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How the West Will Continue to Be Won

The infrastructure for success the Kings and Blackhawks have built doesn’t bode well for their conference foes

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: The Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks are locked in a battle for Western Conference supremacy, with the winner heading on to play for the Stanley Cup.

Oh, right — you have heard that one, because this year’s Western Conference final is a repeat of last year’s matchup. It’s also L.A.’s third straight trip to the final four, and Chicago’s fourth in six years. The two teams have combined to win the last two Stanley Cups, and three of the last four. And with all due respect to the Rangers and the Habs, the winner of this year’s series will likely be a solid favorite to take home the championship yet again next year.

There sure seems to be a pattern developing here — a two-headed Western monster that isn’t leaving much room for other contenders. That’s not good news for teams like the Blues, Sharks, and Ducks, who’d like to think of themselves as having legitimate Cup chances. And it’s especially rough on teams like the Avs, Wild, and Stars, who seem to be on the verge of breaking into that group. As for teams like the Oilers, Flames, and Predators — well, they probably feel like they should just give up now.

But hold on. After all, this is the NHL, where fortunes can change quickly. All hockey fans need to do is take a look at the Vancouver Canucks to see how quickly an elite team can crumble. If you’re a fan of a Western Conference team, maybe there’s still hope.

So let’s take a deeper look at how the Hawks and Kings got here, and whether we can find any signs that they’re on the verge of letting somebody else have a chance any time soon.

The Talent

Let’s start with the easy one: Both of these teams have a ton of really, really good players. I know, that’s not exactly breaking news. But the Kings and Blackhawks aren’t just stacked with talent; they’re stacked with talent in remarkably similar ways.

Both teams are built around a top two-way center, with Chicago captain Jonathan Toews getting some recent “best player in hockey” talk and L.A.’s Anze Kopitar not far behind. Both players are surrounded by a very good top six, with the Kings boasting big names like Jeff Carter, Marian Gaborik, and Mike Richards, while the Hawks can send out an even better trio in Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, and Marian Hossa.

Both teams feature a stud defenseman anchoring the blue line (Chicago’s Duncan Keith and L.A.’s Drew Doughty), both have a very good no. 2 defenseman who could be a top guy on many teams (Brent Seabrook and Slava Voynov, respectively), and both supplement that top pairing with a solid complement of supporting pieces.

Then there’s goaltending. In Corey Crawford and Jonathan Quick, each team has a solid goalie who seems to elevate his game in the playoffs. We’ll leave that “seems to” in there since there’s always the risk that playoff sample sizes can be misleading — but both guys have been excellent again this year, and it’s fair to say both teams are very comfortable with their goaltending when the games start to matter.

So, yeah, both teams have deep rosters featuring plenty of great players. After all, that’s what you’d expect from a pair of Stanley Cup contenders. But if you’re a Western Conference team hoping the Kings and Hawks will come back to the pack over the next few years, the depressing parts come next.

The Salary Cap

The NHL has been a salary cap league since 2005, and we’ve become used to seeing top teams feel the strain of financial pressure within a few years. The best teams end up overspending on their elite talent, the supporting guys have to seek their fortunes elsewhere, and the resulting lack of depth brings the top team back to the pack. Call it the Pittsburgh Model.1

And in fact we’ve already seen that scenario play out with one of these teams. When the Blackhawks won the Cup in 2010, they were forced to part ways with a big chunk of their roster, including good players like starting goalie Antti Niemi, defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, and forward Andrew Ladd. It was exactly the sort of enforced parity that hockey fans had been promised under a cap system.

And all of that kept the Blackhawks from the ranks of the elite teams for … two whole years. They’d win another Cup by 2013, and now they’re on the verge of yet another. And looking ahead, they’re not exactly in bad shape for next year and beyond.

This is not how things are supposed to work. How can Chicago be this good and still be solvent?

Manageable deals for key players like Sharp and Seabrook certainly help. So do a pair of ultra-long-term contracts for Hossa and Keith. Both of those latter deals were front-loaded and could carry future cap recapture penalties, so to some extent the Blackhawks are financing their current mini dynasty with bills that will come due down the road. But for now, all four of those players are coming in at cap hits of under $6 million.

The key piece of the Hawks’ cap puzzle: the matching five-year, $31.5 million contracts Toews and Kane signed midway through the 2009-10 season. Those deals represent cap hits of $6.3 million each, which seem like enormous bargains now. In recent days, more than a few comparisons have been made between those deals and the ones belonging to Pittsburgh’s duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, which carry a combined cap hit of $18.2 million, well over $5 million more than Kane and Toews are costing Chicago.

That’s not a fair comparison, though, because Crosby and Malkin are on their third deals and Kane and Toews are still on their second. That will remain the case for one more year, before the two Hawks need new deals for 2015-16. So if you’re a Western team looking for some anti-Blackhawks hope, that gives you a date to circle: July 1, 2014, which is when Toews and Kane are eligible to start negotiating extensions. If they come in at anything approaching the Crosby/Malkin numbers, it will add to Chicago’s future cap headaches.

But that’s the future. For next year, at least, the Hawks are in good shape. And if they can get Toews and Kane to take any sort of discount, and can continue to do a good job of finding new homes for surplus supporting players, they may be able to stay that way for a few years beyond.

The Kings’ situation is similar. They have their own batch of potentially problematic long-term deals, including Richards, Carter, and captain Dustin Brown, and we’ve been over my feelings on the Jonathan Quick contract. But each of those deals come in at under a $6 million cap hit, so they’re not causing much pain right now. And it’s worth remembering that, unlike the Blackhawks, the Kings still have both of their compliance buyouts2 available this summer.

Like Chicago, the Kings have several key players locked into very reasonable deals. Kopitar is signed through 2016 at a $6.8 million cap hit, while both Doughty ($7 million) and Voynov ($4.2 million) are signed through 2019. Among key contributors on the current roster, only Gaborik and Willie Mitchell are free agents this summer, so next year’s Kings should look an awful lot like this year’s edition.

So, sure, both teams are facing the possibility of cap problems down the line. But they’re in good shape for next year, and maybe even a few seasons beyond that. Western Conference teams hoping that salary cap pressure will squeeze the Hawks and Kings may get their wish, but they’re going to need to wait awhile.

But if the cap can’t stop them, what about Father Time?

The Youth

On the surface, there’s some good news here, because neither of these teams is especially young, at least in terms of average age. Based on opening rosters as compiled by The Globe and Mail’s James Mirtle, the Hawks were the eighth-oldest team in the league, while the Kings finished in the middle of the pack at 17th.

But average age isn’t a great way to measure a team’s youth, since the addition of one or two veterans can throw a team’s number off significantly. For example, Chicago’s average age includes 41-year-old Nikolai Khabibulin, who played just four games for the team this season. It also includes 37-year-old Michal Handzus, a role player the team could replace fairly easily. Meanwhile, the Kings have guys like Mitchell (37) and Robyn Regehr (34), who were useful pieces on this year’s team but hardly key contributors.

The Kings and Hawks aren’t alone here, of course — almost every team has a few graybeards bringing up the average. But rather than focusing on average age, a better approach would be to look at the team’s top players. And that’s where things start looking bleak again for anyone hoping either team is facing an imminent crash.

Let’s start with L.A. The Kings’ top two defensemen, Doughty and Voynov, are both 24 years old, and Jake Muzzin is 25. Top center Kopitar is 26, and Quick is 28. Tyler Toffoli has played well in this year’s playoffs, and he’s just 22. Carter, Richards, and Brown are all 29, which certainly puts them on the downside of the typical forward aging curve, but still suggests they should be useful players for a few more years. The only key contributor from this year’s playoff team in his thirties is 32-year-old winger Gaborik, a trade-deadline rental who probably isn’t part of the team’s long-term plans.

The Blackhawks don’t feature the same youth on the blue line; Keith (30) and Seabrook (29) are approaching their declining years, although Nick Leddy is just 23 and Niklas Hjalmarsson is 26. Crawford is 29, but with only 211 career starts’ worth of mileage on his meter. And most important, the big two of Kane and Toews are right in the middle of their prime years at just 25 and 26, respectively.

The Blackhawks do feature one key contributor who should be well past his prime. That would be Hossa, who turned 35 this year. He’s developed into a smart two-way forward, and his offensive production hasn’t really declined much over recent years. But if you’re looking for one star player on these two teams who could be on the verge of a steep drop, Hossa’s your best bet — and maybe your only one.

So, both teams have relatively young rosters now. But every team needs a pipeline of prospects to supply reinforcements down the road. And that’s where fans of other Western teams finally start to find some reason for optimism. Sort of.

The Prospects

Both Chicago and L.A. have spent the last few years picking toward the bottom of the first round, so you’d expect their prospect pipeline to reflect that with a lack of blue-chip talent. And when we look at the Kings’ prospect list, that’s exactly what we see.

While Los Angeles has its share of prospects who’ll contribute in the NHL someday — all teams do — the list isn’t especially intimidating. HockeysFuture.com calls their system “almost entirely devoid of top-end talent,” and the annual Hockey News future watch issue ranked them 26th in the league.

That’s not especially surprising, since the Kings’ aggressiveness on the trade front has left them with only one first-round pick in the last three years (the 30th overall choice in 2012). This year, the Kings didn’t place a single prospect in the Hockey News top 50 list.

So there you have it. We’re two-thirds of the way into this post, and we’ve finally found some encouraging news for anyone tired of seeing the Kings and Blackhawks dominate.

Unfortunately, it applies to only half the equation, because Chicago’s prospect cupboard looks surprisingly good. The Hockey News ranks them as the 13th-best system in the league, while HockeysFuture.com has them all the way up at fourth.

Both rankings are largely on the strength of Finnish youngster Teuvo Teravainen, who was considered one of the best young players outside the NHL before joining the Blackhawks in time to play three games at the end of this season. The Hockey News ranks him as the league’s third-best prospect, while also including forward Ryan Hartman in its top 50.

It seems almost unfair to talk about a team closing in on its third Cup in five years having reinforcements on the way, but that’s the situation Chicago has managed to create for itself. And that leads us to our final point.

The Brains

Given how much these teams seem to be doing right, it won’t come as a shock that they’re run by some of the smartest people in the hockey business. Chicago’s Stan Bowman is the son of legendary hockey mind Scotty Bowman and has been with the team in various front-office roles for more than a decade, including as GM for both Cup runs. Kings GM Dean Lombardi spent 13 years in San Jose, helping turn that team from a struggling expansion squad into the perennial contender it remains today, before coming to L.A. in 2006 and rebuilding the Kings into Cup champions.

That pedigree extends to the two teams’ head coaches, both of whom are in the 500-win club.3 Chicago’s Joel Quenneville ranks third on the all-time list, with 706 career wins on his résumé, while L.A.’s Darryl Sutter has 507 to go along with a few years of experience as a general manager. Both coaching staffs also feature former head coaches as assistants: Mike Kitchen in Chicago, and Davis Payne and John Stevens in Los Angeles.

But lots of teams have experienced guys with impressive résumés on their payroll. What sets the Kings and Blackhawks apart is the way they’ve relied on that old-school experience while embracing modern thinking. This recent Sun-Times article on the Blackhawks’ use of advanced analytics painted the picture of an organization driven at least as much by data as by narratives and gut feelings. And when even an old ranch hand like Sutter can become the poster child for the current focus on puck possession, it’s clear the Kings aren’t far behind.

All that brainpower is reflected in the transaction pages and cap charts, and it shows up on the ice, too. Here’s a good breakdown of some of the systemic things the Kings and Hawks do to give themselves an edge in key moments. We often hear about how hockey is all about the little things, and both these teams have made it a habit to get those little things right.

Is There Hope?

So there you have it, Western Conference fans. The Kings and Blackhawks are better, younger, and smarter than your favorite team, and the salary cap won’t save you any time soon. You’re doomed. You may as well get used to this conference final matchup, because if all goes according to plan, you’ll be seeing it over and over again for years.

But here’s the good news: It probably won’t go according to plan, because this is the NHL and it never does. As big a difference as skill and smarts can make to a team’s fortunes, random noise and good old-fashioned luck play big roles, too. And that’s why the Kings and Hawks shouldn’t get too comfortable.

Maybe a star player gets hurt. Maybe another hits a prolonged slump, and someone else demands a trade. Maybe a coach or GM decides he wants to spend more time with his family or pursue a new challenge somewhere else.

Any of those things, individually, would be unexpected, but the odds of none of them happening to either team are slim. History tells us something will come along and derail these teams. We don’t know what that something will be yet, but you can bet on it happening.

Probably. Maybe.

Or maybe not. But don’t worry, Western Conference. You could always just take a knee, rest up, and try again down the road. We can pencil you in for an opening sometime around 2018. 

Filed Under: NHL, Los Angeles Kings, Chicago Blackhawks

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Sean McIndoe ’s work can be found at his blog, Down Goes Brown. His first book, The Best of Down Goes Brown, was released last September.

Archive @ DownGoesBrown

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