The Brothers Staal are key to the high expectations for the Carolina Hurricanes this season. Above, Jordan (left) and Eric Staal together at a preseason skate in Raleigh in September. - Jamie Kellner (at Flickr
The race to the 2013 NHL playoffs will be a 100-day sprint. Here is a look ahead.
Apparently, the operative phrase describing the NHL's shortened 48-game season for 2013 will be "It's a sprint not a marathon". Here's a look at what this means within the Southeast Division.
Opening the season next Saturday, January 19th, after a six-day training camp set to begin tomorrow, all five Southeast division teams will be in action. Only the Winnipeg Jets will face off against a non-divisional opponent as they host the Ottawa Senators. The other four teams will meet in the Sunshine State, as the Tampa Bay Lightning host the Washington Capitals and the Carolina Hurricanes travel to Sunrise where they face last years' Divisional Champion, the Florida Panthers. By the way, you hadn't forgotten the Panthers won the division last season, had you?
For all 30 teams, regular season schedules will only include games within their own conference.
Twenty-two Eighteen of the 48 games are within the division, while the other 26 30 will be made up of games with the other 10 teams in the conference.
Where are they now?
So don't plan on seeing Teemu Selanne, the Sedin twins, Pavel Datsyuk or any of those Edmonton kids at your home rink this year, but Rick Nash has moved east to join Brad Richards and the Rangers, a team many pick to win the Conference. Another favorite in the early going, the Pittsburgh Penguins, should have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin healthy, but look for former Hurricane Brandon Sutter centering their third line.
The other half of the Sutter deal, Jordan Staal is now teammates-for-life with older brother Eric in Raleigh; safe to assume that storyline will be spun up early and often. The Capitals brought Mike Ribeiro over from Dallas to center their second line, but let Alexander Semin walk after 8 up-and-down years with the club. Semin will still be around giving southeast goalies fits with his wrister though, as the Canes signed him last summer to a one-year deal.
Down south, George Parros and his 'stache came over to the Florida Panthers over the summer of 2012, but it's the youngsters like Erik Gudbranson and Jonathan Huberdeau who may be getting the early headlines as they try to gain an NHL slot. Veteran blueliner Filip Kuba, who was paired with young Erik (Norris Trophy) Karlsson in Ottawa was signed by Dale Tallon when Jason Garrison and his 33 points left in pursuit of big money up in Vancouver.
And way up in Winnipeg, it's been newly signed Olli Jokinen, and former Thrashers Ondrej Pavelec and Evander Kane feeding the media with stories off the ice since last summer. And that's if you weren't paying attention to CBA negotiations, with Ron Hainsey in the role of a leading negotiator for the NHLPA.
Among coaches, Washington's Hall-of-famer Adam Oates is beginning the next phase of his career, taking the reins at Alex Ovechkin & company. His last coaching assignment was as an assistant with the Devils, though there was a short stint with Rich Tocchet's Lightning before that, coaching the Bolts power play. How the change-over on the bench affects the Capitals success in the opening month of the season is anyone's guess - but definitely something to keep track of as Oates has just 6 days to teach his system and develop a healthy rapport with a crew among whom leadership and discipline have been questioned..
The most senior coach in the Southeast is now Tampa Bay's Guy Boucher - with just two seasons on the job. Kevin Dineen (Florida), Claude Noel (Winnipeg) and Kirk Muller (Carolina), are returning for their sophomore campaigns.
With the season so short, every game will be much like a 4-point game, and within the division, the points become even more critical. There is no consensus on which team is the Be(a)st of the Southeast this year, though the acquisitions made by Hurricanes' veteran GM Jim Rutherford, whose team has failed to make the playoffs for three straight seasons, seem to have given Carolina a slight advantage among those who think you can predict these things.
The folks tallying bets at Bovada give a razor thin edge to the Hurricanes over the Caps at 2nd, with the Lightning only a half-step behind at 3rd. Over at ESPN.com, Pierre LeBrun also likes the Canes as the top team in the Southeast, with the Caps, Bolts, Cats and Jets following in that order.
USAToday and Kevin Allen put the Caps ahead of Carolina in his preseason rankings, while Sports Illustrated's Adrian Dater, who also covers the Colorado Avalanche and, one might assume, sees little southeast division hockey, ranks the five teams in this order: Carolina, Florida, Washington, Winnipeg with Tampa Bay showing up at 5th in the SE, and way down at 26th out of 30 teams in the League. Apparently he's not sold on the Bolts' re-tooled defense and goaltending, Stamkos or not.
Finally, on a personal note, I'm very pleased to be back writing about hockey. Some of you may remember me from my years at Canes Country or follow me on twitter as @HMof2. Thanks very much to John and Cassie for asking me to join the Raw Charge community. I'll do my best to keep you all up to date with the latest news and happenings around the Southeast division this season.