The Top NHL Storylines to Follow Coming Out of the All-Star Break
The NHL's annual All-Star Weekend is in the books. Now, it's time to get down to business—the stretch run of the last 10 weeks of the regular season and the Stanley Cup playoff race.
The All-Star Game generated more talking points than usual, highlighted by the unlikely zero-to-hero odyssey of MVP John Scott. The weekend was fascinating but ultimately; it was a lot of hype surrounding an exhibition game. On Tuesday, teams around the league will get back to serious business.
Here are the topics that will dominate the hockey headlines as the 2015-16 NHL season hits the home stretch.
What's Next for John Scott?
A fringe player throughout his eight-year NHL career, big John Scott won the hearts of hockey fans after being selected to the Pacific Division All-Star team through a public-voting process.
Though he was traded to the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 15 and subsequently demoted to the AHL, per Luke Fox of Sportsnet, Scott showed up in Nashville and made the most of his time in the spotlight. All weekend, he displayed his smart-but-humble personality, and on the ice on Sunday, he scored two goals as captain of the winning Pacific Division team and was named the game's most valuable player.
Scott played well enough that he may have earned himself a call-up by the reeling Canadiens, who are looking to reverse a long losing skid. Advertisers should also be beating down his agent's door to sign him to endorsement deals—he's the everyman who, for one weekend, became a superhero.
Books? Movies? Broadcasting? At this moment, the sky's the limit. Not only did 33-year-old Scott get a nice boost to his income by earning a share of the tournament's $1 million grand prize, but the supplemental opportunities that may come to him off All-Star Weekend could set him up for the rest of his life.
Can the Montreal Canadiens Stop Their Slide?
Canadian hockey fans may not have a horse to bet on in this year's playoffs.
At the All-Star break, all seven of Canada's NHL teams were sitting outside the playoff picture—none more surprisingly than the Montreal Canadiens, who opened the 2015-16 season with a 9-0 record.
Since December 1, the Canadiens have gone a dismal 5-18-1 as they've waited for MVP goaltender Carey Price to return from his lower-body injury. Montreal now sits three points out of an Eastern Conference wild- card spot.
Price's return date remains uncertain. It's looking more and more like the Habs will need to make a bold move before he comes back if they hope to give him a chance to show his stuff in this year's playoffs.
How Long Is Dennis Wideman's Suspension?
The Calgary Flames are another Canadian team that has failed to live up to expectations this season.
Goaltending has been an issue as they've struggled to keep the puck out of the net, but Calgary's highly touted defense has also underperformed.
It's now unclear how long the Flames will be without one of their blue-line stalwarts, Dennis Wideman, after he was suspended indefinitely pending a Feb. 2 hearing, per CBC Sports, when he hit a linesman from behind during Calgary's last game before the All-Star break.
The Flames are currently eight points out of a Pacific Division playoff spot. It's probably too late to make a push for the postseason, but the team does need to decide whether to re-sign impending free agent Kris Russell or try to move him at the trade deadline.
If Wideman is lost to suspension for any period of time, it will become much tougher for general manager Brad Treliving to part with Russell, who is currently one of the team's regular top-four blueliners.
How Will the Playoff Races Shake Out?
Coming out of the All-Star break, the NHL playoff picture remains very murky.
In the Eastern Conference, 13 of 16 teams are no more than five points away from a postseason berth. The race is even tighter out West, with 11 of 14 teams no more than two points outside the playoff picture.
With more divisional and conference play down the stretch, it won't take much to shuffle the standings—and the Arizona Coyotes and Carolina Hurricanes are challenging to claim playoff spots that more successful teams may think are rightfully theirs.
There's no getting around the fact 14 teams miss the playoffs every year—and right now only three teams in each conference look like their situations are hopeless.
Eight more clubs will join them on the sidelines in April—sending their players to the annual IIHF World Championships and crossing their fingers for good news from the restructured draft lottery.
This year's race looks like it's going right down to the wire in both conferences.
Which Teams Will Make Big Moves at the Trade Deadline?
The Feb. 29 trade deadline is now just four weeks away, so the pressure is on for general managers to determine whether they'll be buyers or sellers—then to make their best deals accordingly.
As Rob Longley of the Toronto Sun explains, the Toronto Maple Leafs have made it abundantly clear they're ready to deal. Impending free agent James Reimer could help shore up the net for a team in need but not many of the Leafs' other players have done enough this year to show that they'd be helpful on a playoff contender.
The Winnipeg Jets could also put Andrew Ladd or Dustin Byfuglien on the market before they reach free agency on July 1. Beyond that, it's almost anybody's guess.
Bubble teams like the Vancouver Canucks and Carolina Hurricanes may decide to keep their impending free agents around for a playoff push. The Anaheim Ducks could make a bold move in an attempt to reset their chemistry and complete a late-season surge up the standings. The Pittsburgh Penguins continue to tinker—and those are just a few teams whose game plans remain a mystery with less than a month to go until deadline day.
One team that will definitely remain under close scrutiny is the Tampa Bay Lightning. Prospect Jonathan Drouin has taken himself out of action as he awaits a trade, and the future of captain Steven Stamkos is uncertain as the clock ticks ever closer to his moment of unrestricted free agency on July 1.
The Lightning have worked their way back into a playoff spot with an 8-2-0 record in the last 10 games. Steve Yzerman may choose to roll the dice with the cards he has, though he's not afraid of making bold moves. Yzerman earned the top headlines at the 2014 trade deadline when he shipped disgruntled veteran Martin St. Louis to the New York Rangers.
Will the Edmonton Oilers Win Yet Another Draft Lottery?
The Edmonton Oilers made plenty of changes to their front office and their roster during the summer of 2015, but they head into the back half of the current season in a familiar place—fighting it out for last place in the NHL standings.
Edmonton can't seem to find a way to win hockey games, but the team has outstanding luck when it comes to the draft lottery, having secured four first overall picks in the last six years.
This year's lottery will be a little different than past seasons—putting the first three picks up for grabs for all non-playoff teams. If Edmonton finishes among the bottom three or four teams in the league at the end of the season, I'll be expecting that they'll once again pull the winning ping-pong ball. This year, that would allow them to make Auston Matthews their fifth first overall pick in seven seasons.
Can Patrick Kane Cap Off a Tumultuous Year with an Art Ross Trophy?
Coming into the 2015-16 season, we already knew that Patrick Kane was a highly skilled player on a very good hockey team. This year, we're seeing Kane take charge of the Chicago Blackhawks and set them up for a chance at a fourth Stanley Cup in seven seasons—most likely also picking up some individual hardware along the way.
So far in his career, Kane's individual awards have been limited to the 2008 Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year and the 2013 Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Not bad, especially for a 27-year-old, but perhaps small potatoes compared to the list of accolades he'll accrue by the time his career is finished.
Heading out of the All-Star break, Kane is the prohibitive favourite for the 2016 Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's leading scorer. His 73 points in 53 games already tie the second-highest total of his career. He's also now 15 points ahead of second-place Jamie Benn, who won the Art Ross with 87 points in 2015.
If Kane stays healthy, he should easily log his first career 100-point season this year. His 30 goals so far also tie his career high and lead the league, which means he'll have a chance at the Rocket Richard Trophy—not to mention the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player.
Whatever may or may not have happened during that night at his home in Buffalo last summer, Kane has done an impressive job of putting his head down and playing his best hockey as his legal troubles unfolded around him.
Which Rookie Takes Home the Calder Trophy?
How do you like your rookies?
If you like them fully formed, your vote for the 2016 Calder Trophy probably goes to Artemi Panarin—the 24-year-old Russian who leads all first-year NHL players with 46 points for the Chicago Blackhawks.
If you like them highly touted, you might put your support behind Edmonton's Connor McDavid, who showed great stuff before being knocked out of action with an injury in early November, or the Buffalo Sabres' Jack Eichel, who has picked up 22 of his 34 points in December and January as he establishes himself as a go-to leader on his team.
John Gibson is turning around the Anaheim Ducks with great goaltending. Shayne Gostisbehere is a difference-maker on the blue line for the Philadelphia Flyers.
For my money, Dylan Larkin is the best of the best in an impressive rookie class so far this season. Just 19, Larkin made the Detroit Red Wings re-think their commitment to patient development when he made the big club right out of his first pro training camp. Larkin not only leads his team with 15 goals, but he's also first overall in the entire NHL in plus-minus, at plus-24.
At the All-Star Game, Larkin showed off his great wheels when he broke Mike Gartner's 20-year-old record as the fastest skater, per Shawn Roarke of NHL.com. He's a package of skill, smarts and potential that allows him to play well above his chronological age and is showing all the signs of becoming Detroit's next-great superstar.
How Will the World Cup of Hockey Rosters Shake Out?
The NHL's third edition of the World Cup of Hockey doesn't happen until September, but the promotional push has already begun.
Tickets for the games in Toronto are now on sale, and the eight participating teams will be required to announce their preliminary 16-player rosters on March 2, according to Pierre LeBrun of ESPN.
With Carey Price still out of action, expect to hear Braden Holtby's name called as a top choice for Team Canada. The debates over inclusions and omissions should run high until the teams announce their final seven players on June 1.
All stats courtesy of NHL.com and current through Sunday, Jan. 31.
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