Teams with depth have the advantage in abbreviated NHL season
Vancouver Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo is seen in his net during day three of training camp at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, B.C., Tuesday, Jan. 15.
What should you expect from the shortened NHL season that begins Saturday? Thought you’d never ask.
Playing 48 games over 99 days means change will happen quickly. Ask Brian Burke. It also means there is precious little room for error. Each team will play at least seven back-to-back games this season and some will play as many as 12. That erases practice time that could be used to stave off the bad habits that prolong a losing streak. Similarly, teams with a consistently effective power play or a hot goalie can ride those factors to greater advantage than they might in an 82-game schedule.
Teams with a depth of talent will have a significant edge, as players tire or get worn down. Coaches who lean on their star players could see those players flag whereas those coaches who can confidently roll four lines will have more staying power from their lineup come April.
Teams without injury issues as the season starts could soon face them, given the compressed schedule and all the travel involved. Both elements leave very little time for healing.
Ah yes, the travel. The hockey blog On The Forecheck has tallied the air miles for each team, the Minnesota Wild logging the most at 31,345 miles and the New Jersey Devils the fewest at 11,659. If you’re looking for an early favourite for the Stanley Cup, stay in the Eastern Conference, where only three teams (Tampa Bay, Florida, Winnipeg) will travel more than 20,000 miles, although Toronto and Carolina come very close. In the Western Conference, every team will travel more than 20,000 miles. That could be a difference when the playoffs begin April 30.
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In 1995, the last time the NHL played a 48-game schedule, the eighth-place seeds in the two conferences finished with 47 and 42 points. There were four fewer teams then, and the extra point for an overtime or shootout loss was not being awarded. Calgary general manager Jay Feaster said last week he thought 56 or 58 points would be needed to quality for the eighth spot in the Western Conference. He added he expects to see plenty of the so-called three-point games this season, teams sitting on a late-game tie, then taking their chances in overtime and/or the shootout. Expect to also see mistakes made early and often in the first few games as teams figure out new systems, new linemates and new partners on defence. This may be doubly true of the four teams with new coaches -- Adam Oates in Washington, Ralph Kruger in Edmonton, Michel Therrien in Montreal and Bob Hartley in Calgary.
Off the ice, there may be as much intrigue. The trade deadline is April 3 and teams will most likely face a stark choice by then: are they buying or selling? Teams may also want to unload some big contracts ahead of the lowered salary cap for the 2013-14 season. It could get very busy around that time.
Three coaches were fired during the 1995 season but as the Burke sacking has shown, the stakes may be higher this time and if three is the over/under, take the over. Joe Sacco of Colorado and Todd McLellan of San Jose are probably on the hot seat right now.
Another off-ice scenario approaching a resolution is that of the Canadian television rights for the NHL. The CBC’s contract with the NHL as the principle TV rights holder ends next year and it is expected Rogers and Bell, the corporate masters of Sportsnet and TSN, respectively, will bid aggressively to be No. 1. That race was long since joined but with all three networks starved of their biggest meal ticket since last summer, now is the time to brace their case like never before. The CBC has five tripleheaders on its Saturday schedule this season; it broadcast eight during the longer 2011-12 season. When Burke was fired last week, TSN went into Tradecentre mode right away, hauling all of its analysts before a camera or a telephone to weigh in.
The only guarantee to this season? The Stanley Cup is presented no later than June 28. Enjoy the ride.