Biggest Storylines of the 2015-16 NHL Season as the Playoff Push Begins
The 2015-16 NHL regular-season schedule is now in its final weeks. As teams make their final push for playoff positioning, there will be several storylines worth watching.
From the Washington Capitals and goaltender Braden Holtby (pictured above) chasing history, to the race for the scoring title and bubble teams battling for postseason berths, there's plenty to keep NHL fans riveted.
The following slideshow examines the biggest storylines of this NHL season as the playoff push begins. As always, let us know what you think in the comments section below.
10. Jonathan Drouin's Future with the Tampa Bay Lightning
It's been a difficult season for Tampa Bay Lightning sophomore left wing Jonathan Drouin. Demoted to the AHL's Syracuse Crunch in January, the 20-year-old was suspended for refusing to report to a Crunch game on Jan. 20. He spent the next several weeks at home, awaiting a trade by the Lightning.
When a deal didn't materialize by the Feb. 29 NHL trade deadline, Drouin requested permission to return to Syracuse. The Lightning accepted the request and lifted his suspension. On March 8, NHL.com's Lindsay Kramer reported the winger declined to discuss his future with the Lightning.
Drouin's AHL performance could bolster his offseason trade value. If he plays well enough with the Crunch, the Lightning could recall him for the playoffs. Whatever happens, Drouin's future should remain a hot topic of speculation over the rest of the regular season.
9. Race to the Bottom
Several NHL clubs are jockeying for playoff home-ice advantage, while others are battling to keep their postseason hopes alive. However, a different race is going on that involves the league's worst clubs. It could determine which team wins the 2016 NHL draft lottery.
In the past, the team with the fewest points was guaranteed no worse than the second overall pick in the draft lottery. This year, however, three lottery draws will determine which clubs get the first, second and third overall selections. As with last year's lottery, the team with the fewest points has a 20 percent chance of securing the first overall pick.
Despite the changes, the lower a team finishes in the standings, the better its chances of winning the lottery are. The Toronto Maple Leafs (pictured above) are currently last in the overall standings. However, a fading club like the Winnipeg Jets, Edmonton Oilers or Calgary Flames could dislodge the Leafs from that spot.
8. No Canada?
If the regular season ended today, there wouldn't be any Canadian teams in the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs. The last time that happened was back in 1970. With less than one month remaining in the schedule, the chances for a Canadian team to qualify appear slim.
In the Eastern Conference, the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators are six points out of a wild-card berth. In the Western Conference, the Vancouver Canucks are 10 points out and fading. Meanwhile, the Calgary Flames (61 points), Edmonton Oilers (61), Winnipeg Jets (59) and Toronto Maple Leafs (55) are all but certain to miss the cut.
It's possible the Canadiens, Senators or Canucks could stage a late rally and squeak into the playoffs. However, their lack of talent means they're incapable of ending Canada's 23-year Stanley Cup drought.
7. Panthers and Lightning Are Playoff-Bound
For the first time in 20 years, the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning are poised to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs together. As per ESPN.com, they would square off in the opening round if the playoffs were held today. It would mark the first time they have faced each other in postseason competition.
Led by superstar center Steven Stamkos, the Lightning reached the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. They have the depth in talent to stage another lengthy playoff run. However, the Panthers lead the regular-season series 3-1-0. They also have several veterans (like goalie Roberto Luongo and right wing Jaromir Jagr) with considerable postseason experience.
In-state rivalries (Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Islanders and New York Rangers) have provided some of the most intense playoff action in NHL history. A clash between the Panthers and Lightning has the potential to be just as exciting. It could also boost the sport's popularity in Florida.
6. Patrick Kane Pursues His First Scoring Title
Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane already has several NHL awards in his trophy case. He's played on three Stanley Cup champions with the Blackhawks, won the Calder Memorial Trophy in 2008 and the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2013. This season, the 27-year-old is poised to win his first Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's leading scorer.
As of March 11, Kane has a career-best 89 points in 69 games. That's well ahead of Dallas Stars left wing (and last season's Art Ross winner) Jamie Benn (75 points), Benn's teammate Tyler Seguin and Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson (both with 70 points) in the scoring race.
Barring injury or a significant scoring slump, Kane should easily win the scoring title. At his current pace, he could be the only player this season to reach the 100-point mark. Considering the ongoing decline in scoring in recent years, that will be a notable accomplishment.
5. Battle of California
Last season, the Anaheim Ducks were the only California NHL club to reach the postseason. This year, all three will be in playoff action. The Ducks, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks hold the top three spots in the Pacific Division standings.
The rivalry among the NHL's California teams has provided intense playoff entertainment. In 2014, the Kings rallied from a 3-0 series deficit to upset the Sharks in seven games. In the following round, they eliminated the Ducks in a tough seven-game series.
The remaining regular-season games between the California rivals should provide a tantalizing preview of their potential playoff series. As per ESPN.com, the Ducks and Sharks would square off in the opening round if the playoffs started today. The Kings, meanwhile, would tangle with the Nashville Predators.
4. Connor McDavid's Surge in the Rookie Scoring Race
When Edmonton Oilers rookie center Connor McDavid was sidelined for three months by a broken clavicle, his chances of winning the Calder Memorial Trophy appeared to be dashed. Since his return on Feb. 2, however, the young Oiler is surging among rookie scorers.
McDavid won't catch Chicago Blackhawks left wing Artemi Panarin for the rookie scoring lead. But with 35 points in 33 games, he is within striking distance of Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel (48 points), Arizona Coyotes left wing Max Domi (44) and Detroit Red Wings center Dylan Larkin (40).
If McDavid maintains his current pace, he could finish second or third among rookie scorers. That performance over a shortened period could put him back into Calder Trophy contention.
3. Battle of the Playoff Bubble Teams
While some NHL clubs are playing to secure home-ice advantage in the playoffs, those on the postseason bubble are battling to remain in contention. That includes clubs clinging to wild-card berths and those nipping at their heels in the standings.
In the Eastern Conference, only eight points separate the seventh-place Pittsburgh Penguins from the 13th-place Ottawa Senators, with the Detroit Red Wings, Philadelphia Flyers, Carolina Hurricanes, New Jersey Devils and Montreal Canadiens in between them. It's a smaller group in the Western Conference, as the Colorado Avalanche try to fend off the Minnesota Wild for the final wild-card spot.
Most of these clubs will fall by the wayside in the coming weeks, but a handful could remain in contention right down to the wire. It could take the final games of the regular season to determine which bubble teams eventually secure a spot in the 2016 postseason.
2. Which Trade-Deadline Deals Panned Out?
The NHL's annual trade deadline, and the days leading up to it, is a time when playoff-bound clubs hope to bolster their depth for a potential run at the Stanley Cup. This year was no different.
One of the notable deals was the defending Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks acquiring left wing Andrew Ladd from the Winnipeg Jets. Others included the New York Rangers dealing for center Eric Staal from the Carolina Hurricanes and the Colorado Avalanche adding left wing Mikkel Boedker from the Arizona Coyotes.
On paper, these deals look like winners. However, time will tell if these moves pan out. How much these players contribute to the performance of their respective teams over the remainder of this season will determine if the trades were worthwhile.
1. The Capitals and Braden Holtby Chase History
It's been a tremendous regular season for the Washington Capitals and their starting goaltender Braden Holtby. The Capitals are dominating the standings and should easily win the Presidents' Trophy. Holtby, meanwhile, leads all goalies in wins and should be a candidate for the Vezina Trophy.
On March 8, Sportsnet's Sean McIndoe noted the Capitals and Holtby are also chasing NHL history. With 49 victories in 67 games, the Capitals need 11 more to become only the third team in NHL history to reach 60 wins in a season.
Holtby, meanwhile, needs only nine more victories to break the single-season wins record for goaltenders (48), currently held by future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur. Of the two, Holtby's pursuit of Brodeur's record seems the most attainable.
Stats and standings (as of March 11) via NHL.com.