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Sunday Hockey Notes

West is still the best in NHL

Odds are that the Kings, or another Western Conference team, will be hoisting the Stanley Cup after next June’s Final.

Harry How/Getty Images/File

Odds are that the Kings, or another Western Conference team, will be hoisting the Stanley Cup after next June’s Final.

The Ducks made some noise. Anaheim general manager Bob Murray beat Chicago rival Stan Bowman for Ryan Kesler, the No. 2 center who wanted out of Vancouver.

Kesler and Ryan Getzlaf are a 1-2 pivot punch that will make opponents wary and weary.

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The Ducks also added ex-Bruin Nate Thompson, Clayton Stoner, and Jason LaBarbera.

For all that, Anaheim’s invitation to the 2014-15 postseason is not guaranteed.

All of the league’s muscle resides in the West. Los Angeles and Chicago are the NHL’s gold standards. Odds are good they’ll meet again in the Western Conference finals for the privilege to roll the East’s championship entry.

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St. Louis and Dallas made moves in the arms race to hang with LA and Chicago. Minnesota added Thomas Vanek.

Some of the West’s highlights:

 St. Louis upgraded up front and on defense. The Blues didn’t cede assets other than cap space by signing Paul Stastny to a four-year, $28 million deal. This will give Ken Hitchcock options. The coach can deploy Stastny as a No. 2 center behind David Backes. Or he can put Stastny with Backes and Alexander Steen on a power line.

But GM Doug Armstrong’s shrewder move was to dump stay-at-homer Roman Polak on the Maple Leafs for Carl Gunnarsson, Dion Phaneuf’s former first-pairing partner. Even with a bad hip, Gunnarsson played against top competition. He also had to cover up for Phaneuf, who is notorious for vacating his position to deliver big hits. The Blues now have the best top-four defense in the NHL with Gunnarsson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Jay Bouwmeester, and Alex Pietrangelo. They’re all good at retrieving the puck and getting it going the other way. It doesn’t matter that Brian Elliott and Jake Allen are in goal. They won’t be busy.

 Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky were first-line players in Ottawa. They will have no such responsibility in Dallas, where Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin will draw the best defensemen and matchup lines. Spezza has never been a No. 2 center. If he plays against Robyn Regehr and Slava Voynov, for example, instead of Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin, Spezza will have more room to create chances. Edmonton never used Hemsky correctly. That changed in Ottawa, where coach Paul MacLean used him in offensive situations. Hemsky flourished. He’ll do the same in Dallas.

 Michal Handzus helped the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup in 2013. But the center is nearing the end. Brad Richards doesn’t have enough to make it to 2019-20, the final season of his bought-out deal. He’s good for at least one more year, however, as the No. 2 pivot the Blackhawks have always wanted. Bowman was able to sign Richards because he found a taker for fourth-liner Brandon Bollig — a cement truck among Chicago’s fleet of Porsches — in Calgary. Bowman will have to dump more salary to be cap compliant. Ex-Bruin Kris Versteeg is the most likely candidate. But they won’t miss him.

 Los Angeles brought back everybody except 37-year-old defenseman Willie Mitchell. Marian Gaborik is under contract for less than $5 million annually. The Kings can afford to give restricted free agent Dwight King a raise. They’ll have flexibility midseason if they want to add salary. Two big reasons for LA’s cap magic: Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli. Teams that draft and develop well have second-liners on entry-level contracts. There is no team better at drafting and developing than LA.

So have fun missing the playoffs for the ninth straight season, Edmonton. That’s the cost of chasing the big dogs in the West.

GETTING CREATIVE

Bruins have options when filling roster

The Bruins are worse without Jarome Iginla. He completed the first line. His left-side one-timer on the power play opened up options for the other first-unit men. He was a good presence as part of the leadership group.

The falloff isn’t because Loui Eriksson will replace Iginla on the top line. It’s because Eriksson’s promotion will cave in the third line.

This is where coach Claude Julien and his staff, including a yet-to-be-determined replacement for Geoff Ward, have to approach the game differently.

For the last four years, the Bruins have had a successful template. They rolled out a powerful first line, an elite matchup unit on the second line, a deep third line, and skull crackers on the fourth line. Nathan Horton once filled Iginla’s position. Mark Recchi and Tyler Seguin took shifts as the No. 2 right wing. Rich Peverley and Benoit Pouliot rolled through the third line.

The cap, aging players, and evolution have smashed the template to bits.

This will take Julien out of his comfort zone. He likes rolling four reliable lines. He’s slow to change his lines, especially midgame.

This has to change. Figuring out the bottom six will require experimentation, such as:

 Daniel Paille, previously the No. 4 left wing, seeing time as the third-line right wing.

 The Bruins have resisted moving Ryan Spooner to wing because he’s not strong on the walls. It’s time to give it a look. They’ve also pegged Alexander Khokhlachev as a center. Put him on the wing and see how he plays.

 The fourth line’s identity, once grinding and blue collar, should transition to skill, speed, and puck possession. There is no reason it should have a smashmouth approach. That led to game-chasing in the playoffs.

 Chris Kelly and Gregory Campbell usually play on different lines. But based on the situation — late in the game, Bruins protecting a lead — they should play together as a matchup tandem.

 If there isn’t a 12th forward to Julien’s liking, there’s nothing wrong with dressing seven defensemen. That would give David Warsofsky a chance to play on the back end and move the puck. Assuming Kevan Miller or Adam McQuaid take over some of Shawn Thornton’s fisticuffs, the Bruins could still roll three defensive pairings when one of them is unavailable for five minutes.

The last three years, the Bruins have breezed through training camp with barely a fight for a job. That will change this fall. It will be an opportunity for Julien to try different lines, looks, and strategies. We’ll see if he’s up for it.

ETC.

Buyouts showing mistakes were made

The first buyout season closed Monday. Tim Gleason, Anton Volchenkov, and Shane O’Brien were the final players being paid to go away. The second window will open later this month for teams with pending arbitration cases. It’s not as popular a segment in which to execute buyouts.

To this point, teams have executed 32 buyouts over the last two seasons. Of the 32, 26 were of the get-out-of-jail-free compliance variety, where teams are exempt from carrying the buyout number toward their cap.

The two noncompliance buyouts that will hurt the most: Gleason and Mike Ribeiro. The Maple Leafs had burned their two compliance buyouts last summer by letting go of Mike Komisarek and Mikhail Grabovski. They will have to apply Gleason’s number toward their cap hit for the next four seasons.

The Coyotes had to use a regular-course buyout on Ribeiro because they signed him after the lockout. The small-market Coyotes will pay Ribeiro $11,666,667 over the next six seasons, according to www.capgeek.com.

But the most startling number is 12: the number of players bought out who signed upon the opening of free agency. Ribeiro, Komisarek, Brad Richards, Volchenkov, Ville Leino, Daniel Briere, Filip Kuba, Ed Jovanovski, Jordin Tootoo, Aaron Rome, Greg Zanon, and Eric Belanger landed multiyear contracts as unrestricted free agents on either the first or second day the market was open in their respective signing years. Their employers all had second thoughts on their signings. In total, the buyouts will cost the teams $61.2 million of dead cash.

“We’re no saints, either,” Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli said of the money spent around the league on July 1. “We can spend money and give deals that people are critical of. I want to be clear on that. I just know that you have to be careful going into that market. We’ve been careful going into that market. When you see the number of buyouts going on, mistakes get made.”

Promoting embellishment?

Proposed rule changes for 2014-15 will require approval from the NHLPA’s executive board, which will meet in Pebble Beach, Calif., this month. One proposal is curious. It involves plays where a player, usually a defenseman, leaves his feet and uses his stick to swipe the puck off an opponent’s blade. If the defenseman pokes the puck loose and trips the opponent, he’ll get two minutes for tripping even if the puck comes free first. The concern is whether coaches will encourage puck carriers to take a dive whenever that situation takes place. What used to be a good hockey play could turn into yet another question of embellishment, which is the toughest infraction to call in real time.

Rivals stripping Rangers

Benoit Pouliot was the Rangers’ valuable No. 3 left wing. Anton Stralman was their best right-shot defenseman, far more consistent than Dan Girardi. Richards’s legs gave out in the playoffs, but his presence on the second line allowed Derick Brassard to do his thing on the third. Brian Boyle was an important fourth-line grinder and penalty killer. He was flanked by wrecking ball Derek Dorsett. All five are now ex-Rangers. GM Glen Sather had little choice but to see them go because he needs money to re-sign Brassard, Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello, and John Moore. The Rangers advanced to the Cup Final because of three things: goaltending, speed, and depth. Henrik Lundqvist will be back in net, and they still have burners in Kreider, Carl Hagelin, and Martin St. Louis. But now the Rangers’ third line, their most consistent in the playoffs, is gone. Brassard won’t be as effective as a No. 2 center. Kreider will have to assume more offensive responsibility. The Rangers loaded up for a Cup run by acquiring St. Louis for their first-rounders in 2014 and ’15. The gamble almost worked. But now they’re paying the price.

Teardown continues in San Jose

The belief here is that convincing Joe Thornton to waive his no-movement clause is San Jose’s first order of business this summer. GM Doug Wilson is doing a terrific job so far of showing Thornton he can do crazy with the best of ’em. Wilson stated publicly that the Sharks are a tomorrow team. He also discussed with coach Todd McLellan the option of taking the captaincy away from Thornton. But the boldest indication that Wilson is not backing down was his signing of ex-Buffalo slugger John Scott to a one-year, $700,000 contract on Wednesday. In previous iterations, the Sharks’ best asset was their overwhelming speed. Scott’s 0-to-60 time rivals an 18-wheeler’s. Scott is an excellent teammate who’ll come to anybody’s defense. But it takes two to tango. Opponents can still target San Jose’s youngsters, turtle when Scott approaches, and go on the power play when the tough guy gets tagged for an instigator. Only a lunatic would fight the 6-foot-8-inch behemoth. And if he’s not fighting, Scott isn’t doing much else. The way Wilson is treating the offseason reminds me of the “Seinfeld” episode in which George drives his in-laws to his imaginary house in the Hamptons. “You wanna get nuts? Let’s get nuts!”

Devils due for a rebound

In the cream-puff East, New Jersey is well positioned to return to the playoffs. The Devils allowed 2.38 goals per game last season, sixth-lowest average in the league. They had the best penalty kill (86.4 percent). They had the puck more than they chased it. But several things worked against them in 2013-14. First, they gave Martin Brodeur too much action instead of feeding Cory Schneider the 60-plus starts he deserved. Second, they were miserable in the shootout. They shot a league-low 8.9 percent and lost all 13 shootouts. By signing Mike Cammalleri and Martin Havlat, the Devils added to their depth. Opponents will not be happy when the Devils roll four lines that include their new additions, wear-you-out wings (Jaromir Jagr, Dainius Zubrus, and Michael Ryder), and skill at center (Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique). This crew will possess the puck. Their deficiency is on the back end, where they lost former Nobles standout Mark Fayne to Edmonton. That’s where they’ll ask Schneider to mask their inefficiencies. “I think the template for how to win and be a playoff team — then once you get into the playoffs, how to compete for the Stanley Cup — is there,” said Cammalleri.

Loose pucks

The interview period didn’t work as expected because it overlapped with the draft. GMs had to balance courting free agents and finalizing their draft boards. The period was meant for players to visit cities, tour schools, and check out neighborhoods. It’s a good idea in theory, but not so great in practice . . . Alex Kovalev retired on Thursday. Kovalev is the most skilled player I’ve seen in person. My favorite moment: Kovalev dancing around Dennis Wideman in the offensive zone, losing his glove, and retrieving his mitt while handling the puck. Off-the-charts talent . . . Among the first-rounders at the draft last weekend, it’s likely that power forward Nick Ritchie was high on the Bruins’ list if they considered moving up. Anaheim selected the 6-2, 226-pound widebody with the No. 10 pick. Scouts believe Ritchie plays with some of Ryan Getzlaf’s qualities. While Ritchie would have been a good fit in the Boston system, the cost would have been high to move up to the No. 10 neighborhood . . . Montreal’s decision to move Josh Gorges indicates its comfort with Nathan Beaulieu. The youngster was a better fit on the third pairing against the Bruins than Douglas Murray. Trading Gorges also allows coach Michel Therrien to move Alexei Emelin to his strong side. Emelin will have no complaints, especially if it reduces his face time with Milan Lucic . . . I’m skeptical about the Bruins being legitimate chasers of Radim Vrbata. The cost ($5 million annually over two years) would have required multiple trades for the Bruins to re-up their RFAs and become cap compliant by October. The only likely UFA targets would be graybeards such as Daniel Alfredsson or Ray Whitney . . . Not sure Boyle is that much of an upgrade over Nate Thompson in Tampa. Thompson, wheeled to Anaheim for fourth- and seventh-round picks in 2015, is under contract for three more years at $1.6 million annually, $400,000 cheaper than Boyle. Thompson is a quicker skater, just as physical, and a better possession player . . . Deryk Engelland (6-6—12, 13:02 average ice time) will make more in 2014-15 than Andrej Sekera (11-33—44, 23:40). It’s not just the tar sands people making cuckoo money in Calgary.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.
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