NHL hits ice tonight

The odds are long that the Chicago Blackhawks and goalie Corey Crawford will hoist the Stanley Cup again after the 2013-14 season. (Associated Press)
The odds are long that the Chicago Blackhawks and goalie Corey Crawford will hoist the Stanley Cup again after the 2013-14 season. (Associated Press)

Plenty of newness and an Olympic break for 96th season

Enjoy the Stanley Cup banner-raising ceremony for as long as possible, Chicago.

Once the puck drops to usher in the new NHL season in Chicago, Montreal and Edmonton today, recent history suggests someone other than the Blackhawks will be hoisting the Cup in June. The 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings stand as the league’s last franchise to repeat as champions.

“You’ve got players moving all the time now. The competition level is good or better than ever before,” TV analyst and former coach Pierre McGuire said. “And the ultimate thing is we haven’t had NHL expansion in almost 12 or 14 years now. And because of that, the talent bucket is full.”

Despite that, McGuire thinks Chicago has as good a chance as any to repeat fresh off a lockout-shortened season.

“I believe we can start to use the ‘D’ word with Chicago’s dynasty,” he said of a franchise that’s won two of the past four titles.

Former player-turned-broadcaster Eddie Olczyk, however, noted several obstacles facing Chicago, namely the Olympics. Chicago could have as many as 14 players competing at the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

“When you throw in the Olympic break,” Olczyk said. “It’s going to be very taxing.”

Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, whose team opens against Washington, however, likes their chances.

“We want to put ourselves, come playoff time, to be that team that can compete for it again,” Toews said. “There’s a lot of things that play into that. That’s our goal for now.”

Here’s five more things to watch out for as the NHL enters its 96th year:

Familiar faces, new places: Vinny’s in Philly, Alfie’s in Motown, and Tim Thomas ended a one-year break to land in Florida.

These were among the more significant moves involving the NHL’s old guard.

Vincent Lecavalier started the ball rolling, when the former Tampa Bay captain signed a five-year, $22.5 million contract with the Flyers. Daniel Alfredsson, the long-time Senators captain, jumped ship to sign with the Red Wings. His departure prompted the Senators to acquire forward Bobby Ryan in a deal with Anaheim.

And then there’s Thomas, the award-winning goalie who re-emerged last week by signing a one-year deal with the Panthers.

New rules: Un-tucked jerseys and visors are in fashion. And there’s the possibility of the NHL introducing a form of no-touch icing, pending approval by the NHL Players’ Association.

The league used the preseason to test a hybrid icing rule, in which linesmen can whistle the play dead by determining which teams’ player reaches the far-end faceoff dot. The rule is being contemplated in a bid to reduce the chance of injuries that can occur when players collide at the end boards.

Sabres forward Steve Ott doesn’t like it.

“I think it’s terrible,” he said. “There’s too much hesitation from the referee to the players going to get the puck, and that hesitation slows down the game.”

In other changes, players with fewer than 25 NHL games of must wear a visor.

Players will also not be permitted to tuck their jerseys into their pants to expose any protective padding.

Goalie shuffle: There’s a spotlight on goalies who switched teams and on some who stayed put.

Cory Schneider is out of Roberto Luongo’s shadow in Vancouver to become Martin Brodeur’s heir-apparent in New Jersey. The Toronto Maple Leafs made a bid to shore up their crease by acquiring Jonathan Bernier in a trade with Los Angeles.

Then there’s the Flyers’ near-annual offseason carousel. Newly signed free agent Ray Emery is competing with Steve Mason after Philadelphia gave up on Ilya Bryzgalov.

Questions remain regarding the status of several established veterans.

In Pittsburgh, Marc-Andre Fleury is on the hot seat after his latest playoff meltdown sent him to the bench last spring. Fleury will open as the starter by default with Tomas Vokoun out indefinitely due to blood clots.

Ryan Miller’s future in Buffalo is uncertain, too. The Sabres haven’t ruled out the possibility of trading Miller before his contract expires after this season.

Realignment a reality: At last, there is a new look to the league. Realignment means there are just four divisions now, two in both the Eastern and Western Conference.

The names of the divisions, though, will take some getting used to. The Atlantic, Pacific and Central all seem fine.

The Metropolitan – which features Carolina, Washington, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Columbus, New Jersey and both the New York Islanders and Rangers – is puzzling if nothing else.

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