The next week promises to provide some of the most momentous events in recent National Hockey League history, setting the stage for a tumultuous offseason. Where to start?
Will the NHL win big in Vegas?
Well, let's begin with the likely addition of the 31st NHL franchise on Wednesday afternoon, when it's expected that the NHL's board of governors will step in line with the league's powerful executive committee, which has recommended that a new franchise begin play in Las Vegas in 2017. It will mark the league's first expansion since the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets joined the NHL for the 2000-01 season. The time is ripe to expand, especially given the NHL's current unbalanced conference alignment, which has 16 teams in the Eastern Conference and 14 in the Western Conference. Being the first professional franchise in the gambling/tourist mecca is enticing, but the potential move has been greeted with skepticism by some observers both outside and within the game.
If the board of governors rubber-stamps the executive committee recommendation, as occurs with most issues, that's one thing. But if somehow the vote does not receive the required two-thirds approval (20 of 30 owners), it would mark a dramatic departure from standard practice and would represent a major fissure within the ownership group. That's not likely to happen. In fact, I'm guessing that the vote will be announced as "unanimous." But it's worth watching given the contentious nature of the expansion debate. Some owners I've spoken with are quietly skeptical about whether the Las Vegas experiment will work.
Can players dodge an expansion draft?
If the Vegas expansion is a go, expect the league to make clear (or more clear) exactly how an expansion draft, which would likely be held shortly before next June's entry draft, would work. Thanks to excellent work by my colleague Craig Custance, we learned that the rules covering which players must be exposed -- or, conversely, cannot be exposed -- for selection have been refined over time. Sources told Custance that teams must expose two forwards and one defenseman under contract for the following season who played at least 40 games that season or a total of 70 in the previous two seasons. And players with no-movement clauses cannot be exposed, although they will have the option of waiving that clause if they want to be exposed in the expansion draft.
Custance also reported that players who have played two professional seasons or fewer will be exempt from the expansion draft, although rules covering those who play in Europe will prevent teams from stashing prospects overseas in order to avoid having to decide whether to expose them.
Awards intrigue: Does McDavid deserve to win the Calder?
The board of governors will meet just hours before the NHL's annual awards ceremony. Why is the league jamming what will be a seminal moment for the NHL on top of a celebration of the game's finest performances from the previous season? Who thinks that's a good idea? Regardless, this year's awards should provide no shortage of drama.
The award I'm most looking forward to? The Calder Trophy, given to the league's rookie of the year. Professional Hockey Writers Association voters had three very different options: uber-prospect Connor McDavid, standout Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere and top rookie point producer Artemi Panarin, who played in the Kontinental Hockey League before signing with the Chicago Blackhawks and joining a line with NHL scoring champ Patrick Kane. McDavid missed almost half of the season with a shoulder injury but still produced 48 points in 45 games, the third-highest point-per-game total among regular NHL players behind Kane and Jamie Benn. Still, to me, the top rookie should be someone who played a whole season or close to it. Other voters may disagree.
And how about the Norris Trophy for the league's best defenseman?
Defending Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson had a season for the ages, leading all defensemen in point production, with 82 points, and tied for fourth overall in scoring. But he was a minus-2 on the season and was the captain of an underachieving Ottawa Senators team that missed the playoffs. I'm guessing this vote will be close, since Brent Burns collected 75 points for a resurgent San Jose Sharks team that reached the Stanley Cup finals and Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings was likely the best all-around defender in the game last season. It made for difficult a choice for voters.
Can the Lightning keep Stamkos?
Every day -- heck, every hour -- that passes between now and July 1 brings us closer to the reality of Steven Stamkos hitting the open market as an unrestricted free agent. The Tampa Bay Lightning are using this time to feverishly try to find a way to keep Stamkos in the fold without destroying their salary-cap structure -- a task made even harder because the salary cap is likely to be flat moving forward. Would Stamkos get the $10 million annually he's reportedly looking for on the open market? Sure. The Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres and Detroit Red Wings would certainly explore bringing in the elite scorer, as might the Calgary Flames and the New York Islanders. Can Stamkos win a Cup with any of those teams? It's hard to imagine that his best chance to win isn't to stay with Tampa, which has been to a Cup final and an Eastern Conference final in the last two years. Still, this is the storyline of the offseason, and the question is how long it will take for the narrative will play out.
Feeling out the top of the draft
The draft has become fertile trading ground in recent years, given that the free-agent market has become less robust than in the past thanks to the many multiyear deals signed by key players. But this week, we could see movement from teams looking to shed salary or merely to shake up moribund lineups. The Oilers are key among those teams, as GM Peter Chiarelli, entering his second draft as Edmonton's boss, has lots of talented assets up front and a fourth overall pick that could be in play as he tries to bolster a woeful defense. The Avalanche have said they won't trade Tyson Barrie (smart move), but the Avs are in a rut and the pressure is on Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy to prove they aren't just Hall of Fame players who have been handed the keys to the franchise but are also astute talent evaluators and team builders.
This draft is not quite McDavid-and-Jack Eichel deep, but the top end of the 2016 draft isn't far off last year's generational bonanza, with franchise center Auston Matthews expected to be the No. 1 pick by Toronto next Friday night. Matthews is a rare find both on and off the ice and should be a centerpiece for the rebuilding Leafs. But after that there's lots of intrigue. Two top Finnish prospects, Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi, are likely to go second and third -- although Matthew Tkachuk, son of longtime NHLer Keith Tkachuk, is an attractive option too. The top five or six players are all considered potential impact players for NHL franchises.