In the National Hockey League (NHL), the Western Conference has been considered the tougher conference for almost a decade now. For years, the conference has simply had a better balance of strong teams, from top to bottom. It was believed that the transfer of the Detroit Red Wings from the West to the East would bring more balance to the conferences, but instead, it has simply opened up for new teams to dominate the West coast. Both the Chicago Blackhawks and the Los Angeles Kings have won two Stanley Cups in the past five seasons, and both teams seem poised to hoist another in the near future. Considered the top teams in the league, other teams have been making moves in attempt to keep up in the rapidly growing “arms race” that has begun to form in the NHL’s toughest conference.
Perhaps motivated by seeing their cross-state rivals host another championship parade, the Anaheim Ducks made waves on the day of the National Hockey League’s Entry Draft by acquiring Vancouver Canucks center Ryan Kesler. Kesler was once a 40-goal, two-way center for the Canucks, but injuries and the general disarray of the team have stunted his performance of late. He should find his game again in Anaheim, as his presence gives the Ducks a solid one-two punch down the middle. Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler as the team’s top two centers are, on paper, equal to the Anze Kopitar/Jeff Carter combination that Los Angeles employs and arguably better than the Jonathan Toews/Andrew Shaw lineup in Chicago. Another big acquisition in free agency, perhaps recently bought-out defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, and the Anaheim Ducks could take that next step from consistent playoff team to Cup contender.
The St. Louis Blues attempted to take that step at last season’s trade deadline, acquiring highly coveted goaltender Ryan Miller from the Buffalo Sabres. It sent a message to the rest of the National Hockey League that the Blues were serious about making a Cup run that year. However, Miller’s performance for the team was not what many in St. Louis were expecting. The Blues were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, thanks in part to the poor performance of Ryan Miller. It was a major step back for St. Louis, but one they are hoping to rectify in free agency. Miller will not be returning in a Blues’ uniform, but former Anaheim goaltender Jonas Hiller may be the answer that St. Louis is looking for. The Blues have the depth in their forward and defensive corps to compete for a Cup, so a solution to their goaltending issue could be all they need to join the Western Conference “arms race”.
One team that may be overlooked in the West is the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks suffered an embarrassing first round exit last season, blowing a 3-0 series lead. However, it may have been just what the organization needed, as that is what it took for San Jose general manager Doug Wilson to question the core that he has spent the last decade building. Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton are amazing talent in their own right, but their leadership abilities have been question for quite a while now. It may be time for the Sharks to move them and give some of their younger players, like Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture, a shot at leading the team. San Jose will have to be careful in moving Marleau and Thornton, because if they join another Western Conference team, it may make San Jose’s path to their first Stanley Cup all the more difficult.
Other teams in the West may be just a step behind the rest. The Colorado Avalanche surprised everyone last season by not only making the playoffs, but finishing near the top of the Western Conference. A lot of credit has to be given to their new head coach, Patrick Roy, and rookie phenom Nathan MacKinnon, but the sign of a truly dominant team is to ensure that last season’s performance was not simply a one-time deal. The same applies to the Minnesota Wild, who saw their investment in Ryan Suter and Zach Parise pay off by leading the team to the playoffs and beyond, but their roster simply does not have the same talent level as of some of the top contenders in the Western Conference.
The National Hockey League’s free agency period begins on July 1, and it could be a busy one. Not many moves were made at the NHL Entry Draft, but with the salary cap falling $2 million less than predicted, some teams may be looking to cut salary or risk losing a talented player to another potential playoff team in the league. Already, teams around the league are trading away dead weight contracts and using buyouts to squeeze every bit out of the $69 million cap. With talented forwards like Tomas Vanek and Paul Stastny available as free agents, the National Hockey League could see the “arms race” in the Western Conference reach unheard of levels.
This article is one in a series, providing coverage, analysis, and predictions to NHL fans.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner