Does Joe Thornton watch the NHL standings?
"A little bit," he told me, sitting in his stall after a recent San Jose Sharks practice.
How often is "a little bit," exactly?
"I'd say I check every day," he replied with a smile. "It's hard to make the playoffs now. There are no 'gimmie' games."
This is especially true in the Western Conference, where a mindboggling number of Stanley Cup contenders are engaging in an arms race for supremacy. "It seems like every year, in the summer, every team in the Central and the Pacific gets better somehow," said Paul Stastny of the Vegas Golden Knights. "That's just how it is. A team signs someone, and they have two up-and-comers ready to play."
Stastny's a great example of this escalation (or, to be specific, "West-calation"). Last season, he was on the St. Louis Blues, who had 94 points in a season in which they raised the white flag, That's when they traded Stastny to the Winnipeg Jets, who were a 114-point team that nevertheless felt they were a Paul Stastny away from a championship. He left Winnipeg as a free agent for Vegas, a 109-point Stanley Cup finalist that nonetheless upgraded its second-line center spot to a guy with 646 points in 824 games.
Look at the chess pieces that have been moved around the Western Conference in the past few months: Stastny, Max Pacioretty, Alex Galchenyuk, Ryan O'Reilly, Ilya Kovalchuk, James Neal and, of course, Erik Karlsson, whose serious suitors included no less than three teams in the West before the San Jose Sharks snagged him.
Like Thornton said, there are no gimmies. No cupcakes. No walkovers. You could make the argument that there's only one team in the West that's in rebuild mode at the moment, and even then the argument depends on whether or not the Vancouver Canucks are actually taking the proper time to reload. (Ask Trevor Linden, I guess.) Everyone else, whether or not they're delusional about it, is pressing the pedal down toward a championship.
"In the West, who's the easy game?" Sharks GM Doug Wilson asked. "There are no easy nights in the league. The elevated level of parity we have right now ... I like it. It forces you to get better. That's the way it should be."
When and how did this "Westcalation" start? It's hard to pinpoint. Consider the emergence of the Chicago Blackhawks dynasty with their first Cup victory in 2010. The West had seven teams with a .600 or better points percentage in the standings -- the Blackhawks, the last still-relevant Detroit Red Wings, the Nashville Predators, the Canucks (who would soon play for the Cup), the Sharks, the Phoenix Coyotes (!) and the Los Angeles Kings. They had six the following season, including a Canucks team that rolled to 117 points before losing to the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final.
It was in the summer of 2011 when Kings GM Dean Lombardi really began to up the ante, adding Jeff Carter and Mike Richards in separate trades to a roster that had been slowly coming to a boil. For the next four seasons, the Kings and Blackhawks would trade Stanley Cup wins until Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin decided to bring the chalice back East for a spell.
The next wave of Westcalation came in 2016, when David Poile was gifted P.K. Subban for Shea Weber and aggressively traded Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen. Now the Predators were muscling up right as the Blackhawks appeared to be wobbling on the throne, and the rest of the West began responding in kind, especially on the blue line. The Karlsson trade was, if nothing else, an attempt by the Sharks to have the kind of blue-line luxury the Predators have in skating out Subban and Roman Josi for the majority of the game.
At the same time, the Western Conference's lower lights were stockpiling young star players -- some of them outside of Edmonton, who added Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl during that time. Nathan MacKinnon, Johnny Gaudreau, Vladimir Tarasenko, Filip Forsberg, Patrik Laine and now Clayton Keller and Brock Boeser. All great, all franchise-level talents.
Everyone has their theories about why the West is such a meat grinder at the moment.
"Are there more cap teams in the West, and more budget teams in the East? Is there more money rolling around? I don't know," Sharks coach Pete DeBoer said. "But I do know there are no easy nights out here. There are some very, very good teams, and it feels like everyone has gotten better."
Eight of the top 15 teams against the salary cap reside in the West. But to DeBoer's point, only four of the bottom 10 teams against the salary cap are in the West -- the Canucks, the Coyotes, the Avalanche and the Predators, those magicians of cap management vs. assemblage of talent.
Then there's the P-word, as in "parity," as in Gary Bettman's favorite competitive construct.
"There's so much parity, and that's what makes it fun from day one," Stastny said. "I think early in my career, if you had a good start you could sit back on it a little bit. After the All-Star break, you can press it again. But now, every game is so important, especially within the division. You're already scoreboard watching early on. And most nights it feels like everyone gets a point."
That's the humbling part. To paraphrase Wesley Snipes in "Blade," some franchises are always trying to ice skate uphill.
In thinking about the West for 2018-19, you look at teams like the Edmonton Oilers, the Calgary Flames, the St. Louis Blues, the Dallas Stars, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Arizona Coyotes, who all have designs on playoff spots after missing out last season. But who tumbles out to make room for them? The Knights, losing their mojo? The Ducks, due to injury? The Avalanche, because they're the last ones in? Two of those three teams had over 100 points last season. It's daunting; like, no matter how much your team improves, it's just to get competitive with teams that are still better.
But as Wilson said, a rising tide lifts everyone. The strength of the conference means that every matchup is a compelling one. The best indicator of the West's greatness is the fact that it produces games that you make time to watch without the NHL's crutch of traditional rivalry as a selling point. Or am I the only one still amazed that a game between a team in Tennessee and one in Manitoba can have a narcotic effect?
Enjoy this meat grinder of a conference. It won't always be this way.
"It switches. There's a decade when the Eastern Conference is the powerhouse, and then it switches over," said Stastny.
But for now, the West is the best. We offer early condolences to those teams that will fall short of the playoffs, will cast a jealous eye at the Atlantic Division and wonder why life is so cruel.
From Witt Compton in Nashville:
- witt compton (@wittcompton) September 26, 2018
It's a total Foul, but based on the available evidence, we can only assume that this person would not care about our evaluation.
Meanwhile, from the Anaheim Ducks:
no bueno pic.twitter.com/klEjUpqGmI
- Jeff Paterson (@patersonjeff) September 25, 2018
This is in reference to a chant Ducks fans have for Jakob Silfverberg, which was carried over from a chant created for him in Sweden. This a borderline "pass" based on the Nickname Exception for Jersey Fouls, but it's close.
Remember The Whale
Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon followed through on his vow to honor the Hartford Whalers legacy of his franchise, as the Canes will wear the classic green sweaters of the Whale in a game against the Boston Bruins on Dec. 23. (No word if they'll carry the bit to its logical conclusion and roll over for the Bruins.)
Honoring our history pic.twitter.com/rPPSuf05me
- Carolina Hurricanes (@NHLCanes) September 27, 2018
I'm here for Whalers nostalgia. I own a green jersey. I have "Brass Bonanza" downloaded as a ringtone. I used to play them on "NHL 94." (Viva la Geoff Sanderson.) So this embrace of Hartford wistfulness by Carolina is great, if also a little awkward the year after they kicked Ron Francis to the curb.
So it's great for me, and great for you, and great for the Hurricanes. But is it great for Hartford fans?
The Hartford Courant had a rundown of negative feedback on the jerseys, from people calling it a "punch to the gut" to saying "this is a huge slap in the face to the people who supported the Whalers for the 19 years they were here." Deadspin put it as Deadspin puts it: "Carolina Hurricanes Continue To Dance On Hartford's Broken Corpse."
Valid points, and there is something slightly ghoulish about dressing as the Whalers but not necessarily acknowledging Hartford. Which is why the Hurricanes should have taken this Whalers nostalgia parade and marched up to Hartford for a home game. Seriously. If the game was framed as a "celebration of the legacy of Whalers hockey," the locals would have flocked to it, a sea of ill-fitting Kevin Dineen sweaters. To have "Brass Bonanza" ring through the arena one more time after a goal by the "home" team. It would have been awesome.
It's easy to Remember The Whale. It's much more important to remember those who lost them.
The origins of Gritty, the Philadelphia Flyers' new mascot/world obsession. "I think the final direction was to try to go in like a Jim Henson, Sesame Street sort of direction. Like a big muppet. ... They knew they wanted to have him doing a lot of activities, [and] they wanted his mouth to move. I know some mascots have really articulated, detailed heads, but then they can't move the mouths. It's almost like a giant mask and that's it. (The Flyers) knew they wanted to have a lot of animation and expression in the face (of Gritty)."
An interesting look at college hockey at Nebraska.
FX is developing a series about Jimmy Galante, a convicted felon and associate of the Genovese crime family and owner of the defunct Danbury Trashers minor league hockey team.
Congrats to Meghan Duggan, captain of the U.S. women's Olympic hockey team, and three-time Olympic gold-medal winner Gillian Apps of the Canadian women's team, whose marriage last week has gone viral. Apparently, two international rivals getting married is huge news, except when it's Julie Chu and Caroline Ouellette for some reason.
Lambert takes a deep dive on the Flyers' defense.
The Dallas Stars have a chance to take back the spotlight in their market. "With the Cowboys, Rangers, and Mavericks all struggling once again as the Stars season kicks off, they've been given a do-over from the last time they were in this position."
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn't read)
Can Mikko Koskinen avoid the KHL hex to lead the Oilers in the crease?
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN
Check out Emily's awesome story, "Inside Mark Scheifele's quest to be the Tom Brady of the NHL."