Faced with an NHL regular season 34 games shorter than the usual 82 after a rushed six days of training camp, the obvious consensus is the team with the most battle-ready players has the best chance of success.
But battle-ready means more than having the most players who spent the 113-day lockout skating in Europe or Russia or the minor leagues. It means having to make much fewer personnel changes than anyone else and having a coaching staff and its systems already entrenched, keeping everyone on the same page.
“Playoffs are going to be won or lost by teams that are ready to go right at the start and teams that jell the quickest,” said Toronto Maple Leafs winger Joffrey Lupul, whose team is not exactly in that comfort zone. (The Leafs are still trying to grasp the “200-foot game” preached by head coach Randy Carlyle, who arrived with 18 games left in the 2011-12 season.)
With only 48 games to decide which 16 of 30 teams make the postseason, streaks – both winning and losing – will be magnified. A slow start because you added two new forwards to your top six and they didn’t mesh immediately, or a five-game losing skid because your most important players are just not in game shape, will be deadly.
“I think the team that is prepared to play strictly to their style, to their complete game,” Carlyle said, when asked what kind of team will have the advantage.
We give you, then, the Boston Bruins.
They have exactly two vacancies on their roster – hot-shot rookie defenceman Dougie Hamilton is pencilled in for one, while the job on the third line is there to lose for Chris Bourque (son of Bruins legend Ray Bourque) – and a total of three personnel changes.
The third change is definitely a positive. Fourth-year goaltender Tuukka Rask, who has already proved he can play (and play well)in the NHL and spent the recent lockout in the Czech Republic, takes over for perennial dressing-room disruption Tim Thomas.
Bruins head coach Claude Julien is entering his sixth season, and his defensive-slanted system is well-established.
Even better, the Bruins had 10 players active in other leagues during the lockout, the most in the NHL.
Modern players are always in good physical shape, but there is still a difference between practice condition and game condition. This is not a question so much of age, either, but of hitting that slightly higher fitness level through high-level competition.
“I think it’s certainly beneficial,” Bruins president Cam Neely told The Boston Globe. “Any time you can play hockey games and be in as close to game shape as possible, it’s an advantage. So it’s pretty simple.
“Now having said that, that doesn’t mean that other teams won’t get ramped up quick. But I think it’s certainly beneficial to us to have so many guys as we did playing hockey.”
Using the same theory, one team to watch is the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.
They may not have had as many players active during the lockout but they are a young team with few personnel changes. They were quick studies when coach Darryl Sutter arrived with his system that blends defence and skill, and won a championship six months later.
There are injury questions around forward Anze Kopitar (knee) and goaltender Jonathan Quick, who had off-season back surgery to repair a herniated disc. But there is no reason to believe Quick will not continue his rise to superstardom and while Kopitar’s absence is a blow, there is enough talent on the roster to compensate.
If you like the theory that young legs can be a wild card in a 48-game season, then take the Colorado Avalanche as a dark horse.
Thanks to youngsters such as Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog, the Avs drew a lot of attention in the final half of last season. If goaltender Semyon Varlamov can finally develop some consistency, they could be a playoff force.
Well, there is saying certain teams have an edge and there is doing, Caryle adds.
“On the outside, you would say the percentages give them something in their favour, but you have to go out and earn it,” the Leafs coach said. “It’s like every year. We have predictions for teams who are going to finish from first to 30th.
“How many of those predictions come true?”