After all the waiting through the summer and training camp, the 2013-14 NHL season is finally here. And while many fans are just happy to have meaningful hockey to watch, the first week of the season can actually be pivotal for certain teams and players.
If you get off to a good start, you're feeling good about your team. It's just the vibe, just a feeling. Any athlete will tell you, especially one in a team sport, that there's nothing like getting on the plane or bus after a victory. Taking that feeling early, knowing how you got that victory, makes all the difference in the world going forward.
Enjoying that feeling right out of the gate is important.
This holds especially true for the New York Rangers, who are going to play their first nine games on the road during the last stage of the renovation at Madison Square Garden. That's going to be a huge challenge, but it's possible for them to enjoy great success on that brutal trip. Just look at the Chicago Blackhawks last year.
Chicago started the 2012-13 season playing 10 of 12 on the road. As we all know, they got off to an incredible start to the season, including a 10-0-2 record in those games. You talk to anybody on the Blackhawks and they'll tell you that was the real test, when they had that monster road trip.
The Rangers will need a good start, especially with their coaching change, bringing in Alain Vigneault to replace John Tortorella. Last year, they underwhelmed based on expectations and their personnel. They want to give Rangers fans something to look forward to when they finally get back to the Garden.
I think the Columbus Blue Jackets will also benefit from a good start, especially their young D-man Ryan Murray and Boone Jenner up front. If those two get off to a good start, it's going to make their transition into the NHL easier. If the preseason is any indication, those two are going to be playing some big minutes as rookies.
I would also say the Vancouver Canucks need a hot start. Vancouver is an amazing hockey market. It's a passionate fan base, but there’s also an element there that is hypercritical. Now, there's a new coach in Tortorella, who swapped clubs with Vigneault, and Roberto Luongo is the main guy in net again. I think it's imperative to them, just knowing that market, to get off to a good start.
People have also been asking me a lot about which players are poised to have a big season. For those of you who have been asking, this one's for you.
I wouldn't be surprised to see James van Riemsdyk have a big season with the Toronto Maple Leafs. I just think it's all coming together for him right now. Having grown into his body and feeling comfortable playing in Toronto, he's a very talented guy who seems to have more acceleration now.
In Philly, there was always a want for him to play big, because he's a big man. I see a good example for van Riemsdyk in Blake Wheeler. It's the same thing. When Wheeler was in Boston, the expectation was he had to be a bruiser. He's not Milan Lucic. How many guys are Milan Lucic? Lucic is a limited commodity on the NHL landscape.
Yes, he may be big and strong, but in the case of van Riemsdyk, I look to him to play his own style of game.
There are some elements of Wheeler's game he can take, though. If I'm him, I'm watching tape of Wheeler right now, because Wheeler's game has really evolved under coach Claude Noel in the last two seasons. He's become a big-time player for the Winnipeg Jets.
Let's go to Montreal. I want to see what kind of season Carey Price is going to have this year. Price has all the tools, but he's now working with new goalie coach Stephane Waite, who won two Stanley Cup rings with the Chicago Blackhawks.
I believe Price is a five-tool goalie. He has everything you're looking for in net. He's big and strong, he can handle the puck, he's technical, he's talented and he's a workhorse. All those are reasons I want to see more from Price, because I think he's capable of winning a Vezina Trophy. But how he adapts to the new goalie coach is key.
The New York Rangers’ Benoit Allaire, who is one of the best goaltending coaches in the world, always compares bringing in a new goalie coach to hiring a swing coach in golf. If you look at Tiger Woods, who is arguably the best golfer of all time, you look at the changes he has made in his swing since he came on the tour. It's the same with goalies.
It is a big difference having a new goalie coach. Don't let anybody fool you. When people say, "Just get in there and stop the puck," I don't know what hockey they're watching, but it's not the NHL that I've been a part of for 20 years. If it was that simple, there wouldn't only be 60 guys in the world who are in the NHL playing net.
Sure, it's early, but don't believe anyone who says it's just the opening week of the season. They won't feel that way as their team gets closer to game No. 82.