Kings, Blackhawks driving arms race in Western Conference

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

The success of the Kings and Blackhawks is driving a Western Conference arms race. (USATSI)
The success of the Kings and Blackhawks is driving a Western Conference arms race. (USATSI)

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A look up and down any free-agent tracker and there are certain things that jump out. There's of course the money spent by the Washington Capitals and Florida Panthers on July 1, but perhaps more than anything else, it's how much stronger the Western Conference got as a whole over the past two weeks. The moves made by several teams may have even weakened the East in the process, widening a gap that was painfully obvious last season.

Despite the fact that the Eastern Conference was home to the President's Trophy-winning Boston Bruins last season, the West boasted six teams with 100 or more points, including teams with the second-, third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-best records in the NHL.

Every Western Conference team that secured one of the three divisional playoff spots eclipsed 100 points and then beat the heck out of each other in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Considering that in four of the past five seasons, the Stanley Cup has been won by either the Chicago Blackhawks or Los Angeles Kings, the movement in the West this offseason suggests that teams are doing whatever they can to keep up with those two organizations that have become the class of the league.

Just look at how the teams eliminated by either of those clubs in this most recent postseason have done.

The St. Louis Blues, eliminated in six games by the Blackhawks, added Paul Stastny to strengthen their center group. They handed the former Colorado Avalanche forward a four-year, $28 million deal, giving him the highest cap hit ($7 million) of any unrestricted free agent signed since July 1.

At the NHL Draft, the Anaheim Ducks, eliminated in seven games by the Kings, traded for center Ryan Kesler, giving them a more formidable one-two punch down the middle with him and Ryan Getzlaf.

The Dallas Stars, eliminated by the Ducks in six games, made a similar move, acquiring Jason Spezza to slot in behind Tyler Seguin and bolster their top six. They added even more in acquiring Ales Hemsky to likely play on Spezza's wing.

The Minnesota Wild, eliminated in six games by Chicago, went out and signed top free-agent forward Thomas Vanek, bringing much needed scoring help to a team that already boasts a modicum of gifted forwards led by Zach Parise.

The Avalanche, eliminated by the Wild in seven games and stung by the Stastny departure, added future Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla, who had 30 goals last season for the Bruins.

The Blackhawks, eliminated by the Kings in seven games in the Western Conference finals, added Brad Richards on a one-year deal, bringing the No. 2 center they've seemingly gotten by without for the past few years and making a good team better.

Meanwhile, the Kings did what they had to do to retain their leading goal scorer in the playoffs by signing Marian Gaborik to a long-term deal. The lost a key defenseman in Willie Mitchell (Panthers), but beyond that, they'll ice largerly the same team that just won the Cup.

Other teams that didn't make the playoffs even got into the act, like the Nashville Predators trading for high-scoring winger James Neal. The Vancouver Canucks paid big money to goalie Ryan Miller and skilled forward Radim Vrbata. The Edmonton Oilers brought in solid veteran depth players like forward Benoit Pouliot and defensive defenseman Mark Fayne.

Meanwhile, teams like the San Jose Sharks that have been standing pat remain supremely talented, assuming they don't try to blow things up over there.

If you'll notice, a lot of those players came from Eastern Conference teams. Just using the players listed above that spent time in the Eastern Conference, the West added 360 points worth of Eastern-based production from last season, while only really losing one producer of note in Mike Cammalleri, who took his 26 goals and signed with the New Jersey Devils. That's a rather dramatic swing in the West's favor.

But it's all part of an arms race that has been triggered by the success of the Blackhawks and Kings. Few teams in the league over the past five years have been as good at exposing their opponents' weaknesses, especially in the postseason, as these two clubs.

The Stars didn't have the depth to compete with the Ducks, who didn't have the depth to beat the Kings. Both added players that could be top-line centers on some teams for the No. 2 spot in Spezza and Kesler, respectively.

The Blues and Wild didn't have enough to match the super-skilled Blackhawks, and both teams added highly productive forwards that increase their ability to threaten offensively in Stastny and Vanek.

All of this is setting up the West to be wild once again in 2014-15. The teams are better, tougher and deeper collectively at this point and it makes you wonder how big the gap can actually get at this point.

It was fitting that the Kings needed three consecutive seven-game series against the West, but won the Stanley Cup in five games against a New York Rangers team that had plenty of depth and excellent goaltending. It didn't matter. The Kings were just plain better and they had been tested throughout a grueling regular season and even tougher road in the postseason.

Now they're poised to try and make a run at third Stanley Cup title in four seasons, something believed to be impossible in the salary-cap era. But with the way the Western conference as a whole has made efforts to improve, the Kings are bound to have a tougher time than they did this season, particularly with divisional rival Anaheim improving and frequent late-round sparring partner Chicago doing the same, even if it was only by one player each.

There is supposed to be more parity in the cap era, but the balance of power has significantly shifted westward. As long as teams like the Kings and Blackhawks keep pushing their opponents to be better, it's not going to stop anytime soon.

 
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