Burning Questions for the NHL in 2017

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistDecember 27, 2016

Burning Questions for the NHL in 2017

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    After a three-day holiday break, the National Hockey League returns to action on December 27.

    The new year's just around the corner, and there's plenty to look forward to. The celebration of the league's 100th anniversary will kick off with the Centennial Classic on January 1 in Toronto, followed by the Winter Classic on January 2 in St. Louis and All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles at the end of the month.

    After that, it's the trade deadline at the end of February and the buildup to the most wonderful time of the year—the playoffs, where the Pittsburgh Penguins will attempt to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.

    Here's a guide to the big NHL stories to watch as the calendar flips to 2017.

Can the Columbus Blue Jackets Continue Their Winning Ways?

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    Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

    The Columbus Blue Jackets are storming toward 2017 on a 12-game winning streak that has catapulted them into first place overall in the NHL standings.

    It's an astonishing turnaround for a club that finished 27th at the end of last season after starting 0-8-0. One year ago, Columbus went into the holiday break with a 13-20-3 record, good for just 29 points. This year, they're 23-5-4, good for 50 points in just 32 games.

    The Blue Jackets' success starts with their power play, which leads the league with a 26.3 percent success rate. At the other end of the ice, 2012-13 Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky is enjoying a bounce-back season—leading all goaltenders with 21 wins off a .935 save percentage and 1.87 goals-against average—both better numbers than his Vezina year.

    Columbus is currently second both in goals scored and goals against per game. A tight salary-cap situation limited the Blue Jackets' offseason moves last summer, but high-priced veterans like Brandon Saad, Nick Foligno and Scott Hartnell are playing well enough to deliver good value for the dollar.

    They've been supported up front by Cam Atkinson, who leads the team with 35 points, talented young center Alexander Wennberg and bargain-basement signing Sam Gagner, who has delivered 14 goals in 32 games on a contract that's paying him just $625,000. With more than half a season still to play, the sixth overall draft pick from 2007 is now just five goals away from the highest-scoring year of his career.

    On the blue line, Seth Jones has been everything the Jackets hoped he'd be when they acquired him from the Nashville Predators a little less than a year ago. Another star defenseman has also emerged for Columbus, in the form of 19-year-old rookie sensation Zach Werenski.

    The Blue Jackets are a well-balanced team, winning games with style thanks to oodles of confidence. If they stay healthy, they should make the playoffs for just the third time in franchise history—and could even win a series for the first time.

Will the Metropolitan Division Remain the Class of the NHL?

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Heading into the holiday break, five of the NHL's top eight teams all hail from the same division—the Metropolitan.

    Columbus' charge up the league standings is all that much more impressive when you consider the simultaneous success of its division rivals. While the Blue Jackets reeled off their 12 straight wins, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals have gone 7-1-2 in their last 10 games, and the Philadelphia Flyers are 7-2-1 after recently concluding a 10-game winning streak of their own. The New York Rangers have cooled off lately but still sit just three points behind Columbus in third place. 

    Right now, it looks very likely that the surging Metro teams will grab both Eastern Conference wild-card playoff spots, which will leave eight Atlantic Division teams fighting for just three postseason places.

    Even the sixth-place Carolina Hurricanes are 6-2-2 in their last 10 games—and are tied with the Atlantic's fourth-place Tampa Bay Lightning with 37 points.

    At the bottom of the Metro standings, the New Jersey Devils were the last team in the league to lose a game at home in regulation but are now 2-7-1 in their last 10 games—the only team in the division that's currently struggling. Even the New York Islanders, who have spent the year floundering near the bottom of the league, have managed a respectable 4-4-2 record in their last 10 games.

    A fierce second-half battle for position is unfolding at the top end of the division. There's a good chance that the team that wins the Metropolitan this year will also be named Presidents' Trophy recipient as the best regular-season team in the NHL.

Can the Penguins Repeat as Stanley Cup Champions?

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    Since the NHL introduced its salary cap at the beginning of the 2005-06 season, no team has repeated as Stanley Cup champion.

    The last team to win consecutive Cups was the talent-rich Detroit Red Wings coached by the legendary Scotty Bowman, in 1997 and 1998.

    Since the advent of the salary cap, 15 of the NHL's 30 teams have reached the Stanley Cup Final, but only two have done it in back-to-back seasons. The Red Wings beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008, then lost to the same Penguins in 2009.

    In the ensuing years, the Penguins dealt with their share of adversity, but coach Mike Sullivan helped them tap into their full potential on their run to the 2016 Stanley Cup. Now, they have a chance not just to repeat as finalists, but to prove that it is possible to win back-to-back NHL championships in the salary-cap era.

    Coming out of the holiday break, the Penguins rank second overall in the NHL with a record of 22-8-5 for 49 points. They lead the league with 121 goals, 24 of which have come from individual goal-scoring leader Sidney Crosby.

    True to their history, the Penguins are scoring their way to wins. And much like in last season's playoffs, Mike Sullivan is avoiding the urge to lean too heavily on his stars—distributing ice time generously across all forward lines.

    They won't be flying under the radar this year, but if their key players can stay healthy, the Penguins should have a legitimate opportunity to take another good run at the Stanley Cup next spring.

Will We See More Coaching Changes?

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    Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

    At this time last year, two NHL coaches had already lost their jobs. Todd Richards was replaced by John Tortorella in Columbus on October 21, 2015, and Tortorella's former assistant, Mike Sullivan, took over from Mike Johnston in Pittsburgh on December 12.

    After Christmas, Mike Yeo also got the axe with the Minnesota Wild on February 13, 2016, replaced on an interim basis by John Torchetti before Bruce Boudreau took over during the offseason.

    So far in 2016-17, the only coaching ouster of the year was the surprise dismissal of 2015-16 Jack Adams Award finalist Gerard Gallant from behind the bench of the Florida Panthers. Though the Panthers weren't matching their impressive 103-point pace of last season, they had been beset with injuries this year and were a respectable 11-10-1 when Gallant was relieved of his duties November 27, per NHL.com.

    According to the old cliche, coaches are hired to be fired, but there was virtually no speculation about Gallant's potential dismissal before the axe dropped. Other coaches whose jobs could be in jeopardy after the holiday break concludes include Willie Desjardins of the Vancouver Canucks (28th place overall), Jack Capuano with the New York Islanders (26th place), Paul Maurice of the Winnipeg Jets (23rd place) and Peter Laviolette of the underperforming Nashville Predators (21st place).

    With more than half a season still to be played, a bold move to change a coach can pay immediate dividends—look no further than the 2016 Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins as evidence. Odds are, there will be more movement in the NHL coaching ranks before the year is out.

Will NHL Players Go to the 2018 Olympics?

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    On December 17, Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet reported that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL Players' Association executive director Donald Fehr had planned a pre-Christmas meeting to discuss whether or not a plan can be forged to get NHL players to the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, according to Andrew Bottomley of Sportsnet.

    "I think we are going to see the next phase of where this goes," said Friedman. "We know the deadline is sometime by the end of January. One thing I've always believed in: deadlines spur action. We've got a month, let's see what they can do."

    Bettman has taken a hard-line stance against having NHL players participate in their sixth Winter Olympics. It remains to be seen whether he's conducting an extra-tough negotiation or if he's really willing to remove his players from the bright Olympic spotlight.

    Owners don't like the condensed NHL schedule that comes from shutting down the league for three weeks in February. The league doesn't like the tough terms and conditions imposed by the International Olympic Committee. That's one of the reasons why the NHL's own World Cup of Hockey was resurrected last September.

    As Friedman says, the final negotiations will likely go down to the wire. By the All-Star Break, we should finally know whether or not we'll see NHL players playing for their countries in PyeongChang in 2018.

Which Underperforming Stars Will Turn Their Seasons Around?

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    A quick peek back at the final stats and award nominees from the 2015-16 season offers up the names of some top players who haven't performed up to their usual standards through the first three months of the new season.

    • Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars won the Art Ross Trophy in 2014-15 and finished second last season, so his nine goals and 29 points in 41 games are well below his typical level of production. The Stars are criticized most roundly for their goaltending and their defense, but last season's highest-scoring team has dropped to 19th offensively this season.

      Is Benn still not 100 percent after offseason core muscle surgery?

    • John Tavares of the New York Islanders was a Hart Trophy finalist in 2014-15 and led the New York Islanders to their first playoff-series win in more than two decades last season, but life on the ice in Brooklyn is a mess in 2016-17.

      The Islanders let key free agents Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen pack their bags, and Andrew Ladd has proven to be a poor replacement with just eight points in 33 games. Tavares seems to be buckling without Okposo by his side—he's on pace for about 25 goals and 60 points this season, which is in line with his numbers from his rookie year as an 19-year-old back in 2009-10. The Islanders are wasting Tavares, now 26, in what should be the prime of his career.

    • Ben Bishop of the Tampa Bay Lightning has a reputation for struggling with injuries, but his performance this season had been noticeably subpar long before the Lightning placed him on injured reserve with a lower-body issue just before Christmas. 

      So far this season, Bishop's record is 9-10-2 with a .907 save percentage and 2.79 goals-against average—numbers that more closely resemble his time with the Ottawa Senators than anything he has done with the Lightning since arriving in Tampa Bay.

      If Bishop has been playing hurt, perhaps the injury layoff will allow him to come back at 100 percent for the stretch run and into the playoffs. As an impending unrestricted free agent, the clock is ticking on a possible trade-deadline deal—and on a juicy new contract for the 30-year-old.

Will Connor McDavid Win the Scoring Title?

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    In just his second NHL season, Connor McDavid got off to a fast start with the Edmonton Oilers. He posted six points in his first two games to take an early lead in the NHL scoring race and has stayed ahead of the pack ever since.

    McDavid's still on top at the Christmas break, with 42 points in 36 games. But he's getting chased down by some formidable foes. Evgeni Malkin, who led the NHL in scoring with 113 points in 2008-09, is just three points back. One point further behind, we've got sniper Vladimir Tarasenko of the St. Louis Blues and a two-time Art Ross winner, Sidney Crosby.

    Crosby's position is even more impressive when we factor in those six games he missed due to a concussion at the beginning of the season. He returned to action playing just as well as he did during the Stanley Cup playoffs and the World Cup of Hockey, and currently leads the NHL in goals (24) and points per game (1.31).

    McDavid is a tremendous talent, but with just two goals and 11 points in 12 December games, his scoring pace has started to slow. It'll be a tough task for him to hold off Crosby and company at the top of the Art Ross race all the way through the end of the season.

Will Alex Ovechkin Win His 7th Rocket Richard Trophy?

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    It's almost a foregone conclusion that Alex Ovechkin will make his annual trek to Las Vegas in June to pick up the Rocket Richard Trophy—which might end up being called the Alex Ovechkin Trophy by the time he's finished playing.

    According to Hockey Reference, Maurice "Rocket" Richard led the NHL in goals five times during his 18-year career. Ovechkin has already accomplished the feat six times—and he's in just his 12th NHL season.

    These days, it's not unusual to see Ovechkin lurking back in the goal-scoring race. The last couple of years, he has heated up noticeably after New Year's. Ovechkin scored 29 of his 50 goals between January and April last season and a torrid 35 of 53 in 2014-15.

    Coming out of the holiday break, Ovechkin's tied for ninth in league scoring with 15 goals, nine behind leader Sidney Crosby. That's a little low, even for him, but history suggests that we shouldn't count him out for Rocket Richard win No. 7. 

Which Impending Free Agents Will Move by the Trade Deadline?

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    The NHL trade deadline is always an intriguing period. Contending teams try to shore up their rosters to make a run at the Stanley Cup while the also-rans aim to build for the future by collecting draft picks and prospects in exchange for established stars who might be moving on at season's end.

    This year's trade deadline falls on February 28, 2017. When many teams are bunched closely together in the standings, it's not always easy to determine which teams should be buyers and which should be sellers. This year, June's impending expansion draft to stock the new Vegas Golden Knights team will add another wrinkle as teams worry about having enough room on their protected lists to make sure they don't lose important players off their rosters.

    That shouldn't stop some key unrestricted free agents from finding new homes. Right now, the biggest-name players on non-playoff teams whose current contracts will leave them free and clear on July 1 include goaltender Ryan Miller of the Vancouver Canucks, forwards Patrick Sharp of the Dallas Stars, Jarome Iginla of the Colorado Avalanche and Radim Vrbata of the Arizona Coyotes, and defensemen Dmitry Kulikov of the Buffalo Sabres, Dennis Seidenberg of the New York Islanders and Kyle Quincey of the New Jersey Devils.

    Expect to see the usual bidding wars on these players. It'll be interesting to see if some other big names come on the market because teams realize they won't have a spot for them on their protected lists at the expansion draft.

Which Players Will the Vegas Golden Knights Select in the Expansion Draft?

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Many moving parts are still in play before the new Las Vegas expansion franchise will get the chance to stock its roster with one player from every NHL franchise next June, just before the regular annual entry draft.

    Compared to past expansion franchises, the Vegas Golden Knights will have some advantages. Coming into the league on their own, they won't have to worry about strategizing against another franchise. Also, the NHL has gone out of its way to limit teams' protected lists. That should provide a half-decent player pool from which general manager George McPhee and his associates can make their selections.

    TSN's Frank Seravalli presented a mock draft by his colleague Craig Button in November that features Pittsburgh Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury as its biggest star, as well as a number of promising young forwards and a steady-if-unspectacular defense crew.

    But every mock draft includes so many suppositions—not only that key players will stay where they are on team rosters, but also that those teams won't move heaven and earth in an attempt to protect the players they prize.

    As one example, would the Anaheim Ducks really choose to protect only eight players in order to shield four defensemen—even if it meant losing talented forward Jakob Silfverberg? Similarly, would the Nashville Predators risk exposing blue-chip defenseman Ryan Ellis for the sake of protecting seven forwards?

    Virtually every team has a dilemma it'll be trying to work through before the expansion draft takes place. The situation will start to shake down at the trade deadline, but expect plenty of wheeling and dealing in that brief window between the end of the playoffs and draft weekend. It's the price the owners have to pay for their shares of that juicy $500 million expansion fee.

    All stats courtesy of NHL.com. Contract information from CapFriendly.