by PuckStopsHere on 09/25/10 at 03:45 PM ET
With the season approaching, it is time to start my pre-season predictions. I will start by forecasting the Northwest Division. Obviously, things are bound to change over the course of the season. Injuries, trades, slumps, breakout players are hard to forecast and when they happen, they are bound to affect the final standings of teams and more than likely, they will make my predictions incorrect. Nevertheless, here is what I expect as the order of finish in the Northwest Division:
1. Vancouver Canucks The Canucks have a world class goalie in Roberto Luongo, who I expect will make a run at the Vezina Trophy this year, despite falling short last year. They have the reigning MVP and top scorer in Henrik Sedin and his brother Daniel who scored an approximately the same rate per game, but had injuries. I don’t think the Sedin brothers are likely to repeat as MVP or scoring champion, but they should be among the best in the league. Ryan Kesler is a top level defensive forward who could be a Selke trophy winner. I am not as impressed with their defence as many pundits are. There are several quality second line defencemen, but nobody who is likely star quality. I think Dan Hamhuis might help somewhat, but am not so sold on Keith Ballard given his Corsi problems in Florida. Defence may not be a weakness, but i am not convinced it is a strength. All told, Vancouver is one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup this year. They are about as good as a team can get in the salary capped NHL.
2. Calgary Flames The Flames would have been a playoff team last year if they were an East Conference team. They finished ahead of the Stanley Cup finalist Philadelphia Flyers in the standings. Their collapse came down to some rather bizarre trades made by GM Darryl Sutter, who basically conceded the season with late season trades of Dion Phaneuf and Olli Jokinen. Sutter returns as GM and hopefully will not repeat that performance. Calgary has a lot of returning talent in Jarome Iginla, Miikka Kiprusoff, Robyn Regehr and Jay Bouwmeester. Sutter brought back Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay as free agents. Both are potential comeback players on very team friendly contracts, but it made some of the Flame faithful wonder as Sutter appears to be trying to return to the past. I think Calgary could slip into one of the bottom West Conference playoff berths if they have some stability from management.
3. Colorado Avalanche Colorado made a huge leap last year. They were up 26 points from the 2008/09 season. They climbed from last in the West Conference to eighth place and the final playoff berth in the process. The problem is they probably made a bigger jump than their talent levels warranted. Colorado’s team Corsi rating was not nearly as strong as their standing would have shown. They had some good bounces and an unsustainably high shooting percentage in 2009/10. That is not to say that this team does not have talent. Paul Stastny and Chris Stewart could be a strong one-two punch offensively for the next many years. Craig Anderson is a talented goalie, who finally got the chance to be a starter after he arrived in Colorado last summer. Their defence is questionable. Are Kyle Quincey and Scott Hannan going to be their number one defencemen again? If not who is? To continue their upwards progression, it will be necessary to improve the Colorado defence.
4. Minnesota Wild Minnesota enters year two post-Jacques Lemaire and is still looking for an identity. Mikko Koivu is their go to guy at forward. He is the kind of guy Lemaire loved. Koivu is a strong defensive player and could be a Selke Trophy candidate. He is also the likely top scorer of the Wild team. The only other player with significant offensive potential is Martin Havlat, who had a disappointing first season in Minnesota with only 54 points. Minnesota has always had a reputation as a strong defensive team in the Lemaire years, but they allowed 46 more goals last year in their first post-Lemaire year than they did in their final year with him. There isn’t likely any all star level defenceman on this squad. Marek Zidlicky has offensive flair but can be an adventure in his own zone and Brent Burns has not matured as well as many hoped a couple years ago. Niklas Backstrom is a solid goalie, but his numbers had been inflated with the strong defence in front of him in the Lemaire years. They won’t be quite as good anymore and this may be viewed as a disappointment, but I am not sure if he is playing at a significantly different level. Minnesota is a team in need of an identity. They are no longer the disciplined defensive team they were in the Lemaire years, but what are they? They do not have the talent to play a run and gun offence either. All told, this looks like a team that will miss the playoffs.
5. Edmonton Oilers The Oilers were the last place team in the NHL last year. Injuries and a lack of depth really hurt. There are some clear reasons to expect that the 2010/11 season will not be as bad as the last place season. Ales Hemsky will likely play far more that 22 games this year. If he can continue to score at proven levels, he could again lead the team in scoring. His main challenger is Dustin Penner, who had a strong year in 2009/10. Shawn Horcoff needs to bounce back from a subpar season and young Sam Gagner is ready for a step forward. On defence, Ryan Whitney and Tom Gilbert are solid, but none are spectacular. There are depth issues behind them, Jason Strudwick and Taylor Chorney played a lot of shifts very inefficiently last year and it would improve things significantly if that isn’t repeated. Goaltending is a question mark. Nikolai Khabibulin has questionable health and potential legal problems from a DUI arrest in Arizona. At age 37, it is hard to imagine he is going to be a top starter in the league anymore. Behind him there is Jeff Deslauriers and Devan Dubnyk and either have shown they have NHL ability yet. Martin Gerber is also in the picture, having returned to North America from the KHL. It is not impossible that any of these four could be the number one guy in Edmonton by the end of the year. It is also quite possible that none of them can handle the load. There is some good young talent in Taylor Hall, Magnus Paajarvi and Jordan Eberle in Edmonton and that bodes well for the future, but it is a lot to expect that a rookie becomes the star to lead this team in his first NHL season. I doubt Edmonton will be last this year or again at any point in the near future, but it is a long way back and another last place finish in the division is likely.
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