Northwest Division Preview: Wild about Minnesota
The Northwest division will be one of the more competitive divisions in the NHL. The Minnesota Wild won the division last year. Can they repeat?
Here are my predicted standings:
Minnesota Wild 97 Points
Calgary Flames 95 Points
Colorado Avalanche 91 Points
Edmonton Oilers 89 Points
Vancouver Canucks 78 Points
The Wild will build on the success of last season's team. The losses of both Pavol Demitra and Brian Rolston will hurt them, but this team's defensive style of hockey will bring them to the playoffs.
The emergence of younger players like Mikko Kovu and Pierre-Marc Bouchard will help keep the Wild's offense solid. A good amount of the offensive load will be put on star forward Marian Gaborik. Also, the offseason acquisitions of Owen Nolan and the returning Andrew Brunette will give the Wild good complementary offense.
Not many people know about the Wild's defense, but head coach Jacques Lemaire has made this young defense play up to its potential. In the offseason the Wild added defensemen Marc-Andre Bergeron and Marek Zidlicky. Both players can move the puck well and will become key parts of the Wild's power-play.
Brent Burns' elbow surgery will keep him on the bench for the beginning of the season, but when he returns Burns will bring an offensive jolt to the Wild's defense.
Niklas Backstrom will be solid in net for the Wild. Their problem in net is back-up goalie. it seems young net-minder Josh Harding will be backing up Backstrom, but he does not have much experience in net. Goaltending could become a problem for the Wild.
The Calgary Flames will improve from last season's disappointing loss to the San Jose Sharks in the first round of the playoffs.
Offensively the Flames are solid. Jarome Iginla and Daymond Langkow will be a great duo for their offense. The losses of forwards Kristian Huselius and Alex Tanguay will hurt the Flames' offense, but they are hoping the additions of Michael Cammalleri and Todd Bertuzzi will help fill the void left by the two productive forwards.
The Flames will have excellent defense this season. Star defenseman Dion Phaneuf will be the standout, while veteran defensemen Adrian Aucion and Cory Sarich will help to bolster the blue-line. Robyn Regehr and Rhett Warrener will also be solid blue-liners for the Flames and provide plenty of playoff experience,.
The Flames have one of the best starting goaltenders in the NHL in Mikka Kiprusoff. The games in which Kiprusoff does not play could spell trouble for the Flames, as back-up Curtis McElhinney has only five NHL games under his belt.
The Colorado Avalanche had a solid season, capped off with a playoff berth. They made it to the second round of the playoffs. Can they make the playoffs again?
The return of future Hall of Famer Joe Sakic will keep the Avalanche offense steady. Young players like Paul Stastny, Woljtek Wolski, and Marek Svatos will be exciting productive forwards for Colorado. Sakic, Milan Hejduk, Ryan Smyth, and Darcy Tucker are very productive veterans who may be able to lead this team to the playoffs.
The Avalanche have a decent defensive core, with puck-moving defensemen Ruslan Salei and John-Michael Liles. Veterans like Adam Foote and Daniel Tjarnqvist will be solid defensive blue-liners for Colorado.
The Avalanche do not possess the greatest goaltending. Goaltender Peter Budaj is decent at best. Andrew Raycroft may very well become the starter for Colorado. He had a year to forget with Toronto, but a change of scenery may make him play like he did with the Boston Bruins earlier in his career.
The Edmonton Oilers made nice acquisitions to improve their team. These moves may allow the Oilers to compete.
The offseason acquisition of forward Erik Cole will help a decent Oilers offense become better, but the young players like Ales Hemsky, Sam Gagner, and Shawn Horcoff will need to reach their potential in order for the Oilers to have a successful season. The Oilers have a good amount of veteran presence with Erik Cole and Ethan Moreau. They will be relied on to mentor the young nucleus in Edmonton.
The Oilers now have one of the better defenses in the NHL. Productive defensemen such as Sheldon Souray and Steve Staios are consistent blue-liners who can play well on both ends of the ice. The acquisitions of Lubomir Visnovsky and Jason Strudwick will add veteran presence to the Oilers' formidable blue-line.
The Oilers have good goaltending with veteran Dwyane Roloson and shootout specialist Matthieu Garon. These two goalies will provide the Oilers with a solid tandem in net, capable of keeping this team in games.
It will be a difficult year for the Vancouver Canucks, as they are expected to finish near the bottom of the Western Conference standings.
The Canucks lost a good chunk of their offensive production to free agency. The losses of Markus Naslund and Brendan Morrison along with the retirement of Trevor Linden will definitely hamper the Canucks' offense. In the offseason, however, Vancouver did pick up play-making forward Pavel Demitra. A line of Demitra, Daniel Sedin, and Henrik Sedin could provide the one bright spot for the Canucks.
Their defense is suspect at best. Veterans Mattias Ohlund and Sami Salo will give Vancouver's young defense some veteran presence. Alexander Edler and Kevin Bieksa are two young defensemen looking to step up and solidify Vancouver's defense.
In between the pipes the Canucks have arguably the best goaltender in the league—Roberto Luongo. However, Luongo did show last season that he falters if the Canucks fail to give him rest. Back-up goaltender Curtis Sanford will have to play a decent amount of games for the Canucks to even think about having an average season.
The Northwest division seems to have good competition with the Wild, Flames, and Avalanche. I see the Wild winning the division and the Flames making the playoffs. Colorado will just miss the playoffs, but will be quite competitive this season. The Oilers will be a better team this year, but it will be a few years before they contend. The Canucks will have a poor season and will be busy praying for the first pick of the 2009 NHL draft.
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