by PuckStopsHere on 10/01/08 at 03:06 PM ET
With the season almost upon us, it is time to start posting my predictions for the 2008/09 season. Today, I am starting in the Northwest Division. Conventional wisdom is that this division will be weaker this season than it was in the past as it lost more talent then it gained in the off-season, but I am not sure that conventional wisdom is right. There are some solid teams in the division and none that I think should be among the bottom feeders in the conference. I think this division will not be the weakest in the West Conference
1. Calgary Flames If we made three lists of the best forwards, best defencemen and best goalies in the NHL, Calgary would be the first team to appear on all three lists. Jarome Iginla is one of the top forwards in the game; Dion Phaneuf is one of the best defencemen and Miikka Kiprusoff in one of the best goalies. Naysayers put a lot of weight in the losses of Alex Tanguay and Kristian Huselius, who have been replaced by Mike Cammalleri and Todd Bertuzzi. Although this should weaken the Flames depth at forward somewhat, it should be more than offset by a return to form of Kiprusoff. In three years since the lockout, Kiprusoff has been a Vezina nominee twice (winning it one of those times). Last year he had a noticeable dropoff in his success. A goaltender of his talent level should be able to come back to form this season. That improvement in goal would have a huge value to the Flames. Goaltending is a large part of the game today and Calgary could very likely have one of the best in the game. The wildcard is coach Mike Keenan. While Keenan has often had short-term success in most of his NHL stops, as time wore on he created a dysfunctional organization that was worse off for having him onboard. This is his second year in Calgary and he may start to wear on the players. Hopefully, GM Darryl Sutter maintains enough power and oversight to prevent this.
2. Minnesota Wild This team employs a very successful speed-based trapping system under a top coach in Jacques Lemaire. This will be a contract year for top scorer Marian Gaborik, which might propel him to new heights offensively. They likely lack enough offensive weapons to win the division, relying on Mikko Koivu and Pierre-Marc Bouchard along with Gaborik. Their goaltending of Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding is solid and they have a strong defence built around Brent Burns, Kim Johnsson and Marek Zidlicky. There is no reason that this team will be fun to play against for anyone.
3. Vancouver Canucks With the loss of Markus Naslund and Brendan Morrison and a lot of unspent salary cap money (despite adding Pavol Demitra), many people are picking this team to do very poorly this season. That will not happen as long as Roberto Luongo is their goaltender. He is among the best goalies in the NHL and has to be considered a Vezina Trophy favorite. They will not be a high scoring bunch, with Daniel and Henrik Sedin leading the way along with Demitra, but they have a solid defence built around Mattias Ohlund, Sami Salo, Willie Mitchell and Kevin Bieksa. There won’t be much scoring in Vancouver Canuck games this year either by the Canucks or their opponents. It is a mistake to count out a team with as good goaltending as the Canucks should have.
4. Colorado Avalanche Pundits look at this teams goaltending tandem of Andrew Raycroft and Peter Budaj and predict a long year. While it may be true that neither will likely be all star goalies, both have been solid NHL players in the past (though in Raycroft’s case not since he was in Boston). Though goaltending won’t be a strength, it won’t be a fatal weakness either. When we look beyond their goaltending, we see a strong forward until built around superstar in the making Paul Stastny, Joe Sakic, Ryan Smyth, Milan Hejduk and Wojtech Wolski. A defence lead by Scott Hannan and Adam Foote should be strong as well. The wildcard here is coaching. Tony Granato already had a failed run as Avs coach and he is getting another shot. I think there is a good chance he proves he still isn’t up to the job.
5. Edmonton Oilers It is easy to look at the way this team finished strong last year and almost made playoffs and see the additions of Lubomir Visnovsky and Eric Cole and imagine it is a playoff team now, but I don’t think that is correct. Last year, Edmonton benefitted significantly (likely unrepeatably) from the shootout. Edmonton led the league last year with 21 shootouts. Of which, they won 15 (only the New York Rangers played in more than 15 shootouts last season other than the oilers). That shootout success made a significant impact on their record. Even if we assume that they can repeat it this season (and there are many reasons to doubt that), there is almost no chance they will play in as many shootouts this season. The Oilers only won 22 games in regulation (losing 35). That shows they had a long way to go to be a competitive team. They made some steps, but may find themselves with a worse record this season due to remarkable shootout success that cannot be sustained. Among returning players, Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky are very good forwards and Mathieu Garon was a good goaltender last year.
I don’t think there is a true bottomfeeder in the bunch. In the days to come, I will make predictions for the other divisions.
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