Thursday, July 3, 2014
NHL’s West Gets Stronger
Statistically speaking, the Western Conference ruled the NHL in the 2013-14 season. Outside of a handful of blips, Western teams were collectively stronger with higher point totals and a lopsided win percentage against Eastern opponents. After this year's annual free agent frenzy, it doesn't appear that things will change. In fact, chances are the Western Conference will only get tougher.
The bomb first dropped right before free agency started. That's when the Anaheim Ducks nabbed Ryan Kesler from the Vancouver Canucks. On paper, this looks like a huge move for Anaheim. However, it comes with some inherent risk given the milage on Kesler's body. If Kesler stays healthy, this move becomes a significant upgrade for Anaheim in all areas: even strength, power play, penalty kill, and face-offs. The move did cost the Ducks some significant depth pieces, and therein lies the risk.
Down south in Texas, the Dallas Stars had the other major trade by acquiring Jason Spezza, solidifying a frightening 1-2 center punch with Tyler Seguin. The other key center move came from the St. Louis Blues, who signed Paul Stastny away from the Colorado Avalanche.
The Dallas Stars were already a fast, scrappy team that nearly beat the Anaheim Ducks in the first round. The St. Louis Blues were one of the class teams of the Western Conference, and a first-round death match against the Chicago Blackhawks. Both clubs are now deeper and more talented, raising fan-base expectations while opening up a world of Stanley Cup possibilities. Similarly, Nashville's trade for James Neal gives the Predators their first player with 40-goal potential — add a healthy season from Pekka Rinne and Nashville is positioned to make some noise. Minnesota added skilled forward Thomas Vanek into the mix, giving them 40-goal potential to go with Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu.
Even the less-significant moves will have a huge ripple effect. Brad Richards, the former Conn Smyth winner, signed a bargain deal to be Chicago's second-line center. Olli Jokinen gives the Predators some much-needed depth at center. Marion Gaborik returns to Los Angeles, where he was a key contributor to the Kings' second Stanley Cup.
While the Blackhawks and Kings remain the class of the Western Conference, the gap — on paper — has closed. Last year's playoffs opened with the idea that there really wouldn't be any upsets due to the parity between seeds 1 and 8, and the 2014-15 chase is gearing up to be a tough gauntlet from the very beginning. Of course, things that look great on paper don't always turn out that way. Just ask Richards that based on his time with the New York Rangers, or Vincent Lecavalier, who may soon see the second buyout of his career if no one trades for his contract.
For now, the balance of power in the NHL is heavily tilted towards the west. Perhaps the only silver lining for Eastern Conference teams is that the brutal first and second round of the playoffs will be even more so for any Western team, and this attrition may help out whichever Eastern team makes the Stanley Cup Final.