2016-17 NHL Preview: 5 Stories to Watch

hockeyThe National Hockey League has been the outsider from the start of their time in the sports landscape.

In their 99th season, the league is preparing to celebrate 100 years in the sports world when the calendar switches to 2017.

It will be a year-long celebration of how far the league has come, and they have come a long way.

Still despite the fact that they have been a league that continues to grow year after year they have not been able to break through as a serious league in the eyes of many.

They are still a league with the best talent in the world paying massive amounts of money to great players for the highest level of hockey in the world.

There truly is no competitor with the NHL much like there is no competition when it comes to the NFL, NBA, and MLB.

The NHL is the ultimate in hockey but for a lot of people they are further down on the totem pole of sports leagues.

The problem has never been where the game began as the origins in Canada have made it the biggest sport in the country.

There is not much that challenges in the NHL in Canada as it is the only league with more than one team throughout the country and those fans will always be loyal to their teams no matter how long droughts last or how bad a team is as they are truly hockey fans.

The same can be said for much of the northern USA as they are just as crazy about hockey as their neighbours to the north.

Teams like the Rangers, Bruins, Red Wings, Blackhawks, and Wild are some of the most popular teams in the league thanks to the tradition in all of those areas of great hockey.

Where the league struggles is everywhere else in the USA as they are far outdone by the likes of the NFL and MLB.

Hockey is not a traditional sport in most of the USA and the NHL has been fighting the battle to be big in these areas for the better part of a few decades.

They have consistently struggled to find that stronghold they want in these areas despite the many efforts to grow the sport throughout the country.

There have been successes as California continues to develop into a serious hockey state with the popularity of the Kings and the Sharks.

Still, there are plenty of other places that continue to struggle including Arizona where the Coyotes are still without a permanent long-term home.hockey-sidebar

The NHL has been around for almost 100 years and yet they haven’t been able to solve the mystery of the USA.

The game is fast and physical with amazing skill and yet it doesn’t seem to fit into the major sports in the USA.

The best players are here and there are more teams in the USA covering more areas than in Canada but still teams struggle to find fans.

The league has seen increased interest in the playoffs which has become a great section of the season as sports fans south of the border realise how great the game can be.

The environment has improved, especially over the last ten years, but there is a lot of work to go in the next few years.

The NHL will begin that work with a celebration of the past as they look to the future of the game.

A new season is here and although part of the season will focus on history a lot of it will be about the future.

New young stars are set to take over while a new team is on the horizon as the 2016-17 season gets underway in the NHL.

matthews

It has long been one of the biggest mysteries in the NHL, how one of the league’s building blocks and highest earning teams could continue to be massive despite their penchant for losing. The Toronto Maples Leafs are one of the first NHL teams in the league as they will be celebrating their 100th anniversary this year. They have plenty of legends in their history and their share of Stanley Cups. Only a few years ago they were named the first team in the NHL worth $1 billion and have regularly sold massive amounts of tickets for massive prices. In all of this time, they have not been back to the top of the league stretching what is now a 48-year Stanley Cup drought. For a team with the means of the Leafs, that is a strange thing as they have had the ability to sign the best players and make the all-star team. That was a lot easier before the salary cap was put in but the Leafs have still had the ability to go after every major free agent. Despite that ability, they have struggled to break their streak. All the while the fans remained loyal continuing to come out to games. That pattern began to chance in the last few years as the Leafs are no longer the most valuable team in the league, they fell to third in the annual Forbes rankings for team value. The Leafs ownership might have seen that coming though as 2015 marked another step in the first true rebuild for the Leafs in decades. The Leafs had hired Brendan Shanahan as their new President and he began the long rebuilding process. In 2015 they had fired a large number of their scouting staff while bringing in the most sought after coach in the league when they signed Mike Babcock. They had taken another step towards becoming contenders but the rough part of the rebuild was yet to come. They finished at the bottom of the league and then the biggest part of their rebuild truly took place. They won the draft lottery and took can’t-miss prospect Auston Matthews. The addition of the young American only added to a good young group and all of a sudden the Leafs seemed like they had finally picked the correct path. They may not be the best team this year but with Matthews leading a young promising group everyone will be watching to see how the Leafs can do this year and in the future.

expansion

The NHL took its time last year after they announced that they would be expanding to new cities in the near future. They began asking for applications from cities who wanted a team, with a $10-million price tag that included a $2-million non-refundable deposit. That price tag scared a lot of cities off of the idea but two cities decided to go for it anyway. To the joy of Canadian fans, Quebecor submitted a bid to put a team in Quebec City where a brand new stadium was already finished and ready for an NHL team. Less to the delight of Canadian fans another group submitted a bid to bring a team to Las Vegas. After a lot of debate, the league made a decision to grant Las Vegas an expansion team. The unnamed team will begin playing in the league for the 2017-18 season as the NHL looks to be the first professional league to put a team in the city. The expansion is needed as the unbalanced league needs two teams in the west to even the two conferences out. Putting a team in Las Vegas has its own dangers aside from being an expansion team in the middle of the desert. Las Vegas has plenty of other things to do other than hockey and the residents are not prone to going out to do much in the city. That means the new team will need to rely on tourists to fill the seats while the danger of mixing gambling and sports, a danger only seen by the big leagues including the NHL, is possible when a team is in the gambling capital of the world. The new team has a lot to figure out in order to be successful but one of the first tasks will be the expansion draft. The draft will take place in 2017 and it will be a major topic of conversation all year. The rules for the expansion draft will have a lot of teams spending the majority of the season figuring out who to protect and who to let hang in the wind for the taking. Not every team will be able to protect all of their best players and Vegas is sure to get some stars on the team. The interesting part for this season is the fact that players will not only be playing for a Stanley Cup but for their spots in places that they have been calling home. A bad season might mean relocation and every team will watch their players closely to figure out who that might be.

wch

The NHL achieved something they have been wanting to do for years as they held their first international tournament in over a decade. The World Cup of Hockey was a small tournament that went quick but overall the league was happy with the results. The fans in Canada watched as their team dominated on their way to the win while other teams gave the league something to think about when they host the next World Cup. That will come in 2020 as the NHL plans to establish the tournament every four years. They are excited to get to the next one with questions surrounding the tournament and the format of the tournament. Those questions will be answered eventually as the focus for the league, at least in terms of international hockey, turns to the Olympics in 2018. As the league looks to the next thing the teams in the league will get to see one of the biggest concerns for any team who had players in the World Cup. Although all of the owners were happy to see the World Cup return the fact is it meant that their top players were playing high-level hockey for almost two weeks before the season started. It might not seem like much but the fatigue factor may show up later in the season. The World Cup is not the longest tournament and it wasn’t a really tough schedule but the fact was that it was serious hockey. Nobody was taking time off on the ice as they played they would for any international tournament. That is an extra week or two on top of a season that already grinds players down before they hit the toughest time in the playoffs. It might not show to start the year for many of the players but they might begin to feel it when the playoffs begin to take hold and that extra week takes some of their stamina away when it matters most. At the start of the year, the effect may already be felt by certain teams with injuries to some of their big names. Marion Gaborik will be out eight weeks after an injury suffered at the World Cup while the Penguins will miss young goalie Matt Murray after breaking his hand at the tournament. Not to mention any of the smaller unreported injuries that could start a number of players off poorly to the new season. The effect could be felt this year but players might come through and be fine, either way, the health and stamina of the players may be taken into account for 2020.

mcdavid

Connor McDavid was supposed to take over the league when he entered the draft as he was the best player to enter the NHL since Sidney Crosby was taken by the Penguins. For the Edmonton Oiler, she was another beacon of hope after years of sitting at the bottom of the league. No matter who they drafted near the top of the draft they never seemed to pan out as many thought they would. They still have a number of those can’t-miss prospects on the roster but they have remained at the bottom of the league year after year. McDavid was supposed to change that as he was one of those can’t-miss prospects but he was also slightly different. From the time he was a young player until his junior career he was considered the best player on the ice. When he went into the draft it was supposed to be the second coming of The Great One in Edmonton and for the Oilers, it was a chance to begin competing again. That looked like it could happen until McDavid was hurt and missed a big chunk of the season. His injury left everyone wondering what could have been in his rookie season. He was considered for the Rookie of the Year despite missing significant time and he put together a point-a-game pace while he was on the ice. He clearly showed the flashes of being the best player in the world but he never got to show it off throughout the season. The numbers may not have been amazing had he played the full season as many rookies wear down near the end of the year. Still, if he had a full season he could have challenged some of the best rookie seasons in the history of the NHL. That opportunity was lost though as his rookie season was defined by injury rather than his arrival as the best in the game. A new season means a new chance though as McDavid looks to solidify himself as one of the best players in the league and he will get every chance to do that. He has already been named the captain, the youngest captain in NHL history, and the team has built more around him this year to help him out. He will hope to get a full season in the NHL and truly show what he can do when he gets the chance. The league will be watching to see what he can do and for Edmonton fans, it could be the beginning of a new life in Edmonton.

ovechkin

Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby both entered the league around the same time and when they did they were pitted against each other. It was almost meant to be as two young and talented players from two bitter national rivals had risen to the top of the game. Heading into the 2005 draft both Ovechkin and Crosby were being considered the first and second overall picks. That was until Ovechkin decided to play in Russia for another year, leaving Crosby as the consensus #1 and in the next draft, Ovechkin took that spot. From the 2005 draft preparations until now these players have gone head to head both on the ice and in bar-stool debates about who the best player in the league was. The debate would rage on about who was the better players and there were plenty of points for both. Ovechkin was always the goal scorer with a habit of running people over as he had a very well-rounded game. Crosby was more of the pure hockey player though as he had the hockey knowledge and the ability to pass and score with great success. Although Crosby did struggle over a number of years with a concussion he seemed to have come out on top of the debate with most considering the Canadian the best player in the world. Although that might be the case for many the debate remains open for others and Ovechkin is still one of the most dangerous players in the league. This season both of these players will once again face-off as they race towards a milestone with both looking to be the first to 1,000 points in their career. Alexander Ovechkin will start the year with 966 points while Crosby begins with 938 points. It only seems fitting that both Ovechkin and Crosby will be pursuing the same milestone in the same season and both are well within reach by how fast both of them put up points. It seems clear that Ovechkin will be first to the milestone but nothing is for sure as two of the greatest in the game approach a major point in their careers and like the rest of their careers they will do so in a tight race. They have always been compared throughout their careers and now they will be once again as the 1,000-point mark is within reach for both players if they can have the seasons that everyone has gotten used to throughout their time in the NHL.

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