by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Well, better late than never, we suppose.

In a perfect world, we would have been previewing the NHL back in October. But the 2012-13 campaign has become simply the 2013 season, and perhaps we should be happy we at least have a bit more than half of a league schedule after the infuriating work stoppage that delayed the beginning of the campaign for more than three months.

Although we never expected the NHL to completely scotch the season as it did eight years ago (the disagreements between labor and management were far less substantive this time around, with the debate mostly about percentages, and not labor deal structure), we thought they would have commenced proceedings around Thanksgiving, or Christmas-time at the latest. That both sides pushed settlement to the last possible moment, in D.C. “fiscal cliff”-like style, served to infuriate the league’s support base which had legitimate reason to wonder why a similar deal couldn’t have been struck in October (as we mentioned on the pages of TGS a few months ago). When time and space permit in coming issues we might address those topics further, but for the moment we are hurriedly preparing for the pucks to be dropped across the NHL this Saturday. We’ll also see if enough of the fan base was alienated to either not watch on TV (perhaps) or not show up at the arenas (which we doubt). Stay tuned.

(Remember, beginning on Saturday, daily NHL Top Choices will be made available on our website at www.goldsheet.com for the price of $15!).

Of course, we’ve seen 48-game seasons before in the NHL, although we have to go back to 1994-95, when another work stoppage delayed the start of that campaign, which became a speed skating-like sprint to the finish line. With the schedule compressed into a shorter time frame, all sorts of different dynamics must be addressed. If the 1994-95 season was any indicator, expect oddsmakers to be reducing prices on many of the favorites, which could (or could not, depending upon the situation) create some nice value prices and perhaps tempt us to look at more straight favorites rather than the many underdogs and “puck lines” we have been more inclined to recommend in recent years. Roster depth is always important, but could become more of a factor in a compressed schedule, with games coming in more rapid fashion. More specifically, having two capable goalies might be of even greater importance in the compressed 48-game slate.

The 2013 regular season will extend until April 27, with the trade deadline (normally in early-to-mid February) pushed back to April 3. There will be no All-Star game and, of course, no Winter Classic, with this year’s scheduled affair between the Red Wings and Maple Leafs at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor being another casualty of the lockout.

Another by-product of the compressed schedule is that there is not a lot of fluctuation in posted season points “totals” as compared to a full schedule of games. All of the sides have their posted points “totals” in the 50s, save for Pittsburgh (61 ½) and the New York Rangers (60 ½) on the high end, and Columbus (46 ½) and the New York Islanders (49 ½) on the lower end.

Following are our preferred recommendations for season “points” totals in the 2013 NHL campaign. We’ll go division-by-division with our preferred recommendations, beginning in the Eastern Conference.


NORTHEAST DIVISION: The Ottawa Senators (52 ½) were on the ascent last season and nearly scored a first-round playoff upset over the favored Rangers. GK Craig Anderson delivered a surprising yeoman-like effort last term, and Ben Bishop has shown enough in brief appearances in the past to suggest he will be an upgrade from Alex Auld as Anderson’s backup. Defender Erik Karlsson (78 points in 81 games last season) gives Ottawa a unique weapon at the blue line, while young guns on the frontline such as Milan Michelek and Kyle Turris barely scratched the surface of their potential a year ago. As long as forward Daniel Alfreddson and center Jason Spezza don’t take steps back in their production, the Sens could pick up where they left off last season; we had them pegged as a team to watch had the campaign started when it should have in October; no reason not to do the same in January. It’s an “over” for us a Scotiabank Place.

It’s been less than two years since the Boston Bruins (57 ½) won the Stanley Cup, but the mood in Beantown has changed considerably since. First was the playoff flameout against the upstart Caps last spring, then the lockout, then GK Tim Thomas following through on his promise (at least so far) to sit out this season and return in the fall. The only problem is that Thomas’ $5 million salary is still on the books for the Bruins this season, and since they almost assuredly won’t be able to trade him for anybody, that’s about 12% of the team’s salary base wasted on dead air. The pressure is thus on Tuukka Rask, who has flashed frontline stuff in the past but will now be counted upon to provide the sort of backbone and grit to the team that Thomas has provided in recent years. With center Tyler Seguin having honed his play in Switzerland during the lockout and ready to improve upon his breakout year, Boston hoped to be in contention once more. But we suspect Thomas’ absence is going to be a bigger negative than many envision. We look “under” at TD Garden.

Last year was a lost season for the Montreal Canadiens (53 ½), who made no one forget about the glory years when getting off to a slow start and changing coaches midstream. Injuries were a major problem last season; no NHL side lost as many man-games (440) to injury. Can Les Habitants make a recovery? Getting GK Carey Price back to the form he had flashed prior to last season would be a step in the right direction, as would settling the contract issues that have kept rising star defenseman P.K. Subban out of training camp. Most believe there are simply too many lineup holes and question marks to make a playoff push, but we’re not sure; just staying healthier will be a big plus, and coach Michel Therrien (who took over after the 2011-12 campaign) has a history of quick fixes in his coaching career. Montreal is also amassing an impressive group of young talent; watch young center Alex Galchenyuk, who wowed at the recent world juniors. We also doubt the team will miss underachieving center Scott Gomez, and will end up gaining benefit from the cap space his departure will open. Out on a limb like we were last season, we’re going “over” again at the Bell Centre.

ATLANTIC DIVISION: We normally don’t like being so bullish on teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins (61 ½), whose price is the steepest in the league. But consider some of the positives associated with the Pens. They’ve now got Sidney Crosby available from the start of the season. They’ve added another experienced goalie in Tomas Vokoun to provide relief for Marc Andre-Fleury, who seemed to wear down last season and was destroyed in the first playoff round vs. the Flyers. There’s the motivation of that embarrassing playoff exit vs. Philly. And of course, the nonpareil Evgeni Malkin is still in the mix. The team could lead the NHL in goals. A bit more consistency on defense and in the nets (where the addition of Vokoun should do wonders for a better-paced Fleury) makes the Pens a serious Cup contender again and likely to go “over” at the new Igloo (otherwise known as the Consol Energy Center).

The Philadelphia Flyers (57 ½) made enough of an upgrade in goal last season after acquiring Ilya Bryzgalov from the Coyotes to solve some of their problems in the nets, helping to advance a round further in the playoffs than the previous year, when they were swept out by the Bruins in the first round. Bryzgalov, however, was still wildly erratic, and reinforcements in goal are in the form of old familiar faces such as Brian Boucher (signed for a fourth time, though placed on waivers at midweek) and Michael Leighton, participants in past Flyers goalie merry-go-rounds. Center Claude Giroux is off a breakout year (93 points), but he doesn’t have Jaromir Jagr (who left for Dallas) any longer to help on the left wing; is youngster Brayden Schenn up to filling those skates? Meanwhile, Danny Briere is injured as the season begins, putting more pressure on Giroux. Even with a league-high 16 players having competed in Europe during the lockout, we’re not sure Philly hits the ground running. Maybe the Flyers make the playoffs, but we’re going to look “under” at Wells Fargo Center regardless.

Popular opinion around the league is that the New Jersey Devils (53 ½) are due for a dropoff. After all, how long can 40-year-old Martin Brodeur continue to deliver in goal? And star winger Zach Parise has taken his act to his native Minnesota. But we suspect the 48-game season might actually work in favor of the aging Brodeur, who looked like a top-flight goalie again in the run to the Cup finals last June and has a very able backup in Johan Hedberg to fill in when the schedule serves up games in rapid-fire succession. And convincing prolific winger Ilya Kovalchuk to return from the KHL was also a major boost. The Devils still have four capable lines for coach Peter DeBoer to roll onto the ice, and given the rather modest “total” by 2013 season standards, we think 53½ is a very reasonable number to clear. It’s “over” for us at the Pru Center.

SOUTHEAST DIVISION: Some are wondering if the combination of a new coach and system along with the shortened training camp and compressed 2013 schedule are going to be too much to overcome. Well, the Washington Capitals (54 ½) are going to provide us with some answers. New coach Adam Oates is supposedly implementing a system that took the best elements from Bruce Boudreau’s uptempo scheme and successor Dale Hunter’s defensive-oriented game plan. And Alex Ovechkin has even been working at the right wing instead of his normal slot on the left, with no complaints. “Everybody is involved so you can create,” says Ovechkin, although the move is considered only experimental for the moment. What might work in Oates’ favor is that at least most of the players are familiar with one another, and the prospects of perhaps the best skating team in the league adopting a defensive-oriented structure designed to force foes to turn the puck over is an exciting prospect. But can young GK Braden Holtby pick up where he left off when bursting upon the scene in the playoffs last spring? Too many ifs in D.C; it’s an “under” for us at the Verizon Center. But don’t forget to stop at Ben’s Chili Bowl on nearby U Street for a chili half-smoke before the games!

It was mostly down to goaltending problems last season that scuttled the chances of the Tampa Bay Lightning (53 ½) getting back to the postseason. And how: try an abysmal .893 save percentage and a 3.23 goals-against average, part of which was down to vet Dwayne Roloson faltering after what was his last hurrah in the postseason the previous spring. To answer those concerns in the offseason, GM Steve Yzerman acquired Pekka Rinne’s backup Anders Lindback from the Nashville Predators. Lindback is both young and unproven (played in only 38 games for the Preds behind Rinne), but he has impressed many NHL observers who believe he only needed a chance to be a number one; at worst we expect him to split time with Mathieu Garon, the best of the Tampa Bay goalies last season. If the combo works better than what coach Guy Boucher was forced to use last season, it will help greatly; remember, Steven Stamkos is still around, and we suspect he has the best chance of any player in the league to get to 40 goals. We’re looking “over” at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.


CENTRAL DIVISION: The St. Louis Blues (57 ½) simply picked the wrong time to run into the L.A. Kings last May, stonewalled by hot goalie Jonathan Quick in the second round of the playoffs. If not for the Kings, we thought the Blues might get to the Cup finals. We doubt St. Louis regresses any under coach Ken Hitchcock, who has pushed all of the right buttons since taking over beneath the Arch. Especially with some key components elsewhere in the Central (particularly Niklas Lidstrom and Ryan Suter) having left the division. They’ll still need another veteran defenseman and a veteran winger to get over the hump and challenge for the Cup, but the Blues do have a pair of top-notch goalies (Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak) used to splitting time. In this condensed schedule, the fact that the Blues can rotate through their goalies and keep both fresh should be a major plus. It’s an “over” for us at Scottrade Center.

The Columbus Blue Jackets (46 ½) might as well have been competing in the AHL in recent seasons, and their projected point total is the lowest in the league. For good reason, especially since their best offensive threat, Rick Nash, was offloaded to the Rangers. In return the Jackets received several potentially useful pieces, including frontliner Brandon Dubinsky, who can play at center or on the wing but has also been prone to disappear, but Columbus still lacks impact performers, and Nash’s departure can’t help in that regard. Keeping winger James Wisniewski (who played in only 48 games last season due to suspension and injury) healthy would be another plus. But the Jackets are in heavy rebuild mode, which is never an optimal position, but perhaps even more daunting with the compressed schedule. It’s an “under” for us at Nationwide Arena.

The Nashville Predators (53 ½) dissolved the best defensive pairing in the NHL when Ryan Suter left for Minnesota in the offseason. Which might leave Shea Weber a better chance to compete for the Norris Trophy. But we concur with some sources who believe that it will be Suter missing the partnership with Weber more than vice versa. The Barry Trotz system (the only one ever employed by the franchise in its 15 years of existence) is so well-ingrained that the Preds can play it with their eyes closed, mucking up action at mid-ice and taking advantages of opportunities as they present themselves (which contributed to allowing more shots than attempted last season, not characteristic of a playoff team). We like some of useful pieces still at the disposal of Trotz, including center Mike “Mr. Carrie Underwood” Fisher, winger Martin Erat and Sergei Kostitsyn, and the David Legwand line in the next wave. Plus, there’s still the giant Fin, Pekka Rinne, in goal; there’s not another keeper we would take in front of him. We’re going “over” at Bridgestone Arena.

NORTHWEST DIVISION: The NHL equivalent of the Toronto Blue Jays looks to be none other than the Minnesota Wild (54 ½), which made Jays-like upgrades in the offseason with the free-agent additions of star winger Zach Parise (via the Devils) and top-flight defender Ryan Suter (via the Preds), immediately adding star power to the Wild franchise and generating the sort of NHL buzz in the Twin Cities that has been lacking since the old North Stars were still in town. We wonder, however, about the residual effect of last season’s meltdown when the Wild did not make the playoffs after leading the entire NHL in points into December when sitting at 20-7-3 after 30 games, only to miss the postseason for a fourth straight year. Injuries were negatives, and merely staying healthy will be a plus, but coach Mike Yeo also didn’t get much return on investment from ex-Sharks wingers Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi. And is GK Niklas Backstrom durable enough to withstand the compressed schedule and those 3-in-5-nights and 4-in-6-nights scheduling grinds? More holes to fill at Xcel Energy Center than what Suter and Parise can solve, so we look “under” in St. Paul.

Playoff flameouts have ascended to an art form for the Vancouver Canucks (58 ½), whose normally-docile fans became so enraged at the Game Seven collapse against the Bruins in the 2011 Stanley Cup finals that they turned parts of their normally serene city into Newark or Detroit, circa 1967. But we still think the Canucks can win the President’s Trophy (most regular-season points) and clear what looks to be a reasonable points total. By signing GK Cory Schneider to a lengthy contract in the offseason, it looks as if Roberto Luongo’s days are numbered in British Columbia; someone will bite by the trade deadline. But Schneider has long hinted at being a more effective long-term option. We have some concerns about the second line being disrupted on the eve of the season with injuries to David Booth and Ryan Kesler, but coach Alain Vigneault still has the incomparable Sedin twins and plenty of experienced depth. This could still be the best team in the Western Conference; it’s an “over” for us at Rogers Arena.

PACIFIC DIVISION: While being feted as a budding dynasty after their dominant run to the franchise’s first-ever Stanley Cup, remember that the Los Angeles Kings (58 ½) were also the 8th-place team in the Western Conference, finished third in the Pacific Division, and were only +15 in goal differential in the playoffs. We’ve seen more teams regress from unexpected playoff success than replicate that unexpected form in the past. And we have doubts that GK Jonathan Quick can be as dominating as he was when winning the Conn Smythe Trophy last spring, especially since he’s off back disk surgery in the offseason. Los Angeles likely will be missing at least two key components when the first Stanley Cup banner is raised to the Staples Center rafters, with star center Anze Kopitar sidelined by a knee injury at the start of the season and veteran defenseman Willie Mitchell off knee surgery and not yet near full strength, forcing the Kings to dig into their defensive depth. Expect a letdown, but look out next spring; the Kings know they only need to be an 8th seed to cause havoc in the postseason. Nonetheless, we’re thinking Stanley Cup letdown and looking “under” at Staples Center.

No one was expecting Jaromir Jagr to sign with the Dallas Stars (52 ½) in the offseason; most figured he would simply re-up with the Flyers. Instead, Jagr and his truckload of intangibles landed in Big D, and the Stars should benefit greatly. Especially young center Jamie Benn, who now gets the luxury of playing adjacent to winger supreme Jagr, who helped make Claude Giroux a star in Philadelphia and could do the same with Benn in Dallas. And Benn is also one of the young Dallas charges who figures to benefit from Jagr’s leadership, work ethic and role model/mentor status to younger players. The Stars augmented their depth by adding center Derek Roy from Buffalo and veteran winger Ray Whitney (off a 77-point season, not bad for a 40-year-old) from Phoenix. The question we have is what sort of year Dallas can expect from GK Kari Lehtonen, a workhorse who has delivered big in the past, but has also been plagued by recurring groin strains. If the Stars can effectively on occasion spell Lehtonen (can young Richard Bachman be the answer?), they could be a nice sleeper in the West. It’s an “over” for us at AmericanAirlines Center.

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