The Northwest Division may have been the weakest division in the NHL during the 2010-2011 season. Although the Vancouver Canucks won the President's Trophy as the team with the most points in the NHL, they were the only team from the Northwest to make the playoffs. No other division placed fewer than two teams in the postseason. The Northwest division also contained the bottom two teams in the NHL, the Edmonton Oilers and the Colorado Avalanche.
Though none of the big named free agents of the 2011 offseason will be moving to the Northwest this year, there has been no shortage of movement through trades and signings. The Western Conference is always competitive, and the Northwest Division will be far more competitive this season.
A lot could happen between now and the last game of the 2011-2012 season, but based on what has been done so far, here is a prediction of the final standings of the Northwest Division.
Minnesota finished the 2010-2011 season with 86 points. Contributing most to their disappointing 12th place finish in the Western Conference was Minnesota's lack of offensive production. Minnesota averaged 2.48 goals per game, bettering only four other teams. They average a league worst 26.2 shots per game. Only Martin Havlat broke the 20 goal mark for the Wild.
Minny addressed their offensive needs in two separate headline-making trades with the San Jose Sharks. Suiting up for the Wild this season will be wingers Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi. The two combined for 48 goals and 105 points in 2010-2011. However, the Wild also lost three of their top four offensive producers in Martin Havlat, Andrew Brunette, and Brent Burns. The three combined for 57 goals and 154 points this past season.
No matter how good a Setoguchi-Koivu-Heatley line can be, Minnesota needs secondary scoring. Guillaume Latendresse can provide that, if he can stay healthy. The one-time 25 goal scorer hasn't played a full season since his rookie year in 2006-2007. The Wild also have scoring potential in Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Cal Clutterbuck, Matt Cullen, and Kyle Brodziak. All four contributed last season to the Wild's lackluster scoring performance with around 35 points each.
Despite the optimism surrounding Minny's offense, their defense will take a hit in the loss of Brent Burns. The 6'5" defenseman easily led the Wild in ice time, averaging over 25 minutes per game. His eight powerplay goals in 2010-2011 was tied for a team high. The Wild still have veteran blueliners Greg Zanon and Marek Zidlicky, and have added Mike Lundin to fill out the second pairing.
Unless Heatley and Setoguchi both have strong first seasons with their new club, expect to see a similar finish from Minny this year.
Taking into account the fact that the Edmonton Oilers finished the 2010-2011 season ranked 28th in both goals for and goals against, as well as 27th on the powerplay and 29th on the penalty kill, it should come as no surprised that they finished in last place. Again.
Besides the trade that reunited fan favorite Ryan Smyth with Edmonton, the Oilers' moves this offseason have been relatively low key. Edmonton toughened up their forwards by adding Ben Eager and Darcy Hordichuk. They signed Eric Belanger in hopes of finally having a center who can win face-offs. On the blue line, they signed Cam Barker, the 40 point scorer in 2008-2009 who only registered five points in 2010-2011. Edmonton also traded Kurt Foster to Anaheim for big defenseman Andy Sutton.
What will make the Oilers a better team in 2011-2012 will be the improvement of their rookie players. Taylor Hall, Magnus Paajarvi, Jordan Eberle and Linus Omark played their first NHL seasons with the Oilers in 2010-2011, and combined for 60 goals and 146 points. And none of them played a full 82 game season. If any one of these players has a Steven Stamkos-type sophomore season, Edmonton could be an offensive powerhouse.
Edmonton also needs to stay healthy. Last season, the Oilers lost 281 man games to injuries. Only one player on Edmonton's roster actually played in all 82 games (Andrew Cogliano, and oddly enough, he was traded this offseason). Being without Horcoff, Hemsky, Gagne, Brule, and Whitney for nearly half of the season certainly didn't help in the standings.
The Oilers will continue to deal with goaltending issues this season. In 2010-2011, Devan Dubnyk put up a solid .916 save percentage and a 2.71 goal against average in 33 games with the NHL's worst team in front of him. He will certainly get the starting job and need to carry those numbers to 50 or more games. As a backup, Nikolai Khabibulin doesn't need to be great, but does need to improve on his .890 save percentage from last season.
Regardless of whether 2011 first-overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins plays in the NHL this season or not, the Oilers should start to see payoff of their ongoing rebuild, probably finishing around 11th in the Western Conference.
The past few seasons have been peaks and valleys for Avalanche fans, as the team has alternated between finishing with a playoff spot and finishing at the bottom of the Western Conference. For the 2010-2011 season, the team finished second to last in the NHL with a mere 68 points. A quick look at the stats of the 2009-2010 playoff team compared to those of the 2010-2011 shows that the Avs problems came mostly from goaltending.
The Avs allowed an average of 32 shots per game. So did Boston. Unfortunately, Colorado didn't have Tim Thomas in net. Rather, they had the unreliable Craig Anderson, Peter Budaj, and later Brian Elliot. None of the three had a save percentage better than .897. Colorado put up the worst goals against average at 3.50, not to mention the worst penalty kill as well.
Despite numerous rumors that Colorado would go after free agent Tomas Voukon, the Avalanche traded for Semyon Varlamov. Though his stats over the past few seasons show potential, Varlamov has never played more than 27 games in any one season. Assuming Varlamov gets the starting job in Colorado, his backup will be Jean-Sebastien Giguere. The former Conn Smythe winner's performance as a backup in Toronto over the last few seasons has been average.
At last season's trade deadline, the Avs added former first overall pick Erik Johnson. Further adding depth to the blue line, Colorado added Jan Hejda and Shane O'Brien. Even after parting ways with long time Av John-Michael Liles, Colorado's defense received an upgrade.
The Avs had a decent offense in 2010-2011, and with the exception of the departed Thomas Fleischmann, they have managed to keep it in tact. They've also added with the second overall pick of 2011 Gabriel Landeskog, who many scouts believe to be the most NHL ready of the 2011 draft class. Adding Landeskog into the mix with Milan Hejduk, Paul Stastny, Matt Duchene and David Jones should give Colorado an immediate improvement over last season's 2.70 goal per game average.
If Varlamov can deliver solid goaltending for 45 games or more, Colorado will be one of the NHL's most improved teams over last season. Though the playoffs are probably out of reach once again for the Avalanche, they should finish around ninth or tenth in the Western Conference.
Having not seen the Calgary Flames in the playoffs since 2009, it can be easy to forget that they actually are a good hockey team. The 94 points the Flames racked up in the 2010-2011 was only good enough for a tenth place finish in the Western Conference.
Calgary's strength lies in its offense. With an goal per game average of 2.94, the Flames were eight overall in offensive production. As he usually does, captain Jarome Iginla led the team with 43 goals and 86 points. Three other players also broke the 20 goal mark. Calgary had six different forwards score more than 40 points. And this was a season where veteran center and one-time 30 goal scorer Daymond Langkow missed all but four games with a broken neck.
Calgary's big move this offseason was sending long-time defenseman Robyn Regehr and chronic underachiever Ales Kotalik to Buffalo, in exchange for prospect Paul Byron and unproven defenseman Chris Butler. The addition of Butler gives the Flames a defensive lineup of Mark Giordano, Jay Bouwmeester, Cory Sarich, Anton Babchuk and about ten other guys to fill out the bottom pairing. Basically, the same Flames defense that earned a rather high goal against average of 2.80.
And then there's Kipper. Just as Iginla has been the consistent offensive presence in Calgary season after season, Miikka Kiprusoff continues to provide solid goaltending. At 34 years old, Kiprusoff played in 71 games this season, bettered only by Carey Price and Cam Ward. He finished in the top ten for saves, shutouts, and wins.
Calgary remains a strong team offensively. They will make the playoffs this season in the seventh or eight seat, but lack the shutdown defense to go past the first round.
Assuming that whole 2011 Stanley Cup Finals thing never happened, was there a better team in the NHL last season than the Vancouver Canucks?
They won the President's Trophy with 117 points. They were the top team in terms of goals scored, goals against, and powerplay. Both Daniel Sedin and Ryan Kesler broke the 40 goal mark. Vancouver has arguably the best goaltending duo in Jennings Award winning Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider. Numerous injuries showed the depth of their defense as 13 different players suited for their blueline in 2010-2011.
If the offseason goal of General Manager Mike Gillis was to avoid an implosion of the team that came so close to hockey's ultimate prize, he was successful. If the goal was to improve the team, his success is debatable, but not very evident.
Faced with the possibility of losing three top defensemen to free agency, Gillis resigned Kevin Bieksa and Sami Salo, but was forced to trade the rights of Christian Ehrhoff to the New York Islanders. Even with the depth in defense that Vancouver has, Ehrhoff's puck-moving ability and contribution on the powerplay will be sorely missed.
The one notable addition for the Canucks is Marco Sturm. Though he only recorded five goals this past season split between two teams, Sturm has been a consistent 20 plus goal scorer. Injuries limited his play to only 35 games, only the second time since his 1997-1998 rookie season where played less than 60 games. If he can stay healthy, Sturm can add additional offense to a team that already knows how to score.
The Vancouver Canucks still reign supreme in the Northwest Division and will return to the playoffs in one of the top three spots, but probably without the President's Trophy.