We start our whirlwind tour through the league out West. We seem to have a two horse race between the Vancouver Canucks and the Calgary flames, with both teams going defensive in the offseason. We will break it down by first looking at last season’s biggest accomplishments or, what we like to call, the Rear View Mirror. Then we move along to the Ins and Outs; what each team picked up (with some key stats) and what they lost (the one key stat that will be missed) in the offseason. We have to throw in What Makes Them Tick (the Strength of the team) and What Could Make Them Go Boom (what could derail them from finishing below what I predict.) Finally we finish it off with the Player to Watch and Predictions for the upcoming season. Now, let’s look at the teams of the Northwest Division from top to bottom, according to my picks.
1) VANCOUVER CANUCKS:
Rear View Mirror: The 2008-09 Canucks exceeded expectations and rode a hot goalie to a 100 point season, a Northwest Division crown, and an appearance in the 2nd round of the playoffs. Led in points by the Sedin Twins, the offense also saw career years from Alex Burrows (28 goals, 51 pts) and Ryan Kessler (26, 59). The backbone of the team last season was of course all world goalie Robert Luongo. Though Big Lou missed two months with a groin injury (Canucks 9-14 in those games), he still went 33-13-7 and finished 5th in both GAA (2.34) and save percentage (.920).
Offseason Ins: RW Mikeal Samuelsson (DET: 81 GP–19 G–40 P), C Cody Hodgson (OHL: 53 GP–43 G–92 P, D Aaron Rome (AHL: 48 GP-28 P-153 PIM), G Andrew Raycroft (COL: 12-16-0, 3.14 GAA, .892 Save%)
Offseason Outs: D Mattias Ohlund (82 GP), C Mats Sundin (8 Playoff Pts), G Jason LaBarbera (.915 Save%), LW Taylor Pyatt (86 Hits)
What Makes Them Tick: The Vancouver Canucks begin and end with team captain Roberto Luongo, 155 wins in his 3-years since being plucked from South Florida. This year will be no different as the Canucks will win the division if their workhorse is in net for the majority of the games. General Manager Mike Gillis could also sleep a little easier after the Canucks signed both the Sedin Twins to 5-year extensions on the first day of Free Agency. The Sedin Twins stat lines in their 8 seasons with the Canucks; 288 goals, 634 assists, and 922 points in 1,288 games combined. Needless to say, the team depends heavily on the Sedin’s and added Mikael Samuelsson from the Red Wings to play with them on the top power play unit. What also makes them tick is the solid shutdown defensive tandem of often injured but talented Sami Salo and rugged shot tracker Willie Mitchell. When healthy, combined with great goaltending, this pairing is one of the toughest to score upon.
What Could Make Them Go Boom: The one player this talented team is missing is a power play quarterback or that Minute Muncher top defenseman. Alex Elder or Kevin Bieksa could develop into that role as both saw significant time on the PP last season, but both did not put up the kind of numbers needed to be a quarterback. With the departure of Mattias Ohlund to Tampa, both Bieksa and Elder will be counted on more heavily along the backline and their continued development offensively could be the difference between a division crown and 6th or 7th seed in the West.
Player to Watch: Cody Hodgson has already been named the OHL's most outstanding player and Hockey News #2 rated prospect. Because of his age, Hodgson cannot be sent to the AHL, so now comes his time to showcase his skills in the NHL.
Predictions: With the maturation of players like Kesler, Burrows and even Mason Raymond, combined with the steady veterans Pavol Demitra, Samuelsson, and big body Steve Bernier, Roberto Luongo finally has some protection, making this the most deep offensive team he has played for in front. I, like many, expect big things from Cody Hodgson and believe in the development of Bieksa and Edler. Overall, with great goaltending and a more balanced scoring attack, this team should win the Northwest division for the 3rd time under Alain Vigneault.
2) CALGARY FLAMES:
Rear View Mirror: The Flames had a big time trade deadline acquisition of Olli Jokinen, which saw him and the team get hot (12 pts in first 8 games with Flames), and then fade out of first just to get bounced out by the Blackhawks in the first round. Jarome Iginla ended up disappointed, by his standards, coming off a 50-goal 2007-08 with 35 goals last season. Mikka Kiprusoff lead the league with 45 wins but that was due more to his league high 76 games played than his play as he was 32nd in GAA (2.84).
Offseason Ins: D Jay Bouwmeester (FLA: 82 GP-15 G-42 P), RW Fredrik Sjostrom (NYR: 79 GP-7G-3 SHP), C Mikael Backlund (WHL: 28 GP-12 G-30 P)
Offseason Outs: LW Mike Cammalleri (39 G), D Adrian Auccoin 22:17 TOI), LW Todd Bertuzzi (44 Pts), D Jim Vandermeer (85 Hits), LW Andre Roy (83 PIM), C Wayne Priemau (53 % Faceoff)
What Makes them Tick: With the sign and trade on draft day for Jay Bouwmeester, combined with Dion Phaneuf, the Flames have two top defenseman to rival any in the league. Having these two workhorses, that together played 4335 minutes last season, should lower the league high 2155 shots Kiprusoff faced last season. Offensively, a full season of having the top line combination of Iginla and Jokinen will be a strength for this team. As we saw last season, when these guys click, they produce big numbers.
What Could Make Them Go Boom: Though they made one of the biggest trade deadline moves, what caused them to fade down the stretch was the lack of depth within the organization. With the big financial move towards Bouwmeester, this again puts the Flames in a precarious place if a big injury hits this squad. Their depth has not improved; in fact, it has gotten worse with the subtractions of Cammalleri and Bertuzzi up front and Adrian Auccoin and Jordan Leopold on the back line.
Player to Watch: Rene Bourque was never drafted even after a successful 4-year run at the University of Wisconsin and being named the 2005 AHL Rookie-of-the-Year. In 2006, after a successful rookie season, Bourque had a scary injury when his jugular vein was cut by an errant skate. Then, on July 1, 2008 his Flames career began with a disappointing first season scoring of only 21 goals in 58 games. When healthy it is proven that Bourque is the secondary scorer that the Flames desperately need to balance out the offense.
Predictions: When the Flames made the bold move to acquire Jay Bouwmeester at the draft, they followed the successful post lockout model: using two defenseman that can take up a lot of minutes so as to avoid the expenses of acquiring a decent 5th, 6th or even 7th defenseman. This, like I said, has been successful and even though Jay Bo has never played a meaningful game in March in his career, experts cannot forget that this is one of the best defenseman to play the game today. I also like the hiring/poaching of Brent Sutter to join the family business, as he had the notorious defensive Devils playing an up tempo style. I just don’t like the depth of this team enough to pick them ahead of the deeper Canucks because, in a long 82-game grind, you need to rely on a plethora of players and this team does not have that.
3) EDMONTON OILERS:
Rear View Mirror: The Craig MacTavish era ended with a third straight early golf trip and most of it was due to lack of scoring and sophomore mini slumps. Talented forwards Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano followed up productive rookie seasons with subpar seasons, and big time forwards Ales Hemsky, Shawn Horcoff and Dustin Penner all had disappointing offensive seasons. The biggest bright spot for the Oilers was team MVP Dwayne Roloson who once started 36 straight games for them and ended up with 28-24-9 record, 2.77 GAA and .915 save percentage.
Offseason Ins: G Nikolai Khabibulin (CHI: 25-8-7, 2.33 GAA, .919 Save%)
Offseason Outs: G Dwayne Roloson (28 wins), LW Ales Kotalik (11 Pts in 19 games with Oilers)
What Makes Them Tick: Two straight off-seasons the Oilers acquired Sheldon Souray and Lubomir Vishnovsky. Those two are steady pillars to build a defense around. Combine them with offensive threats like Tom Gilbert (45 pts) and Denis Grebeshkov (39 pts) and you have yourself a pretty fearsome top 4. Vishnovsky had 31 points in his first 50 games as an Oiler before losing his season due to shoulder surgery. Having the former Los Angeles King healthy will be a big boost to a team that depends on a lot of their defense for scoring.
What Could Make Them Go Boom: On paper their offense looks speedy, sensational and scary, but last year that paper got tossed in the recycling bin. The big threats did not live up to their potential shown in the fact that two of their top four scorers were defensemen. More is to be expected of the top 6 forwards this season as the Oilers struck out in trying to acquire/beg Dany Heatly to come booster their offense. This will make or break the Oilers that seem to be on the cusp of making the final playoff spot in the West.
Player to Watch: Dustin Penner was signed away from the, then Stanley Cup Champions, Anaheim Ducks with a five-year, $21.25 million offer sheet. Then came the expectations to match the 29 goals he had for the Ducks. Two years into the contract the former Maine Black Bear has 40 goals and 84 points, last year he was put in Coach MacTavish dog house and relegated to fourth line duty. Now, with new coach Pat Quinn, Penner will have a chance to play on the top line with Hemsky and Horcoff. With that speed on his line, Penner should finally take his place as a dominant power forward in this league. If not, look for him to be trade bait or buyout bait at the end of the season.
Predictions: New life this season for the Oilers as Pat Quinn and Tom Renney replace the defensive minded MacT. Although this team would have been a lock to make the playoffs, had they convinced Dany Heatley to pack his things and head west, they will be improved nonetheless and I will be interested to see how Nikolai Khabibulin does in a non contract year as the primary number one goalie not sharing time.
4) MINNESOTA WILD:
Rearview Mirror: “As the World (of Gaborik) Turns” was the theme of the season for the Wild last year. When healthy, this team was a threat for both the playoffs and more but, when injured, they sputtered offensively and relied heavily on their spectacular goaltending. Marian Gaborik, the face of the origination for 8 seasons, only played 17 games but amassed 23 points as the Wild finished a mere 2 points out of the playoffs. Overshadowing the Gaborik “Is he going to play?” question was an MVP season for goalie Niklas Backstrom. The undrafted free agent finished third in the Vezina voting and finished with a career high 37 wins and was top 5 in both GAA (2.33) and save percentage (.923). He also received a four-year contract extension to remain the last line of defense for the Wild. Also breaking out for the Wild was 4th-year forward Mikko Koivu, who led the Wild in total points (67), power play points (26), and shorthanded points (6). He even came back quickly from a horrific knee injury when many thought he was out for the year. Only missing 6 games he came back to score 5 points in the last 3 games for the playoff push. Now that is a leader.
Offseason Ins: Martin Havlat (CHI: 29 G-77 P), Kyle Brodziak (EDM: 11 G-27 P), Greg Zanon (NSH: 11 P-237 BkS), Shane Hnidy (BOS: 12 P-76 BkS)
Offseason Outs: RW Marian Gaborik (13 G), D Martin Skoula (81 GP), LW Stephane Veilleux (13 G), D Marc-Andre Bergeron (18 PP), D Kurtis Foster (+7), C Dan Fritsche (13 P)
What Makes Them Tick: For the first time in the franchises 8 years of existence, the cornerstones of Marian Gaborik, GM Doug Risegrough and Coach Jaques Lemaire will not be there when the puck drops on October 3rd. These positions have been replaced by a speedy, but often injured, Martin Havlat, legacy Chuck Fletcher and upstart Todd Richards and a more offensive approach. This will start from the defensive end where offensive minded Brent Burns, Kim Johnsson and Marek Zidlicky roam. A first line combination of Havlat, Koivu, and Brunette should shine on the special teams, a place where the Wild have always had success (9th overall last year). Combine that with a penalty kill that finished second last season and now includes Greg Zanon with his 237 block shots.
What Could Make Them Go Boom: With the new regime moving towards a more offensive style, do the Wild have enough offense to create wins? A big piece of the offense, Martin Havlat will be asked to do something he has never done in his career, play back-to-back full 82-game season. The closest he came to this was 2001-02 playing in 72 games after a 73 game rookie campaign. If they are missing the point per game Havlat, then it will be Gaborik déjà vu all over again for the offense that was led by 37-year-old Owen Nolan (25 goals) and 35-year-old Andrew Brunette (22 goals).
Player to Watch: Former first round pick Brent Burns looks to forget a year that saw him injured and bouncing back and forth from forward to defenseman to build on his rising status. Burns, a converted forward burst onto the scene as defenseman with 15 goals in 2007-8 and was named as the best defenseman at the 2008 World Championship. Now, with Richards employing a system that allows the defense to join the rush and fully recover from concussion issues, Burns is primed to pick up where he left off and take his spot as a top defender in the NHL.
Predictions: With so much change around this team, it is hard not to think that they will take some time to get comfortable in the new system. It has been done before for this organization, but they are depending on a forward that, though talented, is often injured and has left them on the cusp of a playoff berth. This season will not be any different, but, hey, at least they will continue the string of selling out every game in franchise which is good for the health of the league.
5) COLORADO AVALANCHE:
Rearview Mirror: For a team that has been a perennial playoff contender and won 2 Stanley Cups since moving to the Mile High City, a last place finish was not a surprise, The Avs were missing their franchise player and captain, Joe Sakic, and up and coming star, Paul Stastny, for most of the season. They scored a league low 190 goals, and their goaltending was one of the worst in the league (253 goals against).
Offseason Ins: D Kyle Quincey (LAK: 4 G, 38 P, 27 PP), D Tom Preissing (LAK: 5 PP in 22 GP), G Craig Anderson (FLA: 15-7-5, 2.71 GAA, .924 Save%), Matt Duchene (OHL: 31 G-79 P)
Offseason Outs: C Joe Sakic (Hall of Fame, too many stats to write), RW Ryan Smyth (59 Pts), C Ian Laperriere (103 Hits), G Andrew Raycroft (12 W), C Tyler Arnason (22 Pts)
What Makes Them Tick: The Avs believe they drafted a superstar in third overall pick Matt Duchene. Unless he comes to camp and looks out of place he should start the season as an 18-year-old rookie. Duchene, who at the last minute got some buzz as being taken #1 overall, is a talented forward. He, along with a healthy Paul Stastny, gives the team a two top skilled centers. The Avs field a good top line with forwards Wojtek Wolski (42 pts last season) and Milan Hejduk (8th year with 20 or more goals). They also picked up talented defenseman, Kyle Quincey, and his power play prowess in the Ryan Smyth trade to the Kings.
What Could Make Them Go Boom: Their top 7 defenseman’s average age is 30, led by veteran Adam Foote who is 37. Their only defensemen under 30 are Quincey (23) and John-Michael Liles (28). Though tough, this veteran defense could be a problem down the road. They traded away their second leading scorer in the off-season, so how a team that was last in scoring improve, will be another big question mark for the Avs.
Player to Watch: Craig Anderson will finally get his chance to prove he can be a starting goalie in the NHL. A 3rd round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2001, he saw his first significant playing time last year for the Florida Panthers. The 28-year old made the most of his 31 games played, posting a 15-7-5 record, 2.71 GAA and .924 save percentage. Anderson kept the Panthers in a close playoff race and even set an NHL record for most saves in a shutout, when he stopped 53 shots versus the Islanders in 2007-08. The Park Ridge, Illinoisian will be the focal point even if this team improves or not.
Predictions: It is hard to go through what this organization went through this off-season both on and off the ice and not continue to be near the bottom of the standings. They hired unknown Joe Sacco, after attempting to get Patrick Roy to take the job, for their third coach in three years. They also fired GM Francois Giguere and replaced him with previous Assistant General Manager Greg Sherman. But the hardest person to replace will be Joe Sakic, the 20-year veteran, all with the Colorado/Quebec franchise, and one of the classiest players to have played in the league, having left as the eighth all-time leading scorer with 1,641 in 1,378 career games. He will not only be missed by the Avalanche but also by the entire league.