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Inside the Western Conference Standings – December 26

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Every now and then, we’ll take a look at each conference’s standings to see if there are any trends or quirks that explain why some teams are failing and others are overachieving. Obviously, these results will reveal bigger truths once we advance later into this season … but it’s still fun and interesting to take a peek at bigger picture numbers.

Click here for the November edition and click here for the October version.

For this month’s Eastern Conference inside the standings post, click here.

Let’s take a look at some of the trends – both good and bad – in the tough as nails West.

Detroit primed for a slight fall?

The Red Wings are struggling (for them, at least) with a 4-5-1 record in their last 10 and must deal with a month of Datsyuk-free hockey (maybe more). Another bit of bad news: they’ve played six more games at Joe Louis Arena than on the road, so they’ll have to bring their squadron of veterans away from Detroit quite a bit going forward.

I doubt that the Red Wings are in significant trouble, but they might struggle to keep the top seed in the West.

Chicago faces a grind.

After playing quite a few more games than anyone else to begin the season, the rest of the league is catching up to Chicago in games played. The good news is that the struggling defending champs still are in the playoff picture, but it won’t be easy. They will face four more road contests than games at home, but they’ve been OK (8-5-3) away so far.

Los Angeles still has a shot at the Pacific title.

With two less games played and three more home games left than road contests, the Kings aren’t out of the Pacific Division title race just yet. They might need to “learn how to lose” more effectively, though, as their one overtime/shootout loss is the lowest in the West. (Only the Florida Panthers are “worse” at losing, with a big zero in the “otl” category.)

There is hope for Phoenix and Calgary.

While the Coyotes have more reasons for optimism than the Flames since they’ve played in less games (33 to 36) and own more standings points (37 to 33), both teams have more home games in the future. Phoenix will play five more games at home while Calgary will play four more once the season is over.

But not much hope for Columbus.

Conversely, the collapsing Columbus Blue Jackets played 19 out of their first 34 games at home, so they’ll need to play five more road games than home games going forward. On the bright side, they’ve actually been a better away team (8-5-2) than home team (9-9-1) so far this season.

The Ducks have been busy, but inefficient.

While Anaheim’s 40 standings points places them in a virtual tie for eighth place, they’ve played the most games in the NHL with 38 so far this year. St. Louis only needs one win in four games to pass them, while Nashville – the team they’re tied with – got to the 40 mark in four less tries.

In other words, the Ducks’ seem like they’re in better shape than they actually are at this point.

***

After looking over the standings, I feel like the Canucks might have the safest divisional lead in the NHL. The Red Wings should be able to hold onto the Central crown as well, though, unless a heavy amount of road games causes their aging squad to break down.

The Pacific is the division that’s really up for grabs. The Sharks are nipping at the Stars’ heels while the Kings and Coyotes have more home games than road games remaining (and games in hand). Even the Ducks could pose a threat based on their streaky talents, though they are a long shot for the reasons discussed in this post.

While nearly every team has a shot at the playoffs, I think the Blues and Coyotes are two teams outside the top eight who pose the biggest threats to the squads who would make the playoffs if they began today.

While the East seems to be a conference of have and have-nots, no one seems particularly safe in the West. Not even the mighty Red Wings (to some extent, at least).

Rangers want Kreider to become a ‘nightmare for defensemen’ again

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 19: Chris Kreider #20 of the New York Rangers moves in on Matt Murray #30 of the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Three of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at at Madison Square Garden on April 19, 2016 in New York City.  The Penguins defeated the Rangers 3-1. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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If Chris Kreider is penciled in to finish with about 20 goals and 45 points each season, the New York Rangers got a solid deal for the 25-year-old.

That nice $4.625 million cap hit could become a steal if Kreider blossoms into the 30-goal force the Rangers were hoping for, however.

NHL.com details how the Rangers hope he returns to the form that, to quote assistant Scott Arniel,* made him “a nightmare for defensemen.”

“I remember we had a conversation asking him about what kind of player did he think he was, and he didn’t say I’m a toe-dragging, stick-handling guy who can beat guys 1-on-1,” Arniel said. “He knew what he was. He said it. I wrote it down on a piece of paper and it was five things that a true power forward needs to do every game. Then he got away from those things [last season].”

As New York Newsday notes, Kreider shares that viewpoint, aiming to be “big, strong, fast, mean, imposing” and to play a “power forward game.”

(If you’re playing Power Forward Buzzword Bingo … yes, Kreider also talks about his north-south game.)

How much room is there to grow?

The biggest question circles back to the beginning; how much higher is Kreider’s ceiling than what we’ve already seen?

Kreider indicates that a strong finish to 2015-16 salvaged his numbers, but the end result is near-identical production compared to 2014-15. He spoke of pucks not going in early in the year, yet his shooting percentage was a career-high 13.5.

About the only difference that really stands out does possibly denote a dip in physicality, as his 58 PIM were low in comparison to 2014-15 (88) and 2013-14 (72). The Rangers probably don’t want him off the ice and in the box more often though, right?

Earning opportunities

Really, the big thing for Kreider might just come down to opportunities.

Despite becoming more experienced, he’s still averaging just under 16 minutes of ice time per game.

The key, then, might be for Kreider to convince Alain Vigneault to deploy him more frequently, which might come down to bring that physical edge more often.

* – That story is an interesting little peek into how the Rangers handle and develop players like Kreider. Arniel almost seems quaint at times in the piece, bringing to mind Dan D’Antoni’s inspirational notes to Leondaro Barbosa.

Linden: Virtanen must earn his spot on Canucks roster

VANCOUVER, BC - OCTOBER 10: Jake Virtanen #18 of the Vancouver Canucks skates during the pre-game warm up prior NHL action against the Calgary Flames on October 10, 2015 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
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The Vancouver Canucks are loaded with question marks for next season.

One of them will be about what is best for the development of right winger Jake Virtanen, who will turn 20 years old next month and is coming off his first NHL campaign. He scored seven goals and 13 points in 55 games as a 19-year-old rookie. On occasion, he showed an ability to drive the net and to be a physical forward capable of crushing the opposition.

That big, physical, powerful forward that can also score is something the Canucks need. Virtanen could still evolve into that player. (On a similar note: Evander Kane trade speculation has been rampant in Vancouver in recent weeks.)

Becoming a consistent performer, showing more than just flashes of potential, has been a talking point surrounding Virtanen this summer.

He’ll be eligible to play with the Utica Comets in the AHL next season, and there is competition at the right wing in Vancouver, with numerous veteran players also listed at that position. That means a spot on the roster won’t be guaranteed for Virtanen, taken sixth overall in the 2014 NHL Draft.

“Jake is going to be a big part of this team for years. It was a stepping stone for him and I was out there (Vancouver) for a week and saw him training and he looked good to me,” Canucks’ center Bo Horvat told Ben Kuzma of The Province newspaper.

“He doesn’t have the mindset that he’s on the team. He has to work for it. It’s the consistency part of the game and you can’t take a night off like in junior. You can take some off knowing it’s a for-sure win and an easier night. There are no easy nights in the NHL. On any night, any team can surprise you.”

Last season, the Canucks kept Virtanen and Jared McCann with the big club, despite the option of sending them back to junior and not burning the first years of their respective entry-level contracts.

It was a major step for a team as it transitions to a younger roster, a younger core. It also came with an abundance of growing pains, culminating in Daniel Sedin ripping into his team after a particularly poor effort versus St. Louis in March.

After the season ended, and the Canucks finished 28th in the overall standings, head coach Willie Desjardins threw down the gauntlet, saying the team would focus once again on trying to win, and putting the onus on the youngsters to be good enough to help in that aspect.

When it comes to Virtanen, his conditioning has turned into an emphasis this summer.

“I think Jake has … a very raw and very unique skill set,” Canucks’ president Trevor Linden told TSN 1040. “He’s come a long way. Last year was an important year for him, just having him see what it takes to get to the next level.

“Jake knows he’s going to have to come to training camp this fall and earn a spot.”

Related: Since World Juniors disappointment, Virtanen has been ‘a different player’ for Canucks

NHLPA hire Bruce Meyer brings a ‘wealth of knowledge,’ says Fehr

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Bruce Meyer’s résumé of victories as a lawyer is a long and impressive one, and he has now joined the NHL Players’ Association as a senior director of collective bargaining, policy and legal, the union announced Thursday.

During his tenure of more than 25 years at the law firm Weil, Gotshal and Manges LLP, Meyer represented the NHLPA, NFLPA and NBPA.

The NHLPA said in a statement that in his new position, Meyer “will focus on a wide array of policy and legal issues.”

In working for those unions, he was involved in matters such as collective bargaining and arbitration, as per his online profile.

“Bruce will be a great addition to the NHLPA’s staff. He brings a wealth of knowledge to this new role coming from his law firm where he gained three decades’ worth of valuable experience, including effectively representing the NHLPA and other Players’ Associations as outside counsel,” said NHLPA executive director Don Fehr in a statement.

The NHLPA said Meyer will begin at his new position in mid-August.

The news of this hire comes more than a month after the league sued the NHLPA after Dennis Wideman‘s 20-game suspension for hitting linesman Don Henderson was reduced to 10 games by a neutral arbitrator.

Related: Report: NHL dismisses neutral arbitrator who reduced Wideman’s suspension

Sweet ride: Blackhawks sponsor CJ Wilson Racing’s Porsche Cayman at Road America

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Chicago Blackhawks fans, start your engines!

Yes, according to MotorSportsTalk, the Blackhawks have become the main sponsor of CJ Wilson Racing’s No. 35 car, a Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport, for the upcoming IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge event at Road America next month.

That’s a sweet ride.

From MotorSportsTalk:

The partnership will officially launch at the United Center on Wednesday, August 3, from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m in advance of Saturday’s race. Fans will have the opportunity to get up close to the car, meet the drivers and Blackhawks Ambassador Denis Savard, and have their picture taken.

The race takes place Aug. 6 at Road America in Wisconsin.