October 07 2010 10:30AM
It's a big year for the teams of the NHL's Northwest Division. Two teams are celebrating milestones years, one team is looking for redemption, one is looking to break through with a young group of burgeoning superstars, and one truly in the throes of transition.
For your Vancouver Canucks, it is a critical year. They are picked by many members of the hockey media world as a favourite to win the division, the conference, and possibly even the Stanley Cup. They have their entire top 6 forward until returning. They have bolstered their third line and have revamped their 4th line. They have improved and deepened their defense. They have reinvigorated their superstar goaltender and provided him with a young stud backup.
Is this their year? Or will a division rival take their crown?
Once the biggest dogfight in the NHL, the Northwest Division has undergone many changes over the last couple of years. How will these five teams fare this year? Let's take a look, in our predicted order from first to worst.
1. Vancouver Canucks
Prediction - 109 Pts - 2nd in conference
This isn't me wearing my homer hat. Almost every hockey media outlet has picked the Canucks to win the division, if not the conference and possibly even the Stanley Cup. TSN, Rogers Sportsnet, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports (Puck Daddy) all have the Canucks on top of the Northwest this year. Why? Depth and balance. And plenty of it. The Canucks will have arguably the best top 3 lines after GM Mike Gillis went out to fix what went wrong last year. The Canucks were exposed during their second consecutive 2nd round playoff loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. While most Canucks fans won't admit this, the Blackhawks did Vancouver a favour. They dominated the Canucks in two such clear areas that it made the Canucks management's job over the summer fairly simple. Not easy, but simple. The Canucks needed to get tougher, grittier and bigger on their bottom 6 forwards, and they needed to deepen their defense, which was exposed to injury last year. So the Canucks went out and acquired Manny Malhotra, Raffi Torres, Dan Hamhuis, Keith Ballard and others, and shed themselves of Pavol Demitra, Kyle Wellwood, Steve Bernier, Shane O'Brien, and Darcy Hordichuk and chose to let Willie Mitchell go.
While the Canucks did much to improve, others in their division are in transition. The Canucks will likely feast on the lesser lights in the Northwest. Their main concern, with Sami Salo and Alex Burrows already out to start the year, is to stay as healthy as possible, especially into early April.
Medal of Honour - Henrik Sedin. Let's face it. He's the reigning MVP and scoring leader and will likely be named team captain in the next 48 hours. Unless a catastrophe befalls him, he will see a repeat as the team's Most Valuable player.
In the Targets - Roberto Luongo. He relinquished the captaincy (or was forced out of it.... whichever) to devote his time to simply stopping pucks. Well he had better damn well do that. He has no excuses now. So it's time to put up or shut up.
2. Calgary Flames
Prediction - 88 Pts - 9th in conference
Is there a team under more scrutiny than the Calgary Flames? At every level? GM Darryl Sutter spent the summer reacquiring former players to try to re-ignite the fire in the lineup. Sorry for the puns. Those acquisitions included Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay, with the much maligned Jokinen under the microscope to try to bring up his game again. Miikka Kiprusoff is looking to maintain his form, despite being one year older and one year slower. Will he be able to keep up his game? Jay Bouwmeester is under pressure to produce. In general. He is entering his eighth NHL season and has yet to play a single NHL playoff game. Not one.
This year, no matter how good JayBo is, he is going to go another year without chasing Lord Stanley's grail. The Flames start the year plagued by injuries, a lack of depth at center and defense (beyond their main roster), and questions in net. The questions in net aren't to suggest that Kiprusoff won't have a good year. But if he gets hurt, or does stumble, the Flames have a unknown rookie backup and little depth behind him. If Kipper struggles at all, or if the injury bug starts to bite the Flames, they are going to be in for a long year. They have a lot of "if"'s to get them into the playoffs - IF they can improve their scoring... IF Jokinen and Tanguay can find the goal... IF Iginla can score 40 goals again... IF Bouwmeester can get the monkey off his back and produce again... IF Kiprusoff can stay healthy and stay solid. If all those "IF"'s happen, then the Flames will get into the playoffs, and likely in a 7th or 8th spot. I think they'll be a big chasm between 8 and 9 in the conference, so they will have to see the stars align and all those IF's take hold for them to see time in the playoffs. I don't think Jokinen and Tanguay will be the answer to what ailed the Flames last year, so there's one IF off the list.
Medal of Honour - Brendan Morrison. After being cast off fro the Canucks following a failed tryout, the Flames picked up the veteran center to fill gaps left by a ravaging injury bug up the middle. He is in a win/win position here, because all he needs to do is hold down the fort until the cavalry returns. And if he fails, he was a cheap pickup with little risk.
In the Targets - Who isn't? Jay Bouwmeester, Olli Jokinen, Darryl Sutter just to name a few. But those are the big three. I will go on record now as saying that Darryl Sutter WILL be fired this year. His bizarre transactions and salary cap management over the last couple of years will catch up with him this year, and ownership and fans will have enough.
3. Colorado Avalanche
Prediction - 86 Pts - 10th in conference
The shadow of Joe Sakic has left the team on the ice finally, and they're truly into their transition phase now. Luckily they had a few years of disaster in order to draft high, and they took advantage and drafted well. However this year will see the young Avs hit a sophomore slump and Craig Anderson's star fall back down to Earth a little.
The Avs defense is either old and overpaid, or young and inexperienced. Their offense is just straight-up young and they have no toughness whatsoever. Four of their roster forwards are still on their entry level contracts including 2nd year phenoms Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly. I expect them take a step back this year, overwhelmed by the expectations thrust upon them.
And it will be damn near impossible for Craig Anderson to improve or even repeat what he did between the pipes.
Add to that - the Avs are dead last in cap space this year, and didn't acquire any notable players at all during the off-season
Medal of Honour - TJ Galiardi. I like this kid a lot. He's elusive, loads of skills and has flown under the radar because of Duchene, Stasney, and Anderson. He could be a real difference maker for the Avs this year.
In the Targets - Paul Stasney. He's making an unwarranted and ridiculous $6.6 million this year. Unless he scores 115 points this year, he's overpaid. So as such, he;s overpaid.
4. Edmonton Oilers
Prediction - 80 Pts - 12th in conference
The Edmonton Oilers going to be an exciting, fast paced team this year. And they're going to be improved over last year. But not enough to make the playoffs. Not by a long shot.
With Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, and Magnus Paajarvi joining Sam Gagner , Andrew Cogliano and Ales Hemsky, the Oilers are going to have a fast, young and skilled forward unit. But they have a shaky, shallow overpaid defense and suspect goaltending. They have already sent Sheldon Souray to the minors to shed salary and rid themselves of yet another disgruntled player. But they are still paying Tom Gilbert $4m, No I don't understand it either.
The Oilers will be better simply because Hall, Eberle and Paajarvi are indeniable talents. But they won't get to the playoffs because they are have no depth on defense or goaltending. And goaltending is the big issue in Edmonton, with Nikolai Khabibulin sitting on uncertain ground. He faces a criminal conviction for his extreme DUI case last year. His lawyer is fighting to appeal the case until after the season is over. However, that isn't a certainty. If Khabibulin is forced to go back to court in the middle of the season, he could end serving jail time right away. That, in and of itself would be a massive distraction for the club. But then you're faced with having Jeff Deslauriers-Drouin or Devan Dubnyk in goal, both of whom are flat-out terrible. We also have to remember that Khabibulin missed most of last year rehabbing from surgery, so there is also a bit of an unknown as to how he will actually perform, court case or not.
Medal of Honour - Sam Gagner. With all the attention in Edmonton falling on the three new rookies, Gagner is going to fly under the radar this year, and all for his benefit. I think Gagner is one of the more underrated players in the league, mostly because he's in a market that most hockey fans don't pay much mind. With having some true talent beside him this year, he should flourish.
In the Targets - Dustin Penner. But just because he is always the focus of attention and scrutiny, given his sizable contract. Like Gagner, Penner should benefit from having the new kids on his block. If he doesn't make the most of it, the critics will come out in waves.
5. Minnesota Wild
Prediction - 68 Pts - 15th in conference
This team seems to be just thrown together from leftovers and remnants of other Northwest division teams. Kyle Brodziak, Chuck Kobasew, Andrew Brunette, Eric Nystrom, and several recent Chicago players (Martin Havlat, John Madden, Cam Barker). They have a decent top line, featuring Havlat and Koivu, but after that it's adequate at best. Their defense is more of the same - adequate at best. With Brent Burns they have their legit #1 D, after that they have a few decent but overpaid D in Zidlicky, Schultz and Barker, then it drops off with a real lack of depth.
Injuries have to be the biggest concern in "The State of Hockey". They have already lost G Josh Harding for the year and signed the oft-maligned Jose Theodore as his replacement. The Wild had better hope that #1 goalie Niklas Backstrom doesn't get hurt for any period of time, and plays to the top of his game.
Furthermore, the Wild have to expect that Havlat will go down with an injury at some point - he always does. With their top sniper out of the lineup, goals will be hard to come by.
And if Brent Burns is out of the roster, their blueline will be stretched to keep up with their opponent's best players
Medal of Honour - Nicklas Backstrom. This poor guy is going to get shelled this year, earning every penny of his $6m contract. His defense is not going to offer much help to him this year, so he's going to be under constant mortar and fire.
In the Targets - Martin Havlat. He was terrible with Minnesota last year, proving that he is really only plays well when he is surrounded by a really good cast. Well he isn't. He is the Big Man on Campus and he's proving that he's not up to the challenge. The pressure is on him to prove that last year was an anomoly and that he can rebound and play well as the top dog. He won't be able to do it, and he'll end up with another sub-par year and another injury.
There you have it... my preview and predictions for this year's Northwest Division.
1. Vancouver - 109 Pts (2nd in West)
2. Calgary - 88 Pts (9th)
3. Colorado - 86 Pts (10th)
4. Edmonton - 80 Pts (12th)
5. Minnesota - 68 Pts (15th)
Now let's play 82 games and find out how these predictions pan out!