Realignment and the Olympic break made for some challenges with the 2013-14 NHL schedule that was released Friday.
There are four divisions instead of six, complete with new names and a different balance of games, and time off from Feb. 9-26 to let players go to Sochi, Russia, for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
“We wanted to make the schedule as normal as it could be,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said on Sirius XM NHL Network Radio. “With 17 days in the middle ... that’s sometimes tough to do.”
The season begins with the Montreal Canadiens hosting the Toronto Maple Leafs Oct. 1. Later that night the Chicago Blackhawks raise their Stanley Cup champions banner against the Washington Capitals, and the Winnipeg Jets visit the Edmonton Oilers.
It marks the first time since 2008 that the defending champion will open the regular season against a team out of its conference. The Detroit Red Wings raised their banner that year against the Maple Leafs.
The Calgary Flames open Oct. 3 at the Capitals, the Vancouver Canucks Oct. 3 at the San Jose Sharks and the Ottawa Senators Oct. 4 at the Buffalo Sabres.
Vancouver at San Jose and Ottawa at Buffalo are division-rivalry games within the NHL’s new alignment that includes the Metropolitan, Atlantic, Central and Pacific Divisions. The Eastern Conference has 16 teams and the West 14, leading to some imbalance in how the schedule is put together.
The Metropolitan is made up of the Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Atlantic has the Maple Leafs, Canadiens, Senators, Sabres, Red Wings, Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Central has the Jets, Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues.
The Pacific has the Canucks, Flames, Oilers, Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, Phoenix Coyotes and Anaheim Ducks.
Daly said much debate went into naming the divisions, including consultation with teams. Penguins captain Sidney Crosby learned about the Metropolitan Division moniker on a conference call with reporters Friday.
“I don’t know what to think,” Crosby said. “I like the Atlantic, I’m from Atlantic Canada. It kind of had a good feel to it, but I can deal with Metropolitan Division. It’s going to take some time to get used to, but I can live with that.”
Players will also have to live with some more back-to-back games because the Olympic break compacts the schedule.
“You find out pretty quickly that an Olympic-year schedule is a little more condensed and a little more intense than a typical year,” Crosby said. “You have to take advantage of your days off because it is condensed.”
Daly called it a “fairly normal schedule with fairly normal density.” But another challenge exists for those going to Sochi, where Crosby said “every game is like a Game 7.”
“Then obviously coming back from that, too, you basically go from being at that level of intensity to regular-season games,” he said. “Regular-season games are always easy to get up for, but there’s definitely a period of time where you come back and you’ve played those intense games, you’ve got to find a way to keep going and maintain that same level through the rest of the season and hopefully the playoffs.”
Former Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson will make his return to Ottawa on Dec. 1 when the Red Wings visit the renamed Canadian Tire Centre.
As previously announced, the Maple Leafs and Red Wings will play the Winter Classic Jan. 1 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. Four other outdoor games will take place as part of the NHL’s Stadium Series. And the Heritage Classic returns, as Vancouver hosts Ottawa at B.C Place on March 2.
The regular season concludes Sunday, April 13. The playoffs begin Wednesday, April 16.