Morrison: A normal season? Try again next year

The Olympics in Sochi, which will feature dozens of stars, including Alex Ovechkin, is a scheduling nightmare for the NHL. (AP/Alex Brandon)

This is the time of year when everyone starts fresh in the NHL, with a perfect record and, in most cases, that most precious commodity: the hope that maybe this will be the year.

Well, everyone except the Calgary Flames, who are staring down a lengthy rebuild—though there are plenty of Flames fans who are good with that, because at least it is finally happening. With Brian Burke now in Calgary and Kevin Lowe up the highway in Edmonton, even if the teams struggle, the potential exists for the Battle of Alberta to become a barnburner. And speaking of heated tempers, it was a warm and cuddly (by his standards) John Tortorella who arrived in Vancouver. But how long before he finds the Canadian equivalent of his favourite New York media antagonist, Larry Brooks?

There are plenty of storylines to keep an eye on this season—but for once, one of them is not the annual planning of the Toronto parade route, because new Leafs boss Tim Leiweke has already taken care of that. Now all that is left is for the Leafs to put that monumental game-seven collapse against Boston behind them, and figure out how to back the motorcade out of the garage.

This year’s two biggest subplots, however, will affect every team’s chances of planning that parade. We know there will be a full 82-game slate, but this season will have its own scheduling nightmares because of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. (In the case of some of the Russian players heading over to compete, the challenge may be getting them to use their return tickets.)

In our part of the world, debating the quality of Team Canada’s goaltending will become a national pastime leading up to the league shutting down its business from Feb. 9–25. Because of that shutdown, teams will have a condensed schedule and will play on a similar pace to last season’s lockout-shortened campaign. Coaches are already fretting about the physical challenges that will bring.

Many of the same coaches are just as concerned about who’s going. Every team’s schedule will be impacted equally pre- and post-Games but the best teams, of course, will have more players participating than others. Add in the jet lag and fatigue, and some squads will simply be more rested than others heading into the stretch drive. One wonders, given that the next Winter Games are in that hockey hotbed of South Korea, whether this will be the last time the NHL lets its stars take part. Teams must avoid slow starts to this season since they can’t possibly know how the Olympics will impact the finish.

But Sochi isn’t the only wild card. We’ll also be watching how realignment affects the playoff races. There is no question the NHL is now better positioned geographically, and some teams will benefit from improved travel. (Well, almost everyone. Sorry, Tampa and Florida.) But with the conferences divided into two divisions, getting into the post-season is potentially even tougher—especially for bubble teams. For instance, being the eighth-best team in the conference no longer guarantees you a spot. The top three teams in each division make it, plus two wild cards from each conference. The Winnipeg Jets are no longer playing in a cakewalk division; if they don’t grab one of the top three spots in the Central, they’ll be hard pressed to beat out whichever of Los Angeles, Vancouver, Anaheim and San Jose is sitting in a wild-card spot. And the Leafs? They know it just got harder. “We have a tough team, Detroit, that comes in,” said Leafs winger Phil Kessel. “We’re a good team, right? We should be there, but you could miss it easily, being a good team.”

Note to Leiweke: You might want to keep that parade route in the drawer for now.

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