2011-12 Northwest Div. Preview
The Canucks' core talent makes them the clear class of a mediocre division
GM Jay Feaster may not have done enough to get the Flames into the playoffs
The new look Wild and the Avs with Semyon Varlamov in net are intriguing
Teams listed in order of predicted finish.
*Denotes playoff qualifier
2010-11: 54-19-9, 117 points, first in Northwest
FRESH FACES: Marco Sturm (Washington), Andrew Ebbett (Phoenix)
OTHER PLACES: Christian Ehrhoff (Buffalo), Raffi Torres (Phoenix), Tanner Glass (Winnipeg), Jeff Tambellini (Switzerland)
STORYLINE: Whether or not the psychic wounds have healed and all the damage to downtown property has been repaired, it's time to play hockey again in Vancouver. However hard it may be to shake the memory of losing the Stanley Cup Final after taking a 3-2 series lead on Boston and then losing at home in Game 7, the Canucks will respond well with their returning core of talented players.
The Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, figure to be double trouble again for opposing goalies. Center Ryan Kesler emerged as a full-fledged star last season. The Canucks did lose talented defenseman Christian Ehrhoff to free agency, and a pair of key forwards (Mikael Samuelsson and Mason Raymond) must regain their form after serious injuries. But a good group of depth forwards along with Roberto Luongo and Corey Schneider in goal mean the Canucks should get another shot at the Cup that got away.
MVP: Henrik Sedin. Two years ago, Henrik took home the Hart Trophy. Last season, it looked like Daniel would win it until a late charge by Anaheim's Corey Perry stole it away. Being the level-headed, eminently logical, scientific sort of prognosticator, I'll go with Henrik to have the better season this time by a Sedin. Injuries may have slowed him some, but indications are that he's healed and ready to regain his 100-point pace of two years ago after "slipping" to 94 last year.
KID TO WATCH: Cody Hodgson. With Kesler expected to miss the start of the season and be out possibly into November after groin surgery, Hodgson will get a good chance to make a top-six impression coming out of camp. Picked 10th overall by the Canucks in 2008, he spent the summer working out with noted fitness guru/former NHL player Gary Roberts.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Alex Burrows. He invariably has "pest" or "pesky" before his name and he's coming off a 26-goal regular season and a postseason that included a Game 7 overtime goal (first round vs. Chicago). It'll be interesting to see if he tones down some of his antics -- filet of finger, anyone? -- and tries to get to another level as a scorer, but his effectiveness is probably predicated too much on the bad-boy effects at which he's so good.
BOTTOM LINE: In the otherwise mediocre Northwest, the Canucks should roll again to another division flag. Of course, the only thing that will satisfy anyone in Vancouver is that big silver cup, but there are doubts about this team being as good as it was last season. Losing Ehrhoff's 50 points from the blueline will sting, and the health of key role forwards such as Samuelsson and Raymond is a worry. Still, the Sedin twins, Kesler and Luongo will again provide a reasonable shot at bringing that elusive Cup to Vancouver.
2010-11: 41-29-12, 94 points, second in Northwest
FRESH FACES: Chris Butler (Buffalo), Lee Stempniak (Phoenix), Scott Hannan (Washington), Derek Smith (Ottawa)
OTHER PLACES: Daymond Langkow (Phoenix), Robyn Regehr (Buffalo), Adam Pardy (Dallas)
STORYLINE: This could be the toughest team in the NHL to analyze. The Flames were terrible at the midway point last season, fired their general manager and then went on a 27-11-9 tear that almost got them in the playoffs. Then during the offseason, new GM Jay Feaster traded rugged and popular defenseman Robyn Regehr to Buffalo for two relative unknowns. His other big moves were to acquire journeyman forward Lee Stempniak for Daymond Langkow and sign 32-year-old winger Alex Tanguay to a... five-year contract. Yet, this team may still be pretty good anyway.
Calgary still has a fine goalie in Miikka Kiprusoff, an ultra-reliable superstar in Jarome Iginla (43 goals), one of the league's better young power forwards in Rene Bourque, and a defense that still has a couple of bold-face names (Jay Bouwmeester, Mark Giordano). Still, it's hard to see how the Flames will be much better than last season's 94-point outfit -- and easy to see how they might finish a few points worse.
MVP: Rene Bourque. Coming off a 27-goal season, the left winger could be ready for 30- or even 40-goal status. Bourque's leadership skills are evidenced by his six game-winning goals last season. His defense (-17) needs to improve, but otherwise he's a danger with the puck and, at 29, ready for a big season.
KID TO WATCH: TJ Brodie. Dynamic youth hasn't been a trademark of recent Flames teams. Former GM Darryl Sutter preferred older players and the franchise is still trying to transition from some of his ill-advised moves -- such as the trade of Dion Phaneuf to Toronto. There isn't much to get excited about rookie-wise this season, either, though defenseman Brodie has a chance to eventually join the big club after a three-game tryout last October.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Jay Bouwmeester. The Flames are way past ready for this Alberta native to start earning the mammoth contract that was bestowed upon him two years ago. Bouwmeester has proved durable, but has scored only seven goals in 164 games with Calgary -- a gigantic disappointment. He has also been heavily criticized for being too passive around the puck. He has three years left at $6.68 million per, so expect a magnifying glass of attention on his game in impatient Calgary this season.
BOTTOM LINE: Give credit to Feaster for restoring credibility to the Flames upon arrival, but now comes the real test. Lots of teams overachieve after a change in management only to settle back into old ways. That is the worry here for a team that was one of the better clubs of last season's second half only to become a bit too staid during the summer. There is age to watch at key positions (Iginla is 34, Kiprusoff will turn 35 in October), and big contracts still on the books from the Darryl Sutter regime. Those factors make them difficult to pick for a playoff berth.
Alex Ovechkin, Brad Richards, Ryan Kesler, Tim Thomas and other major stars talk about whose highlights they always watch, their toughest foes, speed demons, the worst trash talkers in the NHL and more hot topics.
2010-11: 30-44-8, 68 points, fourth in Northwest
FRESH FACES: Semyon Varlamov (Washington), Joakim Lindstrom (Sweden), Jean-Sebastien Giguere (Toronto), Chuck Kobasew (Minnesota), Jan Hejda (Columbus), Shane O'Brien (Nashville)
OTHER PLACES: Peter Budaj (Montreal), John-Michael Liles (Toronto), Tomas Fleischmann (Florida), Brian Elliott (St. Louis)
STORYLINE: Can a former Capitals goalie, who might have been third on the team's depth chart at the time he was traded for a first- and a second-round pick, be the answer to the once-mighty Avalanche's troubles? Third-year Colorado GM Greg Sherman is certainly hoping so, for the sake of his job security perhaps.
While most analysts thought the Avs might make just a pure cash outlay for a needed new goalie on the free-agent market, Sherman pulled off the biggest trade of July 1 for the talented but oft-injured 23-year-old Semyon Varlamov. While the Russian netminder's career numbers with Washington were pretty good (30-13-12, 2.39 goals-against average, .917 save percentage), he's never had a fully healthy season in the NHL and there were some questions in Washington about his commitment to fitness. He's been entrusted with the starter's job in Denver, however, and almost anything can be considered a step up from what was the NHL's worst goaltending last season. (Colorado allowed 3.5 goals per game.) The defense also looks bigger and tougher than the creampuff unit of 2010-11, but any thoughts of a Stanley Cup coming back to the Mile High City are probably still miles away from reality.
MVP: Erik Johnson. Speaking of someone who Sherman hopes and prays has a big season after that much-criticized trade last February. It says here that the Minnesota kid (still only 23), the No. 1 overall draftee of 2006, will finally have something of a breakout season. The big defenseman worked on lower body strength during the summer, squatting over 500 pounds regularly, and is burning to prove that the Blues ultimately will be the team regretting the deal.
KID TO WATCH: Stefan Elliott. While left wing Gabriel Landeskog, the second overall pick in the 2011 draft, figures to get most of the media attention, Elliott could be the surprise rookie if he's called up. A second-round pick in 2009, he set the all-time WHL scoring mark for defensemen during his four years at Saskatoon, and is coming off a monster season of 81 points (30 goals) and plus-62 in 71 games with the Blades.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Peter Mueller. After posting 20 points in 15 games for Colorado following his late-season trade from Phoenix in 2009-10, Mueller suffered the first of two concussions. The second one put him out for all of 2010-11. With the help of noted Boston concussion specialist Dr. Robert Cantu, he is symptom-free again and hopeful of staying that way. A healthy Mueller would go a long way toward stabilizing Colorado's top-six forward group and woeful point presence on the power play.
BOTTOM LINE: There's no question that Colorado looks improved in goal and on the blueline. Again, though, the tempting rejoinder is: Anything would be an improvement over the group that was flat-out terrible in the second half of last season. The Avs do have some talented youth led by third-year center Matt Duchene and the rugged Landeskog. But size and depth up front again look to be a problem, and Varlamov will have an awful lot of pressure on him after the Avs gave up what Washington now hopes will be a lottery pick.
2010-11: 39-35-8, 86 points, third in Northwest
FRESH FACES: Dany Heatley (San Jose), Devin Setoguchi (San Jose), Darroll Powe (Philadelphia), Mike Lundin (Tampa Bay)
OTHER PLACES: Martin Havlat (San Jose), Brent Burns (San Jose), Andrew Brunette (Chicago), Jose Theodore (Florida), Antti Miettinen (KHL), Chuck Kobasew (Colorado), Cam Barker (Edmonton), Patrick O'Sullivan (Phoenix)
STORYLINE: Despite extreme sensitivity to the question, the Wild never has been able to shake off its reputation for being a boring, trapping team that wants to win every game 2-1 and put everyone to sleep in the process. While the neutral-zone trap perfected in the days when Jacques Lemaire coached this team is largely gone, the Wild still have played too much like they're stuck in neutral.
Minnesota has missed the playoffs three years running, and ranked 26th last season by scoring only 2.48 goals per-game. It has finished last in average shots on goal for the past three seasons. So GM Chuck Fletcher went out and got Dany Heatley, the suddenly well-traveled star who won't bore anyone with stingy defense. Though he's coming off a mediocre scoring season, his 26 goals and 64 points would have led the Wild. The cost for Heatley, forward Martin Havlat, may not seem too terrible, but Havlat did produce 62 points last season. The addition of another Shark, Devin Setoguchi, will have a positive impact on the offense, but the defense may have taken a major hit with the loss of Brent Burns. Still, if nothing else, the Wild has a fresher look and goalie Niklas Backstrom should have a big year.
MVP: Mikko Koivu. Expect a strong bounce-back from the two-way Finnish center. Not that he was awful last season, but Koivu didn't produce the way the Wild expected after management gave him a seven-year, $47 million contract. He posted 62 points in 71 games, but five came in a meaningless final two contests of the season, and there were too many strings of consecutive pointless games overall. Still, he's smart, skilled and eager to prove he's worth the dough.
KID TO WATCH: Marco Scandella. Drafted in the second round in 2008, the big (6-2, 215) blueliner looks ready to make the jump from AHL Houston to the big club for good. He played 20 games for the Wild last season, but was minus-9.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Cal Clutterbuck. One of the NHL's most supremely irritating players proved he was more than just a provocateur last season with a career-high 19 goals and 34 points. If he plays among the top six forwards, as expected, Clutterbuck could clutter the net with pucks even more.
BOTTOM LINE: While the Wild was despised by hockey purists during the Dead Puck Era, at least it had a firm identity that players, however grudgingly, bought into. Now, nobody seems to know what kind of team it wants to be. Heatley and Setoguchi will score some goals, sure, but what about the defense? Burns' absence might become acutely felt, on and off the ice. It will be new coach Mike Yeo's job to successfully decipher his team's Myers-Briggs personality test and bring the postseason back to the State of Hockey.
2010-11: 25-45-12, 62 points, fifth in Northwest
FRESH FACES: Ryan Smyth (Los Angeles), Eric Belanger (Phoenix), Ben Eager (San Jose), Darcy Hordichuk (Florida), Andy Sutton (Anaheim), Cam Barker (Minnesota)
OTHER PLACES: Kurtis Foster (Anaheim), J-F Jacques (Anaheim), Jim Vandermeer (San Jose), Colin Fraser (Los Angeles)
STORYLINE: Aside from that one magical run to Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final after sneaking into the playoffs as an eighth seed, the post-lockout NHL hasn't been as kind to small-market Edmonton as proponents of the hard salary cap intended. Actually, the Oilers have been worse than they were before it was implemented in 2005. (They made the playoffs in six of the previous eight seasons, but have now missed them five years running.) Two straight 30th-place finishes have produced No. 1 overall picks in forwards Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, making the long-term picture bright. But for now, the Oilers still don't have enough to avoid blowing the dust off the golf clubs in April.
The defense still looks like a mess, and while young goalie Devan Dubnyk could turn into a fine performer, it'll be too much to ask him to cover for the porous group in front of him. But this team should surprise in some respects. With all that young talent up front, the Oilers could be very tough for opposing defenses.
MVP: Taylor Hall. The kid from Alberta showed he wasn't too young for the NHL as an 18-year-old, putting up solid 22-20-42 numbers in 65 games. He also impressed Oilers brass with his leadership qualities and has future captain written all over him. With his tremendous hands and great wheels, at least 30 goals would seem to be a realistic expectation.
KID TO WATCH: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. While many experts believe the native of Burnaby, B.C., will be as good or better than teammate Hall, there is less consensus on whether he'll be as NHL-ready as Hall proved to be last season. Nugent-Hopkins is listed at 6-3, 183 -- in other words, he's skinny. It may be that, at 18, his body just won't be ready for an 82-game NHL grind. But he'll start the season with the Oilers and approach the 10-game mark where rules say junior-age players must either go back or stay for good.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Ales Hemsky. Rumored to be on the trade block last year, a shoulder injury prevented any deal, so the skilled winger enters the final year of a deal worth $4.1 million. With so much young offensive talent around him in Hall, Jordan Eberle and maybe Nugent-Hopkins, Hemsky and the Oilers may be glad that a deal never went down. When healthy, he's one of the game's better passers and freelance artists.
BOTTOM LINE: It's tempting to want to believe that these Oilers could one day be like Edmonton's old glory teams. Their top offensive talent -- Hall, Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins -- is still in the embryonic stage. Great things may happen, but the Oilers need to find players like Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri, Grant Fuhr, et al as well. The offense has the potential to be dynamic -- starting this season. But overall depth up front remains an issue, and the defense/goaltending has a ways to go before the Dynasty Days return to Rexall Place.