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Super 16: Player moves make West still best

by Corey Masisak / NHL.com

After a dominant season by the Western Conference in 2013-14, the reaction was swift and not subtle.

The West added more great players.

Though every team in the NHL that doesn't play home games at Staples Center or United Center spent the offseason searching for ways to inch closer to the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks at the top of the League, teams in the West in particular have created a pretty amazing arms race.

The four best players to change conferences, and seven of the best 10 or 11, traveled west. Here's a look at the disparity in players who switched conferences during the offseason, either via trades or free agency:

The top teams in the conference also pilfered their own, with players like Paul Stastny (Colorado Avalanche to St. Louis Blues) and Ryan Kesler (Vancouver Canucks to Anaheim Ducks) joining contenders. The result is a cluster of potentially great teams queueing up for their chance to knock off Los Angeles or Chicago.

It has led to what appears to be a divide between the haves and have-nots in the West, while the playoff picture looks far more muddled in the East. It may not be easy for one of the six teams that did not make the postseason in the West in 2013-14 to return to the playoffs this season, but the East could be wide open beyond the top two or three clubs.

Were it not for two Game 7 home losses, the Western Conference would be riding an eight-season Stanley Cup champion streak. For years the Detroit Red Wings were the standard and everyone was chasing them, in much the same way American League franchises have tried to keep pace with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.

Now it is the Kings and Blackhawks who are the pace setters, not only in the West but the entire League. It could change during the season, but at this point it looks like there are more title challengers in the West but maybe more teams with a solid chance to reach the postseason in the East.

DISCLAIMER: While the Super 16 is NHL.com's weekly power rankings, it focuses more on the "power" than the "rankings" when determining the order. It's not always going to look like the League standings and likely will take more of a long view than a short one. If two teams are close the tiebreaker almost always is this: If the two teams started a seven-game series right now, who would prevail? Stop by to see where your favorite team ranks, but stay for the information.

1. Chicago Blackhawks

The Blackhawks had the best collection of forwards in hockey, and then got better in the offseason. Brandon Bollig and Michal Handzus are gone, Brad Richards and Daniel Carcillo have arrived, and there should be opportunities for Jeremy Morin, Ben Smith and eventually Teuvo Teravainen to provide more impact than they did last season.

Improved depth will allow the Blackhawks to unleash a line where Patrick Sharp is the third-best player and possibly form the best line Patrick Kane has played with that doesn't include Jonathan Toews.

Finding a center to slot behind Toews has been a six-year project. Chicago has won the Stanley Cup twice and reached the final four two other times, so shed no tears for its struggle, but the Blackhawks finally have some desirable options.

Andrew Shaw centered a line with Kane and emerging star Brandon Saad at times last season. They were reunited after the Kings went ahead in the conference final and were the only line to win its matchup consistently with Los Angeles.

(Click to enlarge)

That is all of Chicago's line combinations that have spent at least 120 minutes together at even strength in the past three seasons, thanks to the wonderful new line stats tool at Progressive Hockey. Shaw between Kane and Saad has been frighteningly good.

Richards will be Plan B, and given coach Joel Quenneville's propensity for line shuffling, he will spend time with Kane and Saad. Teravainen is the long-term solution. Those two players, along with possibly more impact from Saad and Morin, are a big reason why the Blackhawks can reclaim their place at the top of the NHL mountain.

MUST READ: Tracey Myers of CSN Chicago writes about how the Blackhawks will be motivated to repay the Kings.

2. Los Angeles Kings

Maybe the Kings, emboldened by their second championship in three seasons and reinforced up front by full seasons for Marian Gaborik, Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson and Jeff Carter at center, finally can win a division title. Maybe not, because coach Darryl Sutter's suffocating style of play is difficult to master for six months of the regular-season grind.

Do expect an improvement for Los Angeles, because a team with all of this talent likely won't shoot so poorly for three-quarters of a season again. Don't be surprised if Round 3 with the Blackhawks becomes a reality in May.

MUST READ: Lisa Dillman of the Los Angeles Times writes about Justin Williams, who could become the only active player with four Stanley Cup championships on his resume (assuming Martin Brodeur or Colin Fraser don't find an NHL job with the 2015 champion).

3. St. Louis Blues

The Blues have little left to prove in the regular season but have reached that dangerous territory where fans and media members start to demand postseason success. St. Louis has been right there with Chicago and Los Angeles (having led each 2-0 in series in the past two playoffs), but the Blues haven't been able to find enough goals when they needed them.

This season could be the chance for Brian Elliott to prove he can be a No. 1 goaltender, or for Jake Allen, No. 27 on the NHL.com Top 60 prospect ranking, to do the same. Paul Stastny should be a great addition, but losing Vladimir Sobotka to the Kontinental Hockey League will hurt. If Vladimir Tarasenko becomes a star, or someone like Ty Rattie or Dmitrij Jaskin develops into a dynamic regular, this team might not be short on goals when it runs into Chicago again in April.

MUST READ: Clare Austin of Puckology did some research on the success rate of drafting goaltenders, and Elliott is a bit of an anomaly.

4. Anaheim Ducks

Ryan Kesler is what European soccer media types would call a "signal of intent." The Ducks had a lot of pieces to make a near-championship level club, but now the window of contention is wide open. Kesler's time in Orange County will be valued based on what he does against Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Joe Thornton and Logan Couture.

The Ducks likely won't enjoy the same success with their team shooting percentage this season, but the maturation of a flock of young players, most importantly defensemen Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm and the arrival of Rickard Rakell or William Karlsson at center behind Kesler and Ryan Getzlaf, could help improve the possession numbers and mitigate the regression.

The fans will miss Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu. The NHL will miss Selanne and Koivu. The media will miss Selanne and Koivu. The Ducks are going to replace them with younger, better options.

MUST READ: One of general manager Bob Murray's best moves was adding defenseman Ben Lovejoy for a low price, writes Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times.

5. San Jose Sharks

The Sharks were one of the three or four best teams in the League last season. They had a great regular season, which included several core players finding new levels of performance.

San Jose faced another great team in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and pushed the eventual champions to seven games before losing. The Sharks pummeled the future champs twice in the series in a show of offensive might no other team could muster against the title winners.

Despite the tough series loss the Sharks made few changes to the roster in the offseason; the biggest was trading two aging defensemen in Brad Stuart and Dan Boyle.

There were a couple of inconsequential additions, and no player expected to have a regular spot in the lineup was not in the organization last season. One of those core players who had a breakout season will move to his old position on defense to help fortify the losses, and there are a few young players who will step into regular roles with the chance to help the Sharks make another run at a championship.

NOTE: Above is an accurate account of what has happened since Game 7 of the Western Conference First Round Series against the Kings. This is what happened, and yet everyone reading knows this is not what "really" happened.

It has been a curious, weird and at times confounding offseason for the Sharks. How the team, and a couple of obvious individuals in particular, responds to what has transpired this offseason and what might happen in the future could lead to a wide range of possible outcomes.

This still can be a great team.

MUST READ: This is a great representation of how the best teams are able to prevent shot attempts by Jennifer Lute Costella for Progressive Hockey (check out where San Jose was in relation to Los Angeles and the other elite teams last season).

6. Boston Bruins

The Bruins still are clearly the class of the Eastern Conference, though the Tampa Bay Lightning have the young talent and present ability to chase them down if there are injuries. Time and non-perfect salary cap management has chipped away at the depth, and this could be a turning point-type season.

There are a lot of players who need new contracts next season. There are players who need to take a step forward in their development (Dougie Hamilton), prove they can handle tougher assignments (Torey Krug) or prove to be a sustainable, consistent offensive force (Reilly Smith, Carl Soderberg).

MUST READ: The team with the most consistent line combinations in 2013-14 faces a lot more uncertainty this season, writes Amalie Benjamin of the Boston Globe.

7. Dallas Stars

General manager Jim Nill's successful offseason-for percentage remains at 100 percent. For a second straight summer the Stars added integral parts making Dallas a fun team to watch develop in 2014-15.

The forwards and goaltending can match up with the best of the West, but the defense corps might not. Jordie Benn and Brendan Dillon are on track to be nice, solid players but don't be surprised if the Stars are reported to be looking for one more player at that position in late February.

MUST READ: Erin Bolen of Defending Big D breaks down how the Dallas wings defend the cycle in the defensive zone.

8. Tampa Bay Lightning

Dallas is the new darling in the West, while Tampa Bay earns that distinction in the Eastern Conference. The Lightning fortified the defense corps behind emerging star Victor Hedman and supplemented the center depth behind superstar Steven Stamkos.

The rest of the components are in place for a deep playoff run. Tampa Bay could become a great team in 2014-15 if goaltender Ben Bishop isn't a one-hit wonder, and certainly can be for the rest of the decade given there is more impact talent in the pipeline.

MUST READ: Offseason training gurus are all the rage in the NHL, writes Katie Strang of ESPN.com, and there might not be a better example of this than Stamkos' work with Gary Roberts, which helped transform him into an elite athlete and hastened his development into an elite NHL player.

9. Minnesota Wild

Minnesota's top-six forward group could be one of the best in the League, a unit split evenly between homegrown and acquired talent. If it works for the Wild, they will have a deep group of scorers and young talent on the third line maturing without much pressure. This team will score and win a lot.

If it doesn't work there will be grumbling about not giving a player like Nino Niederreiter or Erik Haula a chance higher in the lineup. On a more macro level, the only way it doesn't work for the Wild this season is if the goaltending group of youth (Darcy Kuemper), age (Niklas Backstrom) and uncertainty (Josh Harding) fails them.

MUST READ: There is plenty of uncertainty when it comes to predicting goaltender performance, writes Megan Richardson for Progressive Hockey, and Kuemper is a great example of that.

10. Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins should be fine. New GM Jim Rutherford reworked the forward depth, found a better backup goalie, and most importantly landed Christian Ehrhoff on defense while declining to overpay Matt Niskanen or Brooks Orpik. Patric Hornqvist might outscore James Neal this season if Hornqvist stays healthy and plays with a world-class center.

The Penguins should be fine. Center Evgeni Malkin's mysterious injury is troubling. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury probably has one last chance to prove he's worth another big contract. Forward Beau Bennett is needed to round out the top six but can't seem to stay healthy. There is a new coach to adapt to.

The Penguins should be fine. This probably is a conservative ranking, especially if Malkin is healthy soon. Whether or not this group can be great again remains to be seen.

MUST READ: Sidney Crosby's mother, Trina, has an interesting new role in hockey beyond "mother of the world's best player," writes Shelly Anderson for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

11. Montreal Canadiens

Adding Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau for Daniel Briere could end up being a decisive win for Montreal. Parenteau will help replace Thomas Vanek. Defenseman Tom Gilbert might be a discounted version of Anton Stralman, mostly because of his (analytic writers would say inaccurate) reputation at stops prior to playing for the Florida Panthers and because he didn't spend eight weeks in the playoffs during his contract year.

There is lots of promising young talent in Montreal, but before anointing them Cup contenders after their deep playoff run, remember the Canadiens were a poor possession team for much of the 2013-14 season, and to say there was a larger than average amount of luck involved in their series wins would be an understatement. A couple of the Bruins may have considered a second career as a blacksmith after they hit so much iron in the teams' Eastern Conference Second Round series.

MUST READ: Laura Saba of Eyes On The Prize makes a plea for a shift in consuming and sharing hockey writing.

12. Detroit Red Wings

It was a pretty quiet summer for the Red Wings after what essentially was a lost season because of injuries. Daniel Alfredsson might not be able to return, but don't rule that out just yet. There is a great group of young forwards to support Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, but the defense corps could be pretty average (though that would count as an improvement from some of the ragtag crews coach Mike Babcock had to use last season).

Player, position Games missed CF%
Pavel Datsyuk, C 37 55.6
Brendan Smith, D 11 53.8
Henrik Zetterberg, C 37 53.3
Darren Helm, C 40 52.3
Jonathan Ericsson, D 34 51.7
Johan Franzen, RW 18 51.2
Justin Abdelkader, LW 12 50.8
Joakim Anderson, C 17 49.9
Danny DeKeyser, D 17 49.0
KEY: CF% = Corsi for percentage
Team Man-games lost*
Pittsburgh 529
DETROIT 421
Winnipeg 349
Anaheim 334
Buffalo 302
Vancouver 299
*Data courtesy of www.mangameslost.com

There might be the temptation to draw a straight, descending line from 2012-13 to 2014-15, but there is so much more young talent in Detroit now that it's quite possible the line is going the other way and people just don't know it yet.

MUST READ: Tomas Jurco is an Internet sensation, but that's not the reason he loves the World Wide Web so much, writes Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press.

13. Colorado Avalanche

Lots of very good hockey writers have spent the offseason explaining in great detail why the Avalanche likely will tumble in the standings after an incredible rise in 2013-14. To be clear, those very good hockey writers are correct in their analysis; not just a regression but likely a steep one could be coming for Colorado.

Instead of recounting all the reasons why this is accurate, let's explore why the Avalanche could, in theory, defy the odds again in 2014-15. This basically boils down to three or four players.

*Tyson Barrie

Matt Duchene and Semyon Varlamov were the best players on the Avalanche last season and Nathan MacKinnon is on the verge of assuming that role. However, Barrie is critical for the Avalanche. Expecting high goal and point totals again might be folly, but he could develop into a true No. 1 defenseman, capable of helping the team not be snowed under (pun intended) in possession against top competition.

* Nathan MacKinnon

Want to make a friendly wager with a hockey friend? Bring up MacKinnon and Connor McDavid in a conversation about who is going to surpass Crosby someday, and then offer to give him or her McDavid and take MacKinnon. Think of where Stamkos and John Tavares were as 17-year-olds and where they are now.

MacKinnon had one of the best age-18 seasons in League history, relative to present offensive output. He might be a top-five player in the NHL very soon. If it is in 2014-15, that obviously would help the Avalanche's fortunes.

* Ryan O'Reilly

There were a lot of comparisons between O'Reilly and Ryan Johansen this offseason because of similar contentious contract negotiations. O'Reilly also is a really good player and probably the most underrated of the four great young forwards in Colorado. Someone has to replace Paul Stastny as a possession-driver (relative term for the Avalanche). It could be MacKinnon, but it also could be O'Reilly.

* Semyon Varlamov

The .927 save percentage that ranked third in the League last season almost certainly is going to drop. Though his numbers with the Washington Capitals suggest a big decline, there was untapped potential in Varlamov before last season. He displayed flashes of it in Washington, but maybe Avalanche goalie coach Francois Allaire and coach Patrick Roy will continue to coax it out of him more consistently. If they don't, the Avalanche's slide could rival what happened to the Toronto Maple Leafs last season.

MUST READ: This is Part 1 of an incredibly in-depth preseason look at the Avalanche from Cheryl Bradley and the rest of the Mile High Hockey staff.

14. New York Rangers

The biggest issue for the Rangers in the short-term is Derek Stepan's broken leg, but the long-term outlook is cloudier than a season ago when New York clearly had become a top-three or top-four team in the East by season's end. GM Glen Sather replaced every departed player, but the issue is each replacement part is not as good as the player whose dressing room stall he's filling.

Super16 Feeling Blue?

Player Goals Points CF% CF Rel%
IN
D. Boyle 12 36 52.98 -1.12
L. Stempniak 12 34 47.52 1.87
M. Lombardi* 4 8 45.73 -7.99
OUT
A. Stralman 1 13 56.8 5.69
B. Pouliot 15 36 55.8 3.47
B. Boyle 6 18 46.9 -5.75
*Lombardi's stats are from 2012-13 because he played in Switzerland last season
KEY: CF% = Corsi for percentage; CF Rel% = Corsi for percentage relative to team average

Anton Stralman, Benoit Pouliot and Brian Boyle for Dan Boyle, Lee Stempniak and Matthew Lombardi is not a trade anyone would make, but New York had salary cap concerns in the short- and long-term. The Rangers need one more vintage Martin St. Louis season, and young players like J.T. Miller and maybe Kevin Hayes or Anthony Duclair to help develop into an impact player, because there's a group of teams in the Metropolitan Division that have closed the gap.

MUST READ: Theo Fleury has found a measure of peace in his post-playing days and wants to help other victims of abuse, writes Strang.

15. Nashville Predators

The Predators lost Mike Fisher to a long-term injury, but blanketed the problem with three low-risk, low-cost signings and now have some newfound center depth to go with their potentially elite defense corps and a healthy Pekka Rinne.

They also added forward James Neal, and he might break the franchise record for goals in a season (33 by Jason Arnott in 2008-09). How this group transitions from coach Barry Trotz to Peter Laviolette will be the key, but even in a stacked conference the Predators could be the team that moves into the top eight should someone from last season falter.

MUST READ: Jen Neale details the wide range of possible outcomes for the Predators this season as part of Puck Daddy's emoji-based season previews.

16 (tie). New York Islanders/New Jersey Devils/Washington Capitals/Columbus Blue Jackets

There is no sugarcoating it -- this is a copout. Remember how the West added a bunch of great players and the East added some less-great players? There was plenty of shuffling inside the conference and that has resulted in a bundle of teams in the middle which look extremely close on paper, particularly in the Metropolitan Division.

The Islanders had a fantastic offseason but had such a huge gap to close. The Devils are going to start and elite goalie 60-plus times instead of 43 and were already a great bet to improve based on their possession prowess.

The Capitals spent a lot to upgrade the defense corps, but their biggest improvement might be behind the bench. The Blue Jackets were not going to be here if Johansen wasn't signed, but with him and Sergei Bobrovsky leading their young core and the addition of Scott Hartnell, they might deserve to be several spots higher in short order.

Any of these teams could finish second or sixth in the Metro and not have that drastically different of a season.

MUST READ: Fans of the Devils who double as foodies will enjoy this development, writes Jessica Mazzola of NJ.com.

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