Back again with my second division preview of the week, this time for one in the Western Conference. Though I live in the East, I actually watch more Western Conference games on average due to being a bit of a night owl. The Northwest Division is one I largely despise, as it contains two teams I can’t stand and the other three I’m mostly indifferent towards. Nonetheless, the division is filled with great players that I enjoy watching, even some on a team I particularly hate. I don’t foresee the Northwest being very competitive this season, but most of its teams should be fighting for one of the last playoff spots in the West.
Despite finishing second in the division and ninth in the conference, the Flames were quite terrible last season. They’ve needed a full-on rebuild for years, yet seem determined to avoid it at all costs. Not a wise decision.
During the offseason Calgary aimed to address their pathetic offense by signing Jiri Hudler away from the Red Wings and Roman Cervenka out of Europe. In theory that’s not bad, but they didn’t re-sign Olli Jokinen, so really all they did was patch up a loss. As such, don’t expect a better offensive output than last season. The lone bright spot in Calgary’s future is Sven Baertschi, but in the early going he’s looked completely out of place in the NHL and now he’s out with a hip injury, so don’t expect him to have any impact this year. Honestly, the only way the offense gets much better is if Jarome Iginla can once again produce a 40+ goal season.
The Flames also attempted to address their offensive troubles on defense by signing Dennis Wideman. This move might turn out to be a little more successful as he joins an otherwise unchanged defense group and should be able to help improve the transition game and power play. However, Wideman has always been rather mediocre defensively, at best, so his additions to the offense may as well go unnoticed when it results in subtractions to the defense. Thankfully they still have Miikka Kiprusoff, so that will mask some of the problems on defense. He’ll be expected to play every game this season and if he can replicate last season’s success that may be enough to keep the Flames in a playoff race they have no business being in.
It’ll be another disappointing season for hockey fans in Calgary, as the Flames will miss the playoffs once again in all likelihood. Even worse, it’ll probably be barely, as usual, and thus they won’t end up with a quality first round draft pick (come on, the Flames would never get that lucky in the lottery).
The Avalanche may have missed the playoffs last year, but overall they had a somewhat respectable season, all things considered. The highlight of the season was Gabriel Landeskog winning the Calder Trophy after leading all rookies in scoring and he was also the only Avalanche player with a double-digit positive plus/minus. The future looks bright in Colorado.
One of Colorado’s more interesting moves during the offseason was naming Landeskog team captain. This was viewed as an odd move by some, but I do not share that opinion. Landeskog is easily the best player on the team, a workhouse and shining example of how all players should play, no matter their age. The Avalanche will be counting on him to do even more this season and if the rest of their players can thrive off of Landeskog’s enthusiasm they may be able to exceed expectations. Colorado will also be looking for Matt Duchene to have a strong rebound year after his dismal, injury riddled performance last season. In an effort to help Duchene, Colorado signed free agent PA Parenteau to add a bit more offensive punch and this move has already paid off as both players are producing well on a line together. They’ll need to keep producing, as Colorado recently lost Steve Downie to injury for the entire season and he was an excellent secondary scoring option for them. To make matters worse, Colorado still needs to sign Ryan O’Reilly, which would be a big boost to the team this year, but if they can’t get it done they’d be wise to trade him in an effort to address other needs.
On defense the Avalanche added Greg Zanon, which is a worthwhile move that should help the penalty kill. However, what Colorado really needs is for Erik Johnson to become the defenseman many believe he should be. They don’t have any other legitimate options for a true #1 defender in the system and really need him to step up. In goal the team is in good shape so long as Semyon Varlamov can stay healthy. He proved himself a capable starting goaltender last season and was lights out in the KHL during the lockout. With a little more consistency he could be one of the better goalies in the league.
Colorado should be fighting for a playoff spot this season, but without O’Reilly and Downie they probably don’t have enough offense to squeak in. However, another year of growth from a crop of good, young forwards would be an acceptable result.
Another finish near the bottom of the standings turned out good for the Oilers as they were rewarded with their third first overall pick in as many seasons. However, fans in Edmonton will be expecting a better finish this season. All of the pieces are in place (except maybe one) and it’s time for real results.
The biggest addition up front is obviously Nail Yakupov. He joins a trio of first overall picks in Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but it’s winger Jordan Eberle who is poised to be the leader on this team of youngsters. He was nearly a point per game last season and well over a point per game in the AHL during the lockout, so expect him to be in a similar range in the NHL this year (he already has 7 points in 7 games). Obviously putting the puck in the net isn’t going to be a problem for the Oilers, but they’ll need a more dependable two-way performance from the kids as well if they hope to may a run for the playoffs.
The big addition on defense is Justin Schultz. He was amazing in the AHL, racking up 48 points in a mere 34 games, but don’t expect that same insane level of production with the Oilers. Still, he does have 5 points already and should make a the league’s third best power play from the previous year even better this season. A full season from Ryan Whitney will also help in that regard. While the defense may not be elite just yet, it has great pieces and with a little growth should be competent. However, the big question mark in Edmonton lies in goal. Devan Dubnyk is the clear #1, but he’s yet to prove himself worthy of such high regard despite his recent contract extension. The Oilers likely share this view as they only extended him for two seasons and there has been plenty of talk on them getting into the Luongo sweepstakes. Nevertheless, Dubnyk has been good in the early going this season, so if he can continue this strong play for the course of the season he may yet prove himself to be the answer in goal.
The Oilers have so many offensive weapons that it should keep them in most games no matter what, but they’ll need strong defense and goaltending to hold down the fort when the offense goes through occasional rough patches. They should be able to make a strong push for one of the final playoff spots in the West.
Last season was far from kind for the Wild as they finished with their worst record post 04/05 lockout. This was largely due to having the league’s worst offense by a very wide margin. Defensively they were a little better, but still far below average and their usual strong goaltending just wasn’t enough in the long run.
The Wild made a big splash in the free agency market, signing arguably the two most sought after free agents available in Ryan Suter (whom we’ll speak more on momentarily) and Zach Parise. They now have one of the highest payrolls in the league and as such will be looking for immediate results. Parise will be expected to lead the offense and help get more out of guys like Dany Heatley and Mikko Koivu. It appears to be working in the early going as the three have combined for 23 points through 7 games. The Wild also have Mikael Granlund joining them this season, one of the top prospects in the league. He’s centering the second line, so that takes a little pressure off of him and the Wild will probably be happy with around 20-30 points (he has 3 thus far) in his rookie season.
Ryan Suter leads the new look defense, joined by Tom Gilbert, who was acquired near the trade deadline last season. Outside of those two there isn’t a lot to like on the backend. Jared Spurgeon seems to be Suter’s partner by default, but he probably doesn’t have the skill level to retain that spot. The rest of the guys on defense are mostly fifth to seventh defensemen at best, with the lone expection being Jonas Brodin. Since being called up Brodin has looked quite good at the NHL level and his workload has increased with every passing game. If he can keep it up the Wild will likely only need one more addition on defense to have an excellent top four. In goal Minnesota still has the solid tandem of Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding, so no problems there, though the Wild may be wise to get a contract extension done with Backstrom sooner rather than later.
There is a lot to like on the new look Wild, but they’re expected to go through some growing pains while trying to get the most out of their expensive and youthful additions. Might be able to push into the playoff picture.
The Canucks won the Northwest Division for the fourth straight year, but followed that up with a very disappointing playoff appearance as they were upset by the eventual Stanley Cup champions in the first round. This resulted in an offseason of turmoil, largely focused on the goaltending situation, which is still ongoing.
The offseason didn’t bring any changes up front for Vancouver, though part of the reason for that is that they made a big splash at the trade deadline last season in acquiring Zack Kassian. He didn’t fit in very good last year, but this year he’s been playing quite well, having scored 5 goals already this season. It’s still too early to judge if they gave up too much for Kassian, but so far it’s looking fairly even (Cody Hodgson has 4 goals for Buffalo this season). As for the rest of the forward situation, they were already having to deal with the loss of Ryan Kesler for months when David Booth joined him on the injury list. Those are big holes to fill for a substantial amount of time so the Canucks will be hard pressed to produce enough offense in their absence.
On defense the Canucks did make a nice signing in that of Jason Garrison, who will basically replace Sami Salo. Overall it’s not a huge improvement, but he is much younger and will be around for awhile. Besides, the defense was already in great shape, lead by Kevin Bieksa, Alexander Edler, and Dan Hamhuis. That’s a solid group that any goalie should be able to thrive behind, which brings us to the question as to who is the starting goalie in Vancouver? They gave the job to Cory Schneider in the playoffs last season after some mediocre games by Roberto Luongo and tried all offseason to find a team willing to take Luongo’s hefty contract. Unfortunately they’re still working on that, which may be a good this as Luongo has easily outplayed Schneider to this point during the shortened season. If this keeps up, would the Canucks then start accepting calls on Schneider instead?
The Canucks are lucky to be in a weak division as the injury problems up front would probably kill them in the Central. However, if they can manage to scrape by for a month or so longer they should remain in good shape to win the Northwest and have another stab at the playoffs.
- Vancouver Canucks
- Edmonton Oilers
- Minnesota Wild
- Colorado Avalanche
- Calgary Flames
I don’t see this being the year that Vancouver’s streak of winning the Northwest comes to an end, though it’ll be a much tighter division until Kesler returns to the lineup. I like Edmonton to sneak into the playoffs as a seventh or eight seed, while Minnesota should be right behind them. Colorado’s chances don’t look good while O’Reilly remains unsigned, coupled with the injury to Downie, and Calgary will finally finish in the basement for the first time since 02/03.