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Seven most influential changes of 2015

Put your hands together for 3-on-3 OT, people. AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

In many ways, hockey stayed the course in 2015. Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin were great. The Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup. Canada captured both the IIHF World Championships and World Junior Championships. The world kept on turning.

At the same time, a number of innovative decisions this past year defied hockey conventions. Some of them made major waves, while others barely registered. Nevertheless, they could all affect the sport for years to come.

"There's a lot of ways to preserve the traditional integrity of our game, but you can also compliment that and augment that with new things that amplify our game," said former NHL goalie and current broadcaster Kevin Weekes. "Our game is incredible, but we just had our 98th birthday. How do we have another incredible 98 years? That's really the line of thinking that some of our more creative thinkers are in to."

Only time will tell which of these decisions prove most influential. In the meantime, we'll just have to watch closely to find out what kind of new standard these moves establish. And that should be the fun part. Here are the seven most influential decision of 2015.

3-on-3 overtime: This was without a doubt the major innovation entering the season. It's not exactly reinventing the game, but the results have been undeniable. Shootouts have been reduced, while fans have been treated to a new breakneck in-game situation. Oh, and many players publicly despise it while the Vancouver Canucks have admitted to playing the extra frame just to get to the shootout.

But overall fan response has been overwhelmingly positive to what is essentially a hockey video game come to life. Considering some of the indelible back-and-forth 3-on-3 moments fans have enjoyed, the league appears to have struck oil with its newest innovation. Sure, players will continue hating it, at least until the league introduces one-on-one overtime.

Auston Matthews goes to Switzerland: It's simple, really. The most direct path to the NHL has always gone through either major junior hockey in Canada or Division I college hockey in the United States. But Auston Matthews, the anticipated top pick in the 2016 draft, took a drastic detour when he skipped North America entirely and signed with ZSC Lions of the Swiss League.

Playing with professionals in Europe, the Arizona product could end up being a trailblazer. He has definitely done nothing to diminish his draft stock. Though he's been slowed by injuries, Matthews, 18, has registered 14 goals and 25 points in 22 games and secured his place as the world's top draft-eligible prospect entering the World Juniors in Helsinki, Finland.

The Blackhawks raid Europe: It was a familiar offseason for the Chicago Blackhawks. Win the Stanley Cup, realize an untenable salary-cap situation, trade and let go of several core players and then scramble to rejigger a championship roster.

Sure, their American Hockey League affiliate in Rockford offered replacements. But more drastic moves were required once the Blackhawks parted ways with a number of core players from its 2015 playoff run, including Patrick Sharp, Johnny Oduya, Brad Richards and Brandon Saad.

That meant looking to Europe and aggressively luring talent from other leagues in a way not seen before, especially from a reigning Cup champion. In came Artemi Panarin and Viktor Tikhonov from the Kontinental Hockey League, and Erik Gustafsson from the Swedish elite league. Add Dennis Rasmussen and Viktor Svedberg, both undrafted free agents previously signed from Sweden, and there was a formidable group of European FAs on Chicago's roster this season.

Tikhonov was eventually placed on waivers, but Panarin turned out to be a gem, registering 31 points in his first 35 games and finding chemistry playing beside Patrick Kane.

Dallas adopts a two-goalie system: With the likes of Carey Price, Henrik Lundqvist and Braden Holtby continuing to dominate, teams aren't about to stop building around a single workhorse goalie. But the Dallas Stars are making a compelling case for the two-goalie alternative.

General manager Jim Nill raised eyebrows when he signed established goaltender Antti Niemi to a three-year deal despite already having Kari Lehtonen firmly established in net and signed through 2018.

Maybe it was diplomacy at work, as Finnish countrymen shared the crease. Maybe it's the comfort of having one of the most impressive lineups in the league. Whatever the reason, the new system has worked, with Niemi and Lehtonen splitting time and the Stars set to make a major jump this season.

Kopitar and Stamkos play the waiting game: Long shadows are cast over two of the NHL's top teams. Franchise cornerstones Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings and Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning are shaking things up as they negotiate early extensions.

The longer it goes before Kopitar and Stamkos sign, the more rampant the speculation and rumors regarding their contract status have grown. It's a different approach, especially considering how almost all of the highest-paid players signed their current monster contracts long before becoming unrestricted free agents.

How negotiations ultimately play out for Kopitar and Stamkos could set the standard for similar franchise players and free agency. Not to mention drastically alter the fortunes of several teams, particularly the Lightning.

World Cup details are revealed: The new overtime format was the major tweak entering the season, but the upcoming World Cup of Hockey is undoubtedly the league's major play. As with 3-on-3 overtime, the response has been mixed. But with outdoor stadium games reaching critical mass, the NHL -- in conjunction with the NHLPA, in this case -- wanted to introduce a property that, unlike the Olympics, it could market and manage on its own.

It isn't a conventional tournament format. Not with one team made up of miscellaneous Europeans and another consisting of North Americans aged 24 and under. But if the World Cup is a success, then the NHL could have a new marquee event it can lean on for attention (and revenue) in non-Olympic years.

Hockey grows in Asia: History was made when New York Islanders sixth-round pick Andong Song became the first Chinese player taken in the NHL draft. The selection made waves in Asia, but the game's place on the continent didn't end there.

The tipping point might have come when Beijing National Stadium (that giant birds' nest seen during the 2008 Summer Olympics) hosted the inaugural Canada-China Sports Business Summit in November. The conference brought Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Inc., the corporate giant that owns the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Raptors, together with more than 150 Chinese corporate and government officials.

This could lead to a hockey boom in a massive untapped area that will host the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeong Chang, South Korea, and 2022 Games in Beijing. With the Chinese government committed to getting 300 million new participants involved in winter sports by 2022, 2015 could be the year hockey started taking over Asia.