The Northwest Division was by far the worst division in hockey last season, as highlighted by the fact that they were responsible for four of the seven teams in the West that did not make the playoffs. Also, when the teams within the division are all so bad and they play each other more often than other teams in the conference, the fact they all have such bad records is even more telling. The rest of the conference fed off of playing this division. The obvious exception to this rule is the President’s Trophy winners, the Vancouver Canucks. While many critics would like to claim that the reason the Canucks were so good can be attributed to their weak division, I strongly disagree. The Canucks had the most goals scored in the league and also gave up the fewest. These numbers are too strong too indicate that their record was heavily inflated by playing in a weaker division. The Canucks had 4 losses against the Northwest and five losses against both the Central and Pacific divisions respectively. They simply were the best team in the regular season last year.
As with the other divisional previews, I will analyze each team according to how I see them finishing the season, starting with the worst team in the division and escalating to the division winners.
Key Additions: Ryan Smyth, Eric Belanger, Ben Eager, Cam Barker and Andy Sutton
Key Losses: Kurtis Foster, Sheldon Souray and Andrew Cogliano
Analysis: No surprise here. While the Oilers continue to stockpile superstar talent, the ascent to Stanley Cup levels will not come in one year and will take time. One of the big areas of weakness that the Oilers addressed quite nicely this summer was their need for some veteran leadership. Bringing Ryan Smyth back to Edmonton will be a good mentoring opportunity for young stars like Eberle, Hall and Nugent -Hopkins. With Hemsky and Horcoff getting injured for what seems like every single season, the Oilers needed to bring in some other experienced players to help out the youngsters.
While the Oilers offence is fantastic the real reason we will not see a lift in the standings is because of their inexperience and lack of talent on the blueline and in goal. There was a very serious debate amongst many hockey analysts whether or not the Oilers should have selected Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or drafted according to need and taken Adam Larsson. I am firmly in the camp that believes they should have traded down with any of the top three teams and taken Larsson. As good as I expect Nugent-Hopkins to be, a defenceman would have been all the more valuable. The defence is simply inadequate to compete for anything near a playoff spot. Ryan Whitney who was a remarkable +13 last season, simply cannot be counted upon to compete for a full season. After missing over half the season last year due to injury, Whitney has had an injured ankle all pre-season, and it looks like he will not be available to start the year. Tom Gilbert and Ladislav Smid join Whitney and newcomer Cam Barker amongst the top four defencmen- a group, especially with calculating injury potential, is probably the worst in the entire NHL.
Goaltending for the Oilers will look to be just as much of an issue for as defence. They are relying on a goaltending split between the crumbling Khabibulin, and youngster Devan Dubnyk. That simply does not cut it in the NHL anymore. The Oilers will eventually be forced to trade away some of their young star forwards for some help on the other side of the ice, otherwise this team will continue to go nowhere.
The Playoffs are out of reach this season, but with some improvements on defence and a more talented goalie, they may be able to compete soon.
Key Additions: Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi
Key Losses: Martin Havlat, Brent Burns, Jose Theodore, Anti Miettinen, Cam Barker, Andrew Brunette, Chuck Kobasew, Patrick O’ Sullivan and James Sheppard
Analysis: This is officially the end of the Jacques Lemaire era in Minnesota. Under former head coach Todd Richards, the Wild tried playing a more offensive oriented game and ultimately failed largely due to the type of players that they had on their roster. Havlat and Koivu, their best two players never really found the necessary chemistry to shine and played on different lines for large portions of their time together. Mike Yeo was hired to be the new coach of the Wild and he was given some superstar talent up front to work with. Bringing in Heatley and Setoguchi from San Jose will do wonders to the Wild’s offence. Heatley carries with him legitimate 40 goal potential, while Setoguchi should comfortably be able to score 25. Together with Mikko Koivu, a healthy Latendresse, Bouchard and Cal Clutterbuck, there is some good goal scoring ability on the top two lines. Despite the additions of Heatley and Setoguchi the roster lost a lot of its depth up front. If Latendresse and Bouchard can stay healthy all season, this team will be primed for a much better scoring season than last year.
With every positive comes some sort of negative, and for the Wild the cost of acquiring Setoguchi was to trade away their best defeceman Brent Burns. Depending on the sort of system Coach Yeo would like to run, this defence could get exposed quite often. Aside from Zidlicky and Schultz this defence does not really have anyone that has played a top four role before. It could get ugly.
If there is any possible rescue to the Wild`s woes on defence it is their talented goaltending. Nicklas Backstrom has been one of the most consistent netminders in the league, and can be counted upon for the key stop. Also, his uber-talented backup Josh Harding has returned after missing the whole season with injury last year should Backstrom falter or get injured.
While I don’t think the Wild have much of a chance to make the Playoffs this season, they will be one of the hardest teams to play against as they possess some lethal snipers as well as a goalie that could get hot at any time. Should be an interesting season.
Key Additions: Lee Stempniak and Scott Hannan
Key Losses: Daymond Langkow, Robyn Regehr, and Ales Kotalik
Analysis: The Calgary Flames lead by Jarome Iginla are trying to make it back into the playoffs after being on the outside looking in for the last two seasons. The Flames are comprised of a group of veterans that carry very little upside or downside; you know what you are getting. Jarome Iginla has been the most consistent player of the last decade. He has thirty goals every season this decade, and after posting 43 goals last season, has finally quelled the notion that he is losing his touch. Alex Tanguay is the perfect complimentary playmaker and should be looking at another productive season after signing a new five year contract. Rene Bourque, Olli Jokinen, Matt Stajan and Lee Stempniak round out a decent group of scorers. I think the big wild cards for the Flames are Curtis Glencross and Mikael Backlund. If Glencross can improve on his season from last year. he will provide some solid scoring from the third line. Mikael Backlund the 21 year old Swedish youngster would have started the season on the top line with Iginla if he did not break his wrist. When he comes back in six weeks time, look for him to add a new dimension to the Flames offence and be the center that Iginla has been craving for all decade. The Flames are hoping that Backlund can become the star that they have been lacking all these years to play with Iginla as opposed to just another above-average player.
For the sake of saving money in the cap era, the defence suffered a major loss when Robyn Regehr was traded to the Buffalo Sabres. However despite his loss, the defence still has a ton of talent. Bouwmeester, if he can get his career back on track, has immense talent and Mark Giordano may be one of the most underrated players in the sport. On the second pair Babchuk and Hannan are a solid physical pairing and will be relied upon heavily. Combined with the solid play of Miikka Kiprusoff, this team in theory has enough talent to keep the puck out of the net.
I don’t see the Flames returning to the playoffs as they did not do all that much to improve their team this summer and they did not make it last year. They also do not have the young players that you can expect much growth from aside from Mikael Backlund. If he ends up breaking out all bets are off and this team can be fantastic.
Key Additions: J.S. Gigurere, Seymon Varlamov, Chuck Kobasew, Jan Hejda and Shane O’ Brien
Key Losses: Peter Budaj, Thomas Fleischmann, John-Michael Liles, Adam Foote, and Brian Elliot
Analysis: The Colorado Avalanche 2012 season success will go a long way in defining the top tier echelon of teams for the next few seasons. Let me explain: GM Greg Sherman decided to trade their first round pick in the upcoming draft to the Washington Capitals for Seymon Varlamov. If the Avalanche repeat their poor performance from this past season, that pick will be in the top 3, and the Capitals will be able to add another potential superstar to their already stacked roster. Watch out.
While the trade carries with it enormous risk I for one agree with Sherman and think this team is significantly better than their record showed. Let’s not forget that this team two years ago made the playoffs with 95 points. The Avalanche made a mega trade in February of last season when they acquired Erik Johnson from the Blues for Kevin Shattenkirk and Chris Stewart. This to me was the best trade of the past 12 month for any team. Johnson is a future superstar in this league, and I think he has “the next Chris Pronger” written all over him. The Avalanche were able to make this trade because they have one of the best young group of forwards in the NHL. Stastny and Duchene are both capable of scoring 80 points this season, and a healthy Peter Mueller and T.J. Galiardi together with veteran Milan Hejduk and sniper David Jones really form a solid top two lines. Also, don’t forget to include rookie of the year candidate Gabriel Landeskog amongst a group of fast and skilled forwards. Much like Minnesota goal scoring should not be their problem this season.
The Avalanche have an extremely underrated group of defencemen even with the loss of John Michael Liles in the off-season. Johnson can eat a ton of minutes and the additions of Hejda and O’ Brien really help the depth of the team.
It will be interesting to see how Varlamov can handle the pressure of playing for a team that is not flanked with superstars. If he can play at the same level that he displayed in Washington this team can be very tough to play against. The story with J.S. Giguere is interesting. Is he meant to be an insurance policy? Is he meant to be some sort of mentor? Whatever his role on the team is, it is definitely always a positive to have a player with his experience and leadership on the roster.
The Avalanche are going to be in a dogfight to make the Playoffs and I don’t think they will be nearly as bad as some analysts are predicting. If they can stay healthy they will be there right until the end.
Key Additions: Marco Sturm and Ryan Parent
Key Losses: Christain Ehrhoff, Raffi Torres and Jeff Tambellini
Analysis: So has the rioting finally ended? The Western Conference champions are going to be looking to redeem themselves after a tough end to the season in which they were absolutely dominated in game 7. So do the Canucks have what it takes? I think it is fairly obvious that they will win their division, but can they keep up with the Sharks and Kings after their big additions in the off-season? It is going to be hard for the Canucks to play at the same level like they did last year. Ryan Kesler is injured and is going to miss the first couple of games. After seeing how hard he worked last season all the way into June I am sure the extra rest was the best thing for him anyways. Yet, it will be interesting to see how he responds without having played a training camp. I for one believe that the expectations are too high after he exploded for over 40 goals last season. He is definitely one of the best two way hockey players in the world, but I don’t think he is capable of continuing to put up such lofty offensive numbers. Mason Raymond also remains injured on the sidelines and will need some time before he can recuperate. Whatever ends up happening with these guys, the offence will always continue to live through the magic of the Sedins, so if you are a Canucks fan I wouldn’t be too worried.
The defence was so deep last season that barring injury I do not think they will feel the loss of Christian Ehrhoff as much as people envision. Alex Edler is one of the best young defenceman in the game and together with Bieksa, Ballard, Salo and Hamhuis form the best defence corps in hockey.
Now we come to the big question: Is Roberto Luongo able to handle the pressure of the big game? While he performed well in the Olympics, he absolutely broke down during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. His performances in the four losses against Boston will go down as some of the worst performances in hockey history. Look for this season to be a defining moment in his career.
The Canucks are going to win the division and most likely the conference, but at the same time will they be able to host the Cup this year, or will the city of Vancouver have to destroy the downtown sector again? It all rides on Luongo……
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