Northwest Division Preview

Here is a preview of the teams in the Northwest Division in no particular order.

Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks have done a 180 degree turn and changed themselves from a potent offensive club that put the pedal to the medal, to one that will be defence first and much more conscience in their own zone.

It all began with the hiring of new coach Alain Vigneault who will install a more defensive oriented patient game plan that differs from the aggressive tactics of former coach Marc Crawford. The move was also made because Crawford’s act was starting to wear thin with the players and a fresh attitude was required. Also, the plan is to integrate more young players into the lineup and Vigneault, who coached the farm team, is the right guy to help bring along the kids.

The other big move was the trade for star goaltender Roberto Luongo. After a few years of good but not great goaltending, the team now has one of the best in the NHL. This move completely changed the makeup of this team. Now the Canucks are building from the goal out and it was a great move to start that with a player like Luongo. One of the battles that will develop in camp will be that of the backup role as the Nucks are a bit thin with Mika Noronen deciding to play in Europe this year.

Another move that indicates a change in direction was the signing of defenceman Willie Mitchell. He was brought in to replace the departed Ed Jovanovski. Though he is far from being the offensive stud Jovanovski is, he will bring a much needed presence defensively. He will likely join Mattias Ohlund on the top pair and go up against opposing teams top players. Ohlund will need to step up his game offensively in Jovanovski’s absence. The team is not as dangerous on the back end as in previous years and Ohlund is perhaps their most skilled blueliner. After Sami Salo, who is the team’s 3rd blueliner, the picture on defence is less clear. There will be 3 jobs open and 5 players to fight over them. There are high hopes that top prospect Luc Bourdon will be a major contributor for years to come. He may require some seasoning on the farm, but he may be the big hitting, puck moving blueliner that could replace Jovanovski.

Up front, the Canucks lost 2 big shooters in Todd Bertuzzi and Anson Carter. Instead of replacing that offence, the team decided to bring in more defensive minded forwards and try to get that scoring prowess from within. What the team needs first is for Markus Naslund to play better. Though he still averaged a point a game, he was far from the dangerous forward we have seen in seasons past and was not much of a leader last season. His brutal plus/minus was also forgettable. If he is going to remain the team Captain, he will need to step it up and carry the Canucks. The second thing Vancouver will need is for the Sedin Twins to continue their good play that started last season. The problem though is the team did not bring back Carter who was the perfect winger for the twins. So for the 3rd year in a row the team will need to integrate a 3rd member for that line and develop chemistry quickly. That line emerged as the teams best when their top group of Brendan Morrison, Bertuzzi and Naslund struggled. Speaking of Morrison, he too needs to play much better. He stunk last year as a $3 million dollar player, he needs start playing like one. But now that line will need to integrate a RW as well with Bertuzzi out of there.

The team is more defensive oriented and it shows with the team bringing in big, good skating forwards like Marc Chouinard, Taylor Pyatt and Jan Bulis. If you combine them with the likes of Trevor Linden, Matt Cooke, Ryan Kesler and Tyler Bouck, there is no shortage of forwards who can fill in checking roles and kill penalties. What they will need though is for some, if not all of these players to provide some semblence of offence as the Canucks resemble more a team that scores by committee than one that has tons of firepower.

Though there are plenty of veterans with guaranteed contracts, there will be a battle to find wingers to play on the top two lines. Perhaps some of those checking forwards will get an opportunity, but there is hope that some of the Canucks younger forwards will earn the job. Prospects such as Alex Burrows, Jesse Schultz, Jason King, Brandon Reid and Marc-Andre Bernier are going to be in the mix to challenge for jobs in camp.

As you can see, there was big change in Vancouver this summer in not only personnel, but philosophy and in dressing room culture. The hope is that with a new direction, fresh faces and a controversy free atmostphere, the team can get back to the playoffs.

Minnesota Wild

After spending the bare minimum in their first few years of existence, the Wild opened the chequebooks and committed a ton of money in an effort to get back to the playoffs.

It will now be up to coach Jacques Lemaire to make things work with his most talented team to date in Minnesota. After going with a suffocating defensive plan initially when the trap and obstuction were the keys to victory, he now has several offensive weapons that may lead to the Wild to open things up offensively.

Four established veterans were added to the club to help bring the Wild to the next level. Two of them, Pavol Demitra and Mark Parrish were added to boost the team’s woeful 1 man offence. The club now has a true point-per-game centre that will be able to keep up to star Marian Gaborik. Demitra not only brings top playmaking ability and high end skill, he may have also been the key cog in getting Gaborik signed long term. Being a close friend and fellow countryman, this move is reminiscent of the moves the Rangers made to keep their star happy. Parrish joins players like Pierre Marc Bouchard, Brian Rolston, Mikko Koivu and Todd White in a supporting offensive role. The scoring depth is as good as ever in Minnesota.

The Wild also rebuilt their defence and specifically their offence from their defence adding Kim Johnsson to the attack. He brings a true offense first blueliner who can move the puck, make good passes and create from the backend. The Wild also added Petteri Nummelin who briefly played for the Jackets and was a big offensive star in Europe. He too will bring an offensive element to the Wild and hopefully improve a woeful powerplay. With these two joining the likes of Martin Skoula and Kurtis Foster, there should be plenty of mobility on the backend to jumpstart the attack.

But even with added offence, this may still be a defence first club. One of the clubs best players is goalie Manny Fernandez. After splitting time for the most part with Dwayne Roloson throught his time in Minnesota, Fernandez finally won the number 1 job outright and for the first time finds himself as the man. The only question is if he can continue his fine play without someone around to push him for playing time. The Wild also have stalwart Nick Schultz on D and have added stud Keith Carney to stabilize the D. Solid checking forwards like Wes Walz, Pascal Dupuis and Branko Radivojevic are also around to ensure the WIld can still trap if the need to.

The Wild may not have improved enough to make the playoffs in the tough West, but they have positioned themselves to adhere to the rules and bring a more exciting brand of hockey to Minnesota.

Edmonton Oilers

After making it to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals, the Oil had to go through a big makeover (not all by choice) which has resulted in a pretty different looking squad that will try to repeat as Western Conference Champs.

GM Kevin Lowe is one of the best in the game and even under duress has managed to retool his team that now should have strong netminding throughout the year and a ton of offence up front. At some point it is expected he will solve the lack of depth on D.

That will be the major question going into the season, who plays D? The team will never be able to replace Chris Pronger who demanded his way out of Edmonton. Even though there may be plenty of hate and resentment towards Pronger, there is no denying that he was a difference maker in Edmonton. He quarterbacked the PP, he was a stud on the PK, he made big plays that chenge a game. To think the Oil are actually better without him is fooling yourself. There is no team that can lose one of the leagues best players and not be worse off. The team also lost the steady Jaroslav Spacek and Dick Tarnstrom that has severely weakened the Oilers attack from the backend.

It will really be up to the younger players to pick up the slack. We already know the contributions captain Jason Smith and Steve Staios will make to the team. What is unknown is whether Marc Andre Bergeron can be a consistent performer, if Matt Greene can be a steady defensive defenceman and if Ladislav Smid, who came over in the Pronger trade, is NHL ready. These questions will need to be answered quickly as the ultra competitive West will not let teams with a suspect D get away with that.

It is a good thing that the Oil have a strong backbone in goal in Dwayne Roloson. He stole many games on the way to getting Edmonton to the finals. But he has something to prove despite his strong play. He needs to show he can be the man after losing his starting job in Minnesota last year. He needs to show he is healthy after a bad injury in the finals. And he needs to show he can do the job with a less talented D in front of him.

What could be a difference maker in Edmonton is the dangerous offence the team has put in place up front. The team is filled with speed, skill and should have that on every line. Though the team lost Peca, Dvorak, Laraque, Samsonov there are few teams that have the kind of depth the Oilers have at forward. Smyth, Hemsky, Stoll, Horcoff, Lupul, Sykora, Torres, Pisani, Schremp, Moreau are all capable of scoring 20 or more goals. And this is a relatively young and still hungry group that has many players who should only get better over time. Sure, this is not near as dangerous as the 80s Oilers, but this is as good as its been in years. It is possible that their deep offence could alleviate their questionmarks on defence.

The past few Oiler teams coached by Craig MacTavish have always been pretty good defensively even pre-Pronger. So if the team can maintain their good team defence and they get consistent goaltending (which they havent had since Cujo) that could be enough to get them to the playoffs. And we all know anything can happen then.

Colorado Avalanche

Another summer gone, 2 more star players out the door. It has become the theme in Colorado lately and questions linger as to whether or not this year the Avs will have enough to continue their playoff run that has spanned 10 years.

With an organization that lacks depth everywhere, it will be big work for new GM Francois Giguere to rebuild this team and get them back to being perennial contenders again. This is by far the weakest lineup put together in the Avs existence and no longer will a playoff spot be guaranteed.

Much of the Avs success will depend on goalie Jose Theodore. If he does not play at the Hart/Vezina trophy level which he is capable of, the Avs could be in for a long season. His play will dictate where the Avs end up in the standings.

But he will not have the advantage that previous Avalanche goalies have had of playing behind a deep and talented blueline. Gone is the last link to the Avs big 3 with Rob Blake going back to LA. The team now lacks a big impact blueliner who can change a game at both ends of the ice and be a real horse back on D. John Michael Liles is a very good offensive blueliner but he is not nearly as strong in his own end. Jordan Leopold was acquired to bolster the D but it cost them star forward Alex Tanguay. Leopold will need to contribute far more than 1 goal for a guy who has great wheels and skill. Brett Clark was a pleasant surprise last season but if he is your 3rd top guy, your team has problems. With Blake out, the Avs D is soft. Karlis Skrastins and Ossi Vaananen are not shy physically but hardly the intimidating force like Blake or Adam Foote were. And we already know how soft Patrice Brisebois is. This could make for a long season in Colorado.

But this team does still have Joe Sakic as their captain and best player. If anyone can will his team to victory, its this guy. But at age 37, how much more does he have? And the fact of the matter is he does not have the kind of players surrounding him as in years past. The Avs definitely need Milan Hedjuk to get back to his Rocket Richard Trophy winning form. 24 goals is not even close to being enough for a 5 plus million dollar player. The team also needs Marek Svatos to stay healthy. He appears to be someone that perfectly suits the new NHL style of play. A star on the rise, there are simply not enough Svatos type players in the organization. The Avs hope for big things from Woltek Wolski but it may be too much to ask of him straight out of junior. It may be too much for the Avs to expect big things from Tyler Arnason and Pierre Turgeon, two players who played poorly last year.

The team is trying its best to be a hard one to play against as players such as Andrew Brunette, Steve Konawolchuk, Brett McLean and Ian Laperriere all bring sandpaper to their game along with a bit of offence here and there and sound defensive play. This is what they are going to need to succeed. They wont intimidate many teams, they wont out gun them either and they by far do not have enough skill to get by like in past years.

Hot goaltending and blue collar work will be required if the Avs have any shot at the playoffs. This is why they play the games because on paper, it does not look good for the Avs.

Calgary Flames

The Flames in short order went from missing the playoffs for 7 straight years to making the final and establishing themselves as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.

The big change will be the team adjusting to new coach Jim Playfair as Darryl Sutter steps away from his duo role and concentrates on being a full time GM. It will be a big job for Playfair to get this team to play as favorites and at an even higher level than what Sutter managed.

Of course having the reigning Vezina trophy winner in goal helps plenty. Mikka Kiprusoff is one of the league’s best and he should continue being the Flames backbone. Though coach Sutter molded a tough defensive team, the play of Kiprusoff made it happen. The Flames are one of the few teams without any questionmarks in goal and that may be a huge advantage for Calgary.

The blueline in front of Kiprusoff is as strong as any. With hard nosed stay-at-home studs like Robin Regher and Rhett Warrener taking care of their end and star in the making Dion Phaneuf providing big offence and throwing big hits, there is not much this D cant do. If veteran Roman Hamrlik can regain his form, the Flames will have a very strong top 4. But what could put the Flames over the top is the play of Phaneuf. He may already be the biggest impact blueliner in the division with Jovanovski, Pronger and Blake all gone. It is a difference maker like Phaneuf who could put the Flames over the top.

But everything the Flames do could be moot if they dont score goals. They were one of the worst offensive teams in the league last season and in the summer they chose to do something about it. Acquiring a point per game player like Alex Tanguay was a huge coup that gives Calgary a second dangerous option besides Jarome Iginla. Simply put, the Flames had no one but Iginla as a scoring threat. As a result, his play suffered as he simply could not carry the offence on his own. But the Flames now have a few more weapons at their disposal with Tanguay around and Kristen Huselius for a full season. Jeff Friesen should help in the speed department which the forward group lacked last season and hopefully youngsters like Matthew Lombardi and Chuck Kobasew get better. If veterans Daymond Langkow and Tony Amonte can produce 20 goal seasons, there may be enough offence at coach Playfair’s disposal. Plenty of onus will be on him to actually have something in place to improve the team’s scoring. The Flames were rather predictable offensively and it made the job for the opponents very easy to just slow down Iggy.

If the Flames can continue their suffocating defence and top notch goaltending plus put together a couple of dangerous scoring lines, the Red Mile may be ready for a real parade.