The NHL season is underway and hockey fans everywhere are basking in the icy glow of a promising and wholesome 82-game regular season. Plus, there are the Olympic games in Sochi stuffed in the middle. Helene Elliott of The Los Angeles Times joined Bill to talk about the upcoming cornucopia of pucks.
BL: Let’s discuss the rules changes for the 2013-2014 season. We’ll start with a new icing rule which is hybrid icing. What is that supposed to accomplish?
HE: It’s supposed to enhance players’ safety and eliminate some of those chases in which players have gotten rammed into the boards and pretty seriously hurt in chasing the puck. Carolina’s Joni Pitkanen is missing the entire season this year because he broke his heel in a horrible number of places. So the idea is that the linesmen will have discretion as to who is ahead in the race for the puck, the defensive player or the offensive player, at a certain point and then when it gets to the dot in the face-off circle. I think it will save a lot of shattered heels and sprained knees and some pretty bad situations that have happened.
BL: “The nets will be shallower this year, meaning there will be more room behind the net for players to operate, and goalie equipment will be streamlined.” What do those changes mean?
HE: The NHL was scared seeing the number of goals scored per game go into a very noticeable decline the last few seasons. So this is a way of stimulating some goal production in that a lot of goalies are going to lose about two inches off their leg pads and for some of them that makes a significant difference. It opens up, and I know that you like to throw around hockey terms with your friends, so, it makes the five-hole bigger. You can just tell them that the intent of the rule makes the five-hole bigger.
BL: When the last NHL regular season began, the questions was which teams benefited the most from the lockout. This year the question is which teams benefit the most from a full training camp. So what’s the answer?
HE: Good question. The Kings I think benefited in the sense that Darryl Sutter had his first training camp with the Kings and that’s true for a few coaches throughout the league. It’s going to be a very hectic schedule. It’s condensed because of the Olympics. The Rangers, the New York Rangers, start with nine straight road games because their arena in New York, Madison Square Garden, is being renovated. The Anaheim Ducks have a lot of trips really early. The Kings have a lot of trips really early. Realignment created some interesting situations where its helped a lot of teams and certainly gives Detroit less travel and Columbus less travel, but Florida and Tampa are gonna probably have to do more travel than they were dong before realignment. So it’s going to be interesting to see how things shake out over the course of the season.
BL: The divisions have been realigned. Teams now compete in the reshuffled Atlantic, Metropolitan Central, and Pacific divisions. Do we see the loss of traditional rivalries or do we successfully create new ones?
HE: I see the loss of traditional names. I know they got rid of them a long time ago, but did anyone grow up saying, “Gee, I want to grow up and play in the Metropolitan division some day!” I mean you know a little imagination here please.
BL: You prefer the Patrick Division.
HE: You know, at least there’s some semblance of history to the name. Yeah, the NHL got rid of all that years ago, and, you know, I would have liked to see something like the Gordie Howe Division, and Bobby Orr, and Wayne Gretzky, but I know that Wayne Gretzky probably would not have approved of that. But, you know, I think the realignment makes sense geographically. Teams in the West, like say Colorado, I suspect will improve quite a bit this season, but probably won’t get near the playoffs because it’s just so tough and the West is so stacked.
BL: Pittsburgh, laden with talent, was swept in the conference finals this spring. Is this a powerful motivation for the Penguins this season?
HE: Yeah, except for they start out with a little bit of a disadvantage here. They have some injuries and their backup goaltender, Tomas Vokoun, has a very serious situation with blood clots and now has been put on blood thinners which means that he won’t be playing hockey for maybe three to five months or maybe even longer than that. The Blackhawks, if they were to win again, does that qualify them as a dynasty? You know, the Bruins have motivation for losing in the finals. So there are a lot of teams out there that have a lot of motivation to go after it this season. Another factor is going to be the Olympics and whether any team loses any players to injury at the Olympics. That could be a game changer in February and March.