Northwest Division 2009/10 : Review and Preview

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Northwest Division 2009/10 : Review and Preview
(Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images)

The shortest offseason in pro-sports is over and here’s my look at how I think the Northwest division is going to fair this year. I’m looking at them in the order they finished last year.  

 

 

Northwest Division

 

What was once considered one of the toughest divisions in hockey has devolved into one of the weakest. The divisional .538 winning percentage was better then that of the Southeast division by only the thinnest of margins. Teams in this division have rabid fan bases and organizations desperate to win.

 

This has lead to a tendency to over pay for  players and has forced teams tight up against the cap. All the teams have shuffled the deck this year in an attempt to get better but I’m afraid with the exception of Colorado these teams have mostly just moved sideways.

 

 

Vancouver

 

Having won the division by two points last year over a Calgary team that iced

less then full rosters during the playoff push because of cap problems. They beat St Louis but then were handled by a younger, faster Chicago team that liked to spot them leads in the second round.

 

They got great goaltending out of Roberto Luongo, when he was healthy. They struggled mightily when he was hurt. His nine shut-outs, 2.34 GAA and .920 save percentage put him among the top five goalies in the league. Veteran Andrew Raycroft was signed cheap from Colorado to be the back up to Luongo. He looks to be this years Patrick Lalime.

 

If Luongo gets hurt Raycroft is not an adequate back-up. Youngster Cory Schneider should get a chance to make the big club and back up Roberto. If he can make the team it’ll afford an excellent opportunity to learn, though if Luongo plays 70 games his skills are likely to deteriorate from disuse.

 

Their old/experienced defense gave up 29.2 shots per game last year. That was the tenth fewest in the league. Mattias Ohlund moved to Tampa Bay in the offseason and his experience will be missed. Vancouver has 14 million dollars invested in Salo, Edler, Bieksa and Mitchell.

 

That’s a good solid core of defensemen but they still lack a top end offensive defenseman. Mathieu Schneider was brought in to be the power play quarterback. He did a good job in Montreal and at 40 he still looks like he can fill that specialist role. His five on five minutes need to be limited. San Jose dumped two NHL quality defensemen on Vancouver for prospects.

 

Lukowich is a good solid stay at home defenseman who had a nice bounce back year in San Jose after a career worst year in Tampa Bay (-15) while suffering with a groin pull. Christian Ehrhoff has been a useful offensive defenseman and could also help out the power play. At 27 he skates well and produces just over half a point a game. He had 25 power play points last year.

 

This leaves Vancouver with seven NHL ready defensemen on their roster plus Shane O’Brien.They could probably try to trade a defenseman (Salo?) for some secondary scoring.

 

The Sedin brothers after searching for greener pastures settled on Vancouver and $6.1 million a year each for five years. Mikael Samuelsson was signed from Detroit and probably will get a tryout on the first line.

 

This should be a stretch for him but he does have talent and other marginally talented forwards have done well when teamed with the Sedins. I’m thinking Mikael Samuellson will prove better then say, Anson Carter. Pavol Demitra will lead the second line but age and injuries are starting to take their toll. His offensive numbers are in decline and he’ll need someone better then Burrows and Bernier to play with.

 

The Sundin experiment is over but his point a game in the playoffs needs to be replaced. Kesler, Burrows and Johnson allow Vancouver to put together one of the best young checking lines in the league with a great counter attack capability. They hung on to Mason Raymond who was one of the few Canucks who could skate with Chicago in the playoffs.

 

Hopefully Shirokov and Cody Hodgson push the Berniers and the Wellwoods for roster spots and bring some secondary scoring into the lineup.

 

Vancouver is spent up against the cap and if they’re not careful they could end up with some Calgary-like problems at season end. I think this year Vancouver loses a tight battle for first with Calgary in the NW and just sneaks into the final playoff spot because of Luongo and their defensive depth. They’ll have trouble scoring in Vancouver this year.

 

 

Calgary

 

Calgary blew a substantial lead over Vancouver in the last month of the season. During the final week a series of injuries and overspending by the GM resulted in Calgary having to play with less then a full roster of players because of salary cap constraints. The Flames failure to finish first in the NW resulted in them meeting a Chicago Blackhawk team that completely outmatched them in the first round.

 

Winning the division would have left them playing and perhaps beating St Louis in the first round. Not winning their division had severe consequences for the Flames. Some organizations fire GM’s for such mistakes. A Sutter, in Calgary, is simply patted on the head and sent out to run the team for another year.

 

Kiprusoff has been the workhorse goalie in Calgary since their Stanley Cup loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004. That year he played 38 games and had a .933 save percentage and 1.69 GAA in the regular season. The next year he played he got in 74 games and managed a .923 and 2.07.

 

Then it was 74 GP, .917 Sv pct and 2.46 GAA. The last two years he’s played 76 games and gotten save percentages .906 and .903 and goals against averages of 2.69 and 2.84. Miikka has moved from stellar to ordinary. Last year he lead the league in wins, games played and minutes played. Among goalies who played at least a third of their teams games he was 30th out of 43 in goals against average and 32nd out of 43 in save percentage.

 

Those are painfully mediocre numbers. Calgary gave up a middle of the road 29.8 shots per game last year. As a team they gave up an eight worst 3.00 goals per game. Calgary needs to allow fewer shots on net. Kiprusoff must play fewer games to see if he can return to the level of play he showed in the first three years in Calgary. Calgary’s first priority should have been getting a dependable back-up for Kipper.

 

Sutter apparently wants to take out his $5.8 million a season in value from Kiprusoff in blood. McElhinney the back-up they’ve shown no faith in, in the past, has been retained to back up Miikka. He needs to start (and finish) at least fifteen games for Calgary to give Kiprusoff a chance to regain his form and have him rested for the playoffs.

 

The Flames have just completed a two year enema on the defense flushing the more suspect members out of the system. Ericsson, Hale, Vandermeer, Warriner, Aucoin have all been moved on over the last two years. Alberta bred Jay Bouwmeester has been brought back to be the saviour on defense, despite the fact that he played 25 minutes a night on the worst defense in hockey in Florida.

 

The good news is he skates like the wind, has a big body and some offensive skills (half a point a game). The fifteen goals a game and ability to jump in to the play certainly make him a valuable asset. Ditto for now maligned Dion Phaneuf. Dion is a good skater, hits like a tank and has a shot like a laser. Keenan was calling on him to do everything.

 

The new Sutter (duane?) coach will get him to pull in his horns and play more responsibly. He’ll still get his points on the power play and will do better just by trying not to do so much. Regehr and Sarich aren’t the skaters that Phaneuf and Bouwmeester are but they can hit like trucks and Regehr is nasty to play against. Giordano was wooed back from Russia and is a smooth skating puck mover with some size and some skill.

 

He’s a huge upgrade from the Vandermeers and Warriners who couldn’t really play defense at the NHL level any more. The defense will be rounded out by Adam Pardy and Anton Stralman with perhaps youngsters Keith Aulie and John Negrin competing for and winning a spot. I look for the defense to be much better this year providing offense from the blueline.

 

The alpha and omega of Calgary offense is Jarome Iginla. Power forwards in the NHL have careers that are often cut short abruptly. Iginla may be on the downward curve of his career and he may never surpass last years 89 points. The Flames need to win a cup soon or Jarome never will. Jokinen and David Moss perhaps round out a first line. Langkow, Borque and perhaps rookie Mickael Backlund will be called on to provide offense from the second line.

 

There’s a raft of checkers to pick from and Nystrom and Sjostrom will probably excel on the penalty kill.  Calgary is desperate for players who can score and don’t cost them any money. They have 31 million dollars out of their 56.8 million dollar cap spent on five players: Jarome Iginla, Miikka Kiprusoff, Olli Jokinen, Dion Phaneuf,

Jay Bouwmeester. They are hoping that Nigel Dawes or Frederick Sjostrom or Mickael Backlund or Theoren Fleury or Kris Chucko or Dustin Boyd can come in and score for less then a million dollars a year. Nigel or Backlund might just do it for them.

 

I expect the flames to be better defensively this year and while scoring less to get more offense from the defensemen. I see the flames sneaking past Vancouver this year and winning the Northwest. This team doesn’t seem ready to do much in the playoffs unless Kiprusoff can regain his 2003/04 form and I don’t see that happening.

 

 

Minnesota

 

This team has had success over the years playing a tight defensive system. This has gotten them into the playoffs where they’ve generally floundered. The year before last they lost to a bad Colorado team in the first round. Last year they didn’t even manage that. They finished behind the Ducks by two points.

 

Worse though was the fact that they were 12 and 10 points behind division leaders Vancouver and Calgary. They have ground to make up. Jacques Lemaire resigned after missing the playoffs and Doug Riseborough was replaced by Chuck Fletcher. He hired Todd Richards a former Penguins AHL coach and San Jose Shark assistant to be the second head coach in the teams history.          

    

Goaltending in Minnesota has been an organizational strength. People tend to down play the goalies role with the Wild because they assume the system they play insulates the goalie and obviates the need for a first class tender. Last year however Minnesota gave up 30.7 shots per game. That was the 11th worst total in the league. That’s a lot of shots for a team that doesn’t score to give up.

 

Anaheim(30.5), Boston(30.8) and Pittsburgh(30.3) give up around the same number of shots but they scored goals last year. Nicklas Backstrom was there to bail them out. He played the fourth most minutes in the league and yet had the fourth best save percentage in the league. He had a better save percentage then all the goalies who played at least 70 percent of their teams minutes including highly regarded work-horses Henrik Lundquist .916, Cam Ward .916, Steve Mason .916,Ryan Miller .918 and Marc Andre Fleury .912. He had the third best goals against average in the league.

 

His eight shut-outs were yes, you guessed it, third best in the league and his 37 wins were fifth best. Behind him was the talented Josh Harding who at one time was the 1A goalie in this tandem. He’s been relegated to a back-up role but he’s still an able contributor. He might get dealt for more scoring this year. The goaltending is their strength. A talented skater or two added to the mix can only improve this team.

 

Defense in Minnesota has a certain cachet and the defenders are sought after as New Jersey’s are, when they become available. Kurtis Foster was snapped up by Tampa Bay after breaking his leg last year. Minnesota has 15.2 million dollars wrapped up in four defensemen Brent Burns, Kim Johnsson, Nik Schultz and Marek Zidlicky. Brent when healthy is a big tough strong skating hitter with offensive skills.

 

He’s likely to play in the first four for Canada at the Olympics if he can stay healthy. He’s returning from concussion which is always a worry. The other three are skaters as well. Johnsson is a big defenseman with a light touch who plays the game softer then some would like.

 

Zidlicky is their other offensive defensemen who was signed away from Nashville last year and helps run the power play. Schultz an offensive guy in junior seems to have taken his skating ability and metamorphosed into a shut-down defenseman. Older defensive role players Shane Hnidy and Greg Zanon have been brought in to fill out the roster with veteran defenders. 19 year old Tyler Cuma, coming off a torn MCL that kept him out of the world junior hockey championships last year, may crack the lineup and push one of the veterans into the seven slot.

 

Offensive defensemen Marc Andre Bergeron and Martin Skoulla have been left unsigned. I have to believe someone in need of offense on the point of the power play will eventually pick them up.

 

Offense is Minnesota’s Achilles heel. They scored 219 goals last year while star Marion Gaborik was injured for most of the season. There were eight teams in the NHL who scored fewer last year. Only the Rangers were a playoff team. New free agent pick up Martin Havlat is playing and has scored in the pre-season.

 

His injury history and western final concussions have to be worrisome but right now it looks like he’ll play more games this year then Gaborik did last. That will help the offense. It’s thought that the defensive system played in Minnesota inhibits offense. I think their lack of real first rate offensive talent does so as well.

 

Mikko Koivu and Pierre Marc Bouchard are certainly talented but they both need a sniper to play with. Antti Mietenen is a great strong skating checker with counter-attack ability and can certainly lead a quick skilled checking line with Belanger and perhaps one of the younger players Clutterbuck or Gillies. Andrew Brunette still has some scoring skill though he’s entering the last few years of his career. Owen Nolan is on the verge of retirement and one injury might put him there.

 

You have to play him though until you have someone better to replace him with. Petr Sykora a healthy scratch in the Penguins Stanley Cup run has been brought in to add offense. The talented veteran will not hurt the offense. Any extra offense has to come from youngsters. Maybe young Haligonian James Sheppard can score more on the big club. Unfortunately even 10 goals seem like a lot to ask for.

 

The goaltending and the defense can take this team into or near the playoffs. The scoring should be improved marginally this year. They’ve spent up to the cap so they’ve got little flexibility to add salary during the year. I see Minnesota finishing eight or ninth, probably ninth. If they do make the playoffs and don’t generate some secondary scoring they’ll be out in the first round, again. 

 

 

Edmonton

 

Finishing a mere six points out of the playoffs last year, they seemed out of the running long before the season ended. They suffered through an almost team wide sophomore jinx and missed the playoffs for the third year in a row. Craig Mactavish paid the price and veteran coach Pat Quinn has been brought in to mentor them. Hot off success with Canada’s world junior team it’s thought he’s the man to bring the youngsters forward.    

 

Dwayne Roloson had a quality year in nets for Edmonton at age 40. He signed with the New York Islanders while Edmonton opted to sign Chicago’s 36 year old goalie Nikolai Khabibulin. He probably represents an upgrade in nets for Edmonton but not as big an improvement as fans will hope. Roloson played a thousand minutes more then Nicky did, on a team that gave up almost four shots a game more then Chicago did. His statistics were not that much worse then Khabibulin’s.

 

Edmonton will probably try to use and groom one of their younger goalies and get him ready to replace Khabibulin in the next 3-4 years. Roloson would have needed to be replaced in the next year or two. Look for Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers to get a chance to play a quarter or even a third of Edmonton’s games. Big David Dubnyk might also get some games in at the NHL level though he’ll probably be the starter for Springfield in the AHL.

 

Edmonton has four defensemen who can give you more then half a point a game and two Souray and Vishnovsky, who last year provided .6 points a game. That’s an embarrassment of riches when you throw in Grebeshkov and Gilbert. Trading one of these offensive defenseman (Vishnovsky?) for a first rate center makes a lot of sense to me.

 

Perhaps if the owner who wants to tear down the team in Tampa Bay wins the power struggle, Lecavalier will be available. Behind these four are the poorly aging Steve Staois and the cost-effective Ladislav Smid. Edmonton could also probably use a shut-down defensive defenseman to balance out all this skill. Moving Matt Greene to LA seems to have left that spot empty.

 

If they don’t manage to find one then they are better served by keeping the puck in the other teams zone. A lot of these guys are a little uncertain while playing in their own zone.

 

The offense needs to bounce back after an anemic year. The make-up of their defense requires the team to be dominant offensively, not just fair. The team needs a legitimate first line center. Shawn Horcoff is a speedy talented player but not a real first line NHL center. He’s often overmatched in that slot whereas I imagine he’d excel in the number two spot.

 

Alex Hemsky is the only of their grab bag of talented offensive forwards who has graduated to become a legitimate NHL scorer. A better center to play with can only

help him. Edmonton thought they were adding a tough veteran forward to help the mix when they brought in Eric Cole. Unfortunately he seemed mostly disinterested in Edmonton and was a bust.

 

Dustin Penner was the weak link on a Duck team that won the cup, vanishing the deeper his team got in to the playoffs. He’s a big bodied presence with soft hands but he’s painfully slow. The contrast he offers to Edmonton’s other tiny quick youngsters has to be good for something. I still believe he’s got the ability to be an NHL power forward.

 

Youngsters Gagner, Cogliano and Nilsson all have to step forward this year. Perennial disappointment Robbie Schremp has to be given a chance to succeed or moved out of the organization. New acquisition Patrick O’Sullivan looks like he’s going to snap up a spot on the second line.

 

Mike Comrie has been brought in to help the offense. The Edmonton native was reviled in Edmonton when he held out and eventually was sent on his way. It’ll take a lot of goals to win himself a spot by the fire and I don’t know that the soft one-dimensional player has it in him. This team with their still young talent is still the team that could improve the most from inside. Jordan Eberle and first round pick Magnus Pajaarvi-Svensson should get a chance to make the team.

 

The Oilers like all the other members of the Northwest have spent to the limit of the cap.

 

They do have players they could trade that other teams would be interested in. I don’t see this lineup being much better then last years and I’m looking for them to drop a spot in the west finishing 12th overall.                                  

 

 

Colorado

 

The worst team in the west last year. Since the move from Quebec City they had never suffered through such an ignominious season. Age and injuries caught up with what looked like, along with Detroit and New Jersey, to be one of the best run organizations in professional hockey.

 

During the 15 years since the move to Denver the Avalanche had not had a season where they earned fewer than 95 points. Last year they got 69. They hung coach Tony Granato out to dry while they courted crazy old Patrick Roy to be their coach. Ultimately he declined the offer and they signed former Avalanche player Joe Sacco to run the team.

 

Goaltending killed Colorado last year. Petr Budaj and Andrew Raycroft cannot be your goaltending tandem. Raycroft was left unsigned and got picked up by Vancouver.  Budaj and his .899 save percentage and 2.86 goals against average have been retained to be the starter in Colorado.

 

Craig Anderson was picked up from Florida to be the back-up. This astute pick-up cost them only 1.8 million a year. Anderson thrived in Florida’s high shot environment, at times winning the starting job from Tomas Vokoun. He had a .924 save percentage while playing a third of his teams games. He could quite possibly win the starting job and perhaps solve Colorado’s goaltending problems. If not he’ll provide good back up goaltending which is something Raycroft didn’t manage.

 

Another huge problem for Colorado was their aging slow-footed defense. Scott Hannan and Adam Foote are veteran, hard nosed shutdown defensemen. Unfortunately for a couple years now the 38 year old Foote and the 30 year old Hannan are skating like they have one blade stuck in the ice. Certainly Foote’s minutes need to be restricted to maintain his value.

 

Desperate for defenders who can skate Colorado moved veteran Ryan Smyth and his large six million a year contract to Los Angeles for last years power play

savant Kyle Quincey and aging moderately talented Tom Preissing. Suddenly Colorado had tripled the number of skaters they had behind the blue line and freed up some cap space.

 

Now John Michael Lilles isn’t alone trying to run the Avalanche power play. Ruslan Salei also provides another veteran (36) banger. Brett Clark is another veteran defenseman with limited skills who might be on the downward side of his career. It would be nice for the organization if they could promote a youngster on to the defense from inside the organization. Kevin Shattenkirk the college offensive defenseman is the most likely candidate. He’s getting ready to start his second year at Boston University.   

 

The offense last year took a dip after a pretty good year in 2007-08. Joe Sakic has retired. Ryan Smyth has been traded. Darcy Tucker is valueless and needs to be waived to the minors or bought out. There were injuries among the core of the remaining players.

 

Stasny, Hejduk, Wolski and Svatos need to stay healthy for the offense to recover. Matt Duchene was called perhaps the most NHL ready player in last years amateur draft. I think he can fill the No.2 center slot a la Stamkos in Tampa Bay. The superior supporting cast around Duchene may allow him to outscore the more talented John Tavares and be rookie of the year. I have to believe this team will score more goals even without Smyth.

 

The youngsters they have will all get a chance to prove themselves and one or two will pan out.

 

Colorado I think did the most to improve themselves in the off-season of any Northwest division team. Unfortunately they had a lot of improvements to make. I think better goaltending, faster skating defensemen and a better power play will allow this team to improve somewhat.

 

They’re still last in the Northwest but I think they’ll pass Nashville and Phoenix. Another year of strong drafting will have Colorado back within striking distance of the playoffs. Good organizations can lose but not for long.  

 

 

2008/09 Northwest Division Standings         2009/10 Northwest Division Prediction

   1/Vancouver Canucks(3)     100                        1/Calgary Flames (3)               99

   2/Calgary Flames (5)              98                        2/Vancouver Canucks (7)       92

   3/ Minnesota Wild (9)             89                        3/Minnesota Wild (9)              90

   4/Edmonton Oilers (11)          85                        4/Edmonton Oilers (12)          82

   5/Colorado Avalanche (15)     69                        5/Colorado Avalanche (13)    80   

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