by PuckStopsHere on 09/24/09 at 10:04 PM ET
With the regular season starting soon, it is time to begin posting my predictions for this season. As I did last year I will post the predicted finish in each division with a little blurb about why I think each team should finish where they are ranked and then I will post a ranked list of where I think the teams should finish in the conference. Of course when a significant injury, trade or other unforeseen event occurs, these predictions will likely begin to look a bit more incorrect. Nevertheless, it is fun to see how close to reality I managed to get before the season.
I will start with the Northwest Division.
1. Calgary Flames I think the key to Calgary having a year at the top of the West Conference standings (which is possible) is Miikka Kiprusoff turning things around. He has been in decline since his 2006 Vezina season but is young enough that he could easily post a comeback season. That would shore up one of the potential holes on the Flames. The flames will depend on Kiprusoff this year, as they have not had a legit backup for a few years. Their defence is deep. Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr are joined by Jay Bouwmeester. This gives Calgary three potential members of the Canadian Olympic Team on their defence. I am not convinced Bouwmeester is as good as many expect, but he should be a top flight defenceman even if he is a bit below all star level. I think Phaneuf could be the real star here. He regressed a little last year from his 2008 Norris nomination, but he is young and talented. At forward, Jarome Iginla is one of the best in the league. Olli Jokinen will be there all season. Daymond Langkow and Craig Conroy are among the players who will be relied on to provide depth.
2. Vancouver Canucks Vancouver won this division last year, but they required Calgary Flames defensive injuries down the stretch (that prevented the Flames from icing a full roster in some games). The Canucks will benefit this year from a full season of Roberto Luongo (he is unlikely to be hurt as much as last year). Their forward unit is built around Henrik and Daniel Sedin. They will count on Ryan Kesler and Alexandre Burrows to play as well as they did last year (as that was the best season of their career to date). Their defence is solid but unspectacular. It is built around Kevin Bieksa, Alexander Edler and Willie Mitchell and is adding Mathieu Schneider and Christian Ehrhoff to it. This defence should do well behind a goalie of Luongo’s calibre but might be exposed by a weaker goalie.
3. Edmonton Oilers The biggest change in Edmonton over the summer is the addition of a new brain trust. Pat Quinn will coach the team and Tom Renney will be an assistant coach. That should be a big improvement from Craig MacTavish last year. In goal they added Nikolai Khabibulin as a free agent. He is coming off his best season since the lockout and should be hard pressed to repeat it. If they are forced to rely on Jeff Druoin-Deslauriers significantly there will likely be problems in goal as he is unproven at the NHL level. Their defence is led by some good offensive defencemen in Sheldon Souray, Tom Gilbert and Denis Grebeshkov and Lubomir Visnovsky. The problem may come defensively. Steve Staios is no longer a successful shutdown defenceman. Their top scorers should be Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff and there are several more forwards who have shown talent but have not yet put together their entire game including Sam Gagner, Robert Nilsson, Patrick O’Sullivan and Dustin Penner. It is a good bet that at least one of them takes a significant step forward.
4. Minnesota Wild The biggest change from last year is coaching. Jacques Lemaire leaves the team. He is probably consistently the best coach in the NHL on a season-to-season basis. He is replaced by the unproven Todd Richards. This is a team that has little offence. Marian Gaborik left as a free agent, but with his many injuries that may not be noticed. Martin Havlat joins the team as the injury-prone potential top scorer. If he is healthy that will help the wild take a step forward, but it is not a good bet that Havlat can remain healthy two years in a row. Mikko Koivu is the only remaining Wild forward who showed a consistent scoring touch last year. Their defence is full of players who played well in the Lemaire system in Kim Johnsson, Brent Burns and Nick Schultz and they added Greg Zanon who is another player in that mold. It will be interesting to see how well they hold up under different coaching. Marek Zidlicky is also around. He is a talented offensive defenceman who never fit in with Lemaire, but might do well with a coaching change. In goal, Niklas Backstrom was a Vezina nominee. Much of his success is probably due to the top defence that Lemaire’s system put together. He may not look as good with a different system. Josh Harding is a very good backup who will get a chance someday.
5. Colorado Avalanche Their goaltending is unsettled at best. Craig Anderson and Peter Budaj have never been able to prove they can be number one goalies yet in their careers. Last year their defence was led offensively by John-Michael Liles and Ruslan Salei. Salei is aging and may not be able to keep playing top line minutes. Kyle Quincey was acquired and could be the top defenceman, but he only has one successful NHL season under his belt so far. At forward, the retirement of Joe Sakic clearly leaves this team to Paul Stastny, who could have a breakout year if he stays injury free. In terms of depth, there isn’t much there beyond Milan Hejduk and Wojtek Wolski. This team will be hard pressed to have much success this year.
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