10 Things NHL Fans Have to Look Forward to in 2016
If you think of an NHL season like a fancy dinner party, we're getting to the good stuff now.
Preseason: That's when everyone gathers and enjoys a cocktail and some appies.
The first three months of the season? That's the equivalent of the soup and salad courses, when guests are flexing their conversational muscles and sizing up the food and service.
Now that the calendar has flipped to 2016, the main course is being served. The next three months represent the meatiest part of the regular season and are followed, of course, by the delicious Stanley Cup playoffs and the after-dinner summer treats of the draft and free agency.
Here's what's on the National Hockey League menu in 2016.
John Scott: NHL All Star
When: January 31
What's Happening: Part-time enforcer John Scott of the Arizona Coyotes has been chosen by fan vote to captain the Pacific Division for the NHL's new 3-on-3 All-Star Tournament. The event will take place this year in Nashville.
Why Fans Should Be Excited: In 285 career NHL games, 33-year-old Scott has scored five goals and added six assists. The 6'8", 260-pound pugilist is better known for his fists than his shot. He has appeared in just 11 games for the Arizona Coyotes this season.
Scott's inclusion in the All-Star festivities won't be much more than a novelty, but it should be interesting to see how the NHL rounds out the rosters on January 6, and how the players approach the potentially high-intensity action on the ice.
Fan-voted captains for the other three divisions are Alex Ovechkin (Metropolitan), Jaromir Jagr (Atlantic) and Patrick Kane (Central).
Current leading scorer Kane has no problem sharing the spotlight with Scott, who was a teammate with the Chicago Blackhawks for parts of two seasons. "Hopefully Johnny shows up," Kane told Chris Kuc of the Chicago Tribune. "I think it would be something that would be good for the game and bring some more excitement to that All-Star Game. Knowing the type of guy he is, hopefully he does it. It could be great for the sport."
Stadium Series Lands in Minneapolis and Denver
When: February 21 and February 27
What's Happening: The 2016 Winter Classic is in the books, but the NHL has two more outdoor games coming up, as part of the league's Stadium Series.
The Chicago Blackhawks will visit the Minnesota Wild on February 21 at TCF Bank Stadium on the campus of the University of Minnesota; then the Detroit Red Wings will take on the Colorado Avalanche on February 27 at Denver's Coors Field.
Why Fans Should Be Excited: Enthusiasm for an outdoor game should be high for the two Central Division teams, both first-time hosts. The Wild/Blackhawks clash will form the centerpiece of Hockey Day in America and, after the two teams have met in the playoffs for the last three seasons, represents a burgeoning rivalry.
The Avalanche and Red Wings will be renewing acquaintances after a series of heated playoff battles during the late '90s and early 2000s. The rivalry has cooled off since Detroit moved into the Eastern Conference, but strong emotions linger each time the two teams line up against each other.
Stars Returning from Injury
What's Happening: Injuries are a fact of life in the National Hockey League, and they'll continue throughout the second half of the season.
Still—a few teams are especially psyched as the return dates draw near for some key players.
Why Fans Should Be Excited: Montreal Canadiens fans, in particular, have been watching their team freefall down the standings while forward Brendan Gallagher and MVP goaltender Carey Price have been out of the lineup.
Gallagher made an immediate impact with a two-point performance in the Habs' 5-1 win at the Winter Classic on New Years' Day. Price's prognosis was a "minimum of six weeks" on the sidelines, per the Canadiens' Twitter feed, when he re-aggravated his lower-body injury in late November, so his return date could be just around the corner.
Elsewhere around the league, the Edmonton Oilers are close to getting rookie Connor McDavid back into the lineup after he suffered a broken clavicle in early November. Other key players who have been out for awhile but should be returning to their teams soon include Edmonton's Nail Yakupov, Jaden Schwartz of the St. Louis Blues, Brandon Sutter of the Vancouver Canucks and goaltender Robin Lehner of the Buffalo Sabres.
2016 NHL Trade Deadline
When: February 29
What's Happening: Player movement has been almost nonexistent in the NHL this season, so a flurry of activity is expected in February as the annual trade deadline draws near.
Why Fans Should Be Excited: Playoff-bound clubs are willing to pay high prices to acquire the elusive puzzle pieces that they hope will turn them into Stanley Cup contenders. Fans of lower-ranking teams salivate at the high prices they hope their teams will be able to extract as they sell off their assets.
The Arizona Coyotes did particularly well at the 2015 trade deadline, acquiring prospect Anthony Duclair and two high draft picks from the New York Rangers for franchise defenseman Keith Yandle, as well as defenseman Klas Dahlbeck and a first-rounder from the Chicago Blackhawks for Antoine Vermette and 19-year-old center Maxim Letunov from the St. Louis Blues for defenseman Zbynek Michalek.
Vermette became a key player in Chicago's Stanley Cup win last spring, but both he and Michalek proved to be true "rental players" when they re-signed with the Coyotes after reaching unrestricted free agency last summer, helping to kick off an unexpectedly quick bounce-back in the desert.
With many teams still on the playoff bubble, it remains to be seen how many clear-cut sellers will be willing to help shore up the contenders as this year's deadline draws near.
Playoff Race Will Run Down to the Wire
When: Right until April 9.
What's Happening: Parity has taken hold. Through the conclusion of games on January 2, 24 of the NHL's 30 teams are no more than four points out of a playoff position, while only six teams appear to be out of contention. The situation looks promising now but by season's end, one third the teams in that group of 24 will be on the sidelines, facing a long summer ahead.
Why Fans Should Be Excited: This year's playoff race could be one of the most exciting in years, especially in the Western Conference. In the underperforming Pacific Division, just five points separates six teams positioned from second to seventh. Since both Western wild card spots are almost certainly earmarked for Central Division teams, only two of those Pacific teams will likely squeak in.
The Washington Capitals' Metropolitan Division lead has now reached double digits but on the next tier, 10 teams are fighting it out for seven spots, with six points separating top from bottom.
Last season, recent Stanley Cup champions from Los Angeles and Boston were left on the outside when the playoff bracket was set. Once again, this year looks like it will be a fight to the finish.
Coach's Challenges Will Grow More Controversial
When: Until the moment the Stanley Cup is awarded
What's Happening: The hullabaloo surrounding the new Coach's Challenge has been reasonably quiet in recent weeks, but goals are still being challenged—and often overturned—with regularity.
Why Fans Should Be Excited: "Excited" might not be exactly the right word in this case. Maybe "newsworthy"?
I suspect Coach's Challenge calls will be getting a lot more coverage as games become more important down the stretch run and into the playoffs.
The NHL.com website includes a Situation Room Blog that lists the rationale behind every coach's challenge and video review. A quick skim gives us an idea of how dramatically one of these calls can potentially alter the outcome of a game and—come springtime—a playoff series.
I'm bracing for an eventual controversy the size of the Brett Hull "skate in the crease" incident from the Dallas Stars' 1999 Stanley Cup win as the Coach's Challenge and associated rulings take us to crazy new places when the stakes get high.
Chicago Blackhawks Will Defend Stanley Cup Title
When: Starting mid-April
What's Happening: Even though salary-cap limitations forced the Chicago Blackhawks to make major alterations to their Stanley Cup-winning roster, and offseason rape allegations against Patrick Kane created an enormous distraction, the champs look like they're in good position to try to become the first back-to-back Stanley Cup winners since the Detroit Red Wings turned the trick in 1997 and 1998.
Why Fans Should Be Excited: Kane has bounced back from his tumultuous offseason to lead the NHL scoring race, and the 'Hawks have done a good job of keeping pace with the strongest teams in the league through the first three months.
They may lead from wire to wire like they did in 2013, but the Blackhawks showed last year that as long as they make the playoffs, their experience, confidence and talent make them dangerous.
In a wide-open season, don't count out Chicago to win a fourth Stanley Cup in a seven-year span.
Auston Matthews Leads Candidates for No. 1 Pick in 2016 Draft
When: June 25
What's Happening: A product of the NHL's Sunbelt experiment, 18-year-old Auston Matthews of Scottsdale, Arizona, is poised to become the No. 1 pick at the NHL's 2016 entry draft in Buffalo.
Why Fans Should Be Excited: With a birthday that pushed him into the 2016 draft class by just two days, Matthews elected to spend his 2015-16 season playing in a men's league in Switzerland, where he has impressed with the Zurich Lions.
Under a much brighter spotlight, Matthews has been a standout for Team USA at the World Junior Championship. His hat trick in the 7-0 U.S. quarterfinal win over the Czech Republic gives him the tournament lead with seven goals.
Like Connor McDavid in 2015, Matthews is living up to his billing. He's a slam-dunk pick for whichever team is lucky enough to draw the magic ping-pong ball in this year's draft lottery.
Free-Agency Frenzy Will Intensify
When: From now until July 1
What's Happening: Under the cloud of a declining Canadian dollar and an uncertain salary-cap situation, NHL teams need to make big financial decisions about new contracts for their impending unrestricted (and, to a lesser extent, restricted) free agents.
Why Fans Should Be Excited: The shaky economic climate has left more big stars still unsigned going into their free-agency year than fans have seen in quite some time. Steven Stamkos leads the pack because he's a two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner. He's also a Toronto native who could be lured back to his hometown by a big-money deal, much like coach Mike Babcock was last summer.
Other game-changers who have not yet been signed to contract extensions by their current teams include Anze Kopitar and Milan Lucic of the Los Angeles Kings, captain David Backes of the St. Louis Blues and defensemen Dustin Byfuglien of the Winnipeg Jets, Keith Yandle of the New York Rangers and Alex Goligoski of the Dallas Stars.
World Cup of Hockey Returns to Toronto
When: September 17 - October 1
What's Happening: For the first time since 2004, the World Cup of Hockey will be contested in Toronto before the beginning of the 2016-17 NHL season.
Why Fans Should Be Excited: The World Cup has been contested just twice, with Team USA winning the inaugural tournament in 1996 and Canada taking home the trophy in 2004.
In addition to satisfying the thirst for international hockey that has been stoked since NHL players started competing in the Olympics, the tournament will feature an interesting new twist thanks to two all-star teams. "Team Europe" will feature the best players from outside the "Big 6" nations of Canada, the U.S., Russia, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic while "Team North America" will feature the best Canadian and American players under the age of 23.