The Northwest Division must surely appreciate the existence of the Southeast Division in the NHL. If nor for the weakest sister in the league, the Northwest would be the league's worst division. Calgary has been slowly sliding away as the core of the team ages and the Sutter family attempts all kinds of weird things to fix it. Colorado was down but bounced back last season, driven by an unexpectedly good young group of forwards and Craig Anderson's ability to goaltend while inverted. Minnesota fell hard last season and if not for the complete and utter four-year run of futility by the OIlers, Minnesota would be a laughingstock. As it is, the entire division beats up on Edmonton and the Eastern Conference while taking it on the chin from the rest of the West.
Vancouver was the class of the division last season and they've added even more talent to try to shake their yearly playoff disappointment. Some publications are counting on them to represent the West in the Cup Finals, but even Chicago's been torn limb from limb, it's still the West, the competition is still ridiculous and the Finals are still eight months away. So much can happen. After the jump, it's the season preview of all things Northwest, North-Central, and Mountain.
Leavin' on jet plane: Christopher Higgins (Florida), Jamal Mayers (San Jose), Eric Nystrom (Minnesota)
New faces from other places: Raitis Ivanas, Tim Jackman, Olli Jokinen, Alex Tanguay
Kids on the verge: Mikael Backlund
Busting out like Frank Morris: Henrik Karlsson won't break out, but he's going to be hard-pressed to be as bad at backing up Miikka Kiprusoff as either Jamie McClennan or Vesa Toskala.
Regressing like Galton: Alex Tanguay should return to form, as long as the shoulder injury hasn't done him in. The top seven forwards are a very stout group and Tanguay will be back among familiar names. If the shoulder has changed his game, it's sad because Tanguay was a true talent.
Prediction: 2nd in the Northwest, 8th in the Western Conference
Word from the local lady via Hayley of Matchsticks & Gasoline
After a disappointing 2009-10 in which the Flames ultimately found themselves on the outside of the Western Conference playoff picture for the first time in five seasons, many questions surround the team prior to the beginning of the 2010-2011 season. Not the least of which is how this year's roster, very similar to last season's in its composition give or take a few players, will bounce back from a season in which they scored the second-fewest goals in league. Captain Jarome Iginla will be expected to top his 2009-10 total of 69 points--his lowest in four seasons--and other veteran forwards Olli Jokinen, Alex Tanguay, and Daymond Langkow, presuming he continues progressing in his recovery from a dangerous neck injury, will also be looking to improve upon sub-par offensive seasons. On defence, Jay Bouwmeester will be aiming to return to form after shooting a career-worst 2.3% last season, while 2009-10 standout Mark Giordano will be in the hunt for a new contract and the team may also be looking to sign Ian White to a long-term extension come January. The cash-strapped Flames (currently $42,349 over the cap) will likely be looking to move or demote a body or two from their crowded blueline--which currently occupies eight rearguards on one-way contracts--before the start of the season, while the roster statuses of forwards Ales Kotalik, Craig Conroy, and prospect Mikeal Backlund remain unknown. In goal, 26-year-old Swedish newcomer Henrik Karlsson will be looking to earn his stripes at the NHL level backing up Miikka Kiprusoff, who will likely be in tough to replicate last season's impressive performance. Expectations for the 2010-11 Flames are justifiably lower after last season, but the roster still includes some talented players, and some Flames fans are cautiously optimistic that Brent Sutter's squad could surprise this season.
Leavin' on jet plane: Brett Clark (Tampa), Chris Durno (Tampa), Tom Preissing (Karpat), Ruslan Salei (Detroit), Marek Svatos (unsigned), Darcy Tucker (unsigned)
New faces from other places: Daniel Winnik
Kids on the verge: Kevin Shattenkirk, Ryan Stoa
Busting out like Frank Morris: Kyle Quincey is an outstanding talent and has gone unnoticed in the national media as they spent so many words tongue-wagging about the other young players on this team. In the playoffs, when the Avs were getting shellacked by the Sharks, it was Quincey that stood out. He and his partner Scott Hannan took on the big lines for the entire series and were still the Avs' best pairing. There is one helluva defenseman flying under the radar in Colorado.
Proving regression like Galton: This entire team. There were so many unsustainable performances early in the year for the Avs and the math started catching up to them at the end of the year while they went 3-5-2 and nearly fell out of the playoffs.
Prediction: 3rd in the Northwest, 10th in the Western Conference
Word from the local boys via David Driscoll-Carignan of Mile High Hockey
Amidst rumors that GM Greg Sherman is working under a strict operating budget, the Avs’ one acquisition this summer was Daniel Winnik. The company line is that the club is rebuilding and preserving cap room for the future, but moves like the buyout of Tom Preissing (which brought the team UP to the cap floor) tell a slightly different story. The end result is that last year’s young team will be even younger this season as veterans Brett Clark, Ruslan Salei, Marek Svatos and Darcy Tucker were allowed to depart and will be replaced by promising youngsters like Kevin Shattenkirk, Jonas Holos, Cameron Gaunce, Ryan Stoa and Justin Mercier. Overall, the nucleus of the club is largely unchanged, which means that the Avalanche should again put up solid numbers offensively while hoping Craig Anderson can withstand another heavy barrage of shots between the pipes.
Leavin' on jet plane: Ethan Moreau (Columbus), Robert Nilsson (Salavat Yulaev Ufa), Patrick O'Sullivan (Carolina), Fernando Pisani, (Chicago), Ryan Potulny (Chicago), Marc Pouliot (Tampa),
New faces from other places: Kurtis Foster, Colin Fraser, Alexandre Giroux, Jim Vandermeer
Kids on the verge: Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Linus Omark, Magnus Paajarvi, Theo Peckham
Busting out like Frank Morris: Andrew Coligano will be freed from the shackles of Ethan Moreau and might have some linemates that don't see every shift as an opportunity to visit the penalty box. If the rumors of centering Dustin Penner come to fruition, Cogliano could easily be a 45 point player again.
Proving regression like Galton: Gilbert Brule had a breakout season on the back of a 14% shooting percentage and a significant amount of minutes alongside Penner. If he's asked to be the grown up on a line of kids, or if he's away from Penner for significant time, his numbers are likely to regress.
Prediction: Last in the Northwest, 29th in the NHL, one of the kids on the verge wins the Calder Trophy and the Oilers get another lottery pick.
Word from the local boys via Bruce McCurdy of The Copper & Blue
That's a lot of holes and there's no way they all get filled. I'm very pessimistic about 2010-11 and fear that this team will get crushed. When you're hanging your hat on wishful thoughts like "it can't possibly be as bad as you think", that's a tell. It's a development year, with many lessons to be learned at the school of hard knocks, and my most fervent hope is that our young prospects survive it both physically and psychologically.
IF the team enjoys good health (for what would be the first time in five seasons) it will "over achieve". A reincarnation of Nik Khabibulin Ver 2008.09 could lift the team out of lottery range, but the chances of that happening under his peculiar circumstances seem remote. The defence looks shallow even on paper where all of them are temporarily healthy, though we know from bitter experience that won't last. The forward corps includes exactly three guys proven capable of playing tough minutes. Veteran checking wingers Ethan Moreau and Fernando Pisani, overwhelmed last year, have departed and been replaced by ... nobody who remotely matches their qualifications. From the current depth chart I have trouble finding four penalty killers. The youngsters up front will be fun to watch, except on those presumably frequent occasions that they get schooled on the defensive side of the puck. To learn from your mistakes, first of all you have to make the mistakes, and I anticipate plenty of those.
In a best-case scenario, the newcomers stay healthy and provide Oiler fans with an exciting brand of hockey. The standings may not be a joy to follow, but the individual games ought to be more fun. They better be; last year there were w-a-y too many games that weren't fit to watch. My minimum expectation going forward (and always) is a team that competes hard and revives some semblance of team spirit and togetherness, something which was sadly lacking in recent seasons. It is clear by some of the changes on the roster - both additions and especially, subtractions - that Tambellini at least tried to address that issue, even as he did nowhere near enough to address the team's shortcomings for the immediately upcoming season. It's Year Two of a Five-Year Plan (for those unable to count how many years in a row the Oil will have missed the playoffs by next spring).
Leavin' on jet plane: Derek Boogaard (New York), Andrew Ebbett (Phoenix), Shane Hnidy (Phoenix tryout), Owen Nolan (unsigned), John Scott (Chicago)
New faces from other places: Matt Cullen, John, Madden, Eric Nystrom
Kids on the verge: Colton Gilles
Busting out like Frank Morris: Cam Barker is going to get as much power play time as his lungs and legs can take and his season will look more like 2008-2009 with Chicago.
Proving regression like Galton: Guillame Latendresse is the easy target, but Martin Havlat is the one that should turn it around. Havlat generated 169 shots on goal in 73 games, only 2.31 per game, or his lowest rate since 2001-2002 when he was in Ottawa. Havlat should revert towards his career average and in doing so, his production will increase.
Prediction: 4th in the Northwest, 13th in the Western Conference
Word from the local boys via Nathan Eide of Hockey Wilderness:
Year 2 of the Fletcher/Richards regime kicked off last Saturday with the opening of training camp. Some new faces have joined the mix, as Matt Cullen, John Madden, Eric Nystrom and Brad Staubitz don the Iron Range Red for the first time. In addition, youngsters like Casey Wellman, Nate Prosser, Cody Almond, Jarod Palmer, Marco Scandella and Joel Broda try to force their way into the lineup. Missing from last year's squad are a bunch of nobodies and Owen Nolan. Nolan's the one guy who this team will miss every shift, every night. Still not sure who will provide his leadership and intensity. That said, we know who the leader of the team will be. With Mikko Koivu locked up for eternity (and ethically - I'm looking at you Chicago, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Vancouver) there is no question whose team this is, and that stability should provide some sense of comfort for fans. So, what does that mean? Well, if Pierre-Marc Bouchard still has post-concussive issues, and there's still no report on a return timeline, and Brent Burns doesn't rebound from a horrible season, and if Martin Havlat plays like he did the first half of the season instead of the second and if Guillaume Latendresse plays like he's in Montreal instead of St. Paul, and if Niklas Backstrom doesn't remember how to stop shots and if the defensemen are still trapped between two systems like last year, it'll be a long season in Minnesota. Of course, if everything comes together, and the team doesn't lose a ridiculous amount of man-games like 09-10, they still will have to fight for a playoff spot. This is a bubble team, and there's nothing (yet) to prove otherwise.
Leavin' on jet plane: Steve Bernier (Florida), Pavol Demitra (Lokomotiv Yaroslav), Michael Grabner (Florida), Willie Mitchell (Los Angeles), Kyle Wellwood (Phoenix tryout),
New faces from other places: Keith Ballard, Dan Hamhuis, Manny Malhotra, Victor Oreskovich, Raffi Torres
Kids on the verge: Cody Hodgson, Cory Schneider, Jordan Schroeder
Busting out like Frank Morris: Cory Schneider being the best young goalie in the AHL gets boring after awhile. He lands softly on one of the best teams in the conference and when he does spell Luongo, his supporting cast will keep the ice tilted away from him. Look for him to post gaudy numbers for a backup.
Proving regression like Galton: Henrik Sedin scored 112 points last season, but isn't likely to duplicate that effort. Even he falls off by 20 points (which is somewhat likely) he's still a 92 point player and incredibly tough to play against.
Prediction: 1st in the Northwest, 2nd in the Western Conference
Word from the local boys via Yankee Canuck of Nucks Misconduct
Vancouver stressed size and grit as they patched their team up looking towards 2011, giving up on small skilled guys (Kyle Wellwood, Pavol Demitra, Michael Grabner) and failed projects (Steve Bernier) in favor of consistency (Dan Hamhuis, Keith Ballard, Manny Malhotra) and sandpaper (Raffi Torres, Victor Oreskovich). Mike Gillis clearly believes surrounding his core - which includes an Art Ross / Hart Trophy winner, Selke nominee and Olympic goalie - with this blend will pay dividends come April.
The decision to go with a defensive committee approach eventually made former blueline rock Willie Mitchell expendable. Whether or not the additions of the Hamhuis & Ballard offset having a clear #1 shutdown player like Mitchell is one of the storylines to watch this season. The lingering question of what to do when - or if - Sami Salo returns will be a dark cloud hanging over Kevin Bieksa, Shane O'Brien and Andrew Alberts, some or all of whom could see themselves ushered out of town once the oft-injured Finn returns.
The other big question will be scoring: the Canucks enjoyed a torrid pace of goals per game in 2009-10, fueled by career seasons from Henrik Sedin, Alex Burrows, Mason Raymond, Mikael Samuelsson and Christian Ehrhoff. However Burrows will join Salo on the LTIR to start the season, Samuelsson is one year older and Raymond & Ehrhoff need to try and repeat their efforts. The additions of Torres and Malhotra should help both scoring and special teams while there remains some cautious optimism that Cody Hodgson, Sergei Shirokov or Jordan Schroeder may have strong camps and earn a roster spot.
Lastly you can't examine Vancouver without keeping tabs on Roberto Luongo. 2009-2010 was his fourth season with the Canucks, the third of which he helped steer them towards both a NW division title and the second round of the playoffs. However his strong winter (19-5-3) gave way to a horrific post-Olympic run where his GAA ballooned to 3.23 and eventually his worst post season statistically. Though you can fault the amount of injuries to the blueline, everyone knows that, now devoid of the "C", he needs a strong 2011 campaign. Should he falter, rookie Cory Schneider has finally earned the backup role and is ready in the wings.