1) Minnesota - 105 pts (3rd seed)
2) Calgary - 102 pts (5th seed)
3) Vancouver - 97 pts (7th seed)
4) Colorado - 96 pts (8th seed)
5) Edmonton - 77 pts
It all comes down to Nicklas Backstrom and Marion Gaborik in the hockey mad state of Minnesota. Nicklas Backstrom should have a great season for the Wild. He's never been a starter in the NHL, but he's succeeded in every situation he's been in and I don't see that changing. His calm demeanor will allow him to thrive under the pressure of the full-time starter's job. The other major key for the Wild is Marion Gaborik, or more specifically, Marion Gaborik's groin. The Wild have an amazing record when he's healthy, and I believe this will be the first year you see him play 70+ games. (where have we heard this before?) Their offense is deeper than people think. The solid supporting cast that includes Brian Rolston, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Mark Parrish and Mikko Koivu should provide enough secondary offense when the big guns (Gaborik, Demitra) get shut down. The Wild will almost certainly be strong defensively under Lemaire's system once again, despite an average looking defense on paper. Look for Brent Burns to have a breakout season. One big question remains: Are they physical enough? I don't think so, but I don't see this being a huge issue in the regular season. I see the Wild playing like they did in the 2nd half of the season - explosive at times, defensively responsible, and near impossible to beat at home. Add that up and you have the Northwest Division champs for 07-08.
The Flames will be a similar team to the last year's edition, despite their revamped defense and crazy new bench boss. Roman Hamrlik, Andrei Zyuzin, and Mark Giordano are out, Adrian Aucoin, Cory Sarich and Anders Eriksson are in. I don't see much improvement here unless Aucoin can stay healthy and revert to his 03-04 form, both of which are unlikely. Popular opinion these days suggests Mike Keenan will corrupt this talented group, but I don't see this happening. Keenan may rustle a few feathers during his first season, but I don't foresee any majors issues or cause for concern for Flames fans. Keenan knows this may be his last shot and I think he'll behave, at least in the short term. He may actually provide the tonic that this team needs to get to the next level. The offense should be productive again on the back of Jerome Iginla, Alex Tanguay, Damond Langkow and Kristian Huselius. Matthiew Lombardi, Craig Conroy and newly-acquired Owen Nolan should be a sufficient supporting cast. The Flames are still a very talented group in all areas of the game, and I think you'll see a more determined effort from them this coming season. Still, I expect they will look unstoppable at times, and have you scratching your head at others. I see them posting a few more road wins and edging out the Canucks for the 2nd spot in the division. Kiprusoff will be brilliant as always, and the Flames will pay more attention the defensive side of the puck. (perhaps at the expense of more offense) Overall, they will be a tougher team to play against and should comfortably make the playoffs.
I see the Canucks taking a minor step back this season. I don't think their play will drop off significantly, but it'll be difficult to replicate their success in one goal games, especially in OT and the shootout where they were an impressive 17-7 last season. A few bounces go against them and it could have been a much different story for the defending Northwest Division champions. Markus Naslund will again be on the hot seat. The success of the Canucks will greatly depend on his ability to give the team a 2nd line that the opposition needs to worry about. The Sedins will be fine, and should put up great numbers once again. The Canucks have added some speed to the top two lines to start the season; the organization is hoping Mason Raymond and Ryan Shannon will jump start an offense that ranked 22nd in the NHL last season in goal scoring. The addition of Shannon and Raymond to the lineup also makes the Canucks very small through their top 6 forwards, and we'll see if other teams take advantage of this as the season progresses. Luongo will be stellar as usual, and I expect another vezina-caliber season from the all-star netminder. Defensively, the Canucks are as deep as they've ever been, sporting one of the best defenses in the NHL 1 through 6. The Canucks success depends a lot of the health of both Sami Salo and Kevin Bieksa. If they can stay healthy, they will add some offense from the back end and may give the Canucks a shot to repeat as NW division champs. If the Canucks can add some scoring punch at the deadline, they could be a team to be reckoned with in the postseason.
The Avs added two of the more prominent free agents over the Summer to their lineup - Ryan Smyth and Scott Hannan. Hannan should help the defensive side of the game and Smyth should complement an already impressive group of forwards with his determination, scoring ability and presence in front of the net. Joe Sakic, Andrew Brunette, Paul Stastny and Milan Hejduk give Colorado some real firepower up front, while Marek Svatos and the young Wojtek Wolski should improve on their numbers from a season ago. The Avs won't struggle to score goals, but may have trouble keeping them out. Their defense looks good on paper and provides good mobility and offensive potential (Liles, Leopold, Clark) from the back end. However, despite the addition of Scott Hannan, the Avs might struggle in their own end when facing the big, physical forwards of the Western Conference. The goaltending tandem of Peter Budaj and Jose Theodore may prove to be the achilles' heel for the Avs this season. I see Budaj getting the majority of the work, and while he played admirably last season once he became the starter, he'll need to improve if Colorado wants to be a contender. If Colorado played in the East, I would definitely have higher expectations for them, but in the West, where the goaltending and overall attention to defense is much stronger, it may be tough for the Avs to score their way to the top. The Avs will mirror last season and fight for that last playoff spot once again.
The Edmonton Oilers made many changes this offseason, none of which bigger than the acquisition of Sheldon Souray. Souray will immediately help the Oiler powerplay with his cannon from the point and should also give the Oilers some much needed leadership in the dressing room after the departure of Ryan Smyth. Another significant move was the unmatched offer sheet given to 25 year old Dustin Penner, who had 29 goals and 45 points in his first full season with the Anaheim Ducks. The pressure will be on Penner to improve on his numbers from last season, and all indications from the preseason point to Penner getting ample opportunity to do so as Ales Hemsky's linemate on Edmonton's top line. Andrew Cogliano and Robert Nilsson should make the team, and Sam Gagner may do so as well, although I don't see the 18 year old playing past the first month. The Oilers will need Raffi Torres and Shawn Horcoff to be consistent point producers this coming season, and Jarret Stoll to return to form after his injury-plagued 06-07 season. Overall, the Oilers will most likely struggle for offense with so many question marks up front. Ales Hemsky is really the only sure thing they have at the moment. The Oilers revamped their defense in the offseason, adding the aforementioned Sheldon Souray along with D. Tarnstrom and Joni Pitkanen. Its obvious the focus was on offense and puck moving ability, and Tarnstrom and Pitkanen definitely bring that element. Pitkanen could be a real wild card for the Oilers. Will he become the stud many predicted him to be during his first two years with Philadelphia, or will the more recent version of Joni Pitkanen be the norm? Between the pipes, 38 year old Dwayne Roloson should get the bulk of the work once again, and the addition of Mathieu Garon should provide him with the needed rest he wasn't able to get last season. Overall, the Oilers are fairly solid in goal. There are two reasons I have the Oilers, despite the improvements they made, only making minor gains in the standings. First, they play in arguably the deepest division in the league, and with this division-heavy schedule format, playing against Luongo, Kiprusoff and Backstrom for 24 games won't do the offensively challenged Oilers any good. Secondly, while they improved certain elements of their defense, Souray, Tarnstrom and Pitkanen aren't exact tough defenders to play against. I see the Western Conference being able to exploit this relatively weak group and its going to be difficult for the Oilers to overcome this. I predict another tough year for the 05-06 cup finalists, although the experience their younger prospects will gain should prove to be valuable down the road.