The NHL is set to raise the curtain on a new season as 30 teams have their sights set on a Stanley Cup title, including the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks.
Chicago, who beat Boston last year to capture the championship for the second time in four years, will get the regular season started with a banner-raising ceremony at United Center arena on Tuesday.
“You get excited looking around the locker room because it is almost the same team as we had last year,” playoff MVP Patrick Kane said.
The Toronto Maple Leafs visit the Montreal Canadiens, Taylor Hall’s Edmonton Oilers host the Winnipeg Jets and the Blackhawks take on the Washington Capitals at home on Tuesday.
Chicago beat Boston in six games in June after a lockout-shortened 48-game regular season.
The Blackhawks know this season won’t be like the last time they tried to repeat as champions when they had to purge their roster because of the salary cap.
Kane and captain Jonathan Toews will lead the way as Chicago is seeking to become the first team to win back-to-back titles since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997-98.
Time will tell what effect off-season realignment will have on the 2013-14 season, which this year includes an extended break in February so the world’s top hockey players can showcase their skills at the Sochi Winter Olympics.
The Jets moved from the Eastern Conference to the Western Conference, while the Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets went the other way. For the first time there will be a wild-card playoff format with the top three teams in each division qualifying for the post-season in addition to the two next-best finishers in each conference.
This year it looks like the young Oilers are finally ready to break through.
Edmonton brought in a new head coach, Dallas Eakins and signed veteran defenseman Andrew Ference, but more importantly former first round draft picks Ryan-Nugent Hopkins, Nail Yakupov and Hall are set to take the team to the next level.
Nashville should be another much improved team this season and challenge for a playoff spot. Their best player is Shea Weber, who will also anchor Canada’s defensive corps at the Sochi Games. Goaltender Pekka Renne is primed for a bounce-back season following offseason hip surgery.
The Vancouver Canucks will no doubt regret trading goaltender Cory Schneider in the offseason to New Jersey in favour of keeping the eccentric and inconsistent Roberto Luongo who has yet to prove he can win a Stanley Cup.
The Canucks also brought in new head coach John Tortorella. As hard as Tortorella tries to be like Toe Blake, Punch Imlach or even Mike Keenan, his abrasive coaching style won’t wash in Vancouver and he will be lucky to last more than 12 months in that role.
The realignment is good news for Winnipeg, who will fly fewer miles this season after moving to the West in their third season since returning to the NHL.
They added Michael Frolik and Devin Setoguchi, and last year’s goal scoring leader Blake Wheeler was rewarded with a new six-year, $33.6 million contract as the club is hoping to continue their steady improvement.
Look for the rivalry between Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby and Washington’s Alex Ovechkin to heat up early in the new season.
Crosby showed in the pre-season that he hasn’t lost a step and he is healthy again after concussion problems the last few years.
Ovechkin will step up his play as he gets set to lead the favoured Russian national team into the Olympic ice hockey tournament which begins on February 8.
Last season, Los Angeles was unable to validate their 2012 Stanley Cup title when goaltender Jonathan Quick failed to carry an overachieving team like he did the previous season.
The Kings are solid in goal with Quick but they need better production from their veterans if they are to succeed.
Captain Dustin Brown has arguably benefitted more from the instigator rule than anyone in the league, but his teammates can only protect him for so long.
Brown’s scoring dropped last season and he hasn’t been the same player since his dangerous knee-on-knee hit on Phoenix Coyotes Michael Rozsival in the 2012 playoffs.