The San Jose Sharks and Dallas Stars made impressive moves this week which only tightened things at the top of the NHL's superior conference.
"I think anybody that makes the playoffs in the West can represent the West in the final," Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland told The Canadian Press on Thursday. "I think it's going to be very much eight top teams."
His injury-riddled Wings remain on top but Holland gives the nod to Anaheim as the favourite right now.
"I think the defending champ should always be the favourite, especially the way their year has unfolded," said Holland. "They got out of the gate slow, as I thought they would, because when you win the Cup, emotionally it's tough to get it cranked up in October and November. But as the year as gone on they've gotten better and better, they're getting bodies back and they're feeling good about themselves.
"I think personally you pick Anaheim the favourite and then I think there's going to be seven teams and you flip a coin and pick 'em."
Anaheim's 17-6-2 record since Jan. 1 is the best in the Western Conference during that stretch. Which is why, in part, Ducks GM Brian Burke didn't feel the need to add any important parts to his roster on deadline day aside from depth acquisitions in defenceman Marc-Andre Bergeron and goalie J.S. Aubin.
"I like our group and I trust our group," Burke told The Canadian Press on Thursday. "As I said to them yesterday, 'When your GM does nothing it says two things: one, that he respects what you've done to that point and two, that he trusts you can take it to the next level.' That's what I told them and that's what I believe."
That's not to say Burke hasn't noticed what fellow contenders San Jose and Dallas did Tuesday at the trade deadline, the Sharks adding offensive defenceman Brian Campbell and the Stars bringing in top centre Brad Richards.
"Everyone in our division (Pacific) has been chasing Dallas all year," said Burke, whose Ducks trailed Dallas by six points before the Stars hit the ice Thursday. "They've beaten us five times out of six games. There's no question they've been a good team from the get-go and they've just added a great player.
"And San Jose's been a good team from the get-go and they've just added a great player. You're darn right I watched that with interest."
But not enough to react. Burke has never believed in big trades at the deadline, theorizing that they messed with team chemistry. He did nothing at last year's deadline other than pick up veteran checker Brad May and his team won the Cup anyway.
His team is virtually the same one that soundly beat Ottawa in last year's final. The Ducks lost Dustin Penner and Andy McDonald but added Todd Bertuzzi, Doug Weight and Mathieu Schneider.
"You can't really evaluate our team," said Burke. "We haven't really had our whole group together only but 10 games and I think we're 9-1 in those 10 games. We're just getting all the pieces in place."
Weight, Chris Pronger and Todd Marchant are currently out but should be back within the next week. That will finally give the Ducks a full lineup after a year in which star defenceman Scott Niedermayer and veteran sniper Teemu Selanne took half the season off before returning to the fold.
Like Holland, Burke believes the West is too tough to call.
"This is not a slight on the other side of the schedule at all, but the Western Conference I think is brutal," said Burke.
"I think the ninth team in our conference that misses out is going to be a really good hockey team and it's going to be a shame."
The first-place Wings want to be playing better hockey before facing that No. 8 or No.7 seed. They're 1-7-2 in their last 10 games in large part because of injuries to key players.
"Like anybody, you'd like to go into the playoffs feeling good about yourself," said Holland. "We are now in a race for the conference with Dallas and Anaheim. But all those games we won earlier in the year allowed us to have this streak and still be in the situation we're in."
Five-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom has been out as well as fellow blue-liner Brian Rafalski, Nicklas Kronwall and Chris Chelios - and winger Daniel Cleary. Kronwall may come back Friday night when Detroit hosts San Jose at the Joe while Lidstrom, Rafalski and Chelios are 1-2 weeks away from returning. Cleary is due back in early April.
In the meantime, the Wings must snap out of their worst funk of the season.
"I don't think we're that far off - our record would indicate otherwise - but we've lost some close games lately," said Holland. "We won a lot of games by one goal earlier in the year when we were healthy and other teams were hurt and now we're losing by a goal and they're healthy.
"We expect by the time we get into April we'll have our full team together."
Holland made one move of note Tuesday - adding blue-liner Brad Stuart from Los Angeles in exchange for a second-and fourth-round pick. Stuart can help the second power play and penalty kill and he's got some grit and size.
But for the second year in a row, Holland resisted dealing away his first-round pick for a bigger name. The Wings traded away four first-round draft picks from 2001 to 2006 but it could not go on like that forever. Especially in the salary-cap NHL, teams must replenish their reserves with draft picks.
The Wings have been able to remain among the league's elite teams in the post-lockout NHL despite spending less money and despite essentially rebuilding its base on the fly.
In past years, Marian Hossa would have probably been a Red Wing. But this is 2008 and the Wings wisely have an eye on the future as well as the present.
"I tried to get into the Hossa deal, and we made a pitch, but at the end we weren't even close," said Holland.