Can the rest of the Division Keep up with Vancouver (Northwest Division Preview)

The Northwest Division is yet another division that features a load of Canadian teams and some good American ones. Almost every team in the division has won or been in the Stanley Cup Finals but recently the division has dipped. With two of the worst teams in the NHL and a two more teams that struggle to make the playoffs the division the Northwest has become a bit of a joke. The one good team though has kept them relevant as the Vancouver Canucks made the playoffs last year and went all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. The Vancouver Canucks were the only team to make the playoffs from the Northwest as they are simply the only team with any power in the conference. With Edmonton and Colorado following up the rear of the league there seems to be little competition in this division year through year. This year the Northwest division looks to return to the glory days when more than one team made the playoffs and more than one team had a chance at the Cup.

Calgary Flames

The Calgary Flames are a once great franchise that has fallen on a string of bad performances as of late. The Flames made the playoffs in 2008-09 and since then have had two seasons finishing in the 10th spot and out of the playoffs. Last year was their second year in the 10th spot as they were good enough to get 2nd place in the division but could not manage to earn a playoff spot finishing three points out of the 8th spot. The Flames have been one of the better teams in the division as they have competed to get into the playoffs in the past years but have not been able to get there. The Flames this year will try to return to the playoff again and will do it with the same lineup as years past.

The Flames have made very few moves in the offseason as they picked up some role players but did not change the core of the team. On offence the Flames’ biggest move was picking up Lee Stempniak to provide some more depth. The Flames will mainly depend on Jerome Iginla and Alex Tanguay who heated up later in the season playing together. The majority of their offence will come from these two and so the Flames will be looking to a host of others to provide their secondary scoring. They will hope that Raymond Bourque, Damon Langkow, Curtis Glencross, and Oli Jokinen can step up to provide some more scoring than just the top line. They will also be counting on Mikael Backlund to step up as the centre of the top line. The Flames have two very good offensive leaders in Iginla and Tanguay but they will need to provide the majority of the offence is the Flames hope to be competitive. The secondary scoring is there but is very inconsistent and with the lack of change for the Flames their offence does not seem to be getting any better. On defence the Flames will miss one of their familiar faces in Robert Regehr who was the Flames defensive stalwart. With the loss of Robyn Regehr there will need to be a stepped up role by some of the other defenders on the team. To eat up minutes that Regehr used to the Flames will look to Mark Giordano, Anton Babchuk and Chris Butler. Meanwhile the Flames will also be looking to Jay Bouwmeester to be the leader, which is no challenge for the big blue liner who has been a leader for most of his career. The challenge for Bouwmeester will be whether he can step up is offensive output from the blueline and help provide more goals for the Flames. There is no question that Bouwmeester is the heart of the defence but it will be the replacement of Regehr’s minutes. The defence has not improved much and without Regehr as their stalwart the defence will have some issues in trying to replace him. In goal the Flames will have Miikka Kiprusoff as their backstop yet again this year. There is no need to change their goalie as Kiprusoff is one of the best in the league and has been for year. The biggest issue is that Kiprusoff is beginning to show his age as he had some shaky points last year where he seemed to be losing his touch. The Flames have a backup plan with Henrik Karlsson who has the ability to win games and be a good backup. With Karlsson’s performance last year the Flames will probably look to give him more chances while resting Kirpusoff a bit more. Overall the Flames are not changed and with an aging team and a lack of offensive firepower the Flames may not be seeing a repeat of last year. The Flames may be trending down and with little help on the prospect front they may continue to fall in the future.

Colorado Avalanche

The Colorado Avalanche began their franchise in the best way winning a Stanley Cup in their first year after moving from Quebec City. The Avs continued to be successful making the playoffs but as of late they have fallen off. After a good 2009-10 season where they made the playoffs again the Avalanche took a large last year as they struggled with consistency throughout the year. The Avs finished in 4th place in the division and out of the playoffs but only because of the team they were against. The Avs were the second worst team in the NHL only beating the Edmonton Oilers. Colorado played very well in the first half but after the all-star break it all came apart. The Avs were 25-19-6 before the all-Star break and went 5-25-2 after the break. This late season collapse is what the Avalanche are hoping to prevent this year as they try to make the playoffs again.

The Avalanche made a number of moves to solve the issues they had last year and added some key components to a new look team. The Offence has a number of players that can score but last year the Avalanche offence was almost non-existent in the second half. The Avs will be looking to their young corps of players in Matt Duchene, David Jones, Ryan O’Reilly, T.J. Galiardi, and Paul Stastny to provide the majority of their offence. They will also have a key veteran that has been the most consistent player for the Avs as Milan Hejduk will try to have yet another season with over 20 goals. Meanwhile new addition in Joakim Lindstrom will be looked to provide more offence and skill. The Avs main addition in the offseason was the signing Chuck Kobasew who can provide some grittiness that the Avs lost when Chris Stewart was traded. One of the main offensive newcomers is the Avs first draft pick in Gabriel Landeskog who is widely considered the most NHL ready rookie in the league and could be a big contributor to the offence this year. The Avs made a few changes but with a lot of young players having another year under their belt they could be able to produce enough if they stay healthy. The Defence saw a lot more changes in the offseason as captain Adam Foote retired and John-Michael Liles left in the offseason to Toronto. In preemptive action the Avs traded two good young players to replace Adam Foote before he was gone by getting Erik Johnson. Johnson is solid on both ends and will serve as the leader of a defence that has added a few more key pieces. Jan Hejda and Shane O’Brien were two offseason acquisitions that will add some much-needed size to the blue line. The Avalanche have a new philosophy on defence as they hope that the big presence of Johnson and Hejda can outmuscle their opponents. The Avs will also take a good look at Tyson Barrie and Stefan Elliot who could make a move to the big club later in the season and provide some offence that will be missing with the loss of Liles. The goaltending saw an overhaul for the Avs as longtime backup Peter Budaj is gone and so is Brian Elliott who the Avs traded for late in the season. The Avs signed a host of new goaltenders including Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastian Giguere. Varlamov will take to top spot while Giguere will provide a veteran presence at backup that the young Varlamov could use to his advantage. Varlamov is a young goaltender that has shown flashes of brilliance when he was with the Capitals but has also shown his inconsistency. The Avs traded two picks for the goalie and are taking a risk but with Giguere backing him up and providing a veteran for Varlamov to look to for advice the Avs may have finally found a replacement for Patrick Roy after searching for years. The Avs have made some improvements that should prove to pay off and with a team that was pretty good last year at points they may be able to get back to the playoffs. If the young and small team can last in the big Northwest the Avs will be competing for a playoff spot this year.

Edmonton Oilers

The Oilers have been one of the most exciting teams in every draft in the past years as they continue to take the first draft pick. As for the regular season the city of champions has been far from it as they have finished at the bottom of the league for the past two years and have not made the playoffs since 2005-06, when they made the Stanley cup Finals. For Oilers fans the excitement happens before the season when they learn who their next big rookie will be. It was no change in 2010-11 when the Oilers drafted Taylor Hall first overall and watched him develop into a good player. Hall could not prevent another bad season for the Oilers as they finished in last place again in 2010-11 but again earned the top pick in the draft. The Oilers are hoping that their young team can take a step forward this year.

The Oilers are full of young talent and have brought back a fan favorite and local boy to provide some more veteran presence. The offence will lean on the young talent up front including Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, and #1 overall draft pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Although they will have the youth invasion on offence they will also have some key veterans. Shawn Horcoff, Ales Hemsky and re-addition of Ryan Smyth will provide this veteran presence. The biggest addition for the Oilers was the signing of Smyth who was born in Banff, Alberta and spent his first 11 seasons near his home in Edmonton. Smyth quickly became a fan favorite for his style of play and his hometown appeal. After 11 seasons with the Oilers the franchise traded him to the Islanders and he spent the last 5 seasons with the Islanders, Avalanche, and Kings. Smyth will return this year to the relief of all Oilers fans who will continue the love for the Albertan. Smyth will also be able to provide some secondary scoring that was a big problem for the Oilers last year. The defence is a bit shaky as they lack a true shut down pairing that can stop any offensive team. The key to the Oilers defence is Ryan Whitney who is easily the Oiler’s best defensive player and is a linchpin in the defence. Without Whitney the Oilers struggle and if he gets injured again this year the defence may struggle again. To add some depth to the defence the Oilers added Andy Sutton and Cam Barker but both have yet to show if they can be valuable members to the Oilers. Sutton is the best bet to fill in with a great performance as he has been one of the better defenders on some bad teams and can help the Oilers. Meanwhile Barker was essentially paid to leave Minnesota and the Oilers are hoping that he will improve his performance and show his potential in Edmonton. The Oilers are essentially based on Whitney for their defence but are hoping that their new additions will provide some support in case Whitney goes down like last year. In goal the Oilers may be in trouble but could be in good shape. The questions in-goal are many as the Oilers will have two goalies that could break out and have good seasons or could prove every critic wrong. Nikolai Khabibulin had his worst season last year and is coming off of a back injury as he seems to be far from the days of the “Bulin Wall.” Meanwhile Devan Dubnyk is entering his first full season as the #1 goalie and may not be ready for the responsibility. The goalie situation has too many questions to be confident in them and it could be their downfall. The Oilers are looking to improve but there are too many unknowns for them to make a run at the playoffs. Edmonton will get better but it will be very small steps so expect them to be out of the playoffs again.

Minnesota Wild

The Minnesota Wild have been a fairly successful team as they have made the playoffs but have not been consistent. The Wild have been in a downward slide recently missing the playoffs in the last three seasons. Last year the Wild did not fare much better as they missed the playoffs and ended in third place in the division. The Wild had issues in the offensive game as they ranked last in shots last year and that translated to very few goals. The Wild started slow and ended slow in the season and struggled to gain any ground in the division. With the bad season the Wild fired their coach in order to begin a culture change in Minnesota. The Wild made some moves in the offseason in order to improve the output for the team.

The Wild were disappointed by their offensive output last year and went into the free agent market to improve. The Offence will see two new shoot first offensive minds that should provide more offence and more shots to a team with very little offensive power. The Wild traded for Danny Heatley and Devin Setoguchi to give the Wild some firepower. Both of these snipers have had some up and down seasons as they continue to struggle to find their ture lights out form. Heatley left Ottawa after years of leading the team and went to the Sharks to be a part of a major line that never really met up to their potential. Another part of this big trade was Setoguchi who like Heatley never really lived up to his scoring ability. The wild are hoping that Heatley and Setoguchi can finally be the superstars that they have shown in flashes to add to the offence that was last in shots. Along with these two shoot first players the Wild will be looking to Mikko Koivu, Cal Clutterbuck, and Pierre-Marc Bouchard to provide some offensive support. These players have been known to be pass happy and if they can give it to Heatley and Setoguchi as their shooters the Wild might be able to produce more offence. On defence the Wild have made some changes but most of the change came with some veteran presence leaving. The Wild will lose Brent Burns and Cam Barker leaving few true veterans to lead the defensive squad. The defence will be led by Marek Zidlicky, Nick Schultz, and Greg Zanon who are all returning. Meanwhile Clayton Stoner, Mike Lundin, and Marco Scandella will fill out the rest of the defence but all have had limited time in the NHL. The defence is worse off without Clark and Burns as they will have a large learning curve. The young defence will be at a bit of an advantage as many played under ne Wild coach Mike Yeo in Houston and know his system well. It will be a struggle for the Wild on defence as they will have growing pains by their young defenders and the older veterans are not shut down defenders that are needed in the NHL. In goal Niklas Backstrom will look for some consistency after a good performance last year. Backstrom has been up and down as he was nominated for the Vezina in 2009-08 but struggled in 2009-10. Then last year Backstrom came back to a great performance and is hoping that this year will be back to his Vezina performance. The Wild have an improved offence but the question will be if it is improved enough to provide a big enough change. Meanwhile the defence will struggle and might be backed up by Backstrom if he can return to his form. The Wild are in a bit of a slump and it will most likely continue as the defence will not be strong enough to give the offence an opportunity to win games.

Vancouver Canucks

The Vancouver Canucks have been the class of the Northwest division for years and last year showed their dominance. The Canucks last year were the only team to make it into the playoffs out of the northwest and moved on in the playoffs. The Canucks made it to their second Stanley Cup finals but came up short again. They took the division and the conference crown as well as the President’s Trophy for the NHL’s top team. The Canucks had the best season they have ever had as they went all the way to the Stanley Cup playoffs after being an early favorite to win the cup. The plan was not followed precisely though as the Canucks took the Boston Bruins to a 7th game and lost as they went 0-2 in Stanley Cup finals. The Canucks are hoping to repeat their performance this year and take it one step further to win the Cup for the first time in Franchise history.

The Canucks have been a defensive powerhouse for years and have been able to add offence in recent years that has helped them become more rounded. The offence is based on the twins as Daniel and Henrik Sedin provide the offence for the Canucks, The rest of the offence seems to come from Mason Raymond, who will be out until November with a back injury. The rest of the offence is not extremely powerful aside from the top three scorers but they all have the ability to get goals. Vancouver will look to Ryan Kesler, Chris Higgins, and Mikael Samuelsson to pick up their output on offence. The addition of Marco Sturm will look to replace the loss of Raffi Torres but in general the Canucks are unchanged up front. Of course the big issue will be whether or not all of the secondary scoring will come. With Raymond out for the first few months with a back injury the Sedins will be looked to even more. The Sedin twins are the heart of the offence but have been known to go through some droughts that causes the rest of the Canucks’ offence to stop producing. The offence will need to find some secondary scoring from Kesler, Samuelsson, Higgins, and Sturm especially with Mason Raymond out. On defence the Canucks have lost a big part of their offensive output in Christian Ehrhoff. Without Ehrhoff the defence will not be as potent a weapon in the offensive game. They still remain very good defensively with Alex Edler and Kevin Bieksa forming the top pair that will be good defensively. The Canucks have kept the core of their defence that will help them remain a solid defensive team that allowed the fewest goals in the NHL last year. With Sami Salo, Dan Hamhuis, Aaron Rome, and Keith Ballard rounding out the defence the Canucks have not gotten any worse from last year. The emergence of the young defence including Chris Tanev will be there to improve the passing from the blue line if he is needed. The biggest issue for the defence will be that the offensive output will be limited without Ehrhoff putting more pressure on an offence that has a tendency to go to sleep. Defensively the Canucks will remain solid but will be missing the offensive punch that they had last year. In goal the Canucks have one of the best goalies in the game with Roberto Luongo along with one of the best backups in the NHL in Cory Schneider. Luongo has been one of the best goalies in the league for a while but his big knock is that he cannot win the big game. After the playoffs last year it is not so much that he cracks under pressure but he is not consistent enough and tends to falter at the worst times. Luongo will try to get over this mental block and remain one of the best goalies while Schneider will give him breaks when needed. The Canucks look generally unchanged as their offence still concentrates on the Sedin twins and the defensive is solid. The offence will need to pick up their production if the Canucks hope to be as successful as last year but there is no reason to think that they will take a large fall down the standings.

Prediction:

1. Vancouver Canucks

2. Colorado Avalanche

3. Minnesota Wild

4. Calgary Flames

5. Edmonton Oilers

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