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A Western tilt stands out for healthy, happy NHL

October 4, 2014

Ice hockey is a booming business right now. After an attention-grabbing Olympic trip and an exciting playoffs for the scandal-free NHL, revenue and television ratings have risen to record levels across a largely healthy, happy league.

Yet the NHL ice is tilted decidedly to the West, and the continental divide might even grow this season.

A few months after the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings staged an epic conference finals won by the Stanley Cup champion Kings, nearly every team on the Western side of the NHL’s unbalanced standings made significant offseason additions to chase the league’s twin postseason powers.

The Anaheim Ducks added Ryan Kesler. The Dallas Stars snared Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky. The St. Louis Blues signed Paul Stastny. The Minnesota Wild snagged Thomas Vanek. The Colorado Avalanche got Jarome Iginla and Daniel Briere.

Even Chicago picked up Brad Richards. Only the champs essentially stood still, daring the West to catch them.

“It seems like the West is loading up again,” Kings center Anze Kopitar said. “But at the end of the day, I don’t think it’s going to matter too much what the other teams do. It’s going to matter what we do.”

The Blackhawks and the Kings each have two titles in the last five years, and they’re both the widely considered favorites to play for the Stanley Cup again. But when Los Angeles beat the New York Rangers in five games in the Stanley Cup finals last year, many prognosticators scoffed that five West teams could have beaten any East representative — and the theoretical math appears much the same this autumn.

“The West is such a grind,” Ducks defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. “There’s so much talent. All these huge, physical teams that skate very well. We can have another great regular season, and it won’t matter if we don’t have the toughness to win in the playoffs.”

The Western Conference has won six of the last eight Cups, and the two East winners were stretched to a full seven games in the finals. Although Boston, Pittsburgh, Montreal and Tampa Bay return strong clubs, league MVP Sidney Crosby and the rest of the East’s stars realize they’ll have to go West to win a title.

“The West is where it’s at right now, and it runs in spurts,” Buffalo general manager Tim Murray said. “Someone is going to have to dethrone L.A. to say the West is not the best.”

While the other 29 teams get to work on that project, there are plenty of intriguing subplots to the season.

With labor peace and no momentum-killing Olympic break, the NHL is back on a normal schedule this winter. Many players believe the quality of games will rise with fewer back-to-back games, and less disruption.

Six teams have new head coaches, with Peter Laviolette taking over in Nashville for Barry Trotz — who moved to Washington — and Willie Desjardins helming Vancouver’s rebuilding project. The highest-profile job belongs to Pittsburgh’s Mike Johnston, an NHL coaching rookie who must gain the trust of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to spur the underachieving Penguins back into Cup contention.

The NHL reduced its slate of outdoor games from six to two this season, hitting only Washington, D.C., and California’s Bay Area, while adding an old-fashioned indoor All-Star weekend for Columbus in January.

The league made some minor rule tweaks, notably banning the spin-o-rama move on penalty shots and shootouts — a huge disappointment for the few players capable of doing it effectively.


AP Hockey Writer John Wawrow in Buffalo contributed.


Follow Greg Beacham on Twitter: http://twitter.com/gregbeacham

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