Its fall, and much of the sports media is captivated by college football. As college football finishes up week 2 of play, the experts debate whether teams were underrated or overrated in the vaunted or despised Bowl Championship Series computer rankings. With "BCS busters" Boise State and Texas Christian University in great position to run the table and challenge this system's validity. I for one welcome these "BCS busters" to punch holes its in its computer logic. Yet, the main thing this situation proves is just how powerful a pre-season poll can be. The NHL does not have rankings, your record is all that matters and a win against the worst team in the league counts just the same as it does against the best. However that does not stop publications and hockey experts from prognosticating about a team's chances for the upcoming season. They are not necessarily going to pan out but its what independent "non-biased" people think of their teams.
I have to admit, every summer I await the Hockey News' annual yearbook with a level of eager anticipation. I read it from cover to cover as soon as it arrives and will continue to read portions of it throughout the year, it keeps my hockey mind sharp as well as serving as a terrific reference tool. I love great team by team reports, rosters, depth charts as well as the experts sharing their views as to how they feel the season will turn out. I'd recommend it for any hockey fan, as it really gives you all the information any fan could possibly want from who each team drafted, complete statistical overviews of the American Hockey League and major junior Canadian Hockey League teams. Yet, I think most fans are probably drawn to the team reviews which are put together by the beat writers who the Hockey News works with. In the case of the Wild, its Minneapolis Star Tribune's Michael Russo giving his overall analysis of what has to work right for the Wild in order for them to make the playoffs. In all honesty there is not much I disagree with in Russo's analysis of the team but there are some differences.
Before I go into the team-by-team analysis of the members of the Northwest Division, I will concede that no one can say positively how things will turn out. Yet if I was able to predict the future with 100% accuracy I'd probably be doing something else and be a helluva lot more wealthy than I currently am. If you disagree with what I have to say, that is perfectly fine. In fact I encourage you to share your opinions by the comment section below.
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Minnesota Wild ~ Last Year's record: 38-36-8 Finished 4th in the Northwest
Current Salary: $56.653M
Arrivals: (C) Matt Cullen, (C) John Madden, (LW) Eric Nystrom, (RW) Brad Staubitz
Departures: (C) Andrew Ebbett, (RW) Owen Nolan, (LW) Derek Boogaard, (D) John Scott, (D) Shane Hnidy
Analysis: In many ways, the Wild are very similar roster-wise to the team they were a season ago. Last year I criticized the Wild for being too predicated on "if's" for the team to be successful. Unfortunately many of those "if's" remain. Offensively, the Wild need Mikko Koivu to put up at least as many points (71) as he had last year, and Guillaume Latendresse must score near the same amount of goals as he had last season (27) but Martin Havlat must improve on the modest 18 goals and 54 points he had last season. If Havlat improves his production and the team continues to get a surprising amount of points from 37-year old Andrew Brunette there is a chance this team could make some noise in the Western Conference. If the Wild's defense improves from its erratic play that all too often left Wild goaltenders out to dry, and the team manage to erase some of the 42 more goals it gave up last year in compared to the 2008-09 season which coincidentally was the last season under Jacques Lemaire at the helm. Brent Burns, Marek Zidlicky, Cam Barker could make for an offensively gifted blueline corps for the Wild, but if they play recklessly as they often did last year their contributions to the scoring column will be more than offset by the paltry +/- rating that will have to be better than the ugly -26 the trio had at the end of last year. If they can clean up their defensive errors that perhaps will be more helpful to the team than chipping in more points. Between the pipes, the Wild must hope Niklas Backstrom has a bounce back year, after posting very un-Backstrom like totals of 2.72 goals against average, and just a .903% save percentage that was not even in the Top 30 in the NHL. If Backstrom can find his old form where he was amongst the best in goals against average, which will probably be more about the Wild tightening up defensively. There are some possible X-factors for the Wild, the arrival of Matt Cullen gives Minnesota the 2nd line center it has lacked for years, and his ability to be contributor both on the power play and the penalty kill will be most welcome. If Cullen can chip in 40-50 points that could go a long way to ease the burden on Minnesota's top line of Eric Nystrom will provide a bit more grit and some tenacity on the penalty kill but you can't expect a ton of offense from a player who registered 11 goals and 19 points last season. Brad Staubitz will be given the role of enforcer and it remains to be seen if he he can prevent other teams from taking liberties with Wild players the way Derek Boogaard did. Minnesota will have to stay healthy, especially in its top two lines and if it can manage to do so there is a chance it could manage a Top 8 spot in the West. There has been lots of talk of how the Wild should be better out of the gate with a favorable home-dominated schedule to start the season as well as full-season under Head Coach Todd Richards' system but the expectations are high. The fans are sick of being also rans, but its tough to blame ownership since it has spent so close to the cap so you can bet if Minnesota fails it will likely be Richards on the chopping block (as it should be).
Prediction: I still see the Wild finishing 3rd or 4th in the Northwest Division. Simply too many "if's" again for the Wild. When your needing your team to either match or exceed what it did a season before in so many places it rarely turns out as you hope it to. If the Wild get some luck with some stumbles from other teams in its division / conference it could make the playoffs but Minnesota really needs a lot of things to go right for them to find themselves in the post-season.
Colorado Avalanche ~ Last Year's record: 43-30-9 Finished 2nd in the Northwest
Current Salary: $42.557M
Arrivals: (LW) Daniel Winnik
Departures: (RW) Marek Svatos, (C) Stephane Yelle, (LW) Darcy Tucker
Analysis: One of last season's Cinderella teams as they defied the expectations of most experts and myself and parlayed a hot start into a playoff bearth. The dearth of young but talented players meshed into a remarkably effective team that was seldom outworked. Paul Stastny, at just 25 years old is the veteran leader up front, as he is surrounded by a nice group of talented players still on their entry contracts like Matt Duchene, T.J. Galiardi, Peter Mueller, and Chris Stewart. This latter group of youngsters all played with a level of poise you would expect to find in far more experienced players and Brandon Yip who was perhaps the biggest surprise coming from a Lake Erie Monsters stalwart into clutch scorer for the Avs. This group could either take another step forward or suffer a groupwide sophomore slump and make Head Coach Joe Sacco feel the growing pains of leading such a young team. Defensively you could call the Avalanche blueline the "No Name Defense" as none really jump off the page, but all share an element of mobility which allows them to support the team's up-tempo style of play. Adam Foote is nearing the end of his career while John-Michael Liles and former Detroit Red Wing prospect Kyle Quincey provide a little offense from the blueline and will be expected to match or exceed their production this season. However, the Avalanche's best defense is between the pipes where Craig Anderson was an absolute revelation for Colorado, keeping the Avs in many games they really had no reason to be in. Anderson again will have to be rock solid if the Avalanche are going to qualify for the post-season again.
Prediction: I see the Avalanche in 2nd place in the Northwest Division by season's end, but mainly due to the continual maturation of its young talent. In the latter half of the season last year the team was playing .500 hockey and barely made the playoffs. If Anderson even a shade worse than he was last season this team could find itself a few spots removed from the post-season.
Calgary Flames ~ Last Year's record: 40-32-10 Finished 3rd in the Northwest
Current Salary: $61.25M
Arrivals: (LW) Alex Tanguay, (C) Olli Jokinen, (LW) Raitis Ivanans, (RW) Tim Jackman, (G) Henrik Karlsson
Departures: (LW) Eric Nystrom, (LW) Nigel Dawes, (LW) Chris Higgins
Analysis: It has been a summer of confusion and consternation for the Flames, the team that used to be a perennial front runner in the division. Recently though, that status has been fading faster than Barack Obama's approval rating. After a very disappointing season last year, the Sutter brothers, both General Manager Darryl Sutter and his brother and Head Coach Brent Sutter did not transform the Flames into a consistent force each night as hoped. Last year, the Flames were terribly inconsistent and perhaps the most alarming thing was the fact that at times the team appeared to give up in some games. With the team spiraling out of contention, the team dealt away Dion Phanuef to the Toronto Maple Leafs for a host of players in return but none of them really delivered as they had hoped. Up front, team captain Jarome Iginla continues to lead the charge, but it has been a lack offense that has doomed the Flames too many times. The Flames brought back two forwards that were both relative failures with Calgary in Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay and are hoping they can rebound after poor seasons. Rene Bourque is streaky but the Flames need him to replecate his totals of 27 goals and 58 points from a season ago, and Daymond Langkow cannot afford to have the 37-point campaign he had last year. Niklas Hagman a key component of the Phaneuf trade, who had 25 goals in a season split between Toronto and Calgary will be looked to provide similar production as well. Defensively the Flames are hoping to stay healthier, as their defense was surprisingly porous despite boasting a talented group with veterans Robyn Regehr, Jay Bouwmeester, Steve Staios, and more offensively gifted blueliners Ian White and Mark Giordano who was arguably Calgary's best defenseman most nights. This group struggled mightily to keep traffic away from the crease, and this would go a long way to help Miikka Kiprusoff worry more about stopping pucks than trying to see through bodies. Kiprusoff and Swedish import Henrik Karlsson, a 6'5" goaltender will share the duties between the pipes even if Kipper would rather take 90% of the starts for himself. He simply got worn down as the season went on and the Flames simply had no real relief for him. Time is of the essence for the Flames as their window of opportunity appears to be closing and an impatient fanbase who has watched the team be remarkably inconsistent since its Stanley Cup run in 2003-04. Another growing story to watch in the next few weeks is the team's salary which currently sits over the league's $59.4 million dollar cap. That means someone will have to be dealt from the current roster, and the most likely area to see roster movement is the team's blueline where they currently have 8 NHL ready defenseman. Who that may be remains to be seen.
Prediction: I think the Flames will again finish out of the playoffs in 4th place in the Northwest Division. Hopefully the team will rid itself of the Sutters whose nearly unchecked control has run this team into the ground. Current Flames Assistant GM Jay Feaster is a capable replacement for Darryl Sutter, but look for the organization to do a lot of soul searching to be done as the Flames try to examine what is responsible for the team's mediocrity.
Edmonton Oilers ~ Last Year's record: 27-47-8 Finished 5th in the Northwest
Current Salary: $52.894M
Arrivals: (LW) Taylor Hall, (LW) Magnus Paajarvi, (C) Colin Fraser, (D) Jim Vandermeer, (D) Kurtis Foster
Departures: (LW) Ethan Moreau, (LW) Patrick O'Sullivan
Analysis: There is a buzz in the air in the NHL's northern most city that hasn't been around since the team was in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006. After a few very forgettable seasons since, the Oilers fans feel as though they can finally see the light as a nice collection of young talent is about to be given their chance to show what they could do. Headlined by this summer's 1st Overall pick Taylor Hall who combines great skating ability as well outstanding hockey sense and a goal scorers mentality, as well as the gifted playmaker Magnus Paajarvi and clutch Canadian junior team sniper Jordan Eberle these youngsters could very well get their trial by fire this season. However, the Oilers have other weapons at their disposal led by power forward Dustin Penner who had an outstanding start last year only to finally cool off through the 2nd half. Yet after Penner the scoring was erratic at best, so the team must see improvements from its other vets such as Shawn Horcoff who has done little to justify his gawdy $6.5 million season salary. The Oilers are also hoping that the talented playmaking center Ales Hemsky can pull together a complete season but after that the team will have to hope still fairly young forwards Andrew Cogliano and Sam Gagner can re-establish their offense. Defensively the team again fairly young, and has more or less told veteran blueliner Sheldon Souray that it doesn't want him there anymore. No one wanted Souray and his $4.5 million cap hit, the oft-inujred defenseman so the Oilers will likely try to make the best of the situation. Edmonton added former Wild blueliner Kurtis Foster to provide some offensive punch on the power play after his terrific bounce back season a year ago with the Tampa Bay Lightning where he hammered home 8 goals and 42 points. Yet, the Oilers would be best served if their defense focuses on preventing goals before taking too many chances to support offensively. Between the pipes is the other major headache for the Oilers. Nikolai Khabibulin has been a disaster as he hasn't managed to stay healthy enough to matter. When he has played he's been solid but that has only occurred once in a blue moon. Jeff Deslaurier and Devan Dubnyk, both big, atheltic goaltenders split time throughout most of the season and at times were stellar and others like a sieve. If any of these 3 goaltenders can establish any consistency the #1 job is their to have.
Prediction: I think the Oilers will again finish 5th in the Northwest Division. However, I think they will be far more difficult to play against and at times will surprise team with its new mix of youth, speed and scoring. I do not see this team being this year's version of the Avalanche of a season ago, but I do think the fans in Edmonton are going to see a lot of things to like about this team's future.
Vancouver Canucks ~ Last Year's record: 49-28-5 Finished 1st in the Northwest
Current Salary: $63.048M
Arrivals: (C) Manny Malhotra, (D) Dan Hamhuis, (D) Keith Ballard, (LW) Raffi Torres
Departures: (RW) Michael Grabner, (LW) Steve Bernier, (G) Andrew Raycroft, (C) Pavol Demitra, (D) Willie Mitchell, (C) Kyle Wellwood
Analysis: The Canucks made the biggest offseason splashes of any team in the Northwest Division by trading for defenseman Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard giving Vancouver one of the deepest bluelines in the NHL. The rest of the blueline, Kevin Bieksa, Christian Ehrhoff, and Alexander Edler all possess good mobility and the ability to support the play offensively, so Ballard and Hamhuis fit seamlessly into this group and this should be a huge source of strength for the Canucks. Offensively, the Canucks are led by the twins Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin who shocked many by being the league's top scorer last year. Alexandre Burrows, Mikael Samulesson, Mason Raymond and Ryan Kesler make up two very formidable scoring lines. Vancouver will have plenty of offense to go against any team in the NHL, and Manny Malhotra, Raffi Torres and Jannik Hansen will be looked to drive the opposition nuts with solid gritty play along the boards. Between the pipes Roberto Luongo will carry the majority of the goaltending load while Cory Schnieder's AHL apprenticeship is apparently at an end. Yet despite all this glowing praise there is still a big story to unfold in the coming weeks as the team will be forced to trim almost $4 million in salary as they are way over the cap. It has been widely speculated that Bieksa is that guy to be moved but in the meantime Vancouver was given a little bit of relief internally as defenseman Sami Salo could very well be lost for all of next season after tearing his Achilles tendon thus allowing the team to reclaim 80% of his $3.5 million cap hit back by placing him on Long Term Injury Reserve. Yet even that won't be enough to solve the team's cap woes so one or more players will have to be moved to get underneath the cap ceiling.
Prediction: I think it would be a tremendous shock if the Canucks finish anywhere other than 1st in the Northwest Division. They have superior depth at forward and defense than any of the other teams in the division and there are no glaring holes in their lineup. While the good times are sure to be here now, the long term picture and those big salaries could serve to be a huge hindrance. For Vancouver, the time to be good is right now.