In the utopian world NHL commissioner Gary Bettman believes is parity, it doesn’t get much better than this season’s race in the Pacific Division where all five teams have a chance to finish first.
Or to miss the playoffs altogether.
The Pacific Division has become the most interesting in the league this season, with a couple of teams in the process of being sold, another presumably entering a rebuilding stage, and two that had high expectations giving no quarter and fighting it out what could be its only playoff spot.
The post season cutoff line in the Western Conference heading into Tuesday’s action was 68 points, a total the Los Angeles Kings, Dallas Stars and Anaheim Ducks all share at the moment. Factoring in wins and games played though only the Kings would be playoff bound, yet all three teams are within five points of the Pacific lead.
That spot belongs to the Phoenix Coyotes at the moment, although the San Jose Sharks are one point behind at 72. It does makes for a compelling home stretch to everyone’s schedules and maybe even their general managers too, at least after next Monday’s trade deadline.
Until then, it will be hair-pulling time for the GMs in what has been an exceptionally active market in the last few weeks.
“I think that’s because there will be only 19 games left after the deadline,” said San Jose general manager Doug Wilson. “You have to factor in integration time.”
Wilson is one of those who already has. San Jose made a move on Friday by acquiring defenseman Ian White from the Carolina Hurricanes, a few weeks after they traded for Ben Eager from Atlanta and signed Kyle Wellwood as a free agent back from Russia. All are depth moves that are expected to help the talented Sharks make a Stanley Cup run this spring.
Doing something similar would be a welcome scenario for the Stars. They pulled off a pretty notable deal of their own by getting a good young offensive defenseman in Alex Goligoski from the Pittsburgh Penguins, although Dallas may be thinking more about the future with this deal. The trade cost them James Neal, one of the league’s emerging young power forwards and a decent defenseman in Matt Niskanen, and while it addresses a need Dallas has, it makes you wonder if the money saved in the transaction wasn’t as much a motivating factor as anything for a team up for sale.
Meanwhile, the Coyotes are supposed to be off the market with Matthew Hulsizer having been approved for purchase by the board of governors, but he has not been able to close the deal on a lease restructuring with the city of Glendale. Perhaps not coincidentally, Phoenix hasn’t made any changes as yet and may not, although riding a seven-game win streak into Tuesday’s game at Philadelphia might be lessening any sense of urgency.
That’s not necessarily the way Anaheim Ducks are feeling these days. Their success in their first post-Scott Niedermayer era season has been largely overlooked, and they made what seemed like a good move by bringing veteran Francois Beauchemin back from the Toronto Maple Leafs for their blue line. Problem is with goaltender Jonas Hiller still suffering from concussion-like symptoms, the Ducks defense just isn’t enough hasn’t done much to stymie offensive assaults that have seen Anaheim give up 21 goals in its last four games.
Defense hasn’t been a problem up the road in Los Angeles this season with the Kings getting fine goaltending and very good work from its group along the blue line. But the Kings aren’t scoring enough and that’s a major concern as the team gets set for a final push.
Los Angeles opened a lot of eyes with its playoff run last season and has assembled one of the league’s most impressive collections of young talent and raised expectations with a great 12-3 start.
The Kings have been uneven since then, but are in pretty good shape heading into the deadline with cap space and many assets in the system heading into the deadline. GM Dean Lombardi has always preached patience when it comes to building, but Los Angeles has been expected to take the next step this season and he is under pressure to make that happen.
Which means the Kings will be a team worth watching as the deadline approaches. Just not the only one in the in the Pacific Division.