PHILADELPHIA – Geographic balance between the NHL’s Eastern and Western Conferences was the biggest loser after the first round of the draft.
Out West, where four of the past five Stanley Cup champions have come from, the Anaheim Ducks got Ryan Kesler from the Vancouver Canucks to give them a one-two punch down the middle to rival the Los Angeles Kings.
In the East, change continued for the Pittsburgh Penguins as new general manager Jim Rutherford pulled off Friday night’s biggest surprise by trading goal-scorer James Neal to the Nashville Predators for wingers Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling.
By the time the draft floor was empty at Wells Fargo Center, the Ryan Getzlaf-Kesler-powered Ducks looked like they could hang with the Kings and Chicago Blackhawks after nabbing one of the bigger names available on the trade market.
“Obviously our division and the whole Western Conference is very difficult,” Ducks GM Bob Murray said. “Going up against the L.A.s, the San Joses and even Dallas, I think Dallas is on the way now, too, our middle had to get stronger. Unfortunately we had to give up Nick (Bonino) in the deal. We just had to get stronger down the middle of the ice.”
It’s no coincidence that the recent arms race in the West has made for better quality of hockey. The NHL’s return to a divisional playoff format also has showed teams the clear path—and which opponents they need to beat—to reach the Cup final.
A seven-game defeat to the Kings in the Pacific Division final illustrated to Murray the need to add a No. 2 centre. In trading Bonino, defenceman Luca Sbisa and a first-round pick, the Ducks got a player in Kesler who fills that glaring void.
“We weren’t very good on faceoffs all year, he’s really good on faceoffs,” Murray said. “He’s an excellent penalty-killer, can play the power play. Just having those two guys back-to-back, the two Ryans, it makes Mr. Getzlaf’s life a little easier right now, too. I think we’re going to be a harder team to play against right now.”
Kesler thinks the Ducks are good enough that they were one of only two teams he was willing to waive his no-trade clause to join, along with the Blackhawks. Once the trade that ended his Canucks tenure was finalized, the soon-to-be 30-year-old centre got a chance to think about going head-to-head with the Kings’ Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter.
“I like it,” he said on a conference call Friday afternoon. “We have size, speed, grit. I’d say that Ryan Getzlaf’s probably one of the best centres in the game, and I’m going to come in behind him and do my job.”
Perhaps the only other team that has two centres as good as the Ducks and Kings is Pittsburgh, which can put Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the ice enough to scare the daylights out of opponents. That hasn’t changed, but just about everything else has with the Penguins.
Out went GM Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma, replaced by Rutherford and Mike Johnston, hired from the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. And now with Neal gone, Malkin won’t have the winger he has spent so much time playing alongside the past few years.
“You’re always concerned about your top players, but Geno has played with lots of different players and by doing this it gives us a better chance to do something on July 1,” Rutherford said.
Trading Neal frees up US$5 million in cap space on the same day the NHL set the 2014-15 upper limit at $69 million, lower than many GMs anticipated. But Hornqvist counts $4.25 million against the cap, and Spaling—a restricted free agent—will almost certainly get a raise with a new contract.
Rutherford explained the cap savings of about $800,000 because he now has two players for that amount of money instead of just one. Still, trading away a consistent 20-goal scorer like Neal raised plenty of questions about the direction of the Penguins’ franchise.
Not long ago, Pittsburgh was an enviable organization with a handful of young stars and one of the hottest young coaches in the business. It remains to be seen if trading Neal helps the Penguins get better, but Rutherford’s justification seemed to include versatility.
“We like Hornqvist, he’s an all around player, we like Spaling, he can play all three positions,” Rutherford said. “Something I talked about when I got the job is I wanted to get more balance one through 12.”
The Penguins may be more balanced but also less talented when next season begins. The Ducks are the opposite, even after letting go of a 49-point performer in Bonino.
Murray knew he’d have to give up something to get a gritty two-way No. 2 centre like Kesler and was happy that price did not include the No. 10 pick Friday night that the Ducks used on big forward Nicholas Ritchie.
Even though Anaheim got older in the process, it was worth it to ante up to challenge the Kings and the rest of West.
“This is a huge move for our hockey team,” Murray said. “We’re better today than we were yesterday.”
These Ducks will have to show they can reach the Western Conference final under coach Bruce Boudreau before they can really be labelled as Cup contenders. But that didn’t stop Kesler from raising expectations for his new team and himself.
“I’m not getting any younger, and I want to win a championship,” he said. “Not only do I want to win the Stanley Cup, I want to be a big part of winning the Stanley Cup.”
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