Last year, the Northwest division was pretty much dominated by the Vancouver Canucks. Scoring 117 points to win the President’s Trophy, Vancouver ran away from the rest of the Northwest, beating the second-place Calgary Flames by 23 points.
This year, whether anybody here one the Rat Trick staff likes it or not, the Canucks will most likely be racking up more points and dominating the division. And if they didn’t have so many former Panther players, I bet they could possibly make a trip back to the Stanley Cup Finals (to lose of course). Let’s see how I think the division will break down this year…
Vancouver Canucks (54-19-9, 117 points): Well, let’s get the bad news out of the way first. Vancouver is still stacked to win in the regular season, even though the playoffs are anyone’s guess. Henrik and Daniel Sedin will both approach if not surpass the 100-point mark, and Roberto Luongo will again appear to be a Vezina candidate. Guys like Mason Raymond, Alexandre Burrows, and Ryan Kesler will core behind the twins to keep up the offensive tempo when Henrik and Daniel are not on the ice. Also, if Luongo ever goes cold, Cory Schneider has proven to be an exceptional back-up. Many teams were in the sweepstakes to pry him out of Vancouver. No team could, so Schneider will wait on the Vancouver bench until Luongo inevitably collpases in a game and he has to come in.
Even though Vancouver’s defense is pretty deep, with guys like Kevin Bieksa, Alex Edler, and Dan Hamhuis, but I’ll have to drop the Canucks down a few points for losing arguably their best d-man, Christian Ehrhoff. Regardless, Vancouver kept there core intact to dominate during the regular season and implode during the playoffs. Expect another 100 point year on top of the Northwest division.
Minnesota Wild (39-35-8, 86 points): Minnesota was one of the talks of the offseason last year, making a big trade with the San Jose Sharks that seemed to underline what direction the franchise wants to go in. The Wild traded for Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley, giving up Martin Havlat and Brent Burns. This would take a serious hit to the blue line, as Burns was a stud defenseman, but expect the scoring to increase in big ways. Heatley and Setoguchi are both big time scorers, and both should be excited to work alongside Mikko Koivu on the first line. Koivu is better than anyone at distributing the puck.
Defense should suffer somewhat, as Greg Zanon and the oft-injured Marek Zidlicky will be the new top pairing. However, G Niklas Backstrom should be able to pick up his team with his solid goaltending. His performance will make the difference this year: regardless how many points the forwards score, Backstrom has to control damage on the other end. In my opinion, they might just sneak into the 8th playoff spot if they are lucky.
Calgary Flames (41-29-12, 94 points): I wrote earlier this year about the Flames, and the crux was that the Flames need to perform to their expectations to support Jarome Iginla to the Cup he deserves. The Flames have thrown money around for a long time, and the only consistent players were Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff. Olli Jokinen, Alex Tanguay, and Mikael Backlund will do their best at the forward position to keep up with Iginla and support him, but I don’t know how potent the offense really is. The first line center this year is expected to be a second year player who had only 25 points last year. Playing alongside Iginla will certainly improve those numbers, but it is clear that the Flames don’t have any skills players that measure up to the Captain.
Defensively, the team is weak. Their best defender, Robyn Regehr, left for Buffalo over the offseason. The main defensive duties now lie on the shoulders of former Panther Jay Bouwmeester, and us Panther fans know how good of an idea that is (it’s not). Kiprusoff will continue to keep Calgary in games and play a ridiculous number of minutes, but I expect Calgary to be out of the playoff picture this year. They aren’t deep enough to compete for an eighth-spot in the Conference.
Colorado Avalanche (30-44-8, 68 points): The Avalanche didn’t exactly light up the standings last year, but they do have a heck of a core set up to score goals. Matt Duchene, Milan Hejduk, Peter Mueller, Paul Stastny, and now Gabriel Landeskog all are part of a very potent offensive attack. Duchene made a run for the Calder last year, but he’ll have to settle on being the big time player in Denver. The Avalanche are apparently ready to win this year, judging by the trade made over the offseason. The Avalanche sent a first and second round pick over to Washington for G Semyon Varlamov, the talented but sometimes fickle Russian netminder. The trade was skewered by the press, and it was clear that the Capitals got the better end of the trade, but it might just work for Colorado if Varlamov can prove himself with a more controlled, goalie-friendly system in Colorado. However, this has “one of worst trades in sports history” material.
I think I can safely predict that the Avalanche will be short of the playoffs this year, but this team could be a wild card. They have scoring, an improved defense with previously acquired Erik Johnson, and a talented goalie. We’ll see.
Edmonton Oilers (25-45-12, 62 points): The Oilers are loading up on the No. 1 overall picks, but I don’t see the results or even a glimmer of hope right now coming out of Edmonton. There should be one on paper, though. Veterans Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky should be able to mesh easily with youngsters Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, and Jordan Eberle. However, year after year, the future hasn’t been coming. They get another lottery pick each year, and it is tough to watch the formerly glorious franchise struggle to assert their talent and win. The main culprit might not be their offense, though it should be better. The goaltending situation is a travesty.
Nikolai Khabibulin has been an absolute bust for Edmonton, and his presence is eating up cap space. He is expected to fight with Devan Dubynk for the starting job. It is clear, though, no matter who wins, the Oilers will lose. Look for another lottery pick, even though their fans see glimpses of greatness in the RNH-Hall combination.
So what do you think Panther fans? What do you think about my predictions? Be sure to comment.
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