I am fully aware that as of right now it does not seem too likely that we'll have NHL hockey this season. As I drove this weekend listening to XM radio's NHL Home Ice, there were plenty of updates about Russian-born players signing on (and even practicing) with KHL teams as they prepare for the season outside the NHL. Its disturbing news for fans hoping to see NHL hockey because its obvious those players feel they won't be playing in North America this season. The two sides don't seem to be talking the language of compromise either, but they are trying to win the PR war via social media with statements like this one by the NHLPA. Not that I'm surprised by that, but both sides seem content to wait it out. So what will you do with your spare time without NHL hockey to watch? People in the State of Hockey will likely do what they did back in 2004-05, they simply found themselves attending more local and college hockey events to get their 'fix'. For myself, I will probably go to more American League games in Milwaukee. The hockey never really stops, the only thing that would change is I'd be listening to more minor league and junior games online. What are your plans for a lockout if it continues indefinitely?
Will we have NHL hockey in 2012-13?
It might seem strange considering the circumstances, but nothing is officially canceled yet so I might as well provide a Northwest Division preview. There was lots of activity this summer in the Northwest Division. Will Vancouver remain as the dominant force in the division? Did Calgary and Minnesota do enough to take that step towards making the playoffs. Will Colorado and Edmonton's collection of young talent rise to the occasion? I will hope to help answer these questions and more in our 2012-13 Northwest Division Preview.
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Here is our run down of how we think the Northwest Division will finish. The team record listed is last year's finish, but we will include this year's schedule (what it still currently stands as) and the arrivals and departures as well as a complete review of their team. Enjoy!
1. Vancouver Canucks (51-22-2-7) 111 points Salary Cap: $67.7 Million (3rd)
2012-13 Canucks' Schedule
Arrivals: D, Jason Garrison
Departures: RW, Byron Bitz; RW, Mark Mancari; C, Sami Pahlsson; C, Steven Reinprecht; D, Aaron Rome; D, Sami Salo
This may make Wild fans skin crawl but the Vancouver Canucks still have to be considered the odds-on favorite to win the Northwest Division. The Canucks have the depth, scoring and defense to again be near the top of the Western Conference's elite teams. Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin are one of the best scoring combinations in the league. Ryan Kesler is hoping for a bounce back season after a disappointing 2011-12 campaign where he scored just 22 goals. Alexandre Burrows continues to thrive in the role of sniper and pest but his reputation for embellishment is finding him spending more time in the box than the opponent's he's trying to annoy. It is put up or shut up time for speedster Mason Raymond who had a disastrous season where he scored just 10 goals and 20 points; he needs to either find a way to be more consistent offensively or he might find himself on waivers or being traded sooner rather than later. Raymond basically found himself supplanted by role player Jannik Hansen who can also provide speed and some secondary scoring. The Canucks realized that up front they wanted a power forward with an edge making them theoretically tougher to play against and that's what they got in a deadline day trade with Buffalo for Zack Kassian. Kassian is still a very raw prospect, and did not deliver offensively or even in the edge category the Canucks had hoped late last season but he will be given some time to develop that part of his game. Vancouver gave up coveted prospect Cody Hodgson for Kassian, so there is pressure to see the 6'3", 214lbs forward to start delivering as promised. Patience is not something the rabid Vancouver fan base is known for.
Defensively Vancouver has one of the deepest bluelines in the league led by veterans Dan Hamhuis and the fiery Kevin Bieksa. Alexander Edler has quietly become one of the better two-way defenseman in the league and he provides an effective big shot from the point, and now he'll be joined by Jason Garrison who is out to prove his 16 goals last season with the Florida Panthers were not a fluke. Edler is in his contract year, and will likely be wanting a significant raise so expect him to be very motivated to have a huge season. The third pairing of Minnesotans' Andrew Alberts and Keith Ballard provide that extra spark of grit, and if they falter the Canucks will probably not hesitate to swap either of them with Chris Tanev and Kevin Connauton.
Between the pipes it seems like the torch has been handed to Cory Schneider who has waited patiently behind incumbent Roberto Luongo who appears to just be waiting for a trade at this point. Luongo and his long contract that continues until 2022 will be tough to move. Regardless, Luongo is still an excellent goaltender as is Schneider and until that deal gets done the Canucks have the best 1-2 tandem between the pipes of just about any team in the league, another reason this team has to be considered the favorites to win the division again. Anything less than a Stanley Cup will be considered a failure and if the Canucks again fail in this quest, expect the fan base to be calling for Alain Vigneault's head.
Prediction: (2nd in the West)
2. Minnesota Wild (35-36-2-9) 81 points Salary Cap: $68.8 Million (2nd)
2012-13 Wild Schedule
Arrivals: LW, Zach Parise; C, Mikael Granlund; C, Zenon Konopka; RW, Torrey Mitchell; LW, Jake Dowell; D, Ryan Suter
Departures: C, Erik Christensen; D, Kurtis Foster; RW, Nick Johnson; LW, Guillaume Latendresse; RW, Jed Ortmeyer; C, Warren Peters
Perhaps no other team in the NHL has transformed itself as much as the Wild have over the last two seasons. With the team having missed the playoffs the last 4 seasons in a row, patience in the State of Hockey as well as from ownership has grown thin. The Wild added uber competitive free agent winger Zach Parise to provide a jolt to the top line and he will likely be placed on a line with team captain Mikko Koivu and sniper Dany Heatley. Parise's high energy game and knack for scoring in the clutch should boost the league's most anemic offense. Its put up or shut up time for Koivu as he has the best linemates of his career and he will be expected to improve upon his milquetoast totals from a season ago where he had a paltry 12 goals. Heatley led the Wild in goals and scoring last year but he will be expected to improve on his production which was his lowest since his rookie season. While Parise, Koivu and Heatley are the marquee the real intrigue may be in 2nd line where it could very well be centered by long awaited Finnish wunderkind Mikael Granlund who will be feeding the puck to speedy Devin Setoguchi and oft-injured Pierre-Marc Bouchard. Granlund has basically been given a roster spot by team management, and has been lauded for his on ice vision and tremendous hands. Setoguchi who had 19 goals in his first season with the Wild last year is going to be looked to give the team a strong secondary scoring punch. Bouchard is effective when healthy but that window of time seems to be growing smaller each season. The Wild's additions to its top two lines should mean they have one of the better 3rd lines in the league with Kyle Brodziak, Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Cullen providing speed, a little grit and some offense in addition to their shutdown role. Brodziak had a terrific season last year where he banged home 22 goals and while I think we'll see those totals drop a bit he did demonstrate he can be 'ok' when placed in an offensive role. Tough guy and face off ace Zenon Konopka was added to keep teams from taking too many liberties, while Torrey Mitchell gives Minnesota a speedy checker for its 4th line. The team has a bunch of young players waiting for opportunities in Houston and if injuries (knock on wood) become an issue the Wild have a number of intriguing options from within. Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker, Brett Bulmer, Johan Larsson and Zack Phillips just to name a few. For perhaps the first time eve in franchise history; the team has viable replacement options within for its Top 6 which was a major failing last season.
Defensively the Wild got a major boost by adding Ryan Suter in their other major free agent coup of the summer. Suter is perhaps the first legit top pairing defenseman the team has had in its history, which is amazing to say considering the franchise is entering its 12th year of existance. His addition should provide stability, and many were surprised when the team boldly announced that his defensive partner was not going to be former Wisconsin teammate Tom Gilbert but rather Jared Spurgeon. Spurgeon is tiny, but he is a coaches favorite for his ability to anticipate the play and move the puck is prized as a way to get the offense going on the attack. Gilbert instead will be on a second pairing with Marco Scandella should bring a little more offensive punch. Gilbert is pretty expensive ($4 million per season) considering his underwhelming production of 3 goals and 22 points last season and he'll be expected to improve on those totals. Scandella is still a young player with lots of talent who showed glimpses of his high end skill last season. On the 3rd pairing the Wild have rugged but fragile defenseman Clayton Stoner and there will be a good battle for that last spot between Nate Prosser, Justin Falk and Steven Kampfer. The team has opened up the possibility that a younger player like this year's 1st round pick Matt Dumba could make the roster but I think that's pretty unlikely.
There was a little bit of curiosity about goaltending at the close of last season as many felt they had seen the last of Josh Harding who had perennially been seeking a chance to be a #1 goalie somewhere else but found no takers. This year he was expected to be one of a few promising goaltending free agents but much to everyone's surprise the Wild signed Harding to a 3-year deal. Top goaltender Niklas Backstrom enters his last season under contract, and while he had an ok season injuries and personal issues nearly made for a 50-50 goalie rotation. If either goaltender falters or gets injured, Matt Hackett will be waiting for his opportunity. Hackett played very well in a few different stints with the Wild last season. The Wild have the 2nd highest payroll in the NHL, no one can accuse ownership of holding back the money to field a competent roster. Whether they perform to their potential is another story; and Head Coach Mike Yeo must show he can get this team playing up those standards. Bottom line, if there is a season the Wild better make the playoffs or some heads will surely roll.
Prediction: (5th in the West)
3. Calgary Flames (37-29-7-9) 90 points Salary Cap: $66.6 Million (4th)
2012-13 Flames' Schedule
Arrivals: RW, Jiri Hudler; C, Roman Cervenka; LW, Sven Baertschi; D, Dennis Wideman
Departures: D, Scott Hannan; LW, Raitis Ivanans; C, Olli Jokinen; LW, Tom Kostopoulos; RW, Pierre-Luc Letourneau-LeBlond; RW, David Moss
Perhaps one of the most frustrating teams in the NHL to understand is the Calgary Flames. Despite just about everyone thinking the Flames should undergo a massive rebuild Flames' GM Jay Feaster has kept most of the core components the same but adding a few more pieces he hopes will finally be the solution to put Calgary in the post-season. The Flames return team captain, leading scorer and franchise stud Jarome Iginla. Iginla continues to be a 30-goal scorer but people are wondering how much longer that will last as the captain is now 35 years old. Rumors constantly swirl that Iginla should be dealt, but Feaster is always quick to shoot them down. The Flames made a trade to bring back Mike Cammalleri (who still has 30-goal potential) late last year but he wasn't enough to put Calgary in the playoffs. He will be expected to provide at least 25 goals next season, especially with the departure of Olli Jokinen to Winnipeg. The Flames added two players this summer they feel will help take some of the pressure off Iginla to carry Calgary offensively in KHL leading scorer Roman Cervenka and Jiri Hudler who had a quietly solid season with 25 goals for the Red Wings. Cervenka is said to possess a tremendous scoring touch, but there have been lots of European league stars that fail to deliver at the NHL level and the Flames are counting on him bucking that trend. Curtis Glencross comes back as an underrated secondary scoring presence after potting 26 goals for Calgary last season. The Alex Tanguay experiment did not deliver as hoped but he will again get a chance to prove he can re-establish that spark that once made him a formidable top 6 player. Mikael Backlund has faded to more of a role player with the Flames while hopes are high that rookie Sven Baertschi can bring some offense in a top 6 role. He has tremendous hands and oodles of creativity and had 3 goals in a 5-game stint last season. Park Center alum, rugged forward Tim Jackman leads the way for the Flames bottom two lines and he will be looked to again to provide toughness and character to the clubs' cast of role players.
Defensively the Flames tried to add a little more offensive firepower from its blueline by signing Dennis Wideman. Wideman had 11 goals last season with the Capitals and he should provide a big shot on the power play, but he'll be playing on the 2nd pairing with T.J. Brodie. The top pairing will again be anchored by underrated defenseman Mark Giordano and Jay Bouwmeester. Calgary has to have Giordano and Bouwmeester to be at their best and by taking some of the offensive load off of their shoulders with Wideman they can focus more on defense. The 3rd pairing of Chris Butler and Cory Sarich provide a little sandpaper to a fairly soft group.
Goaltending is another area where people have been expecting the team to make a move, but will again start the season with Miikka Kiprusoff as their starting goaltender. Kiprusoff had a much better season in 2011-12 than he did in 2010-11, but like Iginla he too is 35+ years of age. The Flames had hoped Leland Irving would be ready to be the backup for 'Kipper' but they're still waiting as Irving still isn't quite ready just yet. That means Henrik Karlsson will be the backup and he did nothing to ease the burden on Kiprusoff as he struggled in his first NHL season. The Flames believe they have the components for a playoff team, afterall they finished just one point behind eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles but there are a lot of hopeful projections that must come true for this next step to occur.
Prediction: (8th in the West)
4. Edmonton Oilers (32-40-3-7) 74 Points Salary Cap: $62.93 Million (13th)
2012-13 Oilers' Schedule
Arrivals: RW, Nail Yakupov; D, Justin Schultz
Departures: D, Cam Barker; D, Taylor Chorney; C, Josh Green
When the league held its draft lottery last season and for the 3rd time in a row Edmonton was the winner and being tabbed to select 1st Overall it was both a moment of tremendous luck but also a recognition of just how tough the years have been the NHL's northernmost market. You have to be pretty awful to have a realistic chance of earning the 1st Overall pick 3 years in a row and while some fans felt it was wrong Edmonton has managed the statistically improbable accomplishment they must realize it truly has been 3 seasons of futility in Oil town. The team has stockpiled picks, and young talent and now hopes to see the rewards of being able to draft so many blue chip commodities. The 1st line can literally be called the 1st Overall line in Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov. All of these players possess outstanding skill, speed and creativity that could potentially become one of the most dangerous lines in the NHL in a few seasons. Nugent-Hopkins demonstrated a maturity and surprising scoring touch during the 1st half of last season before trailing off; but he provided plenty of evidence to believe he will be a star player in the near future. Taylor Hall is coming along well enough, just as long as he remembers to wear his helmet in warm ups. Nail Yakupov is a dynamic player with outstanding hands and finishing ability. Many believe he will be the speedy sniper to finish off Nugent-Hopkins' passes, and he'll get an opportunity to show what he can do right away. The unsung hero in this cast of young talent is Jordan Eberle. Eberle is the Oilers' best pure goal scorer, and he has a knack for scoring in the clutch. Mentoring this collection of young talent is cagey veteran Ryan Smyth who is still very effective in and around the crease. While I am sure watching Los Angeles (the team he demanded a trade from) win a cup hurt a little, he is fortunate to be playing with perhaps the best collection of young stars in the league. Smyth will be able to provide perspective as well as guidance to this group of players who are still learning the NHL ropes. Sam Gagner is still very streaky and even with his historic 8 point night against the Chicago Blackhawks (4 goals, 4 assists) he must prove he can be more consistent if he hopes to have a permanent spot on the Oilers' roster which is getting more crowded as their stockpile of drafted talent matures. Another player that really needs to raise his game is Shawn Horcoff, who at $5.5 million per season has struggled to produce offensively. He must find a way to raise his game so he can at least give Edmonton a reliable secondary scoring presence. Ales Hemsky, also penciled in for the 3rd line seems misplaced and Edmonton had the opportunity to part ways with the fragile, skilled forward who can dazzle you with his ability to dangle but drive you crazy when he refuses to take his opportunities to shoot the puck. Former Wild draft choice Ryan Jones provides energy, some grit as well as some scoring punch to the 3rd line. The future seems uncertain for Magnus Paajarvi who at one point looked to be primed to be apart of this youth revolution in Edmonton, only to be relegated to the minors where he struggled to produce offensively. The Oilers have plenty of youthful options for the 3rd and 4th lines with Lennart Petrell, Teemu Hartikainen, and Anton Lander.
Defense is really where the team has suffered a considerable let down. The Oilers always seemed to have the offensive punch, but since they couldn't also defend that left them leaning far too much on their goaltender to make up this deficiency. Oft-injured veteran Ryan Whitney leads the way along with former Wild defenseman Nick Schultz. Whitney brings offensive ability while Schultz is the steady stay-at-home type but neither are really 1st pair calibre, but their experience is what gives them that position by default. The Oilers pushed hard and won the Justin Schultz sweepstakes. The skilled defenseman was a major offensive producer for Wisconsin the last two seasons, and Edmonton is banking that he'll be that offensive spark from the blueline the team has sorely lacked. He will be paired with Ladislav Smid who has steadily improved to be a feisty stay at home defenseman. Jeff Petry and Corey Potter round out the 3rd pairing with rough and tumble Theo Peckham available if they feel they're playing against a team that might try to take advantage of a somewhat soft defense.
Between the pipes, the Oilers have a tough decision to make. Veteran Nikolai Khabibulin was remarkably inconsistent and he split duty with 6'5" Devan Dubnyk who appears to be on the cusp of being a viable option as starter. So with this tandem in place, the Oilers hope to use their young energy to overwhelm opponents. It is this approach that prompted the team to replace Tim Renney with the more youth friendly Ralph Krueger. The team better start showing progress soon or you have to start questioning their fomula thus far.
Prediction: (10th in the West)
5. Colorado Avalanche (41-35-4-2) Salary Cap: $54.05 Million (24th)
2012-13 Avalanche Schedule
Arrivals: C, John Mitchell; RW, Pierre-Andre Parenteau; D, Greg Zanon
Departures: C, Jay McClement; C, Peter Mueller; LW, Kevin Porter
Edmonton is not the only team hoping to power its resurgence with a cast of young talent. The Avalanche have fully embraced this youth movement by annointing 19-year old Gabriel Landeskog to be their captain. Landeskog has always oozed maturity beyond his years and it was his outstanding poise and production that endeared him enough to writers in order to win a Calder trophy as rookie of the year. Steve Downie brings edge to the top line, but he needs to show he can produce more than the 14 goals he had last year. Matt Duchene hopes to put a injury-riddled sophomore campaign behind him. The Avalanche's young core are now joined by New York Islanders unsung scorer P-A Parenteau who had 18 goals and 67 points last season and Colorado is hopeful he can at least repeat that performance. Veterans Paul Stastny, 27, and Milan Hejduk, 36 are the seasoned vets to try to hone this group of youngsters. Stastny especially must be a workhorse for this team if its to be successful. Ryan O'Reilly is a key penalty killer and his ability to score in transition help keep opponents honest. David Jones had a slight dip in production and the Avalanche management hopes that was just a hiccup on what was looking like a promising career. Jamie McGinn was a late-season revelation and he demonstrated a scoring touch that he had never shown in San Jose, and Colorado believes he has the potential to put up more than the 20 goals he had last season (8 of them coming in just 17 games with the Avs). The Avalanche don't have a ton of youthful options waiting for a shot on their farm, so any offense their 3rd or 4th lines can provide would be a significant bonus.
Like Edmonton, Colorado's blueline is a perhaps the area of greatest weakness. Bloomington, Minnesota-native Erik Johnson is still trying to justify why he was taken 1st Overall but he still sits on the Avs' top pairing with the safe and steady Jan Hejda. Johnson needs to find a way to provide some offensive punch to a defense that struggles to contribute much. On the 2nd pair is Ryan Wilson and the irritable Shane O'Brien, while former Wild shot blocker extraordinaire Greg Zanon and cheap shot artist Ryan O'Byrne round out the last two spots. Zanon has lost a step or two the last few seasons but his shot blocking should come as a relief to the Avalanche's goaltenders. If the Avalanche want more of an offensive punch they can call up Tyson Barrie or Stefan Elliot who both had a good first professional seasons last year in Lake Erie.
The Avalanche took a big risk when they traded for Semyon Varlamov last year by offering up their 1st round pick. Varlamov had a reasonable season, putting up respectable totals of 26 wins and a 2.59 goals against average and a .913% save percentage. Varlamov was relieved from time to time by Jean-Sebastien Giguere who seemed to be revived a bit in Colorado putting up his best numbers in the last 4 years. Colorado still will be leaning heavily on their goaltenders in 2012-13, but at least they have competence between them both to have at least a shot at the playoffs.
Prediction: (12th in the West)