Does the West have a 'true' favorite?

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For most of this season, the Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks clearly have been the class of the Western Conference. Yet, now, both teams face some serious questions.

For Chicago, the problem is a mixture of bad luck, goalie worries and late game struggles. As I just wrote, the team is without three of their defensemen because of injuries and is on a three game losing streak.

Unlike Chicago, most of the Sharks’ wounds appear to be self-inflicted (although they must miss the heady work of underrated defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic). They, too, are on a three game losing streak highlighted by a tremendous beating at the hands of the Dallas Stars, who humbled them 8-2. That’ll Cheech You of Fear the Fin had this to say about the team.

Talking with a coworker yesterday, the old adage “at least we’re getting the slump out of the way now” came up. Although that could be an apt point, it didn’t hold true for the team last year. This isn’t just a slump; the team is facing some major personnel issues and an overall lack of effort. That’s not to say that these issues can’t be fixed, but as of this point in the season, I’m not seeing it.

Now, it’s natural for people who cover a team everyday to truly feel each win and loss that much more. Ultimately, I think that Chicago and San Jose both can bounce back from these obstacles (although the Blackhawks better hope that Brent Seabrook’s problems are minimal.) 

Still, I have to wonder: is there a true favorite to come out of the West if Chicago and San Jose falter? Let’s look at some of the other West contenders.


Vancouver: The odd thing about the Canucks is that Roberto Luongo might be the problem right now. According to the Vancouver Sun, Luongo’s been pulled a stunning four times in his last 13 starts.

Phoenix: When is this team going to “show up on the radar”? They might just be the hottest team in the NHL right now with a six game winning streak. It’s obvious that they’re more than just a feel-good story.

Colorado/Los Angeles/Nashville: You have to hand it to these three scrappy teams for doing so well this season, but I don’t see them getting to the Cup Finals this year.

Detroit: You might say that the Red Wings have “finally woken up” with a three game winning streak, but I think a lot of that comes with getting healthy. No one wants to see this team in the first round.

Calgary: Who knows if the Flames will even make the playoffs? Then again, a team with Kipper, Bouwmeester and Iginla could be dangerous if they indeed make it. I doubt it, but it’s at least … slightly plausible.

Could one of these teams steal the West or will it be Chicago or San Jose as it seemed for much of this season?

WATCH LIVE: Rangers at Penguins on Rivalry Night

New York Rangers v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game Three
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Tonight, the New York Rangers are in Pittsburgh to take on the Penguins at Consol, in a rematch of the ’14 and ’15 playoffs (the Blueshirts eliminated the Pens from each of the last two postseasons, you’ll recall.)

You can catch the game at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN, or watch live online with NBC Sports’ Live Extra.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

Some relevant linkage for tonight’s tilt:

NHL on NBCSN: Rangers, Penguins renew acquaintances on Rivalry Night

Rangers ‘are doing a lot of good things’

‘I wonder if that’s Crosby, what happens?’ — AV upset after McDonagh concussed by Simmonds

Malkin (lower body) to miss rest of week

Crosby, Karlsson and Trocheck are NHL’s three stars of the week

Report: With Byfuglien sticking in Winnipeg, Kings ‘may now turn their attention’ to Ladd

Andrew Ladd, Anze Kopitar
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Maybe Dean Lombardi and Kevin Cheveldayoff still have something to discuss after all.

Sure, those Dustin Byfuglien-to-Los Angeles rumors are now dead — On Monday, Big Buff signed a five-year, $38 million extension with the Jets  — but a new rumor has emerged, one that suggests the Kings are interested in another of Winnipeg’s pending UFAs:

Andrew Ladd.

More, from the Free Press:

The common thinking now regarding Ladd is with Byfuglien now committed to a new five-year, US$38-million extension, the window to re-sign the captain is being slammed shut, especially knowing the young core of Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba and Adam Lowry all become restricted free agents this summer and will earn raises.

[Cheveldayoff], not surprisingly, offered no hints Monday after the Byfuglien announcement. Sources say the Jets and Ladd’s camp have kept communication open, but that hardly means a deal is close to getting done. In fact, if anything, the Byfuglien signing has only cranked up more Ladd speculation, including rumours the Los Angeles Kings — who were also thought to be in on any potential Byfuglien trade discussion — may now turn their attention to the Jets captain.

Ladd’s currently in the last of a five-year, $22 million deal with a $4.4M cap hit and, per TSN senior correspondent Gary Lawless, is seeking a six-year extension “with an average annual value north of $6 million.”

Which explains why the Jets might be forced to move him.

That L.A. is in the mix shouldn’t come as a surprise. Lombardi has a history of swinging for the fences with his deadline acquisitions — Jeff Carter, Marian Gaborik and Andrej Sekera, to name a few — and Ladd has a ton of postseason experience, with two Stanley Cups on his resume.

Report: Jets, Ladd break off contract talks

At season’s end, Holland will ‘plot a plan’ to deal with Red Wings’ goalie situation

Detroit Red Wings' Petr Mrazek (34) replaces goalie Jimmy Howard (35) during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. (Trevor Hagan/The Canadian Press via AP)
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“As we wake up today, obviously Petr Mrazek is our number-one guy.”

That was Detroit GM Ken Holland today on TSN 1200 radio in Ottawa, when asked about his goaltending situation.

“Obviously” was the right word to use.

Mrazek, 23, has been brilliant this season, going 20-10-4 with a .933 save percentage. Without him, it’s fair to wonder if the Wings would be in a playoff spot.

But Mrazek, a pending restricted free agent, has also created a problem of sorts for Holland. That’s because 31-year-old Jimmy Howard is already locked up through 2018-19 for a cap hit of almost $5.3 million — and that’s a lot of money to pay a backup, especially one with a .904 save percentage.

Holland said he isn’t focused on that now.

“When the year’s out and I’ve got all the information, I’ll sit down and plot a plan heading into the offseason,” he said. “But for now, we’ve got a top, young goaltender in Petr Mrazek and we’ve got a guy that’s in the prime of his career, Jimmy Howard, that’s been the number-one guy here.

“It’s been tough for [Howard] recently; every time he plays a game he seems to play the second game of a back-to-back. … He’s had some real tough games against some real good teams, hasn’t had a lot of puck luck. Our team really hasn’t played very well for him when he’s been in there, but he keeps battling and he keeps competing.”

The challenge for Holland might be to sell that story to another GM, because Howard’s save percentage has been below the league average the past three seasons.

Related: Howard pulled again, calls his performance ‘unacceptable’

With 1967 expansion, the NHL ‘spread the game from California to New York’

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 04:  Los Angeles Kings fans gather outside of the arena prior to Game One of the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Final between the New York Rangers and the Los Angeles Kings at the Staples Center on June 4, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
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The NHL’s “great expansion” of 1967 delivered hockey to California, led to the “Broad Street Bullies” and legitimized the league as a major force in North American professional sports.

Fifty years ago this week, the owners of the Original Six teams unanimously approved doubling in size by awarding franchises to Los Angeles, San Francisco/Oakland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Minneapolis/St. Paul. No other pro sports league had ever doubled the number of its teams and the move was considered a gamble.

It proved to be one of the most important decisions in hockey history, and helped convince many that the NHL was for real.

“It had a major impact on the league because thereafter there was almost a lineup for other cities to want to join the league,” said Brian O’Neill, the league’s former director of administration who oversaw the 1967 expansion draft and scheduling. “That was a key to the expansion, to spread the game from California to New York. … It convinced a lot of people that hockey was a major sport now and it was coast-to-coast and that selling franchises would not be difficult.”

From 1943 to 1967, the NHL was a stable, six-team league made up of the New York Rangers, Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs. The move to expand came in the league’s 50th season amid plenty of internal debate.

Owners considered adding two teams at a time, but at their Feb. 7-9 meeting in New York they unanimously approved what President Clarence Campbell later referred to as the “great expansion.” Hockey had some catching up to do: Major League Baseball had 20 teams, the National Basketball Association had nine and the National Football League had 14, with more on the way.

The MLB, the NBA and NFL all had a presence in California, too, something the NHL needed.

“The big issue, of course, is television,” O’Neill said Tuesday. “They wanted to get national. That’s why it was important to have L.A. and at that time Oakland, and then all the others followed in.”

Owners each paid the $2 million expansion fee, and the Los Angeles Kings and California Seals joined the fold along with the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues and Minnesota North Stars. New owners needed the draw of facing traditional opponents while the old guard owners wanted to make sure their teams could still win, so the expansion teams went into the new West Division with the champions of East and West meeting for the Stanley Cup.

The goal was to help the new teams but not hurt the old ones.

“When they made expansion, they took the players that were expendable, put them on a team and called them a team,” said Bob Kelly, who was part of the early Flyers teams. “We didn’t have the real identity that an Original Six team has or the history behind that. (We were) just happy to be in the NHL.”

It worked in most places, as an Original Six team won the Cup the first six years before Kelly and the Flyers’ “Broad Street Bullies” teams broke through with back-to-back titles in 1974 and 1975.

“Really, the Original Six was kind of who we were, and then all of a sudden here we are an expansion team and seven years later we were able to win the Cup,” Kelly said Wednesday. “That’s what you dream about as a kid.”

Despite the Oakland-based Seals never catching on and moving to Cleveland before folding in 1978, the NHL expanded to such places as Vancouver, Buffalo, Long Island and Washington, and reached 21 teams with the integration of the World Hockey Association in 1979.

Hockey returned to the Bay Area with the San Jose Sharks in 1991, and after the North Stars became the Dallas Stars in 1993, Minnesota got the Wild in 2000. The NHL returned to Atlanta (which didn’t work) and Denver (which did) and has landed in nontraditional markets like Phoenix, South Florida and Tampa.

The league stands at 30 teams and is considering expanding once again to either 31 or 32, with Las Vegas and Quebec City under consideration.