Heading into this shortened season, the Northwest division is setting up to be one of the most competitive across the league. While the Vancouver Canucks remain the favorite, the young Edmonton Oilers are proving to be a legitimate threat on a nightly basis, the Calgary Flames added some key pieces, the Colorado Avalanche will be better and of course the Minnesota Wild made the biggest splash this off season with the signing of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
With all that being said, let’s examine each team a little more closely and predict where they’ll shake out after 48 regular season games.
It’s the team that every hockey fan outside of Vancouver loves to hate. Of course it doesn’t help that they’ve been winning a lot in the last few seasons and you can expect more of the same this year. Considered the favorites to win the Northwest and threaten for the Western Conference title, the Canucks made very few acquisitions this offseason and could perhaps be on the verge of a blockbuster.
The Roberto Luongo rumors are relentless since the lockout has been lifted with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Florida Panthers said to be in the mix to trade for the netminder. Recently we heard the Philadelphia Flyers are now showing interest, something that could turn the sweepstakes in favor of the Canucks if they can get a plentiful package in return for their former number one goalie.
Up front the Canucks will again be strong, led by the Sedin twins. When healthy, both Daniel and Henrik could challenge for the scoring title, making them a threat every time they are on the ice. Ryan Kesler is expected to miss a significant amount of time due to injury, leaving a gapping hole up front and one they Canucks could look to fill via trade. If they move Luongo, look for a second line center to head back to Vancouver.
On the blue line the Canucks brought in Jason Garrison to replace the departed Sami Salo and while Garrison may not entirely replace Salo’s output, Vancouver has enough depth on the blue line to steady the ship.
Prediction: the Canucks win the division
Many NHL experts have labelled the Wild as one of the top teams to improve over the off season despite not having a single game played. And they’re right. The additions of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter instantly made the Wild a better club. But is it enough for the Wild to overthrow the Canucks for the division? Not likely. At least not until the Wild can shore up some secondary scoring after the top line of Dany Heatley, Parise and Mikko Koivu. Devin Setoguchi needs to return to form and Mikael Granlund will need to be a Calder Trophy finalist. Throw in a healthy and productive Pierre-Marc Bouchard and maybe then the Wild will have the consistent second line scoring, but for now there are too many unknowns to say for certain they’ll finish ahead of Vancouver.
The back end is still up in the air in terms of being finalized with the top six defenceman. Suter will join Tom Gilbert as the top pairing which then leaves the blue line a little sparse. Clayton Stoner and Jared Spurgeon will need to step up their game and Nick Palmieri, Justin Falk, Nate Prosser, a healthy Marco Scandella and the veteran Paul Mara could make for an interesting training camp.
Between the pipes the Wild could boast one of the top goaltending tandems in the league with Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom. Harding’s condition remains to be seen after being diagnosed with MS, but many believe he should be able to return to form while learning to cope with the condition.
Prediction: Wild finish second and make the playoffs
They’re young, fast and exciting too much as much as it pains Wild fans to admit. The Edmonton Oilers are on the verge of losing their “rebuilding” tag and trading it in for a “playoff bound” tag. The kid line of Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle are electfiying and if first overall draft pick, Nail Yakupov can make the club, they could have some balanced scoring with Sam Ganger, Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff.
Their blue line has improved thanks to former Wild Nick Schultz now dawning the copper and blue. The Oil also signed free-agent Justin Schultz who was ripping up the AHL prior to the lockout ending. Veterans Ryan Whitney and Ladislav Smid will bring some much needed poise on the back end for the young Schultz, Corey Potter and Jeff Petry.
In goal is perhaps the biggest question mark for the five-time Stanley Cup champions. Devan Dubnyk has won the number one job away from Nikolai Khabibulin but if Dubnyk struggles, a trade could be in the works for Edmonton.
Prediction: third place in the Northwest and make the playoffs
If there was any team that might benefit the most from a shortened season, it’s the Calgary Flames. Known for their slow starts in October, the Flames typically play their best hockey in the New Year, meaning they could change their fortunes and start out strong this year.
The Flames will be led by veterans Jarome Iginla, Michael Cammalleri and Alex Tanguay. After that first line, the question marks are everywhere up front for the Flames. Sven Bartschi and Roman Cervenka have tremendous potential but their NHL ability remains unseen. Lee Stempniak and Matt Stajan will need to turn their careers around and the newly signed Jiri Hudler needs to fit in quickly to his new surroundings in order to have a big impact.
On defence, the Flames have a group of overpaid and underachieving, former all-stars led by Jay Bouwmeester. Mark Giordano is likely the most consistent d-man of the group but he can’t play sixty minutes a night. The Flames gave Denis Wideman a ridiculous amount of money for a player of his age and ability which will only further cloud the Flames ability to sneak into the playoffs.
In goal, it’ll be Mikka Kiprusoff that’ll likely play 95% of the regular season games and if the Flames have any chance of making the top 8 in the West, it lies on Kipper’s shoulders.
Prediction: miss the playoffs
Someone has to finish in the basement of the division this season which is too bad when you look at the talent of the Avalanche. They have young and exciting players such as Paul Stastny, Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog to go with the veteran Milan Hejduk.
The blue line is weak after Erik Johnson which will put too much pressure on goaltenders, JS Giguere and Simeon Varlamov.
This is a team that could play a huge spoiler role down the stretch and they should not be taken lightly.
Prediction: miss the playoffs
Be sure to check out the Northwest division preview, courtesy of our friends over at Oil on Whyte.
Agree or disagree with these predictions, please leave a comment.