Calgary Flames - C
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Owen Nolan, Adrian Aucoin, Cory Sarich
Offensive Production, Mike Keenan
One of the best defensive teams in the league got better and deeper on defense this off season. The additions of Cory Sarich and Adrian Aucoin make one of the best bluelines in the league better and solidifies the Flames as one of the contenders in the Northwest. Despite these improvements, however, the Flames still have not addressed their offense. Besides Iginla, Tanguay and Huselius, they have no one who can score on a consistent basis. Langkow has shown flashes, as has Lombardi, but they need these players to step up on a consistent basis to win games. Should he be healthy, Owen Nolan surely will help this team a great deal. Also, on top of this, there is Mike Keenan. This is a huge question mark for the team. Which Keenan will they get? The one who led the Rangers to a Cup? Or the one who was run out of town in Florida? And on top of that, how will the team react the first time Keenan challenges Iginla? I may be one of few, but something tells me that this team will implode under the reign of Keenan.
Overall, on paper, the team is solid and should make a solid run at the playoffs. Top to bottom, this is the most competitive division in the league, and it isn't a stretch to say that four teams could make the playoffs. Should Keenan mesh with this team, they will be a force to be reckoned with. Having said that, this is a team that is right on the cusp. Kipprusoff will keep them in every single game, just as he did against Detroit (In my opinion, he was the Conn Smythe winner. Calgary had no place taking that series to six games without him.) The big question mark is the coach. Calgary will finish fourth in the division, contending for the playoffs and the division title the whole season.
Colorado Avalanche - A
Scott Hannan, Ryan Smyth
Starting Goaltending, Young Talent
The Avalanche have, no doubt, made the biggest splash of the Northwest this offseason, landing both coveted UFAs Scott Hannan and Ryan Smyth. These two acquisitions give the team, not only a combination of the best hockey hair in the league, but defensive depth and leadership respectively. Despite improving by great strides, there are still large question marks on their roster. Will Wotek Wolski and Paul Stastny continue to hit stride or will they hit their sophomore slump? Can Peter Budaj continue his improvement in net or will they have to revert back to Jose Theodore? This team now has a solid core to build on and should show marked improvement this year and contend for the division crown. But will Hannan and Smyth be enough? Smyth is a tremendous leader and a good player who brings more to the ice than just pure talent. Hannan was one of the most sought after players this off-season and is coming off of a strong year and a strong playoff performance. Both will add depth to the team, but will they be able to add any hardware to the trophy cases in Colorado?
In the ultra-competitive Northwest Division, the Avs have certainly emerged as front runners. Do these pick ups catapult them into the class of the Northwest Division? Don't count them out by any means, but don't crown them yet. Smyth is a tremendous player, but the largest knock on him is that he's elite because of his intangibles, not because of his skill. Hannan is a great pick up for their defense, but is he the shut down defenseman that the Avs haven't had since Adam Foote and Rob Blake? Only time will tell, but until then, my prediction is that the Avs will make the playoffs, but finish third in the division.
Edmonton Oilers - C
Joni Pitkinen, Geoff Sanderson, Sheldon Souray, Richard Tarnstrom
Offensive Production from Forwards, Defensive Responsibility
The Oilers made up for a lack of involvement in the off season thus far by landing themselves Sheldon Souray. Souray will help their offense by leaps and bounds, but at what price? He had 64 points last year, yet was -28! This is a player who has a great offensive up side, but an abysmal downside. Dwayne Roloson is a great goalie, but a goalie can only do so much without good defense in front of them. Their offense will suffer this year as well, as Geoff Sanderson will not supply the point production the team lacks after losing Ryan Smyth. Unless Ales Hemsky is finally going to step up and actually shoot the puck or Fernando Pisani is ready to contribute as consistently as he did in the Oilers' Cup run, the Oilers look like they'll be struggling for offense once again. Nylander most definitely would have been a step in the right direction for the team, however I don't know that he would have been the solution, even if they had gotten him. On a team full of playmakers, another just isn't what they need. They need a player that will put the puck in the net and, as of right now, they don't have a player that can consistently do that.
Overall, the Oilers are slightly better than they were at the end of last season. That said, they still have a long way to go to get back to the playoffs, let alone the Cup finals. Keep in mind that the year they made the Cup run, they were the 8 seed. They were only a few points away from being bumped from the playoffs. All in all, despite the trades and signings, this is still the worst team in the Northwest. They will be better than they were at the end of last season, but they still haven't solved their inability to get the puck into the net and, until they do so, they'll be dead last. The Oilers finish 5th and miss the playoffs for the second year in a row.
Minnesota Wild - C
Eric Belanger, Sean Hill
Offensive Production, Grit, Depth
The good news for the Wild is that, on the whole, the entire team that finished a close second in the Northwest Division and allowed the least goals in the NHL last year is back and in tact. The bad news? On a whole, the entire team that finished a close second in the Northwest Division and allowed the least goals in the NHL is back and in tact. The Wild chose to stand pat in Free Agency, going after role players, instead of looking to big name players to cement their roster. On a whole, this is a good plan. With Marian Gaborik fully healthy, the Wild are one of the best teams in the West, thus they didn't need a lot of big players. On the down side, if he's hurt, they're merely mediocre and don't have anyone to fill his shoes. Depth is one of their big question marks this season. Due in large part to their drafting philosophy (a lot of players who are still developing in juniors), the Wild are pretty picked over in Houston. Despite the additions of Belanger and Hill, grit is still a question mark for the Wild. The team will undoubtedly learn from their playoff experience last season, but will they make a marked improvement in this area?
Overall, the Wild is really the same team as last year with a few key additions. This is a team that will challenge for the division again and go deep into the playoffs this year. The Wild win the division and make the playoffs.
Vancouver Canucks - D
Aaron Miller, Curtis Sanford
The Canucks won the Division and finished 3rd in the West last year with little to no offense and fans should expect the same from this year's team. With the acquisition of Aaron Miller, the Canucks have one of the deepest defensive units in the NHL and, with the acquisition of Curtis Sanford can now offer Luongo some rest every once in a while. The big question mark remains can their offense produce? Luongo will give them a chance to win every single game, but it's a matter of whether or not they can seize that opportunity. Will Markus Naslund and Brendan Morrison return to form? Or will the Canucks continue on their trend of scoring few goals, but giving up fewer? Being up against the cap as they are, it will be difficult for the 'Nucks to make any large moves to gain offensive firepower, but they should be able to count on some of their youngsters to step up into a secondary scoring role this year.
Just as the Wild, the 'Nucks are really the same team as last year. They should challenge for the division again and make the playoffs as well. The Canucks finish second in the division and make the playoffs.
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