With the commencement of the 2013 National Hockey League season just around the corner, management, coaches and players are pushing the envelope to ensure that their squads hit the ground running. Unlike every NHL season, it is important for teams to have a good start but needless to say, it is essential that teams succeed early in this year’s significantly shortened season.

The ability to have a quick start will place some Eastern Conference teams in playoff contention quickly, while others will quickly sink to the bottom of the standings if they are sluggish out of the gate. Today, the Netminders looks at projected winners, losers, and run-of-the-mill NHL clubs for 2013.

 

WIN: New York Rangers

While there may be an amount of bias in choosing the Rangers as a sure winner in 2013, (I’ve been a Rangers fan for almost 30 years) a look at their situation over the past number of seasons shows how New York will benefit from the NHL lockout and how the Blue Shirts may be an Eastern Conference force early on in 2013.

Since the 08/09 season, the Rangers have performed better in the first half of the season three out of four times (in 2009 the team performed better in the second half). In 08/09, for example, the squad earned points in twenty-six of their thirty-nine games (67%) from October through December, but their production diminished to only twenty-six points in the last forty-three games (60%) from January onward.

Similarly, last season, the Rangers posted points in 75% of their games through the first 36 games of the season. While the team continued to succeed in what was an excellent season for the club, their percentage dipped to 67% in the second half of the season.

Traditionally, the Rangers start off strong and fade in the second half of the season. While any team can attribute this to injuries, fatigue or morale, the New York Rangers consistently follow this trend to a larger degree than many Eastern Conference teams. If the Blue Shirts can start strong as they have done in the past, they will be sure to make a deep playoff run for a second straight season.

Also take into consideration injuries that have plagued the club over the past several months, projecting the absence of some key pieces in the Rangers lineup if the season had started as scheduled in October. Marian Gaborik, for instance, posted 33 of his 76 points in 2011/12 between October and January and during his three-season tenure with New York, exactly half of his points have been registered in the first three months of play.

The shoulder injury that was sustained in the first round of the 2012 playoffs had Gaborik sidelined until at least January, 2013, meaning that the Rangers would have done without the point-per-game player, and certainly would have fallen behind in the standings. The lockout, then, gave Gaborik the time to heal properly without hurting the Rangers chances at the post-season.

The Rangers have one of the most complete rosters since winning the Stanley Cup in 1994. Henrik Lundqvist is coming off a Vezina Trophy winning season and backup Martin Biron is among the best relief goaltenders in the league. The Acquisition of Rick Nash to accompany Gaborik and Brad Richards is essential to the team taking the next step, with many players providing secondary firepower and support to make a deep playoff run.

 

LOSE: Winnipeg Jets

Again, starting strong is the key to success for any NHL franchise in the short 2013 season, but no Eastern conference team will feel the pressure more than the Winnipeg Jets. With Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations taking up the bulk of the day to day NHL operations since the end of last season, league realignment has taken a back seat, and the jets again find themselves playing in the South East Division.

The Jets, who finished 11th in the Eastern Conference last season, have their work cut out for them in 2013. The biggest disadvantage the Manitoba squad has in front of them is the amount of travel that will be required for a North West Division team (geographically) to play in the South East Division.

Dirk Hoag, of ontheforecheck.com (@forechecker on twitter) has logged the travel miles as the crow files for each of the 30 NHL teams, and while Winnipeg does not log the most miles, they are far and away the most-travelled team in the East. Hoag calculates that the Jets will be flying (pardon the pun) approximately 27,430 miles over the course of the season, far surpassing teams such as the Rangers with just over 12,000 miles and the New Jersey Devils with 11,660 miles.

The Jets travel time also surpasses inter-division rivals Washington (17,763), Carolina (19,912), Tampa Bay (20,592), and Florida (25,059).

Jets’ coaches also indicated recently that conditioning is of major concern for them heading into the mid-point of an incredibly hurried training camp. "There's a certain conditioning level we're trying to get to as a group and we don't know how long that's going to take,” Coach Claude Noel recently told Kristi Hennessy of Jets Journal. “Will it be three games, five games, eight games or 12 games into the season? Our goal is to try to get us all at the same level at some point so we can all function better, I think we're going to be all over the map there,” he added.

No one said it was going to be easy to being hockey back to Winnipeg, and until the NHL can realign the league in a way that pleases everyone, the Jets will continue to struggle. Their youth, however, will serve them well in the coming years, making for an exciting squad regardless of the division or conference in which they play.

 

DRAW: Montreal Canadiens

Despite the uncertainty of having a new General Manager in Marc Bergevin and the second tenure of Michel Therrien (who hasn’t coached in the NHL since 2009), the Canadiens have reason to be positive about the upcoming season.  Bergevin has been a workhorse in bringing talent to the Habs lineup as well as shedding some of the team’s nasty contracts that would only hold the team back.

Most notably is Bergevin’s decision to give underachieving forward Scott Gomez his walking papers. While you can’t help but feel bad for a player who has turned up for training camp only to be shown the door, the reality is that Gomez was handed buckets of money (by Glen Sather in New York) and failed to live up to expectations in two of the league’s biggest markets. Gomez could have survived the chopping block had his contract been more realistic, but the Canadiens organization simply had to turn the page and look to their future prospects for success.

For the time being, “les Habitants” will be forced to eat the $7.26 million ($7.35 mil - $900,000) cap hit, but coach Therrien can opt for a cheaper, younger, more productive prospect in Gomez’ absence.

The options for Therrien are seemingly endless with budding superstar forwards Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher vying for a spot on the roster and gritty newcomer Brandon Prust hoping to make an impression in La Belle Province. In addition, the Canadiens’ defensive core looks to have a bright future with Josh Georges locked up until 2018 with a cap hit of only $3.9 million and PK Subban sure to sign a contract extension. The Habs also have an impressive pool of defensive prospects such as Morgan Ellis, Nathan Beaulieu, and Darren Dietz to shore up the defensive line in seasons to come.

While the Canadiens are certainly not a lock for success in 2013, look for the team to make improvements in all areas. The Habs will no doubt have some work to do, but they have improved the roster, coaching staff and management in a short period of time and are looking to get back to their tradition of success.