The NHL ushered in 2014 with its Winter Classic outdoor game on New Year's Day, drawing a record crowd of 105,491 to Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor to see the Toronto Maple Leafs defeat the Detroit Red Wings, 3-2, and celebrate the game's cold-weather roots.
A few weeks later, the NHL celebrated its warm-weather evolution when the Ducks and Kings faced off on a rink laid atop the infield of Dodger Stadium in the first regular-season NHL outdoor game in California.
Contrasting snow shovels and a sand-and-surf theme worked so well for the NHL that it will repeat that formula in 2015. The Chicago Blackhawks will face the Washington Capitals on New Year's Day at Nationals Park in Washington in the Winter Classic, and on Feb. 21, the Kings and the San Jose Sharks will meet at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara in the league's Stadium Series.
Outdoor games have become a signature event for the NHL, but there will be plenty of intriguing action taking place indoors during the coming year.
The NHL's major trophies could be won by someone besides familiar faces Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Dallas Stars center Tyler Seguin has been vying for the scoring lead, as has right wing Jakub Voracek of the Philadelphia Flyers, and Seguin is a contender for the goal-scoring title.
The Detroit Red Wings look to be in good shape to extend their playoff streak to 24 consecutive seasons, but last year's East champions — the New York Rangers — struggled early this season and are battling to get back to the playoffs.
General managers and the NHL's board of governors are expected to continue to discuss changes to the overtime format in order to reduce the number of shootouts, with a three-on-three segment appearing to gain enough popularity to be adopted for next season. And expansion remains a hot topic, as arenas rise in Quebec City and Las Vegas.
A look at what to expect around the league in the new year:
What are the Kings' chances of repeating as Stanley Cup champions?
If it were easy to repeat, someone would have done it since the Red Wings won in 1997 and 1998. The Kings miss the mobility and smarts of suspended defenseman Slava Voynov, who faces a domestic violence charge, and as a team they might have begun to feel the heavy-legged fatigue of playing 64 playoff games the last three seasons. Some players also participated in the Sochi Olympics, increasing their mileage.
If not the Kings, then who will win?
The West still looks stronger than the East, where the Montreal Canadiens, Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins look to be the cream of the crop.
In the West, the Chicago Blackhawks — who lost a seven-game conference final to the Kings last spring — have looked formidable. The St. Louis Blues' signing of all-time wins leader Martin Brodeur gave them depth and Stanley Cup championship experience in goal. The Ducks have been among the West leaders most of the season thanks to a young, mobile defense and the off-season addition of Ryan Kesler, who provides depth and strong two-way play at center.
When it comes to outdoor games, can there be too much of a good thing?
Absolutely. The NHL supported six outdoor games last season because it wanted to remind people it was back in operation after it had shut down during the labor dispute that cut short the 2012-13 season. There will be fewer outdoor games in the future, probably three or four a season, as the league tries to give as many cities as logistically possible a chance to play host to an outdoor game.
What are the odds the NHL will have an expansion team in Las Vegas in the next five years?
Better than the odds in most casinos. Commissioner Gary Bettman recently allowed Bill Foley, who hopes to own a team in partnership with the Maloof family, to conduct a survey to gauge the level of interest in supporting a team. And remember: Owners don't have to share expansion fees with players through revenue sharing.
The NHL will put a team in Las Vegas before it returns to Quebec City?
Yes. The NHL's current alignment has 16 teams in the East and 14 in the West, prompting complaints that it's harder to make the playoffs in the East than in the West. Adding teams in the West would, at least theoretically, make things more equitable in terms of playoff odds.
Will the NHL send players to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, despite the long distance and considerable time difference?
The league will be pressured to make a decision as soon as possible but might continue to hedge in hopes of negotiating favorable terms. Bettman has pushed for a World Cup tournament, which is expected to be staged in Toronto before the start of the 2016-17 season and could replace Olympics participation. The NHL would do better financially from a World Cup than from another Olympics on the other side of the world, this one in a country that has little pro hockey tradition.
How long will Bettman stay as commissioner?
As long as he wants to. Bettman, 62, has made a lot of owners rich and got players to reduce their share of hockey-related revenue to 50%.