Monday, June 27, 2011

Fast Moves Shake Up NHL’s Western Conference

By Mike Chen

It's not even the free agent frenzy and the Western Conference has already shifted immensely thanks to several big moves. Last year's Western Conference race was already one of the tightest we've ever seen, and with big names landing new homes out West, it's going to get even tighter. Let's take a look at the impact:

Columbus Blue Jackets Get Jeff Carter

Jeff Carter was arguably the best forward for the Philadelphia Flyers last year. He was also rumored to be part of a locker room problem alongside captain Mike Richards (though who knows how many of those rumors are actually true). Carter's a lock for 30-50 goals, and his arrival in Columbus gives the Blue Jackets the first true No. 1 center in the team's history.

Will he play with fellow sniper Rick Nash or will he anchor a second line that takes the heat off Nash? Either option is a boost for Columbus, who struggled mightily to score goals at times. For Nash, the Columbus captain finally gets some relief, and with defenses splitting their efforts between Nash and Carter, both will benefit — as will other forwards such as Derreck Brassard, Kristian Huselius, Antoine Vermette, and R.J. Umberger.

L.A. Kings Get Mike Richards

The Jeff Carter trade was expected, as the Philadelphia Flyers needed to dump salary in order to sign goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. But few actually predicted that the team would trade Richards, the team captain, a skilled player that also mirrored the grittier traits of Bobby Clarke. His trade may signify a major shift in thinking in Philadelphia, but for the L.A. Kings, it's a huge step forward.

The Kings struggled at times on both ends of the ice last season (losing Anze Kopitar for the stretch run and playoffs didn't help). With Richards now inserted into the lineup, the Kings now have the talent to fill out two scoring lines. And with Richards able to play on both ends of the ice, he might assume the role of shutdown center for the Kings, as well. At the very least, he'll eat up some penalty kill minutes. How this plays into Terry Murray's defensive scheme remains to be seen, as a common gripe for Kings fans was Murray's insistence on playing a strict system. Will he open things up now that he has more talent to work with?

San Jose Sharks Get Brett Burns

Since the Sharks lost Rob Blake to retirement, there's been a huge talent gap between Dan Boyle and the rest of San Jose's defense. Sure, Douglas Murray is a beast in terms of physical play, and Jason Demers rounded into a top-four defenseman by the end of the season. However, the team still had a huge hole in terms of a No. 2 minute-muncher, as well as another power play blueliner.

Enter Burns, a forward-turned-defenseman with huge offensive instincts and reasonable defensive skills. With a booming shot and the ability to regularly play 26-28 minutes if necessary, Burns gives Todd McLellan many options for his newly re-tooled defense. If Burns finds his stride with San Jose and the Sharks' other young defense (Demers, Marc-Edouard Vlasic) become reliable top-four blueliners, San Jose's biggest weakness could turn into one of their strengths.

Of course, the Western Conference is far from settled. Big-name free agents still have to find new homes, and who knows what trades we'll see over the next few weeks. And, of course, the Detroit Red Wings could claim that they've made the biggest offseason move simply by re-upping Norris Trophy winner/hockey god Nicklas Lidstrom to another year. Gear up, folks, the first drop's been a doozy, but there's still more to come on this rollercoaster.

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