TORONTO — A group of stars primed to hit free agency, the potential first volleys in another round of labour unrest and the possibility of Canada's first Stanley Cup winner since 1993 are among the NHL storylines to look for in 2019.
Here's a look at what to watch for:
LABOUR CLOUDS GATHERING
The collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and its players is supposed to run through the 2021-22 season. But both sides retain the right to end the most recent collective bargaining agreement after eight seasons with the option of giving notice in September 2019, meaning the next potential labour disruption could come ahead of the 2020-21 campaign. We should get a clearer indication of what the two sides are thinking early in the new year. The NHL wants to hold another World Cup in September 2020 and has asked the players to let the league know by next month's all-star game if they plan to opt out of the current CBA early. In short, if the NHL doesn't get the answer it's looking for, there won't be a World Cup and it could mean the current CBA will end two years early.
STAR FREE AGENTS COULD HIT OPEN MARKET
John Tavares had the hockey world on the edge of its collective seat ahead of the opening of free agency last summer before deciding to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs. This year's unrestricted free agent class could include Erik Karlsson, Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene, Mark Stone, Artemi Panarin and Jeff Skinner. A secondary group is led by Jake Gardiner, Wayne Simmonds, Jordan Eberle, Tyler Myers and Semyon Varlamov, among others, meaning that Canada Day could be even more of a free-agent frenzy than last year.
OFFER SHEETS ON THE HORIZON?
No team has signed a restricted free agent to an offer sheet since the Calgary Flames inked Ryan O'Reilly on Feb. 28, 2013 — a contract that was matched by the Avalanche and kept the centre in Colorado. But with loads of young, high-end talent potentially hitting the market this summer, is there a team willing to try the little-used tactic in an effort to land a star? Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Patrik Laine, Mikko Rantanen, Matthew Tkachuk, Brayden Point and Brock Boeser are just some of the names that might attract offer sheets if unsigned by their current clubs on July 1. The price can be heavy — up to four first-round picks go to the team losing the player — but there's a chance a general manager or two might think it's worth it. The last accepted offer sheet came in 2007 when Edmonton signed Dustin Penner, with Anaheim getting a first-, second- and third-round draft pick in the 2008 draft as compensation from the Oilers.
ARENA, OWNERSHIP QUESTIONS
Ottawa and Arizona remain two hot spots to keep an eye on. The plan that would have seen the Senators move from the suburbs to a proposed downtown arena as part of a development project just west of Parliament Hill is in tatters with team owner Eugene Melnyk suing his business partner and vice versa. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has said he's "disappointed" with how things have played out. Meanwhile in the desert, Coyotes owner Andrew Barroway continues to look for a partner, but as with Ottawa, getting a new arena is the key.
SEATTLE BEGINNING TO TAKE SHAPE
The NHL's 32nd franchise should begin to take shape as 2019 progresses. Set to begin play in October 2021, expect Seattle to begin filling out its front-office staff over the next 12 months. Some of the rumoured names for the general manager's job include former Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman, current Detroit GM Ken Holland and Vegas assistant GM Kelly McCrimmon. The latter would be an intriguing choice after McCrimmon helped build the Golden Knights and will be well-versed in the expansion draft process, which will have the same rules for Seattle as it did for Vegas.
WILL CANADA'S STANLEY CUP CURSE COME TO AN END?
Montreal, as most hockey fans north of the border know, was the last Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup back in 1993. Vancouver (twice), Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa have all made the final since, but fell short of grasping the trophy. Could 2019 be the year? There has been plenty of hype around Toronto after the addition of Tavares and the strong play of Matthews and Marner, but Winnipeg and Calgary are making noise, while Montreal, Edmonton and Vancouver also could make the playoffs.