NHL PREVIEW: Blackhawks changes, parity make for unpredictable season

No one thought the Boston Bruins and Los Angeles Kings, the defending Presidents’ Trophy and Stanley Cup winners, would miss the playoffs last season. Certainly not the Bruins and Kings themselves.

Few expected the Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames to make the playoffs or the Ottawa Senators to make a late-season run to get in. Yet this is the topsy-turvy world the NHL has become.

“It’s very humbling,” Bruins captain Zdeno Chara said. “That’s what makes this league so unique and such a very competitive league knowing that the year before you could be in the semis, you could be in finals of Stanley Cup and then all of a sudden you are battling for a playoff spot the next season.”

The same is true this NHL season in what could be the most unpredictable in 10 years. Just like 2005-06 there are rules that can change the game and enough roster turnover to make the playoff race and Cup contention wide open.

The defending Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks have the Patrick Kane situation hanging over them and lost several key contributors as part of another salary-cap crunch. The Eastern Conference-champion Tampa Bay Lightning look formidable with all their stars back, but with captain Steven Stamkos unsigned beyond this season, there’s a substantial unknown.

Throw in that seven of the 16 playoff teams in 2014-15 didn’t make it the previous year, then strap in because anything can happen before the playoffs even start.

“That’s the beauty of our sport, really,” Stamkos said. “You throw Boston and L.A. into the playoff picture, some people might pick them to win it just because they’re playoff style teams. It’s pretty crazy when you think of it like that.”

Crazy is just how the NHL likes it. Commissioner Gary Bettman rolled off the stats in recent years and said, “Isn’t that awesome?”

“This is what we envisioned,” Bettman said. “You’re seeing suspense, excitement, unpredictability. That’s what’s making it entertaining.”

As Kings centre Anze Kopitar pointed out, the regular season “can get quite long.” The 82-game marathon often looks pointless in light of the playoff sprint, but Los Angeles and Boston learned all too much that it matters.

The Blackhawks, who have won the Cup three times in six years, have figured out how to navigate the regular season and still peak in the playoffs. Los Angeles, which won in 2012 and 2014, is now without defenceman Slava Voynov, winger Justin Williams and others, with big Milan Lucic among those replacing them as the Kings try to follow the Blackhawks’ lead.

“Obviously that’s a fine, fine line and it’s very hard to do,” Kopitar said “Even pacing yourself sometimes is not very good because when the playoffs roll around, you can’t pace yourself there. It’s a fine line, and you just have to balance it as best as you can, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Things worked for the Flames and Jets last season when they got to the playoffs ahead of schedule. That also gives the Connor McDavid-led Edmonton Oilers hope that the same can happen to end their post-season drought.

Said centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins: “You see it all the time where teams don’t expect to make the playoffs or don’t even expect to be close and it just happens, whether it’s just the team dynamic, the guys in the room or different things just come together at the right time.”

Edmonton is still a long shot to get to the playoffs, especially in a brutal West that includes no fewer than five legitimate Cup contenders in the Blackhawks, Kings, Anaheim Ducks, St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild. In the East, the Lightning will be challenged by the New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens, Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins.

Pittsburgh added Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs to play with either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.

“Hopefully they can’t figure it out, either,” Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. “If they do, then we’re all in trouble. But that’s an overdose of skill there.”

Chicago lost a lot of skill by trading Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp and losing Johnny Oduya in free agency. Toews said “we’ve been through worse,” and the influx of young players like Artemi Panarin and Viktor Tikhonov gives reason to believe the Blackhawks can rebound quickly.

“We could surprise a lot of teams this year with some of our speed that we’ve acquired and got into our lineup,” Conn Smythe Trophy-winning defenceman Duncan Keith said. “You never know.”

“You never know” might as well be the slogan for the 2015-16 season.

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Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press

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