NHL preview: Northwest Division

[audio:http://www.torontoobserver.ca/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/swag_northwest_podcast.mp3|titles=swag_northwest_podcast]The Vancouver Canucks won the Northwest Division last season, and remain the favourites to repeat this season. The balance of power in the division is not likely to change, with only Calgary making significant changes.

Goaltender Roberto Luongo will be facing a mountain of pressure when the playoffs arrive in April, as the Canucks are expected to be a serious contender for the Stanley Cup after two straight disappointing losses to the Chicago Blackhawks.

Calgary and Colorado battled down the stretch for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference a year ago, and the two teams appear destined to do it again.

The Avs and Flames are two very different teams, with Colorado building with prospects in its system, while Calgary GM Darryl Sutter had a busy summer adding to an already veteran lineup with a couple of former Flames.

Minnesota and Edmonton both had disappointing campaigns a season ago, and it will be difficult for both to qualify for the playoffs with their current rosters.


Flames GM Darryl Sutter (sutterhs_110x100)

2009/2010 Record: 40-32-10, 90 points, 10th in Western Conference, 3rd in Northwest Division

Key Additions: F Raitis Ivanans, F Tim Jackman, F Olli Jokinen, F Alex Tanguay, G Henrik Karlsson

Key Departures: F Nigel Dawes, F Chris Higgins, F Eric Nystrom

On the Rise: Mikael Backlund – The 21-year-old former first-round draft pick is expected to challenge for a spot on the Flames’ roster this season after spending most of last year with the club’s minor league affiliate in Abbotsford, BC. Calgary hopes the Swede will be able to inject youth into an aging forward corps, as key players such as Jarome Iginla, Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay are all 30 years of age or older.

On the Hot Seat: GM Darryl Sutter – No general manager was more criticized during the summer for free-agent signings than Sutter after inking forwards Alex Tanguay and Olli Jokinen for their second tour of duty in Calgary.  The Flames brought in ex-Lightning GM Jay Feaster as an assistant GM, but after missing the post-season last year, Sutter better hope for a playoff appearance if he to avoid the unemployment line.

Outlook: After missing the post-season for the first time since the lockout, there is a lot of pressure on Calgary to get back into the playoffs this year.  On paper, the Flames have all the necessary ingredients to make that happen.

In goal, Miikka Kiprusoff had a solid season, and will be counted on again to carry his team.

Although Sutter was criticized for the Dion Phaneuf trade, Calgary still has a solid defence anchored by Robin Regehr and Jay Bouwmeester.

The biggest issue facing the Flames is their aging forwards.  Iginla, Jokinen and Daymond Langkow are among the player over the age of 30 that will need to have rebound seasons, and prove that they are not on the downside of their careers.

The problem of who centres Iginla’s remains.  When Jokinen was acquired from Phoenix in 2009, it was expected he would help elevate the winger’s game, but that didn’t happen last year.

Prediction: 90-95 points: 3rd


Craig Anderson (Colorado Avalanche 2010-2011 headshots)

2009/2010 Record: 43-30-9, 95 points, 8th in Western Conference, 2nd in Northwest Division

Key Additions: F Daniel Winnik

Key Departures: F Marek Svatos, F Darcy Tucker, F Stephane Yelle

On the Rise: Matt Duchene – The third overall pick in the 2009 draft had a tremendous rookie campaign for the surprising Avalanche, scoring 24 goals and 55 points.  The 19-year-old will be asked to improve in his sophomore season if the young Avalanche are to reach the playoffs again.

On the Hot Seat: Craig Anderson – After establishing himself as the team’s No. 1 goaltender last season, Anderson will need to prove it wasn’t a fluke.  The 29-year-old almost led the Avs to a first-round upset of the Sharks, and will still see a lot of shots this year with a young Colorado squad.

Outlook: The Avalanche surprised most pundits by going from a last-place team in 2009 to a playoff spot last year.  Colorado has a strong young base to build with centres Paul Stastny and Matt Duchene, but the Avs will hope that the team doesn’t regress after getting a taste of success last season.

Colorado still has strong players in its development system, with forwards Ryan Stoa, Kevin Porter and defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk all poised to make an impact with the Avalanche in the near future.

Goaltending was a big key to the Avs’ resurgence last season, as Anderson finally broke through after spending the first few years of his career as a backup in Chicago and Florida.

Other young forwards like Chris Stewart, Peter Mueller and David Jones will also need to continue to improve, and veteran Milan Hejduk will be relied upon for offensive production and leadership.

Prediction: 95-100 points: 2nd


Taylor Hall (8475791)

2009/2010 Record: 27-47-8, 62 points, 15th in Western Conference, 5th in Northwest Division

Key Additions: F Taylor Hall, F Magnus Paajarvi, F Jordan Eberle, F Colin Fraser, D Kurtis Foster

Key Departures: F Ethan Moreau, F Patrick O’Sullivan

On the Rise : Taylor Hall – There are many young players who will get an opportunity with the Oilers this season, but none with the hype of Hall, the first-pick overall in 2010.  The Calgary native scored 40 goals and 106 points for the Windsor Spitfires, along with his second Memorial Cup championship.

On the Hot Seat : Andrew Cogliano – The Toronto native was built up as part of a bright Oilers future a couple of seasons ago, along with Robert Nilsson and Sam Gagner, but only scored 10 goals.  The speedy centre was not re-signed by the Oilers until late in the summer, and will need to prove that he should remain part of Edmonton’s rebuilding plans.

Outlook : Edmonton Oilers fans have a lot to look forward to in the future, but the highly touted prospects that will make the jump to the NHL are not likely to improve the team’s fortunes this season.

Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paarjarvi are all expected to make contributions to the Oilers’ lineup, but such a young roster is sure to suffer through growing pains.

Goaltending was a large reason why Edmonton finished in the basement of the NHL a year ago, as the team needed to rely on the young tandem of Jeff Deslauriers and Devan Dubnyk. Nikolai Khabibulin was injured for much of the season.

With the Oilers trading captain Ethan Moreau to Columbus, with leadership duties likely falling to Shawn Horcoff, who, along with Ales Hemsky, are the only two Oilers remaining from Edmonton’s run to the Stanley Cup final in 2006, the team should expect to pick in the top five of this years draft.

Prediction: 65-70 points: 5th


Brent Burns (8470613)

2009/2010 Record: 38-36-8, 84 points, 13th in Western Conference, 4th in Northwest Division

Key Additions: F Matt Cullen, F John Madden, F Eric Nystrom, G Jose Theodore

Key Departures: F Derek Boogaard, F Andrew Ebbett

On the Rise: Brent Burns – The offensive defenceman was expected to thrive with a more aggressive system under Todd Richards, but a concussion reduced his season to 47 games.  A healthy Burns should improve the Wild offence that finished tied for 20th in the league a year ago.

On the Hot Seat: Niklas Backstrom – The Finnish goaltender struggled mightily with a less defensive system.  The Wild fell from second in goals against in 2009 to 21st last season, and Backstrom needs to prove he can backstop the Wild in Richards’ offensive plan.

Outlook: The first season of the Chuck Fletcher/Richards era did not bring about the desired results last year, but the GM and coach believe that the end of a defence-first system employed by former coach Jacques Lemaire will result in more offence for the team.

Minnesota did not do much with the roster that finished 13th in the Western Conference, and will depend on a forward corps of Mikko Koivu, Martin Havlat, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Guillaume Latendresse to improve on the 214 goals the team scored last season.

Forward acquisitions John Madden, Matt Cullen and Eric Nystrom will provide depth and grit, but will not add a ton of offence.

The loyal supporters of the Wild will have to wait for prospects to change the roster, as last season’s first-round draft pick, Mikael Granlund, and young defencemen Marco Scandella and Tyler Cuma are at least a year away.

Prediction: 80-85 points: 4th


Roberto Luongo (8466141)

2009/2010 Record: 49-28-5, 103 points, 3rd in Western Conference, 1st in Northwest Division

Key Additions: F Manny Malhotra, D Dan Hamhuis, D Keith Ballard

Key Departures: F Steve Bernier, F Pavol Demitra, F Michael Grabner, F Kyle Wellwood, D Willie Mitchell, G Andrew Raycroft

On the Rise: Cody Hodgson – The Toronto native missed almost all of last season with a back injury, but remains the top prospect in the Canucks’ system.  Vancouver hopes he will be healthy enough to make the jump from playing in junior to the NHL this season.

On the Hot Seat: Roberto Luongo – While he finally showed the ability to win a big game when Canada earned gold at the Olympics, Luongo struggled in Vancouver’s second-round playoff exit.  After a meeting with GM Mike Gillis before training camp in September, Luongo decided to relinquish the captaincy in hopes of removing that distraction, but the pressure to backstop the Canucks to a Stanley Cup championship remains constant.

Outlook: It was a summer of discontent in Vancouver after the excitement of the Winter Olympics. The Canucks were defeated by the Chicago Blackhawks in the second round for the second straight season.

After an MVP season from Henrik Sedin, and a breakout campaign from Ryan Kesler, big things were expected from Vancouver in the playoffs, but the team’s early exit prompted criticism of Luongo and the rest of the team.

The Canucks have a revamped defence after acquiring Keith Ballard at the draft in a trade with the Panthers, in addition to the signing of free agent Dan Hamhuis on July 1.

Kevin Bieksa, a fixture on defence for the past few seasons, was the subject of trade rumours throughout the summer, and may be on the move if he has a strong campaign in exchange for offensive help.

Vancouver will not be judged on its regular-season record. The team will have to show improvement in the post-season, otherwise expect more drastic changes to be made.

Prediction: 100-105 points: 1st