As the NHL season gets underway, here's a look at 14 things to watch for during the year.
Compiled by Arthur Staple
The Islanders will still struggle
Their young reinforcements are still a year away and John Tavares, try as he will, cannot carry this team through the insanity of this shortened season. The fact that the Isles have to face their Atlantic Division foes 18 times puts them on the spot too.
The Rangers are still good
They still have Henrik Lundqvist, they still have Ryan McDonagh, they still have Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik and Ryan Callahan. ... And now they have Rick Nash (pictured). On paper, the Rangers will be competing for the top spot in the East once again and a Stanley Cup. And paper’s all we have to go on right now.
The Devils will slide
It’s certainly been said before about the Devils, that this is the year they finally fall apart, but it doesn’t look good. Zach Parise is gone, Marty Brodeur (pictured) is 40 and hasn’t played in seven months and their depth is a problem. The East isn’t very deep, either, though, so the playoffs aren’t out of the question.
Keep an eye in net
Mediocre teams with workhorse goaltenders -- the Sabres with Ryan Miller (pictured), the Hurricanes with Cam Ward, the Flames with Miikka Kiprusoff -- may improve by riding their top men in goal. A No. 1 goaltender getting on a hot streak or pulling a groin could mean the difference between playoffs and no playoffs this season.
Slow and steady wins the race
That may seem silly in a 48-game season, but teams that can eke out wins in the shootout or overtime will be ahead of the game. Look for lots of three-point games this season and a logjam of teams still alive for the postseason deep into April. Fun in the standings, less fun on the ice.
30 is the new 50
The Rocket Richard Trophy (top goal scorer) will go to someone with modest-sounding numbers, but 30 goals will be a rarefied air this season. Steven Stamkos (pictured), Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Rick Nash, John Tavares, Jordan Eberle, Patrick Sharp -- plenty of candidates to choose from.
A new crop of elite defensemen
The Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh, the Blues’ Alex Pietrangelo, the Kings’ Slava Voynov (pictured) -- three under-25 D-men who should be vying for a Norris Trophy. Don’t count out the Isles’ Travis Hamonic either.
A slew of new coaches -- and some already on the hot seat
Sixteen of the 30 NHL teams have changed coaches since the start of the 2011-12 season, with new head men in Washington (Adam Oates), Carolina (Kirk Muller) and Edmonton (Ralph Krueger, pictured), among other spots. Of those who could go if their teams get off to bad starts: Joe Sacco in Colorado, Joel Quenneville in Chicago and possibly Jack Capuano with the Isles if things go very bad, very quickly.
Gotta have special special teams
Sloppy play, referees who have been off as long as the players -- it sounds like a recipe for lots of power plays, which means teams like the Rangers and Penguins could thrive with quality PP and PK play. The power-play quarterback will be a key role.
Tougher times out West
It’s fair to say there are more quality teams in the Western Conference, and loads more travel for teams out there. Every team in the East leaves the time zone only once, to visit Winnipeg; Minnesota leaves its time zone every time it plays a divisional game.
Youth will be served
The few rookies who can crack NHL rosters for the entire season will get a chance to wow everyone. The Oilers’ Nail Yakupov (pictured) and Justin Schultz, the Blues’ Vladimir Tarasenko and the Panthers’ Jonathan Huberdeau will turn some heads.
The Rangers will win the East
They got close a season ago, but their grinding style could not last through 82 games and three seven-game series. No such problems this season, and a fresh Lundqvist will lead the Rangers past the Penguins in a terrific Eastern Conference final.
The Kings will win the West again
The Stanley Cup hangover disappeared during the 113-day lockout for L.A., which should be fresh and ready to resume its march through the West, as the Kings did in the playoffs after sneaking in as the No. 8 seed. No such sneaking this time.
The Kings will repeat as Cup champs
The first repeat winner since the 1997 and 1998 Wings, the East Coast/West Coast Cup final will be a terrific one that could recapture some of the NHL’s lost momentum from four months of petty CBA fighting. The Kings prevail in six games and Dustin Brown’s toothless grin will beam out to all in late June.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
1. Penguins. 2. Bruins. 3. Caps. 4. Rangers. 5. Sabres. 6. Flyers. 7. Lightning. 8. Senators. 9. Hurricanes. 10. Devils. 11. Islanders. 12. Panthers. 13. Canadiens. 14. Leafs. 15. Jets.
1. Canucks. 2. Kings. 3. Predators. 4. Red Wings. 5. Blues. 6. Wild. 7. Sharks. 8. Hawks. 9. Oilers. 10. Stars. 11. Flames. 12. Coyotes. 13. Ducks. 14. Blue Jackets. 15. Avalanche.