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NHL's Western Conference has become an arms race for top-two centres

Posted: 07/3/2014 11:54 AM | Comments: 0

Last Modified: 07/3/2014 11:59 AM

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St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong targeted Paul Stastny in free agency. But before he even had the chance to sign him, the Dallas Stars traded for Jason Spezza.

"I've got to say I was a little bit nervous this morning when Dallas made their acquisition what our Plan B would be," Armstrong said.

Such is life in the Western Conference, where contending teams are playing an escalating game of "Can you top this?" specifically down the middle of the ice. Having a strong one-two punch of centres is necessary given the Los Angeles Kings' duo of Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter and now the Anaheim Ducks' combination of Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler.

"If you want to be one of the elite teams, you have to have it," Stars GM Jim Nill said. "You look at the other teams that are winning on our side now, you need to have two elite centremen."

Nill came from the Detroit Red Wings, who won Stanley Cups thanks in part to having Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov and later Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. In Dallas now, he has Tyler Seguin and Spezza.

The Stars need them to compete in an ultra-competitive Central Division, let alone the Western Conference. The NHL's new divisional playoff format makes that a necessity.

While Anaheim has to worry about getting through Cup-champion Los Angeles, Dallas has to contend with Jonathan Toews and now Brad Richards with Chicago, Alex Steen and Stastny with St. Louis and Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon with the Colorado Avalanche.

Armstrong said Tuesday that the Blues' first goal had to be dethroning the Avalanche, who finished first when St. Louis scuffled at the end of the season. Enter Stastny, signed to a US$28-million, four-year deal not long into free agency.

"They're the champs and they're the first team we have to take a look at catching," Armstrong said on a conference call. "If we're fortunate enough to do that and get into the playoffs, we want to have the guys that can compete at that time of year."

Signing Stastny away from Colorado was a good place to start. Of course part of the rationale the 28-year-old had in leaving was a compliment to the Avalanche's superb centre depth.

"You look at Colorado and you had these dynamic players in MacKinnon and Duchene and they're young and they're still developing," Stastny said. "You never know what's going to happen down the road when MacKinnon kind of becomes a centre and (maybe) he pushes me out of the way, you never know.

"I look at St. Louis, their window to win the Cup is now and for the next seven or eight years."

Even with the San Jose Sharks in a rebuilding stage, the window is cracked wide open for the Blues, Avalanche, Blackhawks, Kings, Ducks and Minnesota Wild. Of that group, only the Wild, with Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund, lack a pair of strong, established centres, but also got Thomas Vanek to mix in with Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.

And only now, after signing Richards to a $2-million, one-year deal, are the Blackhawks able to match-up down the middle with the best in the West. Chicago came one overtime goal away from going to the Cup final anyway, but its most glaring hole was at second-line centre.

"We certainly have been searching for someone who is an experienced centre in the NHL," GM Stan Bowman said. "It's a big moment for us to be able to add someone of his calibre as a hockey player and as an individual. He brings so many things to the table for us."

The same can be said in Dallas of Spezza, who said he always considered the Stars a good fit as he was on the verge of being traded by the Ottawa Senators. In the process, he rejected a deal that would've sent him to the Nashville Predators and made them playoff contenders.

Spezza said the Stars' young talent "is an envy of a lot of the league," but that was only enough to get them in the playoffs and no further this past spring.

Ducks GM Bob Murray said last week that Dallas was "on the way." Having Spezza not just behind Seguin but ahead of Cody Eakin and Shawn Horcoff down the middle — with Benn, Valeri Nichushkin and Ales Hemsky on the wings — means the Stars are formidable now.

"To think about being on a power-play unit with those guys and to play with them, hopefully we can create some depth where it makes it difficult for teams to have kind of waves of guys coming at you," Spezza said. "It's a great situation to be on a team with such talented, for sure."

Further along the development curve, the Blues feature the kind of centre depth that exemplifies wave after wave. Steen and Stasnty with captain David Backes possibly moving to wing and the Vladimir Sobotka.

"There's a variety of great players on this team and whether some are natural centremen or they're playing wing or vice versa, you can move different pieces (around)," Stastny said. "I think that's what makes good teams really special is they have the ability to make three or four even lines or go top-heavy and make two really effective lines."

To get out of the West, teams need to have talent at least two lines deep. That helped Chicago win the Cup in 2010 and 2013 and made it an attractive destination for Richards, who took much less money than he could've gotten elsewhere after being bought out by the New York Rangers.

"When you look at the opportunity to play here it's pretty exciting because you know if you're playing centre on the top two lines, you're playing with a great player or probably two great players," Richards said. "I've watched these guys play for the last six, seven years and Patrick Kane is one of the most explosive players in the league, and it's not just him. It's a great group that's been together and knows how to win."

As Nill said earlier this week, to get good players, you have to have some good players. There's no shortage of that in the West, which has produced four out of the past five champions.

While the Blackhawks built heavy on defence and down the wings and relied a lot on Toews, the Kings made it look absolutely necessary to have depth at centre. Kopitar had 26 points in 26 playoff games and Carter had 25.

Murray said he knew right after his team lost in seven games to Los Angeles that it had to have a better No. 2 centre. So he traded Nick Bonino, Luca Sbisa and a first-round pick for Kesler.

"Just having those two guys back-to-back, the two Ryans, it makes Mr. Getzlaf's life a little easier," Murray said. "I think we're going to be a harder team to play against."

That's just what the West needed is to ratchet up the difficulty level. Already last season there were arguably six Western teams better than anyone but Boston in the East, and with the Bruins losing Jarome Iginla to Colorado and other off-season movement, the balance of power appears to be even more lopsided for 2014-15.

"I really think that the competition is really strong in just our division," Armstrong said. "Our conference is very strong, obviously."

But Armstrong doesn't consider the Blues' signing of Stastny a reactionary move to what the Ducks and Stars did.

"You have to do what you think is best for your own franchise," he said. "I don't believe you can run your team by trying to get into an arms race."

Only that's exactly what it has become.

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Follow @SWhyno on Twitter

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