NHL – Beasts of the West – Weekly Reader

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Does Joe Thornton watch the NHL standings?

“A little bit bit,” he informed me, sitting in his stall after a current San Jose Sharks apply.

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How often is “a little bit,” exactly?

“I’d say I check every day,” he replied with a smile. “It’s hard to make the playoffs now. There are no ‘gimmie’ games.”

This is especially true in the Western Conference, where a mindboggling number of Stanley Cup contenders are engaging in an arms race for supremacy. “It seems like every year, in the summer, every team in the Central and the Pacific gets better somehow,” said Paul Stastny of the Vegas Golden Knights. “That’s just how it is. A team signs someone, and they have two up-and-comers ready to play.”

Stastny’s a great example of this escalation (or, to be specific, “West-calation”). Last season, he was on the St. Louis Blues, who had 94 points in a season in which they raised the white flag, That’s when they traded Stastny to the Winnipeg Jets, who were a 114-point team that nevertheless felt they were a Paul Stastny away from a championship. He left Winnipeg as a free agent for Vegas, a 109-point Stanley Cup finalist that nonetheless upgraded its second-line center spot to a guy with 646 points in 824 games.

Look at the chess pieces that have been moved around the Western Conference in the past few months: Stastny, Max Pacioretty, Alex Galchenyuk, Ryan O’Reilly, Ilya Kovalchuk, James Neal and, of course, Erik Karlsson, whose serious suitors included no less than three teams in the West before the San Jose Sharks snagged him.

Like Thornton said, there are no gimmies. No cupcakes. No walkovers. You could make the argument that there’s only one team in the West that’s in rebuild mode at the moment, and even then the argument depends on whether or not the Vancouver Canucks are actually taking the proper time to reload. (Ask Trevor Linden, I guess.) Everyone else, whether or not they’re delusional about it, is pressing the pedal down toward a championship.

“In the West, who’s the easy game?” Sharks GM Doug Wilson asked. “There are no easy nights in the league. The elevated level of parity we have right now … I like it. It forces you to get better. That’s the way it should be.”

When and how did this “Westcalation” start? It’s hard to pinpoint. Consider the emergence of the Chicago Blackhawks dynasty with their first Cup victory in 2010. The West had seven teams with a .600 or better points percentage in the standings — the Blackhawks, the last still-relevant Detroit Red Wings, the Nashville Predators, the Canucks (who would soon play for the Cup), the Sharks, the Phoenix Coyotes (!) and the Los Angeles Kings. They had six the following season, including a Canucks team that rolled to 117 points before losing to the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final.

It was in the summer of 2011 when Kings GM Dean Lombardi really began to up the ante, adding Jeff Carter and Mike Richards in separate trades to a roster that had been slowly coming to a boil. For the next four seasons, the Kings and Blackhawks would trade Stanley Cup wins until Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin decided to bring the chalice back East for a spell.

During that time, we saw moves like the Tyler Seguin trade with the Dallas Stars and the Minnesota Wild acquiring both Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in a July 2012 free-agent coup.

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The next wave of Westcalation came in 2016, when David Poile was gifted P.K. Subban for Shea Weber and aggressively traded Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen. Now the Predators were muscling up right as the Blackhawks appeared to be wobbling on the throne, and the rest of the West began responding in kind, especially on the blue line. The Karlsson trade was, if nothing else, an attempt by the Sharks to have the kind of blue-line luxury the Predators have in skating out Subban and Roman Josi for the majority of the game.

At the same time, the Western Conference’s lower lights were stockpiling young star players — some of them outside of Edmonton, who added Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl during that time. Nathan MacKinnon, Johnny Gaudreau, Vladimir Tarasenko, Filip Forsberg, Patrik Laine and now Clayton Keller and Brock Boeser. All great, all franchise-level talents.

Everyone has their theories about why the West is such a meat grinder at the moment.

“Are there more cap teams in the West, and more budget teams in the East? Is there more money rolling around? I don’t know,” Sharks coach Pete DeBoer said. “But I do know there are no easy nights out here. There are some very, very good teams, and it feels like everyone has gotten better.”

Eight of the top 15 teams against the salary cap reside in the West. But to DeBoer’s point, only four of the bottom 10 teams against the salary cap are in the West — the Canucks, the Coyotes, the Avalanche and the Predators, those magicians of cap management vs. assemblage of talent.

Then there’s the P-word, as in “parity,” as in Gary Bettman’s favorite competitive construct.

“There’s so much parity, and that’s what makes it fun from day one,” Stastny said. “I think early in my career, if you had a good start you could sit back on it a little bit. After the All-Star break, you can press it again. But now, every game is so important, especially within the division. You’re already scoreboard watching early on. And most nights it feels like everyone gets a point.”

That’s the humbling part. To paraphrase Wesley Snipes in “Blade,” some franchises are always trying to ice skate uphill.

In thinking about the West for 2018-19, you look at teams like the Edmonton Oilers, the Calgary Flames, the St. Louis Blues, the Dallas Stars, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Arizona Coyotes, who all have designs on playoff spots after missing out last season. But who tumbles out to make room for them? The Knights, losing their mojo? The Ducks, due to injury? The Avalanche, because they’re the last ones in? Two of those three teams had over 100 points last season. It’s daunting; like, no matter how much your team improves, it’s just to get competitive with teams that are still better.

But as Wilson said, a rising tide lifts everyone. The strength of the conference means that every matchup is a compelling one. The best indicator of the West’s greatness is the fact that it produces games that you make time to watch without the NHL’s crutch of traditional rivalry as a selling point. Or am I the only one still amazed that a game between a team in Tennessee and one in Manitoba can have a narcotic effect?

Enjoy this meat grinder of a conference. It won’t always be this way.

“It switches. There’s a decade when the Eastern Conference is the powerhouse, and then it switches over,” said Stastny.

But for now, the West is the best. We offer early condolences to those teams that will fall short of the playoffs, will cast a jealous eye at the Atlantic Division and wonder why life is so cruel.


Jersey Fouls

From Witt Compton in Nashville:

It is a complete Foul, however based mostly on the obtainable proof, we will solely assume that this particular person wouldn’t care about our analysis.

In the meantime, from the Anaheim Geese:

That is in reference to a chant Geese followers have for Jakob Silfverberg, which was carried over from a chant created for him in Sweden. This a borderline “cross” based mostly on the Nickname Exception for Jersey Fouls, however it’s shut.


Bear in mind The Whale

Carolina Hurricanes proprietor Tom Dundon adopted by way of on his vow to honor the Hartford Whalers legacy of his franchise, because the Canes will put on the basic inexperienced sweaters of the Whale in a recreation in opposition to the Boston Bruins on Dec. 23. (No phrase if they’re going to carry the bit to its logical conclusion and roll over for the Bruins.)

I am right here for Whalers nostalgia. I personal a inexperienced jersey. I’ve “Brass Bonanza” downloaded as a ringtone. I used to play them on “NHL 94.” (Viva la Geoff Sanderson.) So this embrace of Hartford wistfulness by Carolina is nice, if additionally just a little awkward the yr after they kicked Ron Francis to the curb.

So it is nice for me, and nice for you, and nice for the Hurricanes. However is it nice for Hartford followers?

The Hartford Courant had a rundown of destructive suggestions on the jerseys, from folks calling it a “punch to the intestine” to saying “it is a big slap within the face to the individuals who supported the Whalers for the 19 years they had been right here.” Deadspin put it as Deadspin places it: “Carolina Hurricanes Proceed To Dance On Hartford’s Damaged Corpse.”

Legitimate factors, and there’s something barely ghoulish about dressing because the Whalers however not essentially acknowledging Hartford. Which is why the Hurricanes ought to have taken this Whalers nostalgia parade and marched as much as Hartford for a house recreation. Severely. If the sport was framed as a “celebration of the legacy of Whalers hockey,” the locals would have flocked to it, a sea of ill-fitting Kevin Dineen sweaters. To have “Brass Bonanza” ring by way of the world yet another time after a aim by the “house” group. It might have been superior.

It is easy to Bear in mind The Whale. It is far more necessary to recollect those that misplaced them.


Puck headlines

  • The origins of Gritty, the Philadelphia Flyers’ new mascot/world obsession. “I feel the ultimate path was to attempt to go in like a Jim Henson, Sesame Avenue kind of path. Like an enormous muppet. … They knew they needed to have him doing lots of actions, [and] they needed his mouth to maneuver. I do know some mascots have actually articulated, detailed heads, however then they cannot transfer the mouths. It is virtually like a large masks and that is it. (The Flyers) knew they needed to have lots of animation and expression within the face (of Gritty).”

  • An fascinating have a look at school hockey at Nebraska.

  • FX is growing a sequence about Jimmy Galante, a convicted felon and affiliate of the Genovese crime household and proprietor of the defunct Danbury Trashers minor league hockey group.

  • Congrats to Meghan Duggan, captain of the U.S. ladies’s Olympic hockey group, and three-time Olympic gold-medal winner Gillian Apps of the Canadian ladies’s group, whose marriage final week has gone viral. Apparently, two worldwide rivals getting married is big information, besides when it is Julie Chu and Caroline Ouellette for some purpose.

  • Lambert takes a deep dive on the Flyers’ protection.

  • The Dallas Stars have an opportunity to take again the highlight of their market. “With the Cowboys, Rangers, and Mavericks all struggling as soon as once more because the Stars season kicks off, they have been given a do-over from the final time they had been on this place.”

Hockey tl;dr (too lengthy; did not learn)

Can Mikko Koskinen keep away from the KHL hex to guide the Oilers within the crease?

In case you missed this from your pals at ESPN

Try Emily’s superior story, “Inside Mark Scheifele’s quest to be the Tom Brady of the NHL.”

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