The Vancouver Canucks have taken home the Northwest Division crown each of the last three seasons, and the odds are in favor of them making it four straight in 2011-2012.
The Colorado Avalanche and Edmonton Oilers are both in rebuilding mode, while the Calgary Flames and Minnesota Wild are both fringe playoff contenders at the very best.
Vancouver enters this season with more pressure on them than any team in the league. They start off the season without two of their best players, Ryan Kesler and Henrik Sedin, and Roberto Luongo is fresh off one of the worst flops in Stanley Cup history.
So, does anyone have a shot at knocking off the Canucks? Here are 12 things you need to know about the Northwest Division in 2011-2012.
Alain Vigneault is firmly on the hot seat after his coaching performance in the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals. Claude Julien out-coached him all series long. The Canucks played undisciplined hockey, and it stemmed from Vigneault's behavior behind the bench.
Vigneault will have to prove his worth all over again. There is too much talent on that roster for them to not contend for the Stanley Cup again.
The Edmonton Oilers have finished last in both the Northeast Division and the entire NHL in each of the last two seasons. 2011-2012 will be a different story for the young, Alberta based team.
Taylor Hall will be healthy and another year more mature. His line mates will also be a year further along in their development. The Oilers are continuing to add pieces to what will eventually be a competitive roster in the not too distant future.
The Colorado Avalanche invested quite a bit into the goaltending position this offseason, and the early indication is that it might now pay immediate dividends.
Semyon Varlamov, whom the Avalanche acquired this offseason for a pair of first round draft picks, has looked shaky in the preseason and has consistency issues. Meanwhile, J.S. Giguere is an injury waiting to happen and well past the prime of his career. The duo does not instill much faith in Avalanche fans.
Though the Canucks are the favorite to win the Northwest Division, there is a very real chance that they stumble out of the gates. Ryan Kesler and Henrik Sedin are both nursing injuries, and the roster has a slightly different feel to it with the departures of Christian Ehrhoff and Raffi Torres. Not to mention the hangover the team could be dealing with after losing in the Finals last season. It will be interesting to see how they respond.
The pressure is on Roberto Luongo this season. He spent a good portion of the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals talking and not much of it stopping pucks. His talent is off the charts, but the ability to perform in big moments on the road has not been there for Big Lou.
2011-2012 will be a chance at redemption for Luongo. There is enough talent around him to win a Stanley Cup. He's going to have to perform if wants anyone to pump his tires.
The Vancouver Canucks are going to be the only team from the Northwest Division that qualifies for the 2012 NHL Playoffs.
Minnesota has an outside shot at the playoffs, but with a new coach and a lack of any defensive depth, I have a tough time pegging them as one of the top eight teams in a competitive Western Conference.
Meanwhile, Edmonton and Colorado are still rebuilding, and barring a huge developmental jump, won't sniff the playoffs. Calgary is likely to flirt with mediocrity again this season.
A change of scenery is just what the doctor ordered for Dany Heatley. After what some may consider a disappointing season in 2010-2011, Dany Heatley will get a chance to headline the Minnesota Wild's offense this season. I'm expecting big things.
The Edmonton Oilers will reign supreme in the Northwest Division at some point in the not too distant future. They have too much young talent to not at least compete for a division title within the next couple of seasons.
Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle have already established themselves, along with Magnus Paajarvi, as solid contributors and they are not even close to finished developing. Add Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to the equation and the offense has elite potential.
Meanwhile, Devan Dubnyk is looking like a potential star in goal. Give this team some time to develop and it could burst onto the scene in a few years.
Mike Yeo was an excellent choice for head coach of the Minnesota Wild, and I think he will keep this team in contention all season long. However, as I noted earlier, I doubt that the Wild will qualify for the playoffs this season.
There is potential for the Wild to piece together a contender, but the transition to the new scheme and construction of a formidable defense will take some time. The offense and goaltending should be able to keep them afloat until then.
2011-2012 is the season that the Edmonton Oilers will climb out of the cellar of the Northwest Division. Taking their place will be the Colorado Avalanche.
The Avs spent big to make some upgrades between the pipes, but the newly acquired tandem of Varlamov and Giguere is not going to have the ability to carry this team. They have launched a rebuilding effort that will hurt the team in the short term.
The Northwest Division has established itself as the worst in all of hockey. Outside of the Vancouver Canucks, the Northwest does not boast another legitimate Western Conference contender.
In a few years, the rest of the division figures to be improved. But for now, the division is easily the worst in the NHL.
The Vancouver Canucks will capture their fourth straight Northwest Division title. There is really no way around it.
Barring a catastrophic injury that sends the Nucks into a tail spin, there is not a team in the division that will be able to come close to Vancouver. The rest of the division is so bad that the Canucks have a legitimate chance at grabbing the top seed in the Western Conference. The amount of games they play against their lackluster division will certainly help.