Crowning the Kings: 2013-14 Season in Review

So the 2013-14 National Hockey League season has come to an end. I know it is a little cliché, but it seems like just yesterday training camp was opening for last year. With only about two and a half months until next season’s training camp and then the pre-season right around the corner, I feel now would be a great time to take a step back and kind of reflect on the 2013-14 season a little bit.

On the Devils front, one of the biggest surprises this season for the team (and the entire league, at that) was Jaromir Jagr, without a doubt. Jagr had a comeback season to say the least, finishing up with a team leading 82 games played, 24 goals and 43 assists for 67 points and a plus-16. His 43 helpers and 67 points also led the team, as did his plus/minus rating. The Devils wasted no time in resigning him once the season was over and Devils fans can look forward to another season of the hockey legend’s brilliance at The Rock in 2014-15.

Another revelation for the Devils was goaltender Cory Schneider; acquired at the Draft last year from Vancouver, Schneider looked to breakout for New Jersey. In the end, he finished with a less-than-stellar 16-15-12 record, which was more indicative of the play in front of him, as the team struggled early on giving him goal support. What was more showing of his play was his .921 save percentage and his 1.97 goals against average. Martin Brodeur, in what might have been his final season in a Devils uniform, finished with a 19-14-6 record and a .901 save percentage with a 2.51 goals against average. Brodeur’s future remains up in the air and fans will find out more come July 1, the first day of free agency. Brodeur has not, as of this time, announced if he will retire or will play another NHL season. If he does play, it will likely not be in New Jersey, as Schneider is ready to assume the mantle of full-time number one for the Devils.

The Devils were a strange animal in 2013-14, as, in all reality, the only thing keeping them out of a playoff spot were their shootout losses. Like penalty shots, shootouts cannot really be practiced. The shooter can study a goalie’s tendencies, as can a goalie study what a shooter is going to do. But sometimes teams will throw something completely new at a goalie (like the Islanders not-quite-within-the-rules back-to-back spin-o-ramas against Marty Brodeur) and it can throw them totally off of their game plan. I am sure the Devils themselves, as professional athletes, would not use or take any excuses in regards to their shootout futility, but bad luck certainly played a role here. Prior to this season, the Devils had been very successful in shootouts. This 180-degree turnaround could only be attributed to the fact that the team desperately needs a goal-scorer to replace Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk. Hopefully that change comes this July when free agency opens.

For most NHL analysts, the Western Conference looked to be where the eventual Stanley Cup champions would emerge from. Sure the East had some mighty challengers in the Pittsburgh Penguins (who ended up running away with the newly-christened Metropolitan Division, of which the Devils are a member) and the Boston Bruins. But most experts seemed to be looking at perennial favorites like the Blackhawks, the Ducks, the Blues, the Sharks, or even the guys who would end up winning, the Kings as the team that would hoist the Cup come June.

What was a surprise come playoff time was the team that would challenge the West for the Stanley Cup. While some may have seen the Kings as a bit of an underdog (and they were not entirely wrong: they defeated San Jose in the first round after being down 3 games to none, beat Anaheim in the second round when they were down 3 games to two, and won the Conference championship from Chicago after being up 3 games to 1, blowing that and winning in overtime of game 7). The Kings may have had a tough road to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they would face the New York Rangers (who overcame the Flyers, Penguins and Canadiens on their journey to the Finals).

While it pains many Devils fans to say it, the Rangers did have a successful playoff. Overcoming Pittsburgh is especially no small feat. Henrik Lundqvist essentially carried the team on his back at times, mirroring the way Jonathan Quick brought the Kings to a Stanley Cup in 2012 (the year the Devils made their Cinderella run to the Cup Finals). Of course, Quick was no slouch this year either and ended up leading the Kings over “the King” in a five game Stanley Cup Final. The Cup-clinching game five itself was compelling hockey and really showcased the two goaltenders abilities. Going two overtimes and ending on Alec Martinez’ corralling of a Tyler Toffoli rebound off of Lundqvist’s blocker, that game was some of the best hockey ever seen in the Finals. The Kings kept things tight-checking, but there were still some amazing chances, most notably Rick Nash of the Rangers hitting the crossbar, a chance that could have sent the series back to Madison Square Garden in the first overtime. In the end, though, it was the Kings who reigned supreme. Justin Williams won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and, when Dustin Brown hoisted the Stanley Cup for LA for the second time in three years, it confirmed what many Devils fans knew in 2012: this team is good.

There is no doubt in many observers’ minds that the Kings will be an elite team for many years to come. That is not to downplay what the Rangers accomplished, as the Devils accomplishment from 2012 (which was a very similar run) should not be derided. The fact is, the Kings are for real and are worthy to be mentioned along with teams like Chicago, Anaheim and Boston when discussing some of the best in the NHL. They are good from their goaltending out and, from a Devils fan’s point of view, recall a lot about the 2000 and 2003 Stanley Cup champs. Congratulations to the Los Angeles Kings on winning the Stanley Cup. Congratulations to everyone from their players to their front office to their fans. These are great times for them, but they will likely be continuing for some time to come.

NHL Competition Committee Rule Change: Some Thoughts

On June 9, the NHL Competition Committee – a coalition of players and executives charged with tweaking rules and thereby (hopefully) making the game better. Players on the committee are Mike Cammalleri of the Calgary Flames, Daniel Winnik of the Anaheim Ducks, the St. Louis Blues’ Kevin Shattenkirk, Carolina Hurricanes’ Ron Hainsey and Devils goaltender Cory Schneider. Executives include Flyers’ chairman Ed Snider and four general managers: the Phoenix Coyotes’ Don Maloney, David Poile of the Nashville Predators, Ken Holland from the Detroit Red Wings and the Boston Bruins’ Peter Chiarelli. The changes recommended by the Competition Committee are passed on to the NHL Board of Governors and the NHLPA’s Executive Board for approval and would go into effect for the 2014-15 season.

While the Committee did recommend changes that were, in some cases, long overdue; one change that was not included has surprised some people. That change was to video replay expansion (especially topical in light of the Los Angeles Kings’ Dwight King’s goal late in game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final against Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist). This expansion would allow video review on potential goaltender interference plays that result in goals. On King’s goal in the third period of game 2, referee Dan O’Halloran’s initial call on the ice was that it was a good goal. Lundqvist argued that he had been interfered with, but O’Halloran’s call stood due to lack of video review on these types of plays. That goal made the game 4-3, with L.A. eventually tying it. The Kings would win in the second overtime. Schneider mentioned to Dan Rosen of NHL.com exactly why making changes here would be a problem:

“I think [NHL Commissioner] Gary [Bettman] said it best in the meeting when he said, ‘Once we go to video review there’s an expectation that we’re going to get these calls right all the time,’” Schneider said. “You can have two reasonable people sitting in a room watching the same video and have two very different opinions on that video. It becomes, like Gary said, very complex. The feeling is right now we’re not at the point where we could get a meaningful video review that would have a 100 percent outcome.”

NHL Senior Executive President of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell said after this meeting that the matter would be further discussed that Wednesday during the NHL general manager meetings. He said that another idea could include a coach’s challenge (similar to that used in football and baseball).

Other ideas coming out of the Competition Committee’s meeting (these will actually be under review to be adopted) include: changing ends in overtime – this move would allow the overtime period to mimic the long-change second period (where team benches are farther from their defending zone necessitating more strategic line changes). This would also affect overtime because, historically, according to Rosen at NHL.com, there have been more goals scored each season in the second period due to  “defensive breakdowns and difficulty getting tired players off the ice because of the distance they need to travel to make a line change on the fly.” Another change to overtime would be arena ice crews being required to do a dry ice scrape prior to overtime instead of just prior to a shootout as is done now.

Another move with more offense in mind is moving the hash marks on the outside of the faceoff circles from 3 ½ feet to 5 feet apart. Schneider told Rosen and NHL.com that it would give forwards more time and room to make plays after they win a faceoff in the defensive zone. It would also cut down on the amount of scrums on a faceoff. Currently, the International Ice Hockey Federation uses 5 feet between the hash marks; however the IIHF generally uses a larger ice surface than the NHL for international tournaments.

One of the more interesting rule change recommendations to come out of these meetings is allowing only one player to be eligible to take a faceoff on an icing call. This player would be allowed one faceoff violation but, instead of being chased out of the faceoff circle, a second violation would result in a two-minute bench minor penalty for delay of game. This penalty is already on the books (Rule 76.6), but the Competition Committee is recommending that it be enforced to keep a winger from trying to create a faceoff violation to give the center an extra ten seconds of rest, thus delaying the game an extra few seconds.

A change to the “Brodeur Rule” would also look to create more offense during the course of a game. The trapezoid behind the goal cage, meant to keep puck-playing goalies like Martin Brodeur from having too much room to move the puck. The trapezoid is currently 18 feet along the goal line and would be increased to 22 feet. The dimensions along the end boards would remain at 28 feet. An extra two feet would allow the goalies to act, not necessarily as a third defenseman helping to create breakouts (as Brodeur was often lauded as during his heyday pre-trapezoid), but to give their defensemen a little more help.

A crackdown on embellishment is the Competition Committee’s final recommendation.

As a fan, I understand and appreciate that these changes are trying to create more offense in a game some feel might be lacking in that particular area. However, I feel too often the NHL is actively trying to go back to the free-wheeling, firewagon days of the 1980s. That era happened organically when players like Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux took the game by storm and changed its essence. They were so much better than the rest of their competition that they (and their teams) were able to put up the gaudy numbers that they did. The rest of the league followed suit and defense went by the wayside. I feel that the NHL has found its balance; this is how the game has been played throughout the majority of its history. In other words, the decade from the early 80s to the early 90s was an aberration. Hockey is a defensive based game (the phrase “offense wins games, defense wins championships” comes to mind) and, while I definitely agree with a lot of the changes the Competition Committee wants to implement, I cannot help but feel that some of it is just a half way attempt to bring more offense (and, thus, hook the “casual fans” who like the ESPN-like highlights and do not appreciate the finer points of a defensive duel) to the game and really, fix what is not broken.