NHL 2013-14: Top 13 story lines to follow

For better or worse, Dion Phaneuf, John Tortorella and Nail Yakupov's don't-call-them-young Oilers will make headlines in 2013-14.

More and more I find myself watching sports not just for the action itself — the acrobatic saves, the increasingly ridiculous dangles, and the organic tension wrought by one-goal games — but for the grander narratives.

Unlike the often-scripted, always-edited programs labelled reality TV, sports give us the only authentic thing on television not called the news, the only live, scheduled “appointment viewing” (as those in the business call it) worth our attention.

So while the games themselves provide brief, entertaining post-work escapes (à la the sitcom), it’s the developing large-arc stories that occupy our imaginations and influence our opinions and fuel our coffee-run conversations. With its deep cast of characters and unexpected twists, the reasons I like the NHL are not that far from the reasons I like The Wire.

Like a Sedin-to-Sedin pass, the timing couldn’t be better. Two nights after Breaking Bad concludes, the puck will drop on the 2013-14 NHL season. Here are the 13 plots we’re most looking forward to playing out this year.

1. Who won the off-season’s splashiest trade?
July’s seven-player mega-swap saw the Dallas Stars acquire reformed party boy Tyler Seguin and send your NHL pool’s worst-kept secret, Loui Eriksson, to the Boston Bruins. Which dynamic offensive player will flourish most in his new environment? I’m guessing this could be win-win. Seguin is just 21, remember; no one’s saying much about Patrick “Two Rings” Kane’s late nights anymore. And, playing in a hockey-friendly market, Eriksson should finally get some of the free-drinks-from-strangers-at-the-pub-who-recognize-him he so deserves.
Juicy subplot: New Stars captain Jamie Benn wasn’t invited to Team Canada’s summer camp. He felt snubbed. Can his early-season play force Steve Yzerman to give him a plane ticket to Russia?

2. The Chicago Blackhawks’ recurring dream season
Sure, a few role players are gone, but the core remains firmly intact as the Hawks attempt to become the first back-to-back champion since the Red Wings of 1997 and ’98. Still, Chicago did have the briefest off-season of anyone west of the Bruins and club could send as many as 11 key players to Sochi in February, potentially draining its energy while other teams restore theirs in the Caribbean.
Juicy subplot: The St. Louis Blues — a Chicago rival in the Central Division — have never won a Cup, but they have far and away the deepest defence in the league and EA Sports’ NHL 14 simulation has them winning it all. Can they play spoilers?

3. Don’t call the Edmonton Oilers “young” anymore
From the carrot sticks he’s feeding the beat (beet?) writers to his disdain for the “young Oilers” tag, new hire Dallas Eakins has brought with him a swift and demanding culture change in Edmonton. A premium is simultaneously being placed on fitness and toughness, and another missed postseason no longer feels acceptable.
Juicy subplot: While the rise of the draftees—Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Nail Yakupov, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins—stays compelling, new addition David Perron could end up being a scene-stealer this season.

4. Rangers, Canucks play Coach Swap
As rumours began circulating that fired John Tortorella was interviewing in Vancouver, we hoped a million hopes it was true. Had Tortorella not returned to the NHL this year, it would be akin to one of your favourite HBO villains getting whacked in the finale. Love him or love to hate him, Torts brings fire and personality. Can’t wait to see which team is better off under their new bench boss.
Juicy subplots: Can Brad Richards rebound from near buyout to re-establish himself as an important piece of New York’s success? And how will Roberto Luongo’s relationship with Vancouver’s fans and management survive if the Canucks get off to a rocky start?

5. When will the Buffalo Sabres blow up?
The Sabres were in disarray last season and didn’t do much over the course of the summer to rectify their lineup. GM Darcy Regier still has a job, which means he’ll be on the hot seat as the contract-year status of his two best players — punchy goalie Ryan Miller and sniper Thomas Vanek — force his hand. Expect trades and/or tirades from this dressing room.
Juicy subplot: After an overhyped but entertaining pre-season brawl spawned suspensions and fines and Phil Kessel GIFs, we likely haven’t seen the last of the Sabres-Leafs nastiness.

6. Toronto’s battle for blue paint
Jonathan Bernier is the Maple Leafs’ No. 1 goaltender. Just ask him. After getting a Stanley Cup ring as Jonathan Quick’s understudy, he didn’t sign in Ontario to play a support role. James Reimer is Toronto’s No. 1, too. He believes it, and so do the scores of Leafs fans who credit the smiling save artist for ending Toronto’s league-worst playoff drought last spring. “The goalie thing drives me nuts,” coach Randy Carlyle said before training camp, after fielding the media’s questions about his No. 1 guy. If talk about “controversy” in net drives him nuts now, Carlyle could go full Todd by January.
Juicy subplot: With much money and even more fanfare, Toronto-born free agent David Clarkson came home. Then he got slapped with a 10-game ban for having his heart in the right place while his head was on sabbatical. Will he deliver the way he so desperately wants to?

7. Plenty of teams dealing with double (free) agents
This year’s crop of players entering their contract year is particularly deep, the twist being that a handful of teams have not one but two of the most talented guys approaching UFA status. While the salary cap is expected to rise, there might not be enough money to keep everyone happy. Vancouver (Daniel and Henrik Sedin), New York (Henrik Lundqvist, captain Ryan Callahan), San Jose (Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Dan Boyle), Toronto (Phil Kessel, captain Dion Phaneuf), Calgary (Mike Cammalleri, Lee Stempniak), Buffalo (Vanek, Miller) and St. Louis (Jaroslav Halak, Brian Elliott) all have at least two major contracts to finalize… or trades to salvage.
Juicy subplot: Revenge of the bridge contract. Norris champ P.K. Subban ($2.87-million cap hit) will again be an RFA come season’s end. Time to make the Habs pay.

8. Cagey veterans still got it… at least they think so
Haven’t been this interested to keep up with the adventures of a bunch of old guys since Cocoon. Daniel Alfredsson left Ottawa for Detroit, but those pesky Sens might have a better shot at the Cup. Forever the Flame, Jarome Iginla joined his third team in five months and now has his best shot to win it all. Martin Brodeur will try to fend off the younger Cory Schneider for the Devils’ No. 1 spot in net for one more year. A refreshed Tim Thomas returns from self-imposed exile. Hall of Fame rental Jaromir Jagr tries to keep both himself and New Jersey respectable. And the lovable Teemu Selanne is taking one more crack at it.
Juicy subplot: Which heralded NHL rookie — Nathan MacKinnon or Seth Jones — will prove to be most NHL-ready?

9. Let’s take it outside (not a fighting reference)
The cold-air Winter Classic has been such a success — in terms of spectacle and finances — that, for the first time, the league will hold a six-pack of outdoor games in 2013-14: the Winter Classic at the Big House in Ann Arbor, Michigan; the Heritage Classic in Vancouver; plus four Stadium Series contests, two at New York’s Yankee Stadium and one apiece at L.A.’s Dodger Stadium and Chicago’s Soldier Field. Will the novelty wear off, or is this the new normal? Hot tip: Invest in toque stock.
Juicy subplot: Who will emerge as the Bryzgalov-esque star of 24/7? The Leafs’ Joffrey Lupul says Phaneuf is one to watch, while the early favourite out of Detroit is Pavel Datsyuk.

10. The Sochi Effect
Not only will elite players’ performance this autumn have an effect on their club teams’ standings, but their play could seal or spoil their shot at an Olympic roster. Of course, this is especially true for Team Canada. And while tracking the goalie race will be interesting (Luongo, Corey Crawford, Mike Smith, Carey Price and Braden Holtby are the top five now), some terrific forwards (reigning scoring champ Martin St. Louis) and defencemen (Norris champ Subban) aren’t sure things.
Juicy subplot: What exactly does commissioner Gary Bettman have planned for the future of international competition? The resurrection of a World Cup and even a Champions League appear to be on the agenda. So is this the final Olympics to include NHL stars?

11. New rules rigged to increase goal-scoring
Offence sells tickets, and ticket sales boost HRR. So along with some new safety measures — mandatory visors being grandfathered in, penalizing fighters for removing their helmets, instituting hybrid icing — the NHL has altered its regulations in effort to increase the frequency of red lamps. Goaltenders have been forced to trim their pads and the nets have been made shallower, expanding Gretzky’s office. We get to find out which goalie has been relying too much on his equipment.
Juicy subplot: The NHL also outlawed tucked-in jerseys. Violation of the rule could begin with a warning but has the potential to result in a game misconduct. Will Alex Ovechkin and Jaromir Jagr conform?

12. Realignment rigs rivalry
Fine. Cringe at the clunky “Metropolitan Division” name. Point out, by sheer mathematics, those in the 14-team Western Conference now have a 57 percent chance of making the postseason while the 16 clubs in the Eastern Conference have a 50 percent shot. But make no mistake, the NHL is now set up much better geographically than in years past. Just ask fans in Winnipeg, Detroit or Dallas. With a premium placed on divisional standings, old rivalries should strengthen and new ones will form. Plus, the guarantee that each team will host the 29 others at least once gives homers a chance to check out the talent league-wide.
Juicy subplot: Who will survive a now loaded Atlantic Division? Boston, Detroit, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto all made the playoffs last year. Odds are, one will be left out come spring.

13. Colorado leans on legends for massive makeover
The Avalanche are hoping to harness the spirit of 2001 as new coach and vice-president of hockey operations Patrick Roy and new exec Joe Sakic aspire to return a struggling club to glory. How much of a leash will Roy give goaltender Semyon Varlamov, whose contract expires this season? Can Roy’s first acquisition, goalie guru Francois Allaire, make a difference? Are the Avs’ youthful forwards ready to gel into a winning unit? Plenty to see here.
Juicy subplot: Many believe centre Paul Stastny, 27, hasn’t lived up to his previous contract, which paid him $6.6 million annually. Pending RFA Ryan O’Reilly, 22, now makes similar coin (thanks, Calgary). Of the two, whom will Roy deem most necessary to keep around?

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