NHL season will revolve around Olympics

New York TimesOctober 3, 2013 

A full schedule after a lockout-truncated season, a new divisional setup, outdoor games galore, the Chicago Blackhawks seeking their third Stanley Cup in five years. Those are all very nice story lines for the NHL season. But make no mistake, much of the season will be about the Winter Olympics.

The Sochi Games will cast a long shadow over the season, until Feb. 9, when the NHL pauses to allow nearly 150 players to fly to Russia for the 12-day tournament. If those dozen days produce anything like the 2010 men’s tournament in Vancouver, which was capped by Sidney Crosby scoring the golden goal for Canada against the United States, it will be well worth the wait.

The Olympic question will hang over every NHL game. Will the Sabres’ Ryan Miller rebound from three middling seasons to tend goal again for the United States, or will it be the Kings’ Jonathan Quick? Who will man the nets for the Canadians: Roberto Luongo, Corey Crawford, Carey Price or Cam Ward? Can Crosby stay healthy to play for Canada, and can his Penguins teammate Evgeni Malkin stay healthy to play for Russia? When NHL play resumes on Feb. 26, it will be back to hockey as usual: the home stretch, the playoffs and the Stanley Cup finals, making this a season of two climaxes. Here is a look at some of the stories to follow.

New Coaches

Canadians call Vancouver Lotus Land because, supposedly, it’s so laid-back. But the city has been the scene of plenty of civil disturbances over the past two decades, including two riots having to do with the Canucks.

So, it seems, Vancouverites take their hockey as seriously as does John Tortorella, who signed a five-year deal in June to coach the Canucks. Throw in the highly contentious Vancouver hockey news media, a citywide 24/7 obsession with the game Tortorella never experienced as head coach in New York or Tampa and Tortorella’s own tripwire temper, and you have the recipe for a perfect storm.

He was on good behavior when the Rangers visited for an exhibition game last week, but do not count on that lasting. He has already demanded that his players stop using their Twitter accounts, which just happens to be something Luongo, the Canucks goalie, is famous for.

“I think it’s stupid,” Tortorella said last month.

Other new coaches to watch: Rangers coach Alain Vigneault, the former Canucks coach, is as good-natured as Tortorella is hair-triggered; Patrick Roy, in his first NHL coaching job, takes over the Colorado Avalanche, whom he led to two Stanley Cups as a goaltender; Lindy Ruff, the former Sabres coach, is now in Dallas after he protested long and loud that the Stars beat Buffalo for the Stanley Cup on an illegal goal in 1999; and Dallas Eakins makes his NHL coaching debut with a young Edmonton team of unfulfilled promise.

New Uniforms

The Columbus Blue Jackets made the biggest catch of the offseason when they signed free agent wing Nathan Horton from the Boston Bruins. Horton has scored 402 points in 562 NHL regular-season games, but more important are his 36 points in 43 playoff games during the Bruins’ Stanley Cup run in 2011 and their finals appearance last spring.

Now ensconced in the East, the Blue Jackets, behind their president for hockey operations, John Davidson, are making a run at respectability. They have former Rangers sniper Marian Gaborik, reigning Vezina Trophy goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and now, a playoff hero in Horton. All they have to do is make the playoffs, something they have done only once in 12 seasons. They just missed last season, finishing ninth in the West.

Other key players putting on new sweaters: Tyler Seguin (Stars, from Bruins), Jaromir Jagr (Devils, from Bruins), Cory Schneider (Devils, from Canucks), Jarome Iginla (Bruins, from Penguins), Bobby Ryan (Senators, from Ducks), Daniel Alfredsson (Red Wings, from Senators), Valtteri Filppula (Lightning, from Red Wings), Vincent Lecavalier (Flyers, from Lightning), Tim Thomas (Panthers, from a year off).

New Divisions

The NHL restructured its divisions to allow Detroit and Columbus to move to the Eastern Conference and Winnipeg to move to the West. The shuffling eases the travel burden on Western teams and adds some longer trips for the Rangers, Islanders, Devils, Flyers and Penguins.

Now those five teams are joined by the Blue Jackets, Capitals and Hurricanes in the Metropolitan Division. But for sheer hockey gravitas, there is the new Atlantic Division: Montreal, Toronto, Detroit, Boston, Buffalo and Ottawa, and for all their snowbird fans in the Sunshine State, Florida and Tampa Bay.

New Rules

Players will be penalized an additional two minutes if they take off their helmets to fight, so in a preseason game Krys Barch, then of the Devils, and Brett Gallant of the Islanders resorted to the genteel Western Hockey League custom of coming together to take off each other’s helmets before rearing back and throwing punches. Gallant said, “I wasn’t trying to make a mockery of the NHL.” The loophole was subsequently closed.

Players will also get a two-minute penalty if their sweaters are tucked into their pads. Presumably this will keep the labels of nonlicensee companies off NHL telecasts, but it will ruin the on-ice silhouette of Ovechkin, who, like Wayne Gretzky before him, tucks his sweater in. Ovechkin’s opinion of the rule: “Everybody wants to do his own thing. It’s stupid.”

Most significant, the players’ association voted Monday to allow the implementation of hybrid icing as a way to cut down on dangerous races for the puck. Many players said they were confused by the rule during the preseason trial period, but they approved the change anyway. The problem: the most dangerous high-speed races into the end boards will not be eliminated by the rule.

New Classics?

Maybe the New Year’s Day Winter Classic had lost some of its novelty, and maybe it hadn’t. But six outdoor stadium extravaganzas on tap will make up some of the revenue lost in last season’s lockout.

In addition to the Winter Classic game between the Red Wings and the Maple Leafs at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor (expected attendance, 105,000), outdoor games will be staged at balmy Dodger Stadium, Yankee Stadium (twice), Soldier Field in Chicago and B.C. Place in Vancouver.

Dates to Circle

Warm and Fuzzy Department: Teemu Selanne’s farewell visit to Winnipeg (Ducks at Jets, Oct. 6); coach Lindy Ruff’s return to Buffalo (Stars at Sabres, Oct. 28); Rick Nash’s return to Columbus (Rangers at Blue Jackets, Nov. 7).

Media Circus Department: Tim Thomas reacquaints himself with Boston reporters (Panthers at Bruins, Nov. 7); John Tortorella charms New York (Canucks at Rangers, Nov. 30); Daniel Alfredsson faces jilted Ottawa fans (Red Wings at Senators, Dec. 1).

War of 1812 Redux Department: The preseason line brawl between the Sabres and the Maple Leafs had a bit of everything: Phil Kessel swinging his stick at John Scott, David Clarkson leaving the bench, goalies Ryan Miller and Jonathan Bernier throwing punches, an unusual fine for Buffalo coach Ron Rolston. Buffalo and Toronto will meet five times in the regular season, just in time to mark 200 years since both villages were burned in a previous bout of cross-border nastiness (Nov. 15, 16 and 29, Dec. 27, Jan. 15).

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