October 10, 2013

HOROWITZ | Dropping the Puck: An NHL Season Preview

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In a Fall season dominated by the thrilling NFL regular season and baseball playoffs, an exciting new beginning flies under the radar. The start to the 2013-2014 NHL season is upon us, and hockey fans have many reasons to be excited.

My eagerness for hockey goes beyond the Giants’ rock bottom position in the NFL, or my diehard support for the New Jersey Devils. This year the NHL will thankfully have a full season, which will include a fascinating mix of bitter rivalries, surprise contenders, traditional powerhouses and the inevitable disappointments. It also features a two-week February break for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games, where NHL players will represent their countries on world hockey’s biggest stage. Fans will also enjoy a series of outdoor stadium games, which are sure to be great successes for the NHL and memorable experiences for life-long hockey fans.

Looking at the standings will lead to some initial confusion. After all, the divisions are different this season. The Atlantic, Northeast, Southeast, Central, Northwest and Pacific are now the Atlantic, Metropolitan, Central and Pacific. Atlantic and Metropolitan make up the Eastern Conference, while Pacific and Central make up the West. Under this system, the Red Wings and Blue Jackets are in the East, while Winnipeg is in the West. This realignment will reduce travel time, while providing more frequent matchups between teams that had previously played no more than once a year. Not to worry; traditional rivals such as the Devils and Rangers, Penguins and Flyers, Maple Leafs and Canadiens, will all face each other multiple times.

Last year’s favorites remain this year’s favorites. The Blackhawks have the talent to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions, and the Bruins are determined not to fall short again. The Penguins, Flyers, Red Wings, Canucks and Kings are in top shape as always, ready to make deep playoff runs. The Sharks, Blues, Capitals and Rangers are accustomed to making the playoffs and falling short. This season, one of them may take the next step. Maybe the Maple Leafs will finally add defense and playoff grit to their immense offensive talent in order to end Toronto’s 45-year Stanley Cup drought. Ignore my bias, but don’t underestimate the Devils. They’ll be better than expected.

The crop of talented young players in the NHL is bigger than ever. The Islanders’ John Tavares, Rangers’ Carl Hagelin, Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskong and Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos may reach new levels of stardom. The traditional group of well-established all-stars will continue to shine. Crosby, Malkin, Giroux and Kessel, Toews, and Kane are all in the prime of their careers, and they can elevate their performance to even greater heights.

The Olympics are always fun to watch. Putting a flag on the front of a jersey rather than a team symbol adds a whole new dimension of intensity and pride to the game, with fans from each country abandoning NHL loyalties in favor of national ones. The men’s hockey tournament of the 2010 winter Olympics was nothing short of incredible. Who can forget the roller coaster of emotion in the gold medal game, from Zach Parise’s tying goal in the last seconds of regulation, to Crosby’s slick shot through Ryan Miller’s wickets for the win. With an even greater selection of young talented American players, expect to see another tantalizing US-Canada battle for the gold.

The new NHL Stadium Series is an expansion of the annual Winter Classic, an outdoor game on New Year’s Day between two prominent rivals. The Winter Classic was a major success, attracting enormous viewership ratings by NHL standards. This season’s Stadium Series includes six games, and the NHL expects significant boosts in popularity. Some analysts are wary of oversaturating fan’s desire for outdoor hockey, but I think it’s a great idea. It allows massive amounts of fans from both teams to attend one game, something difficult to accomplish in a standard arena. So there will be no shortage of fans, and there are six great matchups. Maple Leafs vs. Red Wings, Ducks vs. Kings (outdoor hockey in Los Angeles!!), Rangers vs. Devils, Rangers vs. Islanders, Penguins vs. Blackhawks and Senators vs. Canucks. A truly fantastic lineup.

Last season’s finals between the Blackhawks and Bruins was an epic series, and this season will have many more memorable moments for fans to enjoy. Stay Tuned.