NHL Week in Review (Off-Season Outlook)

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Another NHL season is in the books with the Pittsburgh Penguins sitting on top of the heap for another year.

When the Penguins drafted Sidney Crosby they expected this to be a common occurrence as the championships were supposed to come flowing.

They got their first in 2009 and the NHL was preparing for a long reign by the team with the best player in hockey.

It wasn’t the case though as the Pens quickly became a team that couldn’t win in the playoffs despite their talent.

It looked like another disappointment when the season started as they struggled to get going.

A coaching change turned the season around and the Penguins ran into the playoffs as the hottest team in the league.

They took that to the playoffs were they got through every round and held up their second Stanley Cup in the Crosby-Malkin era.

With the season over and the championship determined it is time for the annual scramble into the off-season as teams prepare for a new year.

In the NHL there is little time to really relax and reflect especially for the playoff times.

Only a week after the Stanley Cup ended with the Penguins holding the cup, a new set of great players are going to enter the league.hockey-sidebar

The NHL Draft always follows close behind the end of the NHL season giving fans and some of the teams that went deeper into the playoffs little time before they get back in action.

Of course, the front offices have been preparing for the Draft since the last draft ended as they all knew the names near the top of the list.

They have been evaluating all season long to see who might be the best fit to get them to where the Penguins are right now.

Not long after the draft the free agent market opens up as another major off-season period begins with some big names on the market.

It is another chance for teams to improve their team and to try to build something that can get them to the Cup next year.

As the bidding wars, rage on big names will be signed and smaller names will be signed with nobody really knowing what will happen after the signings.

This year will be a more interesting year as well with a somewhat shortened off-season as an international tournament returns in September.

The NHL as a league will watch the World Cup closely as they make some big decisions in the off-season that could change the league for a long time to come.

Meanwhile, teams have some tough decisions to make with expectations rising on many teams.

It will all start soon as the pursuit of the Stanley Cup officially begins again with the start of the off-season that includes plenty of stories to watch.

stamkos

Free Agency is always a favourite time for hockey fans who get to see their team take a shot at adding a big name. Obviously, not every team can add a big name and some may not add anyone at all depending on their current roster. There are plenty of ways to go about the free agency period and there is certainly no guarantee that winning free agency will win a Stanley Cup. Often in free agency the players available might add something to a team but are not going to be the franchise-changing type of player. Every now and then though one of those players enters the free agent market and the bidding war begins to try to get a new level of talent on their team. This year that is the case as one of the best players in the league will enter free agency and have plenty of teams to choose from. Steven Stamkos is coming off of his second NHL contract and he has left little doubt in the minds of many that he deserves to be paid alongside the top players in the NHL. He is one of the truly elite goal scorers in the game and as free agency approaches he seems more sure to walk away from Tampa Bay and enter free agency. It will be his first real experience in free agency and will likely take full advantage. He will wait for the contract offers and choose the teams he likes along with the money that he wants from any of those teams. The Lightning are still in the hunt and could re-sign him before he hits the market or after he hits the market. The challenge of re-signing him after July 1st will be that many other teams will open their wallets and pay him a lot of money. One of those teams might just be the one closest to his hometown in the Toronto Maple Leafs. There is clear interest in him and all of the rumours have linked the two, with Toronto not lacking in money to pay Stamkos. He will be the biggest name on the market and could take his time in making a decision. Regardless of where he goes, though, he will be the player to follow when free agency begins.

leafs-rebuild

The Toronto Maple Leafs are one of the biggest franchises in the NHL but this year they fell out of the top of Forbes’ annual franchise value rankings, a list they usually headlined as the league’s first $1 billion franchise. That reduced value is a direct result of the team struggling on the ice making the playoffs once in the last 11 years with that one time ending in an epic collapse against Boston. The Leafs have been one of the most watched teams and is certainly in the centre of hockey media bringing plenty of criticism. That pressure has also resulted in a need for the Leafs to try the quick rebuild rather than truly starting from scratch. That was until this past season when the Leafs traded away their top talent and made sweeping changes in the front office. It was the second year of the Brendan Shanahan era and he truly made an impact hiring Mike Babcock as the head coach and Lou Lamoriello as the general manager. They were two massive moves but only started what everyone had promised, a painful season. They didn’t win a lot of games and they had warned everyone that it was going to be the case as they finally embraced a rebuild. The fans did get some good news though as they got to see the wealth of young talent play fairly well at the end of the year. Meanwhile, first-round pick in the 2015 draft, Mitch Marner was lighting it up in the OHL providing more promise for the future of the team. This year the Leafs will sit in the first spot in the draft where they have the chance to take Auston Matthews, a player many consider to be a potential top NHL talent. The Leafs embraced the rebuild this year and as a result, the future is looking bright from one of the oldest NHL franchises. They won’t break their 48-year Stanley Cup drought this year, despite what some may expect, but this off-season will be important for getting closer. The draft and a potential free agent signing could make the next year a big one for the Leafs as eyes are on Shanahan and company to see if they can truly do what nobody as been able to do in 11 years.

vegas-team

Expansion has been a major issue throughout the year as fans and analysts alike have debated where the NHL should add a franchise. Both Quebec City and Las Vegas submitted proposals for a new franchise, they were the only two cities to do so, and the decision seems to have come down. As of the end of the season, it seems like the NHL has recommended that the league expand to “Sin City” and put a franchise in Las Vegas. For Quebec, the dream of expansion may seem to be over but it is not. There is a chance that one of the few franchises struggling could eventually move to Quebec City, possibly Arizona or Florida depending on how the next few seasons turn out. For now, the focus seems to be on Vegas as the Board of Governors has to approve the expansion to the new city before anything happens. It seems unlikely that they will vote against it and so the process will begin to become the first major league to move to Vegas unless the Oakland Raiders move there in the new NFL season. This off-season the process will be worked out as a team name will be voted on and the NHL will set up a clear set of rules for the expansion draft. The new Las Vegas team won’t play next year but the ground work will be laid for the new franchise throughout the off-season. It will be an exciting time as the NHL prepares to go to yet another market that looks like it could provide problems. There are plenty of positives for a new franchise but Vegas is not a hockey hotbed in the USA and moving a team there instead of a place like Quebec City could bring even more flack to a league that is already accused of avoiding Canada. With viewership dropping the USA the NHL will need to seriously give this new team every opportunity to win games and stay as a franchise. As more developments come through this off-season the debate will rage on with some seeing the move as a terrible one that is sure to fail and others see it as the NHL moving in to take a foothold before bigger leagues can. There are examples for both sides of the argument but for now just enjoy the off-season ride of this new franchise.

olympic-hockey

The NHL still has a lot of room to grow, especially in the USA, as they try to compete in an extremely tough North American sports world. One of the best ways they have had to sell their product is the Olympics where they allow their players to play for their country and earn a gold medal. The world is watching that hockey tournament and it has been considered one of the biggest accomplishments in hockey. Every year, though, that accomplishment seems to get further away from the players in the NHL. When the Olympics travelled to Vancouver there was no debate as the players were free to go play with their national team while staying close to home. When the Olympics went to Sochi it wasn’t as automatic with the game times far from ideal for North America. The debate went on for the four years between Winter Olympic Games as to whether or not the NHL players should be allowed to play. After all, it took two weeks out of the NHL schedule and gave the league nothing in return as they simply took a break and watched the Olympics. Eventually, they decided to allow the players to go mainly due to the love of hockey in the country and the demands from some NHL Russian players. Since the end of the Sochi Olympics, the debate has returned with much less motivation to go to the games. In 2018 the Winter Olympics will be in Pyeongchang, South Korea while the Olympics refuse to pay for insurance or travel and will not allow highlights to be used by the NHL. The time zone is awful and the country is not one where hockey is popular not to mention the potential costs. There is little aside from the fans that give the NHL any reason to allow their players to leave for the Olympics. The decision seems to be close, as the NHL, IIHF, and IOC have been talking more in the past few months about the decision. Eventually, the NHL will announce their decision and, either teams will begin wondering how to fill their rosters for the best chance or how to cut NHL players to get to the proper roster number.

world-cup

With the decision looming for the Olympics the NHL has already enacted their backup plan and this off-season it will be a major point to watch. The NHL brought back the World Cup of Hockey and the first year will be in 2016. Before the NHL season starts the best players will descend on Toronto for the third ever World Cup of Hockey. The World Cup did not last long in its first iteration with only two tournaments in the series. The league decided to bring it back for 2016 with a constant demand to see NHL players in international competition. There is always a demand to see the best players compete against each other in a tournament where international bragging rights are on the line. The problem is that the World Championship is in the middle of the NHL playoffs, meaning most of the best players are unavailable, and the Olympics are becoming harder and harder to justify. If the Olympics are not a possibility in 2018 the World Cup may be the only time that NHL fans get to see the best players in the NHL compete for their countries. The NHL is hoping that this time around the tournament has a lot more success and with a big build-up throughout the last season it might just do that. There is sure to be plenty of talk as September approaches and teams assemble in Toronto. Some of the talk will be the excitement of having another international tournament with the best players in the world. Others will wonder why there is a Team North America that has taken away the best young talent from the USA and Canada. The same could be said for Team Europe where European countries outside of the top teams will be represented. Overall though it is an experiment for the league and for international hockey. More than that it could be a testing ground for the league who will already test out jersey ads in the tournament to see if they will be good for the NHL. The talk will continue and the excitement will build as the end of the off-season will be highlighted by the return of the World Cup of Hockey.

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