The NHL is a league that’s constantly changing, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. One of the biggest changes league has seen in nearly 20 years is the addition of the Vegas Golden Knights, who will join the NHL as the league’s 31st club this autumn.
There are many ways in which a pro sports league can change. Maybe it’s a rule change or tweak that the league’s general managers agree upon at their annual board of governors meeting in December. Perhaps it’s simply the natural evolution of the way the game is played, or a desire for something fresh from the fans of the game. In any case, change is always around the corner in the NHL.
So what could North America’s most perplexing professional sports league have in store for us in the near future? The last five seasons have seen the addition of the coach’s challenge, alterations to the draft lottery rules (a few times), 3-on3 overtime, and a reduction in the size of goalie equipment. This is a league that’s clearly not afraid to tinker with the game.
From one perspective this is a good thing; nobody should fear change, as resistance to it can leave you stuck in the past. Heck, some golf courses have only recently started allowing women to play on the course, and the game of golf is still rife with unreasonable and archaic rules. Adapt or die!
Here are 15 changes you could see in the NHL very soon:
15. More Gambling
With Las Vegas getting its own franchise, hockey is about to start catching up with other sports in terms of gambling revenue. Everybody knows that Vegas is the premier gambling destination in North America, if not the world. Of course people will be more inclined to place bets on the Golden Knights during their weekend in Sin City if the game is happening right around the corner.
As confident as I am that gambling on the NHL will increase, it’s tough to say by how much. Will it catch on to the extent of the NFL? Doubtful. The random nature of hockey is perhaps what might scare people away, but conversely it could draw them in. The long-shot has a better chance in hockey than in other sports. For instance, who called the Predators as Western Conference champs at the beginning of the postseason? Okay, and who called a Warriors/Cavaliers final in the NBA?
14. All Teams Will Hire Stats Gurus
Love it or hate it, the way scouts and fans watch the games is changing, and analytics is at the forefront. It feels like it wasn’t too long ago that goals and assists were the sole way to judge forwards, and maybe you’d throw in plus/minus when evaluating your defensemen (maybe faceoffs for centers). Now we have Corsi, Fenwick, zone starts, zone exits—the list goes on.
This revolution has no doubt already begun, but still only about half of the NHL’s teams have a full-time management position committed to an analytics expert. Even the most stubborn general managers/owners will have to eventually hire an analytical statistician, if only to ensure they don’t fall behind the curve as the league evolves.
13. Coaches Will Get Longer Leashes
Admittedly, this is my most baseless entry on this list. Not that I don’t think it should happen, but it probably won’t because it would mean that general managers across the league finally stopped scapegoating their coaches for their own ineptitude. However, if they just took a peek around the league they’d notice that teams with coaching stability tend to fair much better than teams with a coaching carousel.
There are exceptions to the rule—I’m aware that Mike Sullivan was hired halfway through 2015-16 and coached the Penguins to a Stanley Cup—but it’s pretty accurate nonetheless. If you look at teams that are competitive for long stretches (Chicago, Washington, L.A., etc.), most have employed the same coach for many seasons and if you look at the Western Conference champion Nashville Predators, they’ve had two coaches in their entire 20 year history.
12. Teams Will Build for Speed… Again
When the L.A. Kings won two Stanley Cups over a span of three seasons, other clubs across the league started to take note. Perhaps winning in the NHL had less to do with speed and skill and more to do with size and grit, ala the 1970s? Well, as some GMs began to move in that direction, it seems as though the tides have already changed, and that perhaps those L.A. championship teams were a blip on the radar rather than a sign of the future of the league.
Let’s take the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, for instance. Nashville, a club that’s had a reputation of playing slow and boring hockey in the past, is anything but that today. They have the best top-4 defensemen from a puck-moving standpoint in the league, and they are fast up front as well (you see the foot speed of Viktor Arvidsson and the quick hands of Filip Forsberg yet?). The Penguins are obviously one of the most skilled teams of this generation, full stop. So that tells you that once again, the NHL is all about speed.
11. More top-shelf American Prospects
As the game slowly but surely grows in America, we will soon see an influx of top-shelf American prospects hitting the draft table. Heck, it’s arguably already happened, as the Toronto Maple Leafs selected phenom Auston Matthews first overall in 2016, and Matthews was raised in Arizona, of all places. (Maybe the Coyotes HAVE grown the game in the desert?)
In any case, with an influx of legitimate American superstars over the past 10 or 15 years, this will only expand as the nation’s youth starts to idolize guys like Matthews, Jack Eichel, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Kane, Zach Parise, etc. I’m not predicting that U.S.A. will take over as the world’s dominant nation when it comes to hockey, but they’ll keep getting better over the next few decades and beyond.
10. Full-time Power Plays
Whenever the league finds a way to increase scoring, teams conversely find different ways to snuff it out with boring defensive systems and barely-within-the-rules clutching and grabbing. The league has briefly explored some pretty unconventional ways to increase scoring in the past, including the recent implementation of 3-on-3 overtime.
One idea that should get some attention from the GMs is the thought of full two-minute power plays, regardless of if a team scores. It’s an interesting thought; I mean, if a player is penalized, shouldn’t he have to serve the full sentence? It’s not a like a prisoner is released early just because his incarceration has had a net-positive effect on his victims.
9. Non-Traditional Markets Will Follow the “Nashville Model”
With all the guff commissioner Gary Bettman has received over the years for trying to force hockey down the throats of sun-belt American cities, Nashville has certainly turned into a feather in his cap. It was a bit of a slow burn, but hockey is officially thriving in Nashville, and other non-traditional markets should be taking note of what the Preds did to get to where they are.
First and foremost, icing a competitive team has helped. Nashville made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history in 2003-04, and since then they’ve made the dance 10/13 seasons. Furthermore, Nashville markets itself very well, stirring up hype in creative ways that we haven’t seen before—at least not in the no-fun NHL. Oh, and the state-of-the-art, heart-of-downtown arena has certainly helped, along with the active and involved ownership group. Take notes, Vegas.
8. Changes to the Draft Lottery… Again
After the Oilers won the Connor McDavid sweepstakes in 2015, marking the fourth time the club had first overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft over six seasons, many teams were crying foul. They deemed it unfair for one team to collect all those top picks, and demanded that the lottery odds be changed so that the odds are more evenly spread out.
What these plaintiffs didn’t consider were the astronomical odds Edmonton had beaten to garner those four top picks. The Oilers, as the 30th, 30th, 29th, and 28th place teams in those years, never had a greater than 50% chance at getting any of those picks, and the had just over an 11% chance to get McDavid. With the 19th, 24th, and 27th place teams benefitting from the amendments made for this year’s lottery, I’d bet a few teams near the bottom feel like the lottery odds are—once again—unfair, and the complaints will roll in.
7. More Russians (and Europeans)
Back when the economy was booming and oil stocks were high—we all remember the mid-2000s, right?—the KHL was a burgeoning league that was actually beginning to attract some of the more middling European players who had trouble finding permanent work in the NHL. Recently, huge financial hardships have hit the KHL, and it currently owes over $17M in back wages to its players.
As a result of the financial burdens, the league has begun to trim teams, with the clubs with the lowest attendance first on the chopping block. This will undoubtedly result in more Russians and Europeans trying to make it work in North America. It’s not that they’ll have better job security over in these parts (it’s obviously a more competitive pool of players), but at least they’ll know that their paychecks will arrive on time.
6. Coach’s Challenge Removed
The coach’s challenge was introduced at the start of the 2015-16 season, and although the league isn’t willing to admit it publicly just yet, it’s been an unmitigated disaster. There are two situations in which a coach can exercise his right to challenge, and that’s when a goal is scored after what they deem was either a missed offside call or a missed goalie interference call.
While neither of these have been good for the game, the one that really needs to go is the offside challenge, and I believe it will within the next few seasons. The inherent flaw in this one is that it doesn’t give back scoring chances, but only takes them away. For instance, what happens when an offside call is made that wasn’t actually offside: does the wrongly-penalized team get their zone entry or scoring chance back?
5. Oh! Canada
After exactly zero Canadian teams qualified for the 2016 postseason, 2017 saw the return of five of the league’s seven Canadian clubs to the dance. The only teams north of the border that missed this year were Vancouver and Winnipeg, the latter of which would have probably made it if they had a goaltender capable of stopping pucks at a league-average level. The Canucks… well, they could have a bit of a climb ahead of them.
Still though, with six of the seven Canadian teams well-positioned to be competitive for the next decade or so, it’s likely we will finally see an end to the Canada Cup drought, which has now reached 24 years. The Maple Leafs, Oilers, Flames, and Jets are all stacked with promising young talent, and the Senators and Canadiens have generational pieces in Erik Karlsson and Carey Price to ensure they remain relevant.
4. More O from the D
Every season, 28 teams (soon to be 29) look at the last two teams standing and take notes and ask questions. What do their rosters have that ours is lacking? How can I build/add to my club in order to compete with them and teams like them moving forward? This season, the Nashville Predators stormed to the Stanley Cup Final with the strongest top-four D in the league, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed.
What’s so special about Nashville’s defense? They’re elite at both ends of the ice, as they produce numbers offensively as well as make the lives of opposing forwards very difficult. Offense from the defense is spreading throughout the league too, as guys like Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns electrify crowds wherever they visit—not to mention that these players are very valuable to any team. We’ll soon see defensive prospects modeling their games after these guys.
3. More Prospects Will Head to College
You may have noticed it already, but more legitimate NHL prospects are coming out of the US college system. Many of these guys have been discovered out of college, but with the success some of the players have had after going through the college stream, I’d bet there are more and more drafted prospects who choose the college route over major junior.
If you just look at the last few seasons, players have been sneakily signed out of college and made an immediate impact on their NHL teams. There was of course the Jimmy Vesey sweepstakes that the Rangers ended up winning last offseason, and the Edmonton Oilers found key contributors in Matthew Benning and Drake Caggiula. Soon, Spencer Foo will make a decision on his NHL career as well, continuing the trend.
2. A Passing of the “Greatest Player” Torch]
There are a few who would argue that this torch has been passed, as Connor McDavid is likely to collect his first Hart Trophy as the league MVP later this month. However, Sidney Crosby led his team to the Stanley Cup Final for the second consecutive year, and most players would probably still say that Sid is the best there is.
That said, Connor McDavid turned 20 this year, and Crosby turns 30 this August. McDavid is just entering his prime, whereas Crosby is still within his prime, but he’s definitely on the back nine. In a few years, the torch will be fully handed over to McDavid, who’ll hold onto it for about a decade or so, as generational talents tend to do.
1. A 32nd Team Added
With the brand spanking new Vegas Golden Knights becoming the 31st NHL franchise, it doesn’t take a genius to see that the league needs one more club to balance the scales. That team will be added within the next five years or so, it’s just a matter of which city will get the club. One thing to keep in mind here is balance; even with the Golden Knights joining the Western Conference, the East still has 16 teams to the West’s 15.
With Quebec City probably next in line, that makes it a little more difficult for the NHL (geographically speaking). Seattle is also in the running, but one condition the NHL hasn’t bent on is it won’t happen without a new arena at least planned, and that’s an uphill climb in Seattle City Council. In any case, the league will figure it out, and one of those two cities will likely receive a franchise pretty soon.
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