Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Following a season which ended with the Los Angeles Kings getting crowned Stanley Cup champions for the second time in three years, it's become patently obvious the Western Conference is a step above the East.
Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill clearly had the high level of competition in the West on his mind when he pulled the trigger on the biggest trade of the offseason to date on July 1. Nill landed Jason Spezza from Ottawa to play center on his club's second line and he hopes the move gives Dallas the type of depth needed to challenge the Western powers.
Spezza was introduced to the media in Dallas on Monday and inevitably the topic of conversation turned to the proliferation of talent in the West, a conference in which even making the playoffs is a noteworthy achievement.
A point-per-game player over his NHL career (687 points in 686 games), Spezza is eager to prove himself out in the new setting and he thinks playing in a harder conference can actually help a team get better by the time the playoffs roll around.
"I think the competition level just makes you a better team and it creates better habits within your team and makes you probably more prepared for the battles that are in the playoffs," Spezza said.
"It's a tough process just to get in the playoffs, but once you're in, everybody has a chance and I think by being in a strong conference, that can help because to make the playoffs you have to have a good team and if you make the playoffs, you've given yourself a good opportunity and you have confidence in your team."
The Stars did qualify for the postseason in 2014, claiming the West's final playoff berth despite finishing fifth in the Central Division. It was the first time Dallas earned a spot in the postseason since 2008, and although the Stars fell in six games to Anaheim in the opening round, Nill feels his club could've beaten the Ducks if a few things broke differently.
While giving top-seeded Anaheim a scare was a sign the Stars were on the right track, according to Nill, the close nature of the series only spurred Dallas to try and improve its team right now.
"I think we gave Anaheim everything they could handle," Nill said. "It could have gone either way and that's the way the playoffs are, but we knew then that we still had to make another step."
The step, of course, came when the Stars worked out a deal with the Senators to bring Spezza to "Big D." Dallas sent promising young forward Alex Chiasson to Ottawa along with Alex Guptill, Nicolas Paul and a second-round pick in 2015 to land Spezza and undrafted Swedish winger Ludwig Karlsson.
Although Spezza is set to become an unrestricted free agent following the 2014-15 season, there are plenty of reasons to believe he sees Dallas as a home for the long term. Spezza had requested a trade from the Sens and needed to waive his no-movement clause to make the deal official, something he was not willing to do to approve another trade offer made by Nashville during the NHL's draft weekend.
Spezza spoke about fitting in with Dallas as another "piece to the puzzle," and Nill seems confident the Stars front office will convince the 31-year-old centerman to sign an extension with his new team.
"We're going to let Jason get settled in here first," Nill said of an extension. "But we've already talked about it and kind of go from there. I don't think it's going to be an issue. I just want him to get his family in here, get settled and then we'll move forward from there."
Although Dallas is still a team with a very young core, the addition of Spezza to the mix is expected to push the team to the next level. Nill believes adding Spezza to a group that includes blossoming star centerman Tyler Seguin, who was acquired in another blockbuster trade with Boston last offseason, will create tremendous matchup problems for the opposition. That will need to be the case for Dallas if it wants to stay afloat in a division in which Chicago, Colorado, Minnesota and St. Louis all finished above the Stars in 2013-14.
"Somebody mentioned about him kind of being kind of the second line," said Nill of Spezza's role in Dallas. "I really look at (it) as a 1A and 1B. Jason Spezza is in the prime of his career. He's an elite player. Having Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza out there as your two centermen coming out the door, when we go on the road, other teams are going to have a tough time matching up against us."
Breaking into the West's elite and becoming a perennial participant in the playoffs will be a difficult task for Dallas, but it's clear the arrival of Spezza makes that goal a more achievable one.
KANE, TOEWS GET PAID
Speaking of the West's dominance, two guys largely responsible for Chicago's two recent Stanley Cup victories won't be leaving the Windy City anytime soon.
Star forwards Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, Conn Smythe winners in 2013 and 2010, respectively, committed to the Blackhawks with identical eight-year contracts each worth a reported total of $84 million. The twin deals lock up both players through the 2022-23 season, but also carry an annual cap hit of $10.5 million. Thanks to a previous extension signed by star defenseman Duncan Keith, the Blackhawks have their three most important players signed until 2023, as they aim to chase down their third Cup title since winning in 2010.
However, the new deals could force Chicago to make difficult personnel decisions over the next few years, but not signing Kane and Toews -- the symbols of the Blackhawks' recent renaissance -- for the long term was not an option. Even if inking the duo to these large contracts eventually forces Chicago to get rid of fellow star forwards Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp, or current No. 1 goaltender Corey Crawford, extending Kane and Toews would still be the right move.
The situation in Chicago now resembles the one in Pittsburgh, where star forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin take up a huge chunk of the team's salary cap for a long, long time.
The challenge for Blackhawks Stan Bowman is to avoid making the same mistakes that eventually led to his counterpart in Pittsburgh, ex-Pens GM Ray Shero, losing his job a few months back. Bowman has proven to be a master of working around the salary cap in years past, but putting a competitive team around Kane and Toews over the long haul could be his most difficult task yet.