Fresh with an astute transformation in the league structure, the 30 American and Canadian sides of the National Hockey League, the most skilled, physical and intense ice hockey league on the planet, are gearing up for another season. Due to disputes between owners and players over just how inordinate the sum of money they should be paid was, the 2012/13 campaign began over three months late in mid-January. This October though, everything is going according to plan, as the players are happy with their fortunes, teams’ training camps are in full flow and pre-season games are a-plenty, so the puck will drop for real, on time, on 1st October.

Previously the 30 teams were split into six divisions, three divisions in both the Eastern and Western conferences. The two conferences remain but now there are only two divisions making up each one. Teams have been grouped using geographical common sense, meaning the majority of rivalries between neighbouring teams will be kept intact. The Detroit Red Wings and the Columbus Blue Jackets have both switched conferences (from west to east) so that they’ll play teams in their time zone more frequently; while the NHL’s newest side, the Winnipeg Jets, have gone in the opposite direction.

The play-off format has also been altered. Before, it was relatively simple: the top eight of each conference got into the Stanley Cup Play-offs. Now, it’s the top three of each of the four divisions that will advance, plus two wildcard teams in each conference (those with the next most amounts of points). So, starting with the East, let’s have a brief look at each new division, outlining some teams’ off-season activities and debating how the sides will fare this campaign.

First up, we’ll begin with the Atlantic Division which features the 5 old Northwest Division sides plus the two Florida sides, namely Florida and Tampa Bay, and then the mighty Red Wings. Last year’s Stanley Cup finalists Boston Bruins will undoubtedly be one of the main favourites to claim the division title. The Bruins remain strong defensively with the man mountain Zdeno Chara and the solid Tuukka Rask in the crease. They’ve also added a major impact player on the forward lines, in the shape of Jarome Iginla. Loui Eriksson has replaced the young, apparently rebellious Tyler Seguin, who has gone west to Dallas. The ‘Bs’ are certainly in a strong position to take their fans on another journey towards the Stanley Cup Final.

The other main sides in contention in this Atlantic section appear to be the Montreal Canadiens and the Detroit Red Wings. After a miserable 2011/12, the team in Montreal, who have some of the most passionate and unforgiving fans in the league, had a superb regular season last time around. But that wasn’t replicated in the playoffs, as they crashed to an opening round defeat to the Senators. Nothing much has changed on their roster so they’ll be hoping to go deeper into May and June in 2014, but will need goaltender Carey Price to play to the level we all know he can.

When you think of a great ice hockey franchise the Detroit Red Wings should come to mind first. The Michigan side just managed to keep their incredible playoff streak alive last season (23 straight years in the playoffs) but they look set to be stronger in 2013/14. With Stephen Weiss and veteran Daniel Alfredsson added, the forward lines have a bigger punch. They have an outstanding goaltender in Jimmy Howard and young defencemen causing each other to perform well because of a fight for roster places. Toronto and Ottawa both made the playoffs back in the spring and will push again for a top three spot. Tampa Bay and Florida look to be the teams that are trying to earn a wildcard from this tough division, to make the spring dance. Buffalo are rebuilding, with lots of rookies in their line-up. But, whilst they’ve been impressive in preseason, they may struggle to cope with the experience found throughout the rosters of your Bostons and Detroits.

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Moving onto the jazzily-named Metropolitan Division then which is also fashioned with eight teams. The Pennsylvania rivals of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are among those eight. The Penguins should lead the way in this division, goaltender-permitting, with their lethal crop of forwards and steady defence. The Flyers will be desperate to get back in the playoffs after a miserable 2013. The two extremes of past-it veterans and too inexperienced youngsters currently befit their roster. They’ve seemingly chosen to split goaltending duties between Ray Emery, who was impressive in Chicago last season (but behind a great D) and Steve Mason, whose level has dropped off since he won the Calder Trophy in 2008/09. Mason is still young at 25 though, so may be a good pick-up for Philly. Still, it seems evident that they’ll find it difficult to get into the division’s top three.

We have another pair of rivals next, with the two sides battling for the supremacy of the Big Apple. The New York Islanders finally earned an overdue postseason berth in 2013 and, led by captain John Tavares, they can definitely do it again. There are other forwards that can do some damage too, in the shapes of Matt Moulson, Josh Bailey and Frans Nielsen. The Long Island side’s most impressive attribute last season was their team spirit and togetherness, and that will be crucial again if they want to get a top three spot or a wildcard. Over at Madison Square Garden (well, not until late October as it’s being refurbished), the Rangers now have Alain Vigneault at the helm. Scheduling will play a part in their bid for another run at the Cup, as they start with a challenging nine-game road trip. With the firepower they possess though, it’d be an extremely disappointing season for them if they didn’t get in the division’s top three (at least).

Alex Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals also feature in the Metro Division. The Caps had a terrific second half to the last campaign, forcing themselves in the playoffs as third seed and Southeast Division winners. Gone are the days of playing those easier opponents in the Southeast every week though and now they’ll have to face the likes of Pittsburgh and the Rangers on a more regular basis. There’ll be no room for excuses of ‘we were adjusting to Adam Oates’ system’ this autumn and a strong start to the campaign is a must if they want a guaranteed postseason spot. Carolina, Columbus and New Jersey all missed the playoffs last time (the Blue Jackets by a whisker) and will have a tough job to do so this year with perennial Cup contenders a-plenty in their division. The Devils made one of the offseason’s best moves with the acquisition of young goaltender Cory Schneider to eventually replace Martin Brodeur in between the pipes in New Jersey.

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These types of previews can’t end before a few predictions, can they? Both these divisions in the East are stacked with superstar forwards, brick-wall goaltenders and wired-up coaches. Three Original Six sides (Detroit, Boston and Montreal) are a healthy bet to take the top three spots in the Atlantic Division, with Toronto, Ottawa and Buffalo fighting for a wildcard behind. Pittsburgh, the Rangers and the Caps are my picks in the Metropolitan. New York Islanders and Philadelphia will push them hard and may sneak into the post-season by their points total.

Matt McGladrigan

@mattmcgladrigan

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