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Western Conference loads up during NHL free agency

New York Rangers' Brad Richards (19) smiles as he looks teammates during first period an NHL hockey game against Chicago

New York Rangers' Brad Richards (19) smiles as he looks to teammates during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Chicago Blackhawks in Chicago, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

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Updated: July 3, 2014 6:42PM



As soon Anaheim general manager Bob Murray made a splash by acquiring bullish center Ryan Kesler, the trend in the NHL’s Western Conference has been to line up with the Ducks.

Since that Kesler deal was struck between Vancouver and Anaheim, the Dallas Stars, St. Louis Blues, Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators have all upgraded their center group.

“I don’t know if it is an arms race,” said Nashville general manager David Poile, “but everybody in the West is doing everything they can to compete for the Stanley Cup.”

The cause of Western Conference teams’ drive to improve down the middle is the reality that the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup with an impressive center group that included Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Jarret Stoll and Mike Richards.

“For me this goes back to my days in Detroit when teams had to keep up with us,” said Dallas general manager Jim Nill. “That’s how Chicago got better. That’s how Anaheim got better. Now that continues with L.A., Chicago, St. Louis, Anaheim. Once you get two or three elite teams in a conference, you know if you want to win, you have to keep up with them.”

The Ducks now have a one-two center of combination of Ryan Getzlaf and Kesler, two forwards who both boast size, offensive skill and prickliness.

“(We are in) a hard division and the whole Western Conference is difficult,” Murray said. “Going up against LA, San Jose and even Dallas, I think Dallas is on the way now, our middle had to get stronger.”

The Stars added point-per-game center Jason Spezza from the Ottawa Senators to be the No. 2 center behind Tyler Seguin.

After a disappointing playoff departure, the Blues signed the best free agent center in Paul Stastny and also convinced center Jori Lehtera, 26, to come over from Russia where he played in the Kontinental Hockey League. He posted 44 points in 48 games last season.

The Blackhawks have been looking for a No. 2 center to play behind Jonathan Toews for a couple of seasons and they believe they have found one in Brad Richards, who was bought out by the New York Rangers for salary cap reasons. Richards, 34, was a 51-point center who now may be the set-up man for Patrick Kane who is one of the world’s most dynamic wingers.

Richards took less than market value (one season for $2 million) to play with Chicago’s sometimes-dazzling offense.

“He brings so many things to the table for us,” said Chicago general manager Stan Bowman. “There are a lot of options for our coaching staff. … He’s played a lot of years and done a lot of incredible things.”

Many of centers in the Western Conference are bigger centers, which is why the Predators added Olli Jokinen, 6-3, 218.

“We needed some size,” Poile said. “Look at the one-two punch of some of the centers in our conference and we needed someone who could play against some of the big boys and hold his own offensively.”

Jokinen could end up as Nashville’s No. 1 center. “Arguably you could say we are putting him in a more important position than he has been in the past couple of years,” Poile said.

The rush to improve at center may not be over in the Western Conference. The Philadelphia Flyers are looking to move big, skillful center Vinny Lecavalier and the Predators have to be considered a possible destination.

Free agent center David Legwand is still available and he could still end up in the West.



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