Consider how much has changed in the NHL since the start of this decade. Back then, there was a different playoff format. There wasn’t a Department of Player Safety. There was still a Southeast Division, and the Atlanta Thrashers were a part of it. There were a lot more fights.
It’s staggering to think about all that’s happened in the game over the last 10 years, just as it’s staggering to think about what it’ll look like by the end of next decade.
Here are 10 questions about the next 10 years of the NHL, beginning with the most important one:
Will the new U.S. Space Force help facilitate the first Winter Classic on the surface of the moon?
Just kidding. It’s not that kind of list …
1. Are we really going to avoid a work stoppage?
After neither the owners nor the players opted to reopen it this year, the NHL collective bargaining agreement runs through Sept. 15, 2022. Sources say there’s already frustration on the owners’ side of the negotiating table regarding a lack of urgency from the players without an immediate deadline; the lack of progress has helped lead to another postponement of the next World Cup of Hockey.
But that doesn’t mean we’re headed for yet another work stoppage in the NHL. The issues seem manageable. Things are going reasonably well for players and owners. The NBA went through a bloodless negotiation for a new labor deal without a work stoppage. Will their arena-mates do the same?
2. What’s the future for international play?
It’ll start with the 2021 NHL All-Star Game, as the league is looking at different format changes to bring a nation vs. nation vibe to the midseason classic — potentially still within the 3-on-3 mini-tournament template.
The World Cup of Hockey may not return until 2024 and 2028, with plans to expand the event beyond the “one city, one arena” concept from 2016 into something much more global in scale.
Then there’s the big question: the Olympics. The next Winter Games are in Beijing in 2022. The players want to go. The owners still don’t see the benefit in shutting down the season for it … unless the International Olympic Committee antes up with some enticements like branding, merchandising and video-rights opportunities.
China is a vital growth market for the NHL. They have to go, right?
3. What will Seattle become, and what comes next?
We’re not just talking about the name, which should be revealed in a few months and better be either Kraken, Sasquatch or, more likely, Sockeyes. There’s the decision on the coach, which will have a ripple effect on that market. There’s the decisions in and around the expansion draft, which will affect every team not named the Golden Knights. Speaking of Vegas: Can this Seattle team repeat that instant success, given the gifts it will receive in the expansion draft?
Then there are the off-the-ice mysteries: What will the crowds look like, and will the revenue be as plentiful as predicted? There’s really only one sure thing when it comes to Seattle: As team president Tim Leiweke told us at the NHL board of governors meeting recently, the instant rivalry with the Vancouver Canucks could quickly become one of the league’s most intense, given how these fans will travel.
But what happens after Seattle becomes the 32nd NHL team? Gary Bettman has said he anticipates this will be it, for a while, on the expansion front. And the league’s strong economic outlook has quieted the talk about relocation — although that can change in an instant if, say, a team fails to secure a new arena. One thing’s certain: Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta wants a team in his building, and sources say the league remains very intrigued by the market.
4. Are we ever getting puck and player tracking that works?
Plans hit a snag in 2019 when the NHL split with Jogmo World Corp., the company it had been partnering with on puck and player tracking technology. The NHL announced it was expanding its partnership with SportsMEDIA Technology (SMT). There was also a change in approach: The NHL announced it would be using a hybrid system of both the sensor tracking developed by Jogmo and optical tracking, which relies on cameras around the rink. In the past, the league had concerns with optical tracking’s accuracy in such a fast-paced game.
The NHL still plans to have the technology for use during the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs, with the hope that it can be implemented for the 2020-21 season.
Accuracy and efficiency are paramount concerns. The NHL is going to work to get this right, because there’s a lot at stake here. The league’s television partners are eagerly awaiting the chance to use this technology in broadcasts. The NHL is eager to collect all sorts of new data that it can use and, more important, monetize through licensing partnerships with sportsbooks.
5. Can hockey gambling cause a popularity boom?
Only eight states have yet to introduce some form of sports wagering legislation, as 19 of them currently have some form of legalized sports betting. The NHL believes this new entry point for fans could increase its popularity, especially if and when that puck and player tracking goes widespread.
Leading that charge? In-game prop betting, like the predictive gaming experiment the St. Louis Blues successfully tried out during last postseason. Someone might not love hockey, but they might love betting on who skates the farthest in a game or from where the next goal will be scored.
What this boils down to: politics, as legalized sports gambling continues to face opposition in some states; and technology, as the advent of 5G inside arenas is considered a vital part of in-game wagering’s success as the NHL sees it.
6. How will biometric data change the game?
This was the year “load management” entered the national sports lexicon, as NBA stars sat out regular-season games in the name of best optimizing their performance. But it’s not just about games: It’s practices and postgame routines and travel and sleep optimization. This scientific approach to player usage is creeping into NHL front offices, too. Is there an amount of ice time that is optimal for a player, one that science can reinforce?
Player health data, collected by wearable technology, aims to change the game as well, as it monitors muscle use, heart rate and other vitals. By the end of next decade, teams will know everything there is to know about their investment, er, their players. Just don’t expect anyone else to know it.
“The biometric data is player-personal, health-related and in our view owned [by the players],” NHLPA executive director Don Fehr told ESPN last year.
7. What will the next TV contract look like in the U.S.?
The TV rights deal for the NHL expires in 2021-22 with NBC. Multiple sources around the NHL expect there to be a multi-network package for the next deal, like the NBA, MLB and NFL all boast.
The added intrigue on this next deal is in streaming rights, considering how many fans are consuming games on mobile devices and as cord cutters. Could NHL rights serve as the foundation for any number of the fledgling streaming services out there? And at what cost?
8. Will offense continue to surge?
Through 537 games, NHL teams are averaging 3.01 goals per game, which is even with last season’s pace. Rule changes, rule enforcement and a general uptick in quality of offensive player has all led to this goal-scoring boom … but can it continue?
The league goes through phases. Is a goals-per-game average above 3.00 the new normal, or are we just one unexpected playoff run away from everyone choosing to copy the style of a defensive team?
9. Will Ovechkin catch Gretzky?
Few records in sports felt as untouchable as Wayne Gretzky’s 894 career goals. Yet here’s Alex Ovechkin, charging up the rankings with 679 goals. He’s 34 years old. He’s missed all of nine games since 2012. His career goals-per-game average is 0.61.
There is a path for Ovechkin to overtake The Great One, as the Russian Machine surpasses a Canadian icon for NHL glory. And if he does score goal No. 845, Ovechkin recently told ESPN he would retire immediately afterward. (He was kidding. We think.)
10. Finally, who succeeds Gary Bettman?
Bettman will be 70 when the next CBA begins for the NHL. He’ll be 77 by the end of the decade. While it’s possible he names himself supreme chancellor and serves in that capacity until he’s well over 100, it’s more likely that this will be Bettman’s last collective bargaining agreement. Which means the NHL could have a new commissioner at the end of the decade.
Deputy commissioner Bill Daly would seem like the obvious next in line, as an extension of Bettman’s era. Brendan Shanahan, who worked under Bettman in the Department of Player Safety, would be a very interesting choice as a Hall of Fame player taking over the league.
But remember this about Bettman: He was an outside-the-box choice, coming over from the NBA. It would be very NHL of the NHL to hire from within his inner circle. Perhaps it should widen the scope. Here’s one idea: John Collins, the league’s former COO who left to run NFL On Location Experiences.
These are just some of the questions facing the NHL in the next decade. One assumes that by the end of it, they’ll all have answers. Well, except for that Space Force one.
— Thank you Taylor (@SCole9596) December 19, 2019
Well, that’s certainly one way to cope with having a Taylor Hall jersey post-trade to Arizona. Thanks to Jeff R. for the image.
Three things about the Taylor Hall trade
1. New Jersey Devils GM Ray Shero has been adamant that the summer’s acquisition spree that brought P.K. Subban, Wayne Simmonds and Nikita Gusev to the Devils wasn’t done in order to convince Taylor Hall to re-sign there. I didn’t always buy this. But when you hear that there were no hard contract numbers between Hall and the Devils, and that going to July 1 as an unrestricted free agent seems inevitable, I believe Shero.
Instead, I think the summer now feels much more like what Jarmo Kekalainen did with the Columbus Blue Jackets last season: that the Devils wanted to go all-in (or most-in) in what could be their last season with Hall on the roster. Which, as it turned out, was a spectacular failure. Hey, they’re not all first-round sweeps of the Lightning.
2. This recorded message from Hall to Coyotes fans is one “holding up today’s newspaper” away from looking like a hostage video:
— Arizona Coyotes (@ArizonaCoyotes) December 18, 2019
He actually said “for the rest of the year”! Without any inkling that it could be longer than that! And that’s the take they went with!
3. Hall’s legacy with the Devils is secure, although I’m not sure he knows that.
The trade that brought him to Jersey — which was one-for-one, in case you’ve forgotten — would be the biggest thievery in franchise history were it not for the Tom Kurvers trade to Toronto that delivered Scott Niedermayer in the draft to the Devils. He’s the franchise’s only Hart Trophy winner, in a season that saw him lug the team to its only playoff appearance since 2012 (and his only playoff appearance in the NHL). No one should fault him for testing the market or for seeking a new home located a little closer to the Stanley Cup than the Devils are.
Hall and Shero went through great pains to reiterate to the fans that Hall never demanded a trade or closed the door on the Devils. Those are the same fans that Hall was critical of earlier this season for jeering during a power play, although he defused that situation a bit by humorously cupping his hand to his ear after scoring in a subsequent game. I think Hall wanted to ensure that he wasn’t reviled in Jersey like, say, John Tavares is on Long Island or Zach Parise is for some Devils fans to this day. (The difference, of course, being that those players were homegrown.) He appreciated being with the franchise, appreciated their adulation and didn’t ask out.
“It meant a lot. I loved playing in New Jersey, and the fans’ support for me and the team has been great,” he said. “After my career is done, when I’m 65 years old, I’ll still remember Devils fans chanting ‘MVP’ for me. That’s going to stick with me for a while. I’ll always be grateful for my time here.
Listen to ESPN On Ice
We break down all the ins and outs of the Taylor Hall trade, look at how teams have adjusted after their big coaching changes and have an awesome conversation with an interesting fellow named Rob Paulsen: Detroit Red Wings superfan and the voice of “Pinky,” “Yakko Warner” and Raphael from the Ninja Turtles! Listen to it here, and make sure to rate and review!
Winners and losers of the week
Winner: Kevin Allen
I don’t want this to seem like a farewell speech, as Kevin Allen has plenty left to write; look no further than his recent story about women working in the NHL, which was terrific. But his 34-year run with USA Today has ended due to staff reductions, and it’s a sad moment for the sport. He’s a vanguard of American hockey writing, covering the game for one of the largest, broadest audiences to consume it. He went seal hunting with Jordin Tootoo. He took the Stanley Cup to graveyards. He saw it all.
He was also the president of the Professional Hockey Writers Association when the industry had a digital revolution and wiseacres like yours truly were gleefully providing needles for bloated balloons on these things called “blogs.” Allen helped create a formal policy for admitting new media into PHWA, giving a lot of us a level of legitimacy and protection in a climate that was hostile to bloggers in the press box. We didn’t always agree on the criteria for legitimacy, or on which bloggers were the best examples of the craft, but we certainly agreed on the necessity to move the industry forward. Kevin’s leadership on the matter was progressive and essential. He fought some battles that I appreciate to this day.
Allen has a book with Doc Emrick hitting shelves next year. Here’s hoping there’s plenty of writing beyond that.
Loser: This business sometimes
Winner: Aerin Frankel
The U.S. women’s national team moved to 2-0 on its barnstorming series against Canada with a 2-1 win on Tuesday night, and Frankel was the story of the game. She made 27 saves in her national team debut. Frankel was Hockey East Goaltender of the Year last season with Northeastern, where she’s a junior.
Loser: Goalies facing Andrei Svechnikov
IT IS OFFICIALLY THE SVECHNIKOV pic.twitter.com/ioUnAsYmsF
— Carolina Hurricanes (@Canes) December 18, 2019
We’ve spent years wondering why players don’t utilize the “Lacrosse Goal” move more often, given its effectiveness. Was it some kind of Unspoken Hockey Code to not unleash it? If so, consider Svechnikov the code-breaker, because he’s now done it twice this season.
The NHL has reversed course and will allow tailgating at the Winter Classic in Dallas, seeing as how that’s basically the entire reason anyone goes to the Winter Classic. Well, that and overpaying for a shirt that is relegated to the gym pile within a year.
Loser: Canadian beer
The NHL announced that Bud Light is its official beer in the U.S., which makes sense considering T.J. Oshie once chugged it through his jersey at a Stanley Cup parade. But it also announced that Budweiser is the official beer of the NHL in Canada, which seems blasphemous. I mean, I know that Labatt brews it, but it’s still weird not to have actual Labatt’s or Molson as the NHL’s beer in Canada, you know? It’s like if Tim Horton’s started billing itself as America’s doughnut shop.
Winner: Jack Eichel
His absurd 17-game point streak continued, as the Sabres’ MVP candidate had 16 goals and 15 assists during that stretch …
Loser: Buffalo Sabres
… in which the Sabres were only 7-6-4. What more can this guy do?
Winner: Springfield Isotopes
What if your favorite hometown hockey team was called the Springfield Ice-O-Topes? What if, on February 1st, the T-Birds become the Springfield Ice-O-Topes for one day only? Happy 30th Anniversary #TheSimpsons To learn more and purchase tickets 🎟️>> https://t.co/ybchXe1cbi pic.twitter.com/99ldbQwTCm
— Springfield T-Birds (@ThunderbirdsAHL) December 17, 2019
Loser: ‘Lisa on Ice’
The hockey episode of “The Simpsons” didn’t crack Rolling Stone’s top 150 episodes ranking. D’oh! The hockey world didn’t lose out on the list entirely, however. “Bart the Lover,” where “Bart takes advantage of Miss Krabappel’s loneliness by responding to her personal ad with a picture of hockey player Gordie Howe,” was No. 87.
Ken Campbell is worried about the long-term health of Andrei Svechnikov if he keeps scoring fancy goals: “All it takes is for one mouth-breather to be out on the ice who’s having a bad night with the game entirely out of reach.”
University of Minnesota-Duluth officials say they have finalized a settlement with former UMD women’s hockey coach Shannon Miller, in the amount of $4,530,157.
Adopted from an orphanage in Congo, brothers Sawyer and Simon Seidl are now budding ice hockey stars in Minnesota. And now they’ve met their idol, P.K. Subban.
Barry Trotz with straight fire on Peter Laviolette’s power-play usage in a blowout win: “I’ll see Peter maybe in the summer and we’ll discuss that a little bit. I wasn’t a big fan of that. It’s 8-3 and you’re putting your guys blasting pucks and you’re putting guys at risk. That’s fine. Everybody has their own way of doing it. I probably wouldn’t have done it that way. It tells me a lot about him.”
Prayers for Flames assistant GM Chris Snow in his battle with ALS.
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn’t read)
Very much enjoyed Down Goes Brown’s 10 players no one can hate. Many of them are from the same “old guy on bad team that hasn’t won a Cup” bin. [$]
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN
The top 100 players of the decade ranking was a blast to put together. Thank you for reading, consuming and debating the final product.