Stanley Cup

Welcome! Below is a bit of an overview previewing the upcoming NHL season. We’ll tell you about the new divisions, the new playoff format, the new rule changes, who’s got new jerseys, which players are worth watching, which teams are in outdoor games and more. Let’s dive in.

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The clock has finally flipped to the set time your parents said was an acceptable hour to wake them up for Christmas morning, and Santa has made a visit. It is finally time, and you’ve waited so long. Hockey is here.

OR, maybe you hate Christmas or belong to a different religion and today is just a really great day. Maybe the metaphor is completely unnecessary.

Analysis

Today: good.

That’s better.

This is a bit of a different year in the NHL. We’re coming out of a lockout-shortened season that saw the Chicago Blackhawks claim their second Cup in the past four years, which requires absolutely no asterisk – the playoffs weren’t shortened, that’s for damn sure – but it didn’t tell us everything we needed to know about all the teams, what with the small sample size and all. Would Columbus have snuck into playoffs with more time? Could the Flyers have climbed up and in by game 82? Would the Capitals have caught Montreal for the two seed? Would Anaheim have slid down the standings? You get the idea.

To go with the heightened uncertainty, this season is an Olympic year, which means there’s no All-Star Game, but actual All-Stars will be increasingly taxed by additional high-tempo games. That means Columbus, denied an All-Star Game in 2013 by the lockout, is again denied it by the Olympics. They’ll get theirs in 2015, barring a meteor or whatever.

As you get set to watch tonight’s action – Toronto at Montreal, Washtington at Chicago, and Winnipeg at Edmonton – you might as well get to know some important things about the upcoming season.

The Divisions have been realigned

Yup – Detroit and Columbus have moved to the Eastern Conference for their (and their fans’) convenience, while the Winnipeg Jets have gone to the West. That means the Conferences are uneven (16 in the East, 14 in the West), which is completely weird, and raises questions about expansion (hello Seattle?).

This is what they look like now (Division A = Pacific, Division B = Central, Division C = Atlantic, and Division D = Metropolitan):

realign_img

That image is from NHL.com, which also explains to you the schedule matrix, as in, how many times teams play in-and-out of division/conference games, if that sort of thing interests you.

What is cool: every team will play every other team in the league at least twice (home and away).

What these changes also mean, is that the…

Playoff format is different

In sum:

Playoff qualification will be primarily Division-based, with the top three finishers in each Division qualifying for the first 12 spots in the Stanley Cup Playoffs (and the first three “seeds” in each Division).

So there are your top six seeds (of eight) in each Conference. Top three in your division gets you a top-six seed.

The two additional playoff spots in each Conference, designated as “Wild Cards,” will be awarded to the next two highest-placed finishers in each Conference, ranked on the basis of regular-season points and regardless of Division.

Divison winners will get the #1 and #2 seeds, and they will play the wild cards depending on the points of those teams (with #1 getting the worse team, obviously). After that round, they carry on: #1 plays #4 and #2 plays #3.

Get it? Got it? Good.

There are some different rules

Let’s bang these out, because you don’t want an in-depth review of impact, you just want to know why things are happening the way they are out there. I know you.

Hybrid Icing

This is the biggest change to the game this year. My summary of hybrid icing, for the uninitiated:

It’s just like old icing (puck shot from behind the center red line past the far goal line), only the linesman will make the decision by the time a player reaches the in-zone faceoff dots about which team would touch it first. If it’s going to be the defensive team, which would normally result in icing, he’ll blow it down for icing before it even has to be touched. If it’s clearly going to be the offensive team, he won’t blow it down, play on. If it’s close and would result in a race for the puck/collision…he’ll blow it dead. This keeps the defenseless defenseman going back on the puck from getting hurt.

You can read my opinion of it in this story stack. In short: good for players, not a huge win for the product of hockey.

More on icing

They killed the “attainable pass” rule, where a linesman could rule “he could’ve got that pass, it just hopped his stick, no icing.” They originally put it in to minimize icings, but found it made the game too sloppy. More icings ahead!

Nets are more shallow

They trimmed eight inches off the bottom of the goal frame, meaning players can complete wraparounds a little faster, and they have more dangerous passing angles available to them from behind the net. It also means the top shelf is more narrow, and pucks will kick out of the net awfully quick sometimes.

Goalie pads are smaller

They actually intend to go further with this down the road, but for now: pads can only go 45% of the distance up from the middle of the knee to the pelvis (max of nine inches). It used to be 55% (and 11 inches), meaning goalies will have a tougher time squeezing shots that go five hole. This entire section was sort of a dirty read, sorry.

Fashion is of the highest importance

You can’t play with your jersey tucked in anymore or you get a penalty. Seriously. That’s a real thing they claim they’re going to call. You only get one warning, you guys! Fun fact is that your jersey sometimes just sneaks into your pants, because the top of hockey pants puff out a bit with the belt, so this should be entertaining. Ovechkin thinks the rule is stupid, and is right.

Buckets on for tilts

You can no longer do the “sportsmanlike” thing and take your helmet off before a fight, because the NHL realizes that at some point some guy whose arms are tied up is going to land on his cranium and die. I support this idea. But paired with the below, it’s going to be tough(er) to be a scrapper soon (oh well). Plenty of broken hands-a-comin’.

Visors are sort-of mandatory, being grandfathered in

If you have more than 25 games under your belt as of today, you do not have to wear a visor. If you have 24 or less, you do. So, every new player coming into the league has to wear one. They’re on their way out.

And finally, speaking of head-related things:

The illegal shot to the head rule is slightly different

From NHL.com:

The old rule included the words “targeted” and “principal point of contact.”

The rule now reads: “A hit resulting in contact with an opponent’s head where the head was the main point of contact and such contact to the head was avoidable is not permitted.”

What the hell did “target” mean anyway? How do you determine that? This basically takes the confusion out of things.

Enough with the rules!

A handful of teams will be sporting new uniforms

* The Dallas Stars have whole new kits. (Excuse me while I go into Witness Protection for saying “kits” to hockey fans.)
* The Carolina Hurricanes have new duds.
* The Buffalo Sabres have new…gag…exhale…thirds.
* The Sharks have a new look.
* The Wild got some new threads.
* The Flames will be sporting a new third as well (not released yet).
* The Anaheim Ducks will be releasing a new third for their 20th anniversary (they might go “Mighty”).

And of course, teams playing in all those outdoor games will have new (likely old-looking) looks too.

Speaking of…

There are like, a hundred outdoor games

Six, actually.

Outdoor hockey games have been truly special so far. They’ve been stand-alone games in cold climates between rivals. They’ve been a massive success, combining nostalgia (alumni games) with nostalgia (outdoors, pond hockey) with nostalgia (throwback jerseys), and the NHL has made straight bank on them. Sooo, now they want to make more bank.

Ottawa/Vancouver in a half-indoor-half-outdoor facility! A game in California! Catch the fever (only you can’t, because the weather is pleasant).

Here’s what we’re lookin’ at:

Outdoor games

I think the Islanders getting the pity game (“Well hell, the rink’s already set up, sooo”) might be the worst part. All these passionate Rangers fans are going to shell out for one big night, but is there enough of them to do it twice?

10 players to watch

There was some serious shuffling of the deck in the NHL this off-season, which means we’re left with some neat player storylines. I recommend following up on these:

Detroit: Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss: Daniel Alfredsson has been in the NHL since 1995, every season of which has been with the Ottawa Senators. Well, a contentious contract dispute there led him to stray for the first time, and he chose to go to Detroit. Also there: Stephen Weiss, who was more than a decade-deep in Florida, also made the move for a better chance to win. Will their gambles on the Winged Wheel pay off?

Dallas: Tyler Seguin and Valeri Nichushkin: The Boston Bruins spent years grooming a guy who could be one of the league’s superstars before finally pulling the plug on him in the off-season saying he “didn’t fit their culture” while the rumors of off-ice issues (excessive partying) swirled. Were they fools, or is Seguin going to be a bust? For Valeri Nichushkin’s part, teams in the draft passed on him because of the fear of the KHL, and the Stars could reap those rewards. Big, fast, skilled…could he be the steal of the draft?

Nail Yakupov: One of the NHL’s most electric young stars, Yakupov poured in six in his final three NHL games last year. He’s electric, so watch him. Just do it.

Roberto Luongo: Dude asked for a trade for an entire season, only to find his backup be the one sent out of town. Now Tortorella’s in town. Does he pout? Fail, succeed? Just tweet a lot?

Jarome Iginla: After spending 17 years as a Calgary Flame, he was moved as part of their rebuild to a team he requested: Boston. NO WAIT, Pittsburgh. He pulled the rug out from under Bruins GM Chiarelli, failed to win a Cup in Pitt, and is now heading to Boston fo’ rills. After all those Bruins fans crapped on him, it’s going to be fun to watch the backpedal.

Devils: Marty Brodeur and Cory Schneider: The aforementioned “backup” was Cory Schneider, who’s in another goaltending predicament. Marty is starting game one – does he still have it? Does Schneider ever get to be a starter? Does Brodeur pout or embrace it if it happens?

Oliver Ekman-Larsson: One of the league’s most electric d-man is moving into Erik Karlsson territory, and has some pre-season Norris buzz. You may not watch a lot of Coyotes’ games, but this dude makes it worth it.

Here. We. Go.

A lot of things seem new this year in the NHL, but at the core, the game really isn’t different. It’s the changes each year that keep things fresh, and keep us guessing all summer about what lies in the year ahead (my predictions will come later today in podcast form).

All I know is I’m glad it’s a full season, and I’m glad summer’s over.

The Blackhawks 2013 banner gets raised to the ceiling tonight, and then the puck drops on a clean slate.

Can’t wait.