What a great day for Hockey in Alberta as the joint bid between the cities of Calgary and Edmonton announced as the hosts of the 2012 WJHC, beating out a solid bid from the centre of the universe.
First, the Calgary Flames unveil their 5 biggest acquisitions this off-season at a presser earlier in the week, an email from a friend setting up our fantasy hockey draft date ... and finally, this great news from Hockey Canada regarding the World Juniors. All of this a subtle reminder that the 2008-09 season is just around the corner.
Which gives me a chance to take a look at the Oilers and the Flames in the NW division. For the past 3 seasons, it has widely been regarded as the best division in hockey, or more direct, the toughest division in hockey. It has proved to be the biggest war over the course of the season and has proven to take a toll on any of the teams in the division that want to make a run at the cup.
Heading into this season, can the NW still boast the best? I don't think so. For the simple fact that 3 of the 5 teams went the wrong way in terms of building a championship team. Of course this is a matter of opinion and we'll find out for sure once the season starts.
But for now, I'll offer a look at the Flames and Oilers. What they did, what they tried to do, and how they look when compared to last season.
Let's start with easily the most improved team in the division, and probably the most improved team in the NHL.
It may be one of the hardest things for a Flames fan to admit. Especially this Flames fan; so hard on Kevin Lowe for his questionable moves over the past 2 seasons. His inability to lure free agents to E-Town and the fact that he handed the Anaheim Ducks the final piece of their championship team.
Kevin Lowe was the best GM of this off-season. Without question.
With the exception of Sheldon Souray, no one wants to sign in Edmonton. After Chris Pronger demanded his way out, UFA's have been avoiding Alberta's capital city. Lowe had to find other way's to bring guys in... and he did just that... using what is the most effective building tool in the new NHL; trading for good players with term left on their current contract. Add to that the signing of Shawn Horcoff to a long-term deal without overpaying and the deal that finally saw Raffi Torres leave (albeit way too late, to the point where his trade value was very little).
Adding Erik Cole and Lubomir Visnovsky make the Oilers a dangerous team offensively. They're going to score goals, no doubt about that.
The Oilers problem is going to be keeping the puck out of the net. Is Mathieu Garon capable of putting up the same numbers as last season? Lowe dumped the defensive-minded Matt Greene to bring in Lubo, and hey, I would have done the same thing, but it does make the blue-line a cause for concern in terms of keeping the puck out of their net.
When compared to last years opening roster, the Oilers are a much better looking team. Some experts feel they'll win the NW. I think they'll start slow while they try to find their way with a new, speed and scoring roster in a division in which defense usually dominates. But they'll recover and battle for a playoff spot.
Prediction: 3rd in the division, 9th in the conference. Picking up where they left off last year won't happen. Breakout seasons can often be misconstrued with what was actually a career season, not to be equaled. I think you can pencil several Oilers into that category. They're a team for the future, but the fact they couldn't land a big fish in the off-season is going to hurt them.
BIG THREE: Best forward, D and Goalie on the team, how do they stack against the rest of the division/conference.
Horcoff/Hemsky (pick or choose)
Daryl Sutter's goal was to get younger and faster. Bring back the old checking days that led the team to the cup final in 2004.
Out goes Huselius, Tanguay and Nolan... in comes Mike Cammalleri, Todd Bertuzzi, Rene Bourque and Curtis "Glengarry" Glencross. I included both Bourque and Glencross because I think they will be competing for a spot on the 2nd line alongside Lombardi and either Bertuzzi/Cammalleri. Cammalleri will easily make up for Tanguay's 18 goals and I expect Big Bert to surpass 20 and make up for the departure of Nolan. Neither Bourque nor Glencross is going to score 30 goals to make up for the loss of Huselius, but their two-way ability will help keep some of the pressure off of Kipper.
The Flames lost some of their goal-scoring fire-power, but not much. And with the edition of these high-energy players, the fore-check is going to be much improved along with the back-check. Less odd-man rushes, less shots on goal. This was the Flames key to success in 2004 and I expect it will help the team this season as well.
The signing of Andre Roy has soured me a little. I don't like it. It's been just about 2 months and I still can't wrap my head around it. Eric Godard was no help to the Flames at all last year. Is Andre Roy better than Godard? I don't know, but one thing's for sure, he's not near the fighter. Having a fighter float around on the 4th line for 4 minutes a game hardly sounds reasonable to me. I think this was a huge mistake by Sutter, and the way Keenan under-untilizes the 4th line, it won't help us at all.
The defense stays much the same. Which worries me slightly. Rhett Warrener is no longer capable of logging important minutes on a contender and Anders Eriksson is well, Anders Eriksson... there's probably 200 defenseman in the league I'd rather have. Mark Giordano took huge strides and should be given a chance at 12-14 minutes a game on the third line with either Vandermeer or Aucoin. Robyn Regehr is easily the most underrated player in the game and a top 5 shutdown D-man in the league. He and Cory Sarich team to make a great pair, making life miserable for stars of opposing teams. (We can look forward to Ales Hemsky's face to be planted against the 'dome glass several more times this season!).
This leaves me to Phaneuf. Norris-trophy candidate. Ready to take the next step into superstardom as long as those Hawaiian galavants with Elisha Cuthbert never proved too deterimental to his off-season program. His point total has gone up every season, and his defensive play gets better too. He doesn't have to watch the top line all night, leaving that to Regehr. Dion's an irreplacable piece of the puzzle for the Flames and an emerging leader.
Miikka Kipprusoff has a big year ahead of him. He just signed the big deal, yet his numbers have continually declined over the past few seasons. Yes, he's still a top notch goaltender in the league. But he's going to have to prove it to us again. The Flames get by the Sharks in the playoffs last season if Kipper even plays at 75% of his talent level. He's key to the equation and a slow-start at the beginning of the season is unnacceptable. I expect Kipper to bounce back to his elite status of just 2 seasons ago.
Prediction: 1st in NW, 3rd in Conference. This is more of a "who the hell else is going to win it" ... The Flames and Oilers are the only two teams to really improve in this division and the Oilers were too far away to be pencilled in for this season. Glencross thrives in Calgary this season with increased minutes. The team's goal's against will be down and the hits will be up.
The pieces are there for the Flames, it's time for the role-players to step up.
The Flames and Wild likely battle down the stretch for the division title. The Oilers will be battling with the Blackhawks and Coyotes for a playoff position... a battle I think the Coyotes will win. The Pacific is going to have the most teams in the playoffs with San Jose, Dallas, Anaheim and Pheonix.
I'll leave you with a link to a posting from some bitter Oil fans... who, by the end of the season, will be upset with Kevin Lowe after realizing they should have kept Glencross and ditched Robert Nilsson...
The Battle of Alberta will mean something this year... and I can't wait for it to get started!