Today, Cory and I made our respective picks for the Northwest Division. In case you missed it, we did this previously for the Central and Pacific as well. Next week we will be moving on to the Eastern Conference. When we are finished playing "Kreskin", we'll post this info on a separate page so we can keep track of it at year end.
This is the most closely contested division in the NHL as only 10 points separated the first place team from the last place team this past season. I don't think the competitive nature will change very much this coming year either, although I do believe that a couple of teams in the division took a step backwards.
The team that finished at the bottom of the division last year just might be number one this time around. I'm picking Vancouver to finish on top. Of course they have one of the best goalies in the game in Roberto Luongo as well as a solid defense to help him out. Their achilles heel has been scoring goals. While the additions of Pavol Demitra and Steve Bernier will help, the Canucks offered the fickle Swede Mats Sundin $20 million over two years to help get the job done. Sundin turned down the sweet offer, but I can't believe that the 'Nucks will sit back on their laurels and give up on their quest to improve. They have almost 10 million in cap space to use, so I look for them to make another move at some point in the year to help put them over the top. (would they sign Peter Forsberg, and could he help?)
The Edmonton Oilers made a few strides to improve their team, which just missed the playoffs last year. Of course the addition of Erik Cole should be a tremendous boost. Lubomir Visnovsky helps to shore up the defense. Sheldon Souray only played 26 games last year and if the big blueliner can stay healthy he should be able to make a difference as well. The goaltending could be a bit questionable because of the age of Roloson, but the Oilers should hang on to second place and they have a great shot to return to the playoffs.
Calgary finished third last year and that's where I put them again this time around. They have superstars in Jarome Iginla, Dion Phaneuf, and Mikka Kiprusoff, but the talent level drops off a bit after those three players. Bringing in Mike Cammalleri will help. The defense has the highly paid (and overpaid?) Robyn Regehr and Adrian Aucoin to help out Phaneuf. Coach Mike Keenan seemed to butt heads with his star goalie at times in the past. Will the mind games continue, or can everyone get along? Knowing Keenan, the mind games have just begun.
Joe Sakic has agreed to return for Colorado, but what about Peter Forsberg? Ryan Smyth had his troubles last year and should rebound this year, but where will the rest of the offense come from? Darcy Tucker will stir things up when needed, but has he got any more offense in the tank? The defense is okay, but not outstanding. Can they get the job done? There are a lot of unanswered questions for the Avs, but the biggest question mark is in goal where unproven Peter Budaj and under performing Andrew Raycroft share responsibility. Jose Theodore will be missed. Sorry Avs fans, I can't see this group going far with the current roster.
Last but not least is Minnesota. While they finished first in the division last year, I look for them to drop this coming season. Pavol Demitra and his offense left for Vancouver, but the biggest loss will be that of Brian Rolston, who is now signed with the Devils. In my opinion, Rolston was the heart and soul of this team and his presence was under-rated. His loss won't be. Marian Gaborik is a true superstar, but he goes to the Martin Havlat conditioning school, and always ends up hurt at some point in the year. Backstrom is legitimate in goal, but he can't do it himself. It's from first to worst for the Wild.
Not only is this the tightest and most difficult division to analyze, but no other group of teams had more interesting turnover on their rosters.
I'm going to go with Calgary at the top. Alex Tanguay, Kristian Huselius and Stephane Yelle might be among those gone, and while wingers Mike Cammalleri, Todd Bertuzzi and Rene Bourque might not be their equal, they should be enough to move the Flames back to the top of the Northwest. I think they'll lean on the amazing Jarome Iginla, get solid performances out of a defense led by Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr (don't listen to Bubba: Regehr's a force), and see a bounce-back year from Miikka Kiprusoff. If GM Darryl Sutter and coach Mike Keenan don't get the Flames back in contention this year, they could both be out on their ear. I full expect Keenan to be in bulldog form from the start of the season and find out what his team is made of.
Like with Calgary, goaltending will be the key for the Canucks. Roberto Luongo was criticized last season for uneven play and, of all things, having a baby. He'll be back this year and in Vezina contention. Unfortunately for Bobby L., new Vancouver GM Mike Gillis didn't do enough to correct the scoring problems that have plagued the Canucks in recent seasons. Gone are mainstays Trevor Linden, Markus Naslund and Brendan Morrison and in their place comes Pavol Demitra, Steve Bernier and Kyle Wellwood. Decent enough replacements, but the team lacks the star power they would have acquired by landing Mats Sundin. The defense is still good, even with the tragic death of Luc Bourdon following the regular season, and if they stay healthy the group will be among the league's best top to bottom. There's cap space to use, and I fully expect to see Gillis do something — even if it's not in the team's best interest in the long haul — to try and add some punch up front.
I'm not quite ready to give up on the Minnesota Wild. You've heard you can't make chicken salad out of chicken $#%^? Well, if anyone in the world of hockey can, it's Jacques Lemaire. The big question will be can the team get Marian Gaborik inked long term or will his status be a season-long distraction? If they can get him tied down, people will (somewhat) forget about Brian Rolston running back to New Jersey. Adding Owen Nolan and Andrew Brunette were solid moves, and letting Demitra leave won't impact the on-ice product too much — but could keep his best friend Gaborik from sticking around. If they have to deal Slovakian Sniper, the return will be large. So if he has to be moved, GM Doug Riseborough will be better off if he can do it sooner rather than later and salvage the Wild's season.
Edmonton has made large strides, but the Oilers are still not a playoff team in my mind. Erik Cole adds some pizzaz to the forward ranks, and Lubomir Visnovsky is a legitimate No. 1 defenseman. The young guns — Andrew Cogliano, Sam Gagner, Ales Hemsky, Dustin Penner and Robert Nillsson — are all a year older and wiser. But the combination of journeyman Mathieu Garon and aging Dwayne Roloson won't strike fear into a division that already has Luongo and Kiprusoff. Sheldon Souray is as likely to be hurt or turn the puck over as pile up points. For the Oilers to make a run, they need someone to emerge as a threat (whither Rob Schremp?) or re-emerge from the abyss (the unlucky Fernando Pisani comes to mind) and carry the team into the postseason. But I don't see it happening.
Joe Sakic's coming back, and let's be clear — we're all better off for it. Sakic is one of the most under-appreciated and talented players ever, and it will be a treat to see him for at least one more season. And even though I have the Avs in last place, I think they have a chance to do some damage and even contend for the division. But it's hard to overlook the Peter Budaj/Andrew Raycroft combo in net, and while I think the top six forwards are great — when healthy — and the addition of Darcy Tucker could pay off big time, it's going to be an uphill climb in Denver. If Sakic and the returning Adam Foote can rally the troops — and if their own indecisive Swede, Peter Forsberg, comes back — the Avalanche could surprise. If those aging stars can't relive their glory days, once-again coach Tony Granato will have his hands full.
You make some good points, but I'll stick with my picks.
While Calgary will always have a chance with "Kipper" in goal, I can't see them being a better team with the replacements you acknowledge. I agree that Keenan will be a pitbull this year, but will that help or hurt?
It seems we both agree that Vancouver should be better this year. I still think we will see a change which will perk them up, but Canucks fans might have to wait until the trade deadline for it to happen.
I don't think that Minnesota will finish ahead of Edmonton and Colorado, but we will see. You give a lot of accolades to coach Jacques Lemaire, but with the NHL leaning toward more scoring, will the old dog learn new tricks or stay with his boring trap? I agree that they might trade Gaborik before year end and get some value from him before he is a UFA. If they do so, they will be out of the playoffs beforehand.
Edmonton just missed the playoffs last year and I believe they will be better this year. 'Nuff said.
Colorado could very well slip to last place. But I'm looking for Sakic, Wolski, Hejduk, and Smyth to be better than their counterparts in the land of 10,000 lakes, if they can stay healthy.
You have last say on this one Cory.....
Maybe Gillis will improve the firepower on the front lines in Vancouver, but I wonder if the rest of the league's GMs have accepted the one-time agent into the brotherhood yet. I think he could have a hard time getting what he wants at anywhere near fair market value. I'd hate to see them deal goalie prospect Cory Schneider without having Luongo signed for the next six or so seasons first.
The Oilers lost two good glue guys in Jarett Stoll and Raffi Torres — they'll be tough to replace, even if Visnovksy was one of the pieces they got back.