The NHL finally got their heads out of their dark places and got back on the ice. That means that for the second year in a row we have a shortened season in a major sport — and all of the headaches that go with that. As we get ready to handicap the NHL when it starts in less than two weeks, here are five factors you’ll need to consider when looking for teams that could leap out of the gate and those that could start with a limp.
Stable lineups - Training camp is going to be extremely short — less than two weeks. There is going to be very little practice time to introduce systems and work out the kinks and little or no preseason opportunities to develop chemistry and figure out ideal line combinations. If the core of teams haven’t played together and don’t have a sense of what they can expect from each other and what their roles are, then they are going to be in a hole early. More significantly, teams that are established and comfortable are going to be able to get a quick jump — and that could make the difference for them on the season. The key places to look are the top two offensive lines, the top four defensemen, and the top power play unit.
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Age - The age of a roster is an important consideration, but not nearly as clear-cut as stability. There are problems that can come in many ways. A roster that is young could suffer from the lack of preparation time, but they are physically more likely to be ready to go. An older roster will have the advantage of experience to help them get ready, but it will be harder for them to shake off the rust from the extended offseason, and they could struggle physically because they likely won’t have the time to get into top condition in time. Older players get hurt at a higher than average rate at the best of times, but that problem will only intensify this year.
Coaching changes - If a coaching change was made after the regular season ended, then the new coach will have had virtually no chance to work directly with his players. He’ll have little firsthand knowledge of the roster, and trust between players and coach won’t be established. It’s not certain failure for a team by any means, but it certainly will make it harder to make real progress. The problems can be especially significant if the new coach represents a significant change in philosophy from the former coach — a defensive focus compared to an offensive coach, a disciplinarian compared to a player’s coach, and so on. This year, Calgary, Montreal, Edmonton, and Washington are all in this position. Of the four, Edmonton is by far the least concerning because new coach Ralph Krueger has been with the team as an associate coach. Adam Oates in Washington, on the other hand, is not only new to the Capitals, but new to head coaching.
Schedule - With only 48 games likely to be played, the schedule is going to be much more of a factor than it normally is because it is going to be far from balanced. Some teams will have dramatically tougher schedules than others — both in terms of the quality of opponents and where and when the games are played. On a smaller scale the condensed schedule will mean that teams will at times have to play several games in a short period of time. Older teams or teams lacking depth could really struggle in situations like that.
Who has been playing? - One of the real challenges of this extended lockout is that a lot of players have been playing, but many haven’t been as well. There are all sorts of different places where the active players have been playing — and different levels of competition they have been facing. Younger players have returned to junior or have played in the AHL. A lot of players went to Europe, but the leagues they played in and caliber of players they faced varied. Some players didn’t play full-time but have had recent tournament experience in holiday events like the Spengler Cup. It will be important for handicappers to look at where layers have been playing and what impact it could have on teams. Players that have been playing will likely transition more effectively into the NHL — as long as they haven’t developed bad habits. The ideal would be if the core of a team has not only been playing, but has been playing together. The perfect example of this is Edmonton — the offensive core of the team has all been playing together in Oklahoma City, so they should be ready to hit the ground running.
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