The Top NHL Storylines to Follow in 2016

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistDecember 29, 2015

The Top NHL Storylines to Follow in 2016

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    Gary Wiepert/Associated Press

    Several storylines will be worth following in the NHL when the calendar flips to 2016. Similar to the scoring race involving stars like Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane, some storylines will take place during this season.

    Other storylines, like the NHL draft, free agency and expansion, will take place in the offseason. Some could also have an effect upon next season.

    Here's a look at the notable storylines worth following in 2016. As always, feel free to voice your opinion in the comment section below.

NHL Expansion

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    NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman
    NHL Commissioner Gary BettmanJohn Locher/Associated Press/Associated Press

    Through most of 2015, the NHL evaluated bids for expansion franchises from prospective owners in Las Vegas and Quebec City. It was anticipated the league board of governors would stage an expansion vote during their early December meetings. On Nov. 9, however, NHL.com's Dan Rosen reported than an expansion vote wouldn't be part of the agenda.

    While the league remains coy on expansion, the issue hasn't been ruled out. Rosen noted that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has said any new teams won't begin playing until 2017-18 at the earliest. He also cited Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly suggesting it still remains possible.

    The league is keeping mum as to when an expansion vote could take place. If the intent is to add new franchises by 2017-18, the vote must take place in 2016. That will provide sufficient time to determine the rules of an expansion draft, as well as allow the new teams to prepare for their debut seasons.

2016 NHL Draft

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    Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

    The NHL draft always draws considerable interest among hockey followers. For many, it provides the first glimpse of the top prospects who could go on to NHL stardom.

    Each draft produces at least one heavily hyped youngster touted as a future superstar. This year, it's 18-year-old American center Auston Matthews whom is predicted to be the top prospect in 2016. He was named Most Valuable Player of the International Ice Hockey Federation World U18 Championship, leading the United States to a gold medal. Matthews will be considered a foundation player for a rebuilding NHL team.

    Selection for the first-overall pick will be determined via lottery in April. That event will also attract plenty of attention. Since 2010, the Edmonton Oilers have won the lottery four times. Depending on their performance this season, the Oilers could find the 2016 NHL draft lottery odds working in their favor.

Evander Kane Investigation

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    Jen Fuller/Getty Images

    On Dec. 27, The Buffalo News reported Buffalo Sabres left wing Evander Kane was the subject of a sex offense investigation by Buffalo police. The alleged incident reportedly took place in a Buffalo hotel.

    Kane hasn't been charged with a crime. On Dec. 28, he denied the allegation during a brief scrum with reporters. Both the Sabres and the league claim they're monitoring the situation but have no further comment. The 24-year-old left wing currently isn't under team or league suspension.

    Last summer, Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane (no relation) was also the subject of a sex offense investigation. Though it was eventually dropped due to lack of evidence, Sports Illustrated's Allan Muir noted the Blackhawks star's presumed guilt or innocence was a hot topic of conjecture. Muir called for patience in Evander Kane's case, but it remains to be seen if his advice is heeded.

Struggling Ducks and Penguins

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    The Anaheim Ducks and Pittsburgh Penguins entered this season with high hopes. A number of hockey experts picked the Ducks to win the Stanley Cup. The Penguins' offseason acquisition of right wing Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs was expected to significantly boost their offense and improve their Cup aspirations.

    Approaching 2016, however, both clubs are sitting outside the playoff picture in their respective conferences. A lack of offensive production is the main factor behind their current woes. As of Dec. 28, the Ducks were the league's lowest-scoring team, while the Penguins were third worst.

    The Penguins made a coaching change on Dec. 12 but have little to show for it. Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau could be fired if his club's fortunes fail to improve. Significant roster changes could also be in store for both clubs in 2016, especially if they miss the playoffs.

Capitals and Stars on the Rise

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    The final days of 2015 see the Dallas Stars and Washington Capitals as the NHL's best clubs. As of Dec. 28, the Stars sit atop the Western Conference and the league standings. The Eastern Conference-leading Capitals are right behind the Stars in the overall standings.

    Led by superstar forward Jamie Benn and center Tyler Seguin, the Stars are the NHL's highest-scoring club. The Capitals also possess high-scoring talent in Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, but thanks in part to goaltender Braden Holtby, they're also among the league's top defensive clubs.

    Both clubs have the potential to dominate their respective conferences over the remainder of 2015-16. They could become this season's Stanley Cup finalists.

NHL Scoring Race

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    Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane
    Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick KaneTom Brenner/Getty Images

    The NHL scoring race never fails to generate interest among NHL followers. This season's race features the 2015 scoring champion jockeying with several stars seeking their Art Ross Trophy.

    As of Dec. 28, Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane has dominated the race for most of this season. However, Dallas Stars forward Jamie Benn (last season's Art Ross Trophy winner) and center Tyler Seguin are currently right behind him. Edmonton Oilers left wing Taylor Hall and Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson are also within striking distance of the scoring lead.

    Last season, Benn became the first player since 2003-04 to win the Art Ross Trophy without reaching 100 points. Benn, Seguin and Kane are currently on pace to exceed 100 points.

Candidates for the NHL Awards

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    Joel Auerbach/Associated Press

    The NHL Awards are handed out every June in Las Vegas. While a lot of hockey remains to be played in this season, several possible candidates for the notable individual trophies are beginning to emerge.

    Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane and Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn are among the early favorites for the Hart Memorial Trophy. Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby looks like the leader for the Vezina Trophy. Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson could be in line to win his third James Norris Memorial Trophy.

    The race for the Calder Memorial Trophy could be a close one. Chicago Blackhawks left wing Artemi Panarin, Arizona Coyotes left wing Max Domi, Detroit Red Wings center Dylan Larkin and Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel are currently the leading rookie scorers.

Salary Cap for 2016-17

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    On Dec. 7, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman projected the salary cap for 2016-17 could rise approximately $3 million over the current ceiling of $71.4 million. That was welcome news for teams like the Chicago Blackhawks that have limited salary-cap room for next season.

    However, a steady decline in the value of the Canadian dollar resulted in Bettman's projections failing to hit their marks over the last two years. A predicted increase to $71 million for 2014-15 eventually came in at $69 million. The projected $73 million for this season also fell short.

    Unless the Canadian dollar improves over the course of this season, Bettman's recent cap-ceiling prediction will miss the mark again. That will have a significant effect upon salary-cap payrolls for 2016-17. It will also affect activity in next summer's trade and free-agent markets.

NHL Trade Deadline

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    Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien (center)
    Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien (center)Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    The NHL's annual trade deadline is always a period of considerable player movement between teams. It shouldn't be any different for this season's Feb. 29 deadline.

    A number of quality players could be on the move by that date. That's because there's a higher than usual number of stars eligible next summer for unrestricted free agency, like Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien and left wing Andrew Ladd.

    If those potential free agents aren't re-signed before this season's trade deadline, some of them could be dealt. Who gets traded and where they're dealt could affect the shape of the playoff race, perhaps even determining this season's Stanley Cup champion.

NHL Free Agency

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    Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos
    Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven StamkosClaus Andersen/Getty Images

    The NHL's annual free-agent period, which commences on July 1, is among the most anticipated dates on the calendar for hockey fans. Most of the best free-agent talent is usually on the move on that date, signing with new clubs for sometimes very expensive contracts.

    In recent years, there has been a lack of depth in the free-agent pool. 2016, however, should be different. A number of stars, including Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos, Carolina Hurricanes forward Eric Staal, Los Angeles Kings left wing Milan Lucic and Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien could be available.

    It's possible most, perhaps all, of the aforementioned players could re-sign with their current teams. Given the depth of potential talent in the 2016 market, a number of notable stars will remain for clubs to pursue.

    Player and team stats via NHL.com. Salary info via General Fanager.

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