Last season, only one team really followed through with their preseason expectations: the Vancouver Canucks. The Avalanche were one of the biggest surprises in the NHL last season, while the Flames, Oilers, and Wild were all abject disasters. So what’s the best thing to do with this many unpredictable teams in one division? Well, make predictions of course!
We have five great bloggers who lend their expertise to try to weed through the expectations and assumptions and give us a few things to look for this season.
Kent Wilson from Flames Nation (Flames)
Jibble Scribbits from, predictably, JibbleScribbits.com (Avalanche)
Ray from Oilers Jambalaya (Oilers)
Bryan Reynolds from Hockey Wilderness (Wild)
Canuck Yankee from Nucks Misconduct (Canucks)
1. Tell us why your team will be better this season than they were last.
Kent (Flames): With the addition of Tanguay, Stajan, Hagman and the re-signing of Jokinen and Conroy, the Flames have more depth up front than they did last season. Assuming Daymond Langkow manages to return from his spinal injury, Calgary should boast at least three capable lines.
Jibble Scribbits (Avalanche): Well everyone is a year older. The Avs relied pretty heavily on two 18 year olds last season, and this season they are 19. Ok, they’re still babies, but a year older and with a year of experience should be good for them. Other young players should be a year better as well. Cumiskey quietly came into his own last season, and Chris Stewart had a breakout season and TJ Galiardi became Mr. Versatile.
Ray (Oilers): Pfft! How can they be worse? It’s only up from here — remember we finished last?– and with the new kids coming in, it’s sure to be a blast to watch. The youth movement is going to produce a team that wants to play for each other and hopefully there are some wins to go along. Good teams grow together and in a few years, this team can/will contend for the Stanley Cup. Just not now.
While the Oilers won’t make the playoffs this year, the young kids are going to make this team exciting to watch once again. This team is better than the last few Oiler teams and I am positive that they will do better than last… in the league.
Bryan (Wild): The additions the Wild made this offseason improve the team, but do not make them Cup contenders. They have shored up the shutdown side of the game by adding John Madden and Eric Nystrom to the third / fourth line corps. This will be a vast improvement over such players as Derek Boogaard, who skated an average of only six minutes a game. The Wild, for the first time in club history, have four lines that can roll, and four lines that can play in both ends of the ice.
While the Wild struggled with defense in a newly minted offensive system, the offense did not improve over the Lemaire era. To address this, they added Matt Cullen for the second line center role, likely to center Martin Havlat and Guillaume Latendresse. Many expect Havlat to return to his past productivity, and Cullen is a huge upgrade for that idea over Kyle Brodziak. There was strong chemistry between Havlat and Latendresse to finish last season, and if Cullen can gel with them, it could be a very potent scoring line. To further help with the offense, Pierre-Marc Bouchard looks to return from concussion symptoms after missing the entire season last year. If Bouchard makes it to the top line, as is the belief, he would be a huge upgrade over Miettinen, who despite solid chemistry with Mikko Koivu, struggled to be the finisher the Wild need. Bouchard allows Koivu to become the sniper, which should lead to an uptick in Koivu’s goal numbers.
All in all, this is the second year of a new system. The players involved are better than those involved last season. Instead of playing guys with no shot at the NHL in camp, the Wild will likely use training camp to build chemistry, and come out better than they did last year. If the coaches can reign in the players and the players can build off the successes of last season, the Wild are a playoff team.
Yankee Canuck (Canucks): Another spring of Chicago bitch-slapping Vancouver into submission brings with it some lessons: you need size, toughness and consistency to survive in the West. You can have all the talent you want – like an Art Ross / Hart Trophy winner, Selke nominee and Olympic goalie for starters – but it doesn’t mean you can survive the pace and onslaught of the post season. Mike Gillis admitted as much the day after they were eliminated and slapped a bandaid on the team through both additions (Hamhuis, Ballard, Malhotra, Oreskovich, Perrault, Torres) as well as subtractions (Wellwood, Johnson, Bernier, Demitra and Grabner). Hamhuis, Ballard and Malhotra are remarkably consistent at shutting down the best of the opposition; Oreskovich, Perrault and Torres (along with the likes of Glass, Desbiens, Bolduc and everyone’s favorite little sparkplug Rick Rypien) represent a crash and bang element that was missing just a year ago. We also finally get to see Cory Schneider have a permanent role which – in another time and space – he could arguably battle Luongo for the #1 spot. Lastly the farm has never looked so jam-packed with possibilities: Cody Hodgson, Sergei Shirokov and Jordan Schroeder are the recognizable ones, but others like Anton Rodin, Bill Sweatt, Stefan Schroeder, Prab Rai and Aaron Volpatti up front along with Peter Andersson, Kevin Connauton, Kevin Sauve, Lee Sweatt and Evan Oberg on defense is a world of difference from how the cupboards looked back in the Nonis days.
2. What part of your team are you concerned about this season?
Kent (Flames): Ironically, the forwards. Specifically, the top end of the rotation. With Iginla, Tanguay and Jokinen all past 30 and all having near career worst seasons last year, there’s a chance the team won’t have a first line capable of hanging with other top units. If Iginla et al don’t enjoy significant rebounds, the Flames will likely be a bubble team again (or worse).
Jibble Scribbits (Avalanche): Forward Depth. So in the offseason the Avs lost depth players Marek Svatos, Darcy Tucker, Matt Hendricks, Chris Durno and Stephane Yelle. In comes Dan Winnik. While the players the Avs lost weren’t world beaters, they were good depth players that provided solid minutes and contributed when injuries took hold of the team.
The Avs have had pretty awful luck with injuries the last few seasons. They were 2nd in man-games lost to injuries last season. In ’08-09 they were 6th with a month left in the season (only data I could find, via Mirtle). They were 7th in ’07-08 and 8th in ’06-07. In short, the Avs have been unlucky in injuries.
So now the Avs will be calling up Phillipe Dupuis and… ummm I have no idea who else if/when the inevitable injuries hit. Forward depth is a major issue this season.
Ray (Oilers): It’s pretty common knowledge that the Oilers goaltending is a concern. Now that Khabibulin is guilty and sentenced for drunk driving –he is going to appeal– the situation is still murky and most fans don’t have a clue on what will happen. Will it be Khabibulin/Dubnyk? Khabibulin/Deslauriers? Gerber/Dubnyk? Gerber/Deslauriers? Dubnyk/Deslauriers? Will Dubnyk and/or Deslauriers clear waivers if they get sent down to Oklahoma City? Do the Oilers take that chance?
So many questions still to be answered and only Steve Tambellini/Tom Renney will/should know the answers. The start of the season could be crazy for the Oilers organization.
Speaking of Steve Tambellini, he has made it clear that the Oilers are done dealing this year. No more signings other than Cogliano. This team is the team that will start the year, but the Oilers still have a weakness in the 3rd line center position. While they do have Brule and Cogliano — Cogliano is an RFA that still needs to be signed– that can play in that position, they are not exactly the 3rd line faceoff specialist that the Oilers need. That position is important for any team to be successful.
Bryan (Wild): The biggest concern has got to be injuries. As mentioned above, Bouchard missed an entire season, Brent Burns missed 35 games with concussion symptoms. Andrew Ebbett and Chuck Kobasew both missed large blocs of time with injuries. Add those up with the minor inuries that keep players out of one or two games at a time, and the Wild were relying heavily on players such as James Sheppard, and call-up Robbie Earl. There has been a strong push by the organization for the players to come to camp in top physical shape, and the team has taken the steps they feel will help reduce those injuries.
Yankee Canuck (Canucks): Scoring and injuries. Obviously Henrik Sedin had an amazing year and others like Burrows, Raymond, Samuelsson and Ehrhoff also had career years in goals. It would be foolish to think they’re all going to build on those totals: you can’t count out the Sedins though expectations should be tempered. Burrows will start on the LTIR, Samuelsson is one year older and Raymond and Ehrhoff need to prove 2010 wasn’t a fluke. As for injuries…well, what more can you say? When you’re icing journeyman Nolan Baumgartner in the playoffs, you know there’s a problem. The defense was ridiculously hard hit: Mitchell’s concussion, Bieksa’s leg, Salo being Salo. You’d hate to see such a string hit your top guys again, which is why it’s a sign of relief knowing that Ballard and Hamhuis combined have missed 20 games in five seasons.
3. Each year there are players who break onto the scene as all-stars or even superstars. Sometimes it’s a rookie who is already expected to be great, sometimes it’s a rookie who shocks the world, and sometimes it’s a younger player who simply comes into their own. Which player on your team should we expect to have a breakout season?
Kent (Flames): There really isn’t a candidate to break out on the Flames this season, aside from perhaps Mikael Backlund, although I can’t find any room for him on the roster once Langkow returns from his injury. Mark Giordano and Ian White broke out last year and everyone else is over 25 years old. Perhaps new backup Henrik Karlsson will be a pleasant surprise, although given the Flames track record with backup goalies since Kipper came to town, I won’t hold my breath.
Jibble Scribbits (Avalanche): I don’t know if I can answer with a returning Calder finalist, but Duchene is going to have a breakout season. He’s so damn good it’s inevitable. If that doesn’t count then I’d look to rookie defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk to be called up for good in November sometime and quietly put together a solid rookie campaign.
I saw him at development camp a couple years ago, he’s probably the best passer on the team not named Stastny right now. He’s going to be a phenomenal power play QB someday.
Ray (Oilers): I would like to see Sam Gagner be that guy. He is –along with Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi– the future of the Edmonton Oilers. If Sam Gagner has the season everyone hopes for, the future of this hockey club is going to be great. Sam Gagner needs to take charge, and I bet he does. In my opinion, I’d make Gagner the next Captain of the Edmonton Oilers, but I doubt that happens.
Bryan (Wild): Guillaume Latendresse. After being traded to the Wild from Montreal, Latendresse scored 25 goals in 55 games. As mentioned above, he is paired with Martin Havlat, and has the best #2 center in team history to work with now. He is easy a 30 goal scorer, the only remaining question becomes is he a 40+ goal scorer? He will certainly push that number, and likely push 70 points as well. There are questions about the surge in his shooting %, but the quality of his linemates went up, not down. Being in the right place at the right time is not always a matter of luck.
Yankee Canuck (Canucks): This is tough to answer since there’s no real rookie to keep an eye on other than Schneider. We probably need to wait until camp to see what the final lines look like. If Hodgson, Shirokov or any other rookie makes the roster past 10 games into the season, they’d get my vote.
4. We all know that watching a team for 82 games allows us to appreciate things casual fans won’t necessarily recognize. Which guy on your bench doesn’t get nearly the respect he deserves?
Kent (Flames): If Sutter hadn’t bought him out this summer, I would have said “Nigel Dawes”. Alas. Another guy who is relatively unheralded is Curtis Glencross – he’s a speedy, third line left winger who tends to completely outclass other third liners. He’s scored 73 points in the last two seasons, despite averaging about 12 mins of ice at ES and less than a minute on the PP over that span. Those are strong numbers.
Jibble Scribbits (Avalanche): TJ Galiardi. I don’t like the Avs plan to have him be the 1st line LWer, but he certainly can fill in there. He was an all-out stud against SJ in the playoffs last year, and he’s on the top penalty killing unit. He was a rookie, and overshadowed by O’Reilly and Duchene, because of his old age (22), but he’s a glue guy and good player.
Ray (Oilers): Tough question, but I’d have to say Zack Stortini. He takes a beating (often) and never backs down. Sure he’s had the “huggy bear” moniker in the past, but I’d stay close to guys like Boogaard too. Getting punched in the face for a living must suck a little.
Now that the Oilers have Steve MacIntyre back, Stortini doesn’t have to fight all the heavy-weights anymore. Big Mac can mash the big ones. I’d expect a good year –I’m talking about his overall game like penalty kill and making smart plays and not his fighting– from Storts this season. He’s one to watch as most improved this year.
Bryan (Wild): The easy answer here is Mikko Koivu. Mind bogglingly, he is still the most underrated guy in the NHL, as evidenced by the uproar over his new contract. However, the guy sitting on the bench that no one ever seems to talk about outside of Minnesota is Greg Zanon. Fans call him Zuperman, and for good reason. He is the prototypical hockey warrior, playing a good portion of the end of the season on a broken ankle. While playing on a broken ankle is impressive in itself, Zanon’s role as a shot blocker requires him to drop to the ice and get up quickly dozens of times a game, all while putting his body weight on that ankle. If that doesn’t deserve respect, I don’t know what does.
Yankee Canuck (Canucks): I’m going to cheat here and go with two: Kesler and Raymond. I recognize it’s odd to say Kesler since he’s on video game covers, but not enough can be said about his two-way play. Very few players in the league can be that sound defensively and be learned on for the tough minutes and yet still score. Unlike the Selke-winning Datsyuk, Kesler also kills penalties. He’s a machine in all areas on the ice and – just by being his linemate – Raymond ends up looking extremely similar. Most know Raymond for his speed, but his defensive skills were right up there with Kesler’s last season. Raymond is just as dangerous on the PK as he is on the PP we saw significant improvements with his on-ice vision and patience with the puck last season. On a few other teams, Kesler and Raymond would be first liners.
5. The Moment of Truth: I understand that everyone is an expert BEFORE the season starts; so as bloggers, it’s important to throw up your pre-season predictions so everyone can mock you later. If your credibility was on the line, how would you rank the final standings of the Northwest Division? More importantly, which teams do you think will make the playoffs from the Northwest?
Kent (Flames): I can’t see anyone challenging the Canucks for the division crown. Luckily for the Flames, the rest of the NW is pretty shabby, so I can see them placing second ahead of Minny, Edmonton and Colorado (in that order). The Canucks will be a lock for the post season, the Flames will battle for 7th/8th and the rest will be on the outside looking in.
Jibble Scribbits (Avalanche): I’m not big on predictions, mainly because no one can predict the future, and there’s too much that can go on. But the NW is an awful division. Here’s how I see it playing out
Vancouver being the only one that makes the playoffs.
Ray (Oilers): Only the Canucks and the Avalanche will make the playoffs. Here is where I think they will finish. Vancouver (3rd), Colorado (7th), Minnesota (9th), Edmonton (10th), Calgary (12th)
Bryan (Wild): Vancouver
Vancouver makes the playoffs as the division winner, and the Wild make it as a 7 / 8 seed after a narrow margin of victory over the Avs.
Yankee Canuck (Canucks): My best guess is that Edmonton has one more year in the tank before they become really scary, Minnesota struggles again and Calgary learns to score at Colorado’s expense. So in the end the NW looks like this with only Vancouver and Calgary playing into deep April:
If you want to take a look at the entire series, you can check it out here. If there are any writers you found interesting here, I urge you to go check out their sites. Each and every writer who participated has an extremely good site and pump out great content year-round!