for the third automatic spot in the Central. My prediction for the Jets: 3rd in the Central, 7th in the West. Good enough for a first round exit courtesy of Chicago.
Teams that will suffer as a result of realignment:
How can a team that finished last in its conference suffer from realignment? Replace the Capitals and Hurricanes with the entire Northeast Division – one in which 4 teams made the playoffs – plus the Detroit Red Wings, a team that nearly upset the Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks, and it is easy to see why the NHL’s worst team in 2013 may try Tim Thomas between the pipes with hopes that the former Vezina Trophy winner can be the team’s savior in 2013-2014. If Thomas proves not to be the answer, the Panthers will hope that young goalie Jacob Markstrom can turn in a Sergi Bobrovsky-esque season and that Jonathan Huberdeau can develop into a bonafide superstar, one capable of carrying his team, in his sophomore campaign. The Panthers can’t like their odds…but then again, who saw their 2012-2013 season coming? My prediction for the Panthers: Last in the Atlantic, 14th in the East. Good enough for yet another quality draft pick.
The Coyotes, a franchise with an inconsistent fan-base that matches its team’s inconsistent performances, will face a tougher schedule in the upcoming season than they did in the strike shortened 2013 campaign. With the Oilers on the rise, the Ducks coming off an incredible 2013, and the Sharks, Kings and Canucks all seemingly consistent contenders, it appears that the Coyotes could be the first team “out”, even if the Pacific Division earns both wildcard spots. Their playoff fate lies in the hands of the newly contracted Mike Smith, whose 2013 season left much to be desired after his breakthrough season the year before. My call for the Coyotes: 6th in the Pacific, 11th in the West. Quite simply not good enough.
The Edmonton Oilers have been waiting for this year for quite some time now. The franchise, which seemingly has been on a downward slide since its improbable Stanley Cup appearance in 2005, looks poised to make its first playoff appearance since the Finals loss to the Hurricanes. With Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle leading an exciting offense, the newly signed Andrew Ference solidifying the defense, and young netminder Devan Dubnyk playing with yet another year of experience, the Oilers, on paper, appear like a potential breakout team. Standing in their way: a division loaded with talent. The Oilers will have to upstage playoff mainstays with significantly more experience. Can they do it? I say yes, but the young squad can’t waste any games. My call for the Oilers: 3rd in the Pacific, 5th in the West. Good enough for a first round exit courtesy of Anaheim.