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First day of free agency sees West get even more wild

by Corey Masisak

Much of the offseason work before the start of the 2014-15 season has now been completed, and the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks remain the class of the Western Conference.

The list of possible contenders queuing up behind those two powers is growing, though, with several teams looking better on paper after a series of trades and the first day of free agency. It was the tougher conference in 2013-14, but the battle for the top eight spots in the Western Conference next season could be incredible.

Los Angeles and Chicago have been relatively quiet on the roster-construction front since meeting in an epic seven-game Western Conference Final. The Kings re-signed all of their key free agents except for defenseman Willie Mitchell, who landed with the Florida Panthers on Tuesday.

The Blackhawks added Brad Richards, who was bought out by the Stanley Cup finalist New York Rangers, on a one-year deal to replace Michal Handzus. Young players on each team (Brayden McNabb in Los Angeles; Teuvo Teravainen and Jeremy Morin in Chicago) can attain full-time roles, but otherwise the rosters could look similar in October to the ones that played in June.

Other teams set out this week to chase down the two superpowers, who have combined for four of the past five NHL championships. After several days of trades and a flurry of free-agent signings Tuesday, the road back to the conference final is not going to be easy for the Kings or Blackhawks.

One of the teams that pushed the Kings to seven games in the playoffs, the Anaheim Ducks, added centers Ryan Kesler and Nate Thompson to try to close the gap in one area Los Angeles had a clear advantage against them. The Ducks also signed defenseman Clayton Stoner, but he might not be much of an upgrade on what they have on the blue line.

Aside from Kesler, the biggest reason for optimism in Orange County is the potential contributions of Rickard Rakell, Emerson Etem, Devante Smith-Pelly, Stefan Noesen, William Karlsson, Shea Theodore, Nicolas Kerdiles and elite young goaltender John Gibson.

The top contender to Chicago in the Central Division remains the St. Louis Blues, and they might finally have enough offense to get past the first round in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. This season, the Blues fell to the Blackhawks in six games in the first round, losing the final four games of the series.

The Blues added top free-agent center Paul Stastny and convinced another, Jori Lehtera, to finally come to North America after drafting him in 2008.

Colorado had a magical regular season in 2013-14, but the Avalanche have lost Stastny and PA Parenteau and added Daniel Briere and Jarome Iginla. Nathan MacKinnon could reach elite player/Hart Trophy-candidate status, but the Avalanche were going to be hard-pressed to repeat the success of last season to begin with, and now other contenders in the Central may have passed them in the past few days.

The Dallas Stars looked like a franchise on the rise last season and now appear to be a chic pick for a deep playoff run in 2014-15. Dallas general manager Jim Nill added a center (Jason Spezza) and, maybe as importantly, a skilled wing (Ales Hemsky) to give the Stars a formidable top-six forward group.

Despite a serious injury to goaltender Pekka Rinne, the Nashville Predators only missed the postseason by three points last season. GM David Poile tried to land Spezza but was rebuffed. Instead, Nashville added forward James Neal from the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Predators have a dynamic goal-scorer to go with their elite goal-prevention abilities.

Then there is the team that knocked Colorado out of the playoffs in the first round, the Minnesota Wild. They added a goal-scoring wing, Thomas Vanek, and, like Anaheim, have several young players who could help the team improve with their personal gains.

The Pacific looks like it will continue to be controlled by the California teams. Los Angeles and Anaheim are loaded, and though there has been plenty of discussion about the coming "rebuild" for the San Jose Sharks, it could end up being a lot of talk.

None of the key players from the Sharks have left the Bay Area, and if all that happens is the team gets younger on defense, San Jose can again be the team that was right there with Los Angeles at the end of last season.

Though it looks like at least six of the seven teams in the Central could make a run at 100 points if everything broke just right, there could be a scramble for fourth place behind the three California teams in the Pacific.

One team, the Edmonton Oilers, might have needed to spend a lot of money to make a couple of savvy moves Tuesday, but adding defenseman Mark Fayne and forward Benoit Pouliot will help them be a better possession team. The defense should be better, and the goaltending with Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth for a full season almost certainly will be markedly improved. It might not be enough to push the Oilers into the playoffs, but it could mean a significant uptick in points.

It is a long time until the Kings raise their latest Stanley Cup banner on opening night against the Sharks at Staples Center, but the moves made in the past few days have the Western Conference looking like a minefield of talented, deep teams again.

If the Kings are going to win a third in title in four seasons, or the Blackhawks a third in six, it certainly looks like it could take another brutal march through the first three rounds of the playoffs to do so.

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