Western Conference Northwest Division Preview
The Minnesota Wild will be chasing their second-ever Northwest Division title, but they will have to compete with the Canucks, who have won the division four consecutive years, and other prospect-heavy teams like the Avalanche and Oilers. Let’s go down the list and see how the Wild will stack up against the other teams in their division.
The Canucks were tops in the NHL last year, let alone the North west division. However, their regular season dominance did not translate to postseason success, as they were swept out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the eventual champion Kings. The biggest offseason change for the Nucks is likely to be the departure of long-time netminder Roberto Luongo, who is widely speculated to go to the Florida Panthers but as of this writing, no deal is in place. Vancouver’s roster will be stacked yet again with the Sedin brothers, Ryan Kesler (who is recovering from shoulder surgery but might not actually miss time depending on how long the lockout lasts,) Alex Burrows, Mayson Raymond and potential breakout Zack Kassian to go along with a talented corps of defensemen and a rising star in Corey Schneider. If the Wild want to win their first Northwest division title since 2008, they will have to go through Vancouver to get there.
The Avalanche finished second in the division last year but were in the bottom half of the league in points. They have a very talented roster filled with young skaters like new captain and Calder trophy winner Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene, Paul Statsny, and Jamie McGinn along with veteran Milan Hejduk. Where the Avs can improve is on defense, though the addition of Greg Zanon will help shore up a blue line that also has veterans Jan Hejda, Shane O’Brien and Ryan O’Byrne to go with Minnesota native Erik Johnson. Ultimately, I believe the fate of the Colorado Avalanche will be determined by the quality of their goaltending. Sermon Varlomov was up and down last year, but if he can find some consistency, the Avs could see an improvement.
The Flames organization is at a crossroads, as they try to decide what to do with aging stars Jerome Iginla and Mikka Kiprusoff who are each nearing the end of their contracts. Iginla could walk at the end of this season, though I think he will want to remain with the club and retire with the only team he has ever played for. Kiprusoff’s contract goes through 2013-14, and next year his cap hit goes way down, from five million this year to just 1.5 million. So I think there is a very real chance that both players stay with the team, but the problem for the Flames in that situation is that they would be passing up an opportunity to trade those players for prospects or draft picks. Calgary is not known for having a very stocked farm system right now, though they do have a couple of prospects that could emerge soon, including Sven Baertschi on the wing and Roman Cervenka at center. The Flames are not quite in rebuilding mode but they haven’t made the playoffs since 2008-09, so their decisions in the upcoming years will be very important in setting the direction of the franchise.
The only Northwest division team to finish with a worse record than the Wild last year, the Edmonton Oilers have the dubious distinction of getting the last three first-overall picks in the NHL draft. They have an undoubtedly talented roster filled with potential stars in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, and now Nail Yakupov. However, they haven’t found a way to combine that talent into a winning formula. This year might be the year everything starts to turn around, however, as they have some emerging talent on the blue line. In addition to the first overall pick they landed budding defenseman Justin Schultz this offseason, and I believe Devan Dubnyk is poised for a breakout year, which would go a long way toward helping turn that franchise around. There has been some talk about whether the Oilers should trade one of their talented forwards in exchange for more help on defense, but to me it looks like the club is content to start with an offense-first team and try to build around Nugent-Hopkins, Hall, Eberle, and Yakupov.