- Craig Custance
From a pure hockey fan’s perspective, it was about as good as it gets. The Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference final was two powerhouses exchanging punches until just one was left standing.
It was great hockey that ended the only way it could: an overtime winner in Game 7.
Those who are building teams trying to get through the Kings and Blackhawks had a different perspective. Sure, they could appreciate the high-level hockey, but they have already turned their focus to constructing rosters to beat those two teams. It’s not an easy process.
“It’s so depressing,” Phoenix Coyotes GM Don Maloney said with a laugh during this past weekend’s NHL draft combine in Toronto. “Both teams. I mean, you’re not going to get any better -- reigning Stanley Cup champ against the prior Stanley Cup champ. They’re both in their prime, the best players are in the prime of their career. Where do they go? It’s daunting, and it’s challenging. I think it’s good for all of us. Competition makes us all better.”
Competition isn’t a problem right now in the NHL, especially in the West. The Kings and Blackhawks have set a standard that pushes all the teams below them, and St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong observed that it’s not just the teams at the top of the standings that keep other general managers up late.
The Blues are widely considered in that next tier of teams on the verge of a breakthrough, but even that label can disappear in a hurry.
“Look at Colorado and Dallas. Those are the two teams that seem to be trending upward. Chicago and L.A. aren’t getting any better; they’re just not getting any worse. I think Winnipeg is a team that is going to have a different look to it. With Paul [Maurice] there now, they seem to play really good for Paul,” Armstrong said this past weekend. “I look at last year, and you sort of pencil in teams you thought were going to be in the playoffs and pushing. I did that again, and one team I didn’t have pushing ended up winning the Central. That was Colorado. That could be Calgary or someone else next year. Someone is going to do really well."
It makes this time of year even more important for teams around the league. To close the gap, they must hit on their draft picks, avoid mistakes in free agency and find ways to upgrade rosters when great players are in short supply.
It’s what should make this draft in Philadelphia an interesting one. There’s a perception that it will be another active one on the trade front in part because the free-agent class isn’t particularly strong. This draft doesn’t have as many NHL-ready prospects as some in the past, so GMs looking for an immediate impact have to view the trade route.
“I do think there’s more [trade talks] based on the conversations I’m having. I think there should be more things happening. There’s just fewer players available in free agency. Therefore, as you set up a team for next year, you’re going to have to make some deals,” Maloney said. “Nobody is sitting here and saying, 'Let’s wait until July 1 and fill two or three holes.'”
Making this year even more unique is that there are seven new general managers who will be building their rosters for the first time.