NHL expansion, Islanders' farewell among stories to watch for in 2015

Will this be the future home of an NHL team in Las Vegas? (Getty Images)
Will this be the future home of an NHL team in Las Vegas? (Getty Images)

Though 2014 was full of memorable moments, great games, amazing performances and a whole bunch of news, it’s hard not to start looking ahead at what 2015 might bring. 

There’s a lot to wonder about heading into the new year. As this season rolls on, it’s anyone’s guess which team will end up as the 2015 Stanley Cup champion. The scoring race is wide open as well. Plus, there’s enough off-ice business taking place that could have a major impact for years to come.

As we close out the year, here’s a look at the five stories we’re most interested in watching out for when the calendar turns.

1. NHL Expansion

For months, probably even years, the company line was that the NHL is not expanding, has no plans to expand and it’s certainly not going to relocate struggling teams. However, as 2014 comes to a close, there is renewed optimism that perhaps the NHL is softening from that stance, particularly when it comes to expanding the league.

With the construction of a new 20,000-seat arena in Las Vegas, the NHL could explore that untapped market for a new team and there’s people with the money that want to make it happen. Billionaire Bill Foley is working with the Maloof Family to pursue purchasing an expansion franchise for the NHL and plopping it right in Sin City. The NHL has already granted the group permission to start a season ticket drive to generate interest among local fans and business. It’s an experiment that comes with plenty or risk, but it’s outweighed by the intrigue.

Will it work? The ticket drive that is expected to start in February is going to be a pretty important indicator.

Rumors have continually swirled about other potential destinations for expansion like Seattle, Quebec City, and even looking at putting a second team in Toronto. It seemed almost farcical before, but the league has grown exponentially in recent years and any opportunity to increase the league’s footprint will be examined closely.

If the NHL thinks it can be the first major professional sports team to set up shop in Las Vegas and have success, it could turn out to be a boon for the league and a feather in commissioner Gary Bettman’s cap. As momentum builds, this will remain a big story throughout 2015.

2. Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel arrive

In late June, the NHL will change. Some luckily poor team will step up to the podium and announce “With the first selection in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, the [insert really bad team here] are proud to select Connor McDavid.” Then the second team will get up and repeat the same sentence and state they’re taking Jack Eichel and both franchises very well could see their fortunes reversed in a hurry.

McDavid has often been compared to Sidney Crosby in terms of hype and overall excitement about his arrival in the NHL. Before breaking his hand earlier this season, the 17-year-old was on a torrid scoring pace unlike anything seen in a draft year since Sid The Kid lit up the QMJHL. Over in college hockey, Boston University's Eichel is having the best freshman season by any player since Paul Kariya’s 100-point campaign (which will never be matched) in 1992-93 with the University of Maine. These two will go head-to-head at the World Junior Championship, which should make for great television as well.

Having two prospects like this available at the top of the draft just doesn’t happen too often. Both have the potential to be instant celebrities and will be the most exciting prospects to watch when the puck drops in 2015-16. That could end up being an epic battle for the Calder Memorial Trophy.

3. How much will the declining Canadian dollar impact the NHL?

There’s a lot of market watching right now in the NHL. As the Canadian dollar continues to decline, it could have an impact on everything from the salary cap to the aggressiveness of Canadian teams on the open market. As of today, the Canadian dollar trades at 86 cents against the U.S. dollar. That impacts the amount of revenue that is generated by the seven Canadian clubs.

The NHL has maintained, however, that as league revenues rise, the salary cap is going to go up next year, but it's possible it won't be a dramatic rise. This is going to be particularly important for teams up against the cap already this year, and others that have signed players to long-term deals that kick in next year. Teams like the Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers and Los Angeles Kings could be particularly crunched without a substantial raising of the cap.

There was an expectation over the summer that the cap would shoot way up in 2015-16 thanks to the Canadian TV rights deal the NHL signed with Rogers last year. It will, but the falling Canadian dollar decreases the worth of that deal in total to some degree. Teams spent to those expectations already, though. Just look at the extensions signed by Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.

It’s still early enough to not really know how much this economic issue will impact the league, but it’s something worth watching.

The Islanders will hope to give their fans one last memorable season on Long Island. (USATSI)
The Islanders will hope to give their fans one last memorable season on Long Island. (USATSI)

4. Islanders leaving Long Island with a bang

The New York Islanders have a lot of history on Long Island. Four Stanley Cups, a multitude of Hall of Fame players, and an old building that has a lot of memories made in it. When the season ends, the Islanders will be leaving the Island in favor of the bright lights and shiny new arena in Brooklyn. There’s a bit of melancholy in the air, but that’s starting to take a back seat to the excitement this Islanders team has created.

Heading out of the holiday break, the Islanders have a 23-11-0 record and sit in second place in the Metropolitan Division. They look destined for the playoffs and this time around they won’t be a team that’s just happy to be there.

Former Islanders player and current general manager Garth Snow almost seemed to take on a personal responsibility to make sure this season was one Islanders fans could remember. He made moves in the offseason that vastly altered the franchise’s outlook by swinging deals that landed Stanley Cup-winning defensemen Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk, a true No. 1 goalie in Jaroslav Halak and veteran forwards like Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin, while also building onto a very sound prospect system.

This may not be a Stanley Cup contending team, but they’re going to make sure that every Islanders fan who comes into the Coliseum leaves with a memory. They’re 13-4-0 at home this season and have been unbeatable in games that extend past regulation. This is no somber farewell season.

And when the 2015-16 opens, this story will flip to what the Islanders and the NHL look like in Brooklyn. Will the current fans follow? Will Barclays Center prove adequate for hockey? Will the Islanders be able to open the new building with a bang? There's plenty of intrigue in 2015 for this franchise, which will also be experiencing a transition in ownership soon.

5. When will the NHL’s mumps scare end?

Throughout the last few months, it seems that every week there’s a new player diagnosed with the mumps. After hitting 20 players, two on-ice officials, and spreading through five (possibly six) teams with more players being tested over the holiday break, this is getting out of hand.

It is by far one of the most bizarre things we’ve seen in the NHL and with the unpredictable nature of the diseases, it’s really tough to know just how long it’s going to take before the mumps is out of the NHL for good.

Based on the incubation period (12-25 days), the contagious nature of the disease and hockey’s general on-ice grossness (spit, blood and other things flying around), there’s really no telling what will happen next. Odds are more players and perhaps more teams will be impacted before this season is through and it could last for months.

It's already one of the biggest storylines of 2014 and will remain one heading into the New Year.

CBS Sports Writer

Chris Peters has been a hockey writer for CBS Sports since 2012. Prior to that, he wrote for numerous outlets and edited the United States of Hockey blog, covering the sport at all levels. Peters also... Full Bio

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