The NHL season officially drops the puck tonight with two marquee matchups and some garbage involving the hobbled Oilers and miserable Jets. While loathe to break with our tradition of needlessly dismissive and alienating hockey previews, enough has changed this year to warrant a primer.
So: What's new for 2013-2014?
The NHL has instituted radical realignment. Two conferences, four divisions, with an unfair playoff structure: the top three seeds in each division, plus two wild cards per conference will make it in. It'll be easier to come out of the West, because there are two fewer teams.
The realignment was done to cut down on travel times, and puts Detroit and Columbus in the East while Winnipeg heads West. The division names are the Pacific, Central, Atlantic ("Flortheast"), and the Metropolitan. Sidney Crosby's reaction on learning it's called the Metropolitan: "Is it really?"
In what could prove to be the single most significant rule change in years, the NHL has set new limits on the allowable size of goalies' leg pads. The language is confusing: pads now can't go more than "45 percent of the distance between the center of his knee and pelvis"—but on the average goalie, that equates to about two fewer inches of pad on each leg. Double that for a goalie in the butterfly stance, and you've got one goalie calling the difference "insane."
The nets are different too. They're shallower by four inches, and the ends curve more sharply, adding a significant amount of space behind the goal line. (See diagram here.) Players now have more room to maneuver in "Gretzky's office," and the NHL is expecting an increase in wraparound goals, because everyone misses NHL '94.
A lot of changes here, starting with hybrid icing. For 76 years, the NHL has used touch icing, which required an opposing player to physically touch the puck behind the goal line. That led to collisions against the boards between two players chasing the puck, like the one that put Joni Pitkanen out for the entire year in Carolina's first preseason game.
Yesterday, the NHL announced that so-called "hybrid" icing (a hybrid between touch icing and automatic icing, which is whistled as soon as a puck crosses the goal line) will be in place starting tonight. Now, icing will be called as soon as an opposing player is first to the faceoff dots. It's a long-time coming, but expect an awful lot of controversial calls on close races.
Mandatory visors are also being phased in, with a grandfather clause for the old heads. This one gained steam in the wake of Marc Staal's gruesome eye injury. All players with fewer than 25 games of NHL experience are required to wear visors, which shouldn't be a problem—they're mandatory in the AHL, and 90 percent of players came up through the AHL. Additionally, language that mandated a penalty for instigating a fight while wearing a visor has been taken out of the rulebook.
Players now face an additional penalty for taking their helmets off before a fight. It's meant to protect against fighters falling and hitting their unprotected heads on the ice, but it's easy enough to get around: it took two games into the preseason before Krys Barch and Brett Gallant discovered there's no penalty for taking each other's helmets off.
Language has been changed in the NHL's rule on illegal hits to the head. The new Rule 48:
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.
It's essentially the same, with the word "targeted" taken out. That's meant to separate intent from result, but shouldn't affect the (occasionally inconsistent) discipline handed out.
No new rules here, just an NHL commitment to enforcing currently extant language on uniform requirements. That means no exposed pads, ripped pants, or short sleeves. Here's the explanatory graphic handed out by the NHL and posted in every locker room. The only time you'll think about this one is when a player on your team is given two minutes for having their jersey tucked in. Alex Ovechkin says it's "stupid," but they're calling it.
A salary cap was instituted after the 2004 lockout, and rose every year—until now. As per the CBA that ended last season's lockout, the cap has dropped about $6 million to $64 million. Seven teams are already at the cap, with another six within $1 million. This has meant liberal use of amnesty buyouts, and less free agency movement than usual.
The biggest moves: Vincent Lecavalier to Philadelphia, Jarome Iginla to
Pittsburgh Boston, Jaromir Jagr to New Jersey, Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss to Detroit, Mike Ribeiro to Phoenix, David Clarkson to Toronto, Valtteri Filppula to Tampa, and Nathan Horton to Columbus.
The biggest re-signings: Patrick Elias stays with the Devils, Pascal Dupuis with the Penguins, Bryan Bickell with the Blackhawks, Tyler Bozak with the Leafs, Niklas Backstrom with the Wild, Bobby Ryan (via trade) to Ottawa, and Teemu Selanne returns for one more go-round with the Ducks.
The biggest traitor: Ilya Kovalchuk "retired" from the Devils in order to sign a contract in the KHL.
Teams will have one more chance to exercise compliance buyouts following this season. Expect a ton of player movement then: the NHL is financially healthy, and many expect the salary cap to soar in the coming years.
As far as coaches go, seven men find themselves behind new benches. The biggest stories are Patrick Roy taking the reins in Colorado, and the underachieving Canucks and Rangers essentially swapping Alain Vigneault and John Tortorella.
This is actually the same as last year, but while poor Columbus lost all-star weekend to the lockout, this year's midseason funstravaganza is a victim of the Olympics. The NHL will pause for 18 days in February as the league's best head to Sochi.
While Michigan Stadium will get the New Year's Day game wiped out by the lockout, the Winter Classic isn't the only game that'll be played under the elements. The "Stadium Series," which promises to be a regular thing as long as it's profitable, kicks in this season with two games at Yankee Stadium, and one apiece at Dodger Stadium, Soldier Field, and Vancouver's BC place.