The NHL isn’t new to change. From rule alterations, to relocations and blockbuster trading, the league has done its best to maintain the spirit of the game while adjusting to different circumstances such as; player safety, economy, and marketability. In the past, changes to scoring systems, tie-breakers, offsides, icing, and contact rules received more criticism than praise from fans and players alike. The shootout has been one of the most controversial changes since the 2005 lockout.
In other changes, like big-name trades and signings, the fan base and hockey world are always excited and eager to see great players with new teams. The feeling can be compared to getting a puppy, exciting at first, until the novelty fades. We’ve recently seen this with Dion Phaneuf to Ottawa, Eric Staal to New York, and Milan Lucic to Los Angeles. While other players strive and succeed, like we saw with Tyler Seguin in Dallas, Joe Thornton in San Jose, and even the Great One himself when he was moved to Los Angeles.
Despite those exceptions it seems that the biggest and most lasting changes come in the form of new teams, through relocation or expansion. Fans from around the league love to see new colours hit the ice and new franchises tend to get a lot of fan support both locally and nationally. The Winnipeg Jets are a great example of this, born from the Atlanta Thrashers. The league embraced the rejuvenated Jets and the outpouring of support, especially in Canada was inspiring.
Let’s take a look at the top 11 changes on the horizon for the NHL. They include rule changes for better or worse, big player moves we should expect in the off-season, and most excitingly, plans for an expansion both in Canada and the U.S.
12 The Re-emergence of the Maple Leafs
The Maple Leafs are still in the infancy stages of their re-build, as the past 12 months have been about shedding salary and stockpiling assets. The Leafs have done that and are in a tremendous position to start adding pieces, be it through a guaranteed top-4 pick this coming draft and/or adding premium free agents this summer. It's very possible that the Leafs could find themselves two quality centres this offseason (we'll get to who later).
“The future of our organization is very bright," said coach Mike Babcock at the season end presser. "There is still some pain coming. But we’re going to get a lot better very fast."
11 The Gold Plan
No other team knows tanking quite like the Edmonton Oilers, as they're within striking distance of the 1st overall pick for the NHL Entry Draft for a 5th time out of the last seven years. In hockey terms, they've been cherry-picking at the blue line and it is bothering the other NHL franchises. One solution that has picked up steam lately is the 'Gold Plan,' which encourages bottom teams to compete for wins after they've been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.
The team which accumulates the most points by season end is awarded the 1st overall pick and it descends from there. It would mean all 30 teams battling for points in March and April instead of just the wildcards.
10 End of the enforcer
John Scott will likely retire this offseason after his stint with the Montreal Canadiens and his All-Star MVP performance in January. His departure will mark a final turning point in the NHL-- the end of the one-dimensional enforcer.
While the numbers aren't final just yet, the league is projected to finish with fewer fights than the 2012-13 shortened season of only 48 games. The end of fighting is on the horizon as the number of fights continue to fall. For now you can still expect scrappy 4th liners and the odd emotional altercation.
9 Full 2 minute Power Plays and more Icing
In another attempt to increase scoring, it was recently discussed by GMs to change the rules of power plays. The idea would be making them a full two minutes even if a goal is scored, as well barring the team on the penalty-kill from icing the puck. There's only one problem with the suggested rule changes; it suggests that more penalties may be called. Even if the changes do create scoring chances, the truth of the matter is that fans don't want to watch power play hockey.
The rules likely won't be implemented this coming season but there is reason to believe it is on the horizon.
8 Well Oiled for Playoffs
Is it finally time for a push from Edmonton? Odds are, yes. The core group of young talent they've acquired through a string of less than impressive seasons, followed by the luck of a leprechaun's rabbit foot at the lottery, have finally grown into veteran roles with the team. After bottoming out once again this season, they may finally acquire the missing pieces through the draft, free agency, and maybe a Nail Yakupov trade to really compete for a playoff spot next season.
All this comes down to a pair of healthy seasons from Taylor Hall and Connor McDavid with maybe a breakout season for Leon Draisaitl. Throw in a talented netminder and the physical presence of Darnell Nurse and you can really start to see something special happening in Edmonton.
7 Datsyuk to Russia
Datsyuk wants to close out his hockey career back in Russia. He has already announced this season will be his last in the NHL. Still a team leader in scoring, Datsyuk seems to have a lot left in the tank, but if he does leave, it wouldn't hurt the Red Wings for very long if they can pass off his rights to another team. His contract could be unloaded and give the Red Wings the cap space to shop in free agency.
The situation could also get ugly. With one year left on his NHL deal, Datsyuk's wish to return home may be barred by the NHL to spite the KHL, and it would likely be enforced by the IIHF.
6 Fall of the Two-Headed Beast - Crosby and Malkin
All good things must come to an end. It looks like the relationship between Crosby and Malkin has mostly deteriorated to just awkward eye contact at times. After acquiring Phil Kessel from Toronto, it looks like the two top lines are balanced enough to keep everyone at peace, but it's more of a piece of duct tape over the hull breach of the Titanic. Malkin's return from a long-term injury is throwing a wrench into what's been working for the Pens. It's possible we see Malkin centering the 3rd line when he returns. There's just not enough ice for the talent Pittsburgh has.
Barring a Stanely Cup, we may see the end of the two-headed beast. The question is who stays and who goes?
5 Smaller Goalie Equipment
The league's first step in increasing scoring is to crack down on the "extra fat" goalies have when using pads meant for bigger players.
There are a number of 'talented' goalies claiming a lot of their competition aren't as talented as they are. The claims from the likes of the Devils Cory Schneider and Capitals Braden Holtby, are that many of their fellow netminders are using pads meant for larger players. The results should be an automatic 2 game suspension, and the league vows to considerably enforce the rule this coming season.
4 Stamkos to Toronto
Since his recent diagnoses with a blood clot in his arm, Stamkos is likely done for the rest of the season. This leave Tampa Bay with two star players, arguably present and future with unclear futures.
Jonathan Drouin was called up from the AHL, but it is still unlikely he'll rekindle his relationship with the Lightning, and will likely be moved in the offseason. To make matters worse, Stamkos still needs a contract, and it's hard to believe his health won't affect contract talks. Is it possible that the Lightning trade both present and future in an attempt to re-spark the franchise? It's hard to believe the Lightning will let Stamkos waltz into the free agency market if they can't get a deal done soon.
3 More Rule Changes for Head Contact
Concussions and CTE are changing contact sports as we know it. Don't be surprised to see even stricter rules and harsher punishments next season in an attempt to protect players from head shots. We've still seen a lot of dirty plays this season with elbows and blindside hits. In just a few more seasons you may even see an end to open-ice body checks. Don't shoot the messenger but that's certainly where the game is trending to and I have to say it's about time. Queue an angry Don Cherry rant about the wimpy players.
2 Las Vegas team
Viva Las Vegas! Vegas could join the league around the same time as the anticipated Quebec City team, but if both are given their own franchise to add to the 30 existing NHL teams, it wouldn't be great for the league. Remember the Minnesota and Columbus expansion? They've both come a long way but it took 15 years to get to the above-average point they're at now. Splitting the scraps of the other 30 teams is not a great strategy for building successful franchises.
It makes more sense for the NHL to rebuild the struggling franchises, and seeing how close they are together, Arizona is a prime candidate for a new Las Vegas team.
1 Quebec City Team
Rumors are swirling that Carolina is on the move and headed to Quebec City. Can't say we didn't see this coming, since Carolina hasn't done much in the sense of succeeding in recent memory, and it's been operating in debt for the last decade. Witnessing the impact of Winnipeg's new franchise, berthed from a complete fallout of the Atlanta Thrashers, we can see Quebec City being a similar saving grace for the league, which is desperately looking to generate more income from their teams.
Can we expect a rebirth of the beloved Nordiques like we saw with the Winnipeg Jets? We certainly hope so.