Northwest Division Preview

Calgary Flames
-Excellent depth at forward and defense
-Top tier goaltending with Kipprusoff
-Excellent size and physical play
-No true #1 center
-No proven backup goalie if anything happens to Kipprusoff
Question Marks:
-How will the players get along with new hard-nosed coach Mike Keenan
-Can Huselius repeat his stellar season last year which was well beyond the typical Huselius season.
-The Flames have an excellent mix of skill and toughness, forwards and defense, experience and youth and in my mind should be one of the best teams in the NHL. That didn’t quite work out last year but one has to believe things might be different under a new and extremely experienced head coach in Mike Keenan. The key will be weather the players buy into Keenan’s antics. I suspect they will because they Keenan isn’t likely to be all that different than former coach and now GM Darryl Sutter. The Flames should make the playoffs and be a force in the hunt for the Stanley Cup.

Colorado Avalanche
-A lot of skill on their top 2 lines and should score a lot of goals.
-Leadership ability in Sakic and Smyth
-An underrated defence that is deep
-Budaj had a decent year last year but is still not proven as a top starter in the NHL.
Question Marks:
-Can Budaj take his game to the next level?
-Can last years rookies Stastny and Wolski repeat or improve on their seasons?
-Can Svatos return to his rookie year performance.
-The Avalanche made a great late season run at the playoffs last year and nearly made it but in the end just missed. This year should be different as they come back with pretty much the same team but have added 30+ goal scorer Ryan Smyth and defensive defenseman Scott Hannan. They should be a lock for a playoff spot this year and if Budaj pick up his game a little and last years rookies repeat the Avalanche should challenge for the Stanley Cup.

Edmonton Oilers
-Souray, Pitkanen and Tarnstrom give them some PP quarterbacks that they didn’t have last year.
-Dustin Penner should replace most of Smyth’s offensive production.
-Alex Cogliano and Sam Gagner could bring some youthful talent and enthusiasm into the lineup.
-With Ryan Smyth and Jason Smith gone they lost a lot of leadership for the young forwards and defensemen respectively.
-Lack a true offensive star up front.
-Questionable defensive defensively.
Question Marks:
-Can one of their forwards step up and take the team under his wings much like Smyth did for all those years.
-Will Pitkanen finally develop into a star defenseman like everyone has expected.
-Can Gagner and/or Cogliano make a big impact with the Oilers this year.
-The Oilers should be a much improved team this year with the additions of Pitkanen, Souray, Tarnstrom and Penner. The improvement will largely come in the areas of offence where the skilled defence trio of Pitkanen, Souray and Tarnstrom should help with the transition game and the power play. Also, Matheiu Garon gives the Oilers the best goalie tandem they have had in several years. If the Oilers were in the eastern conference I would suggest that they might contend for a playoff spot. Problem is, the Oilers play in the better/deeper western conference and more importantly the best division in the NHL. That is going to leave them on the outside come playoff time but I think Oilers fans are going to see some improvement and positive signs for the future of the franchise.

Minnesota Wild
-Excellent coaching and proven defensive system the players buy into.
-Gaborik and Koivu are just entering their prime
-Brian Rolston is one of the most underrated players in the NHL
-A deep defence with experience.
-Goalies Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding have combined for just 48 games experience.
-Not a lot of secondary scoring.
-Lack a true #1 defenseman
Question Marks:
-Can Nicklas Backstrom repeat last seasons success over 65 games this year?
-Can Marian Gaborik remain healthy?
-Can Kim Johnsson rebound after a weak season (especially offensively).
-If Nicklas Backstrom can repeat his excellent year last year over 65+ games this season the Minnesota Wild’s playoff chances look good. The Wild would definitely be a top 8 teams in terms of talent and ability but if their inexperienced goalies struggle at all then they may fall back into a tight playoff race with teams like Nashville and/or St. Louis who play in a much easier division. Unfortunately for the Wild there may not be a lot of room for error in such a tough division.

Vancouver Canucks
-They have the best goalie in the NHL
-When healthy they have a pretty good group of 6 defensemen
-They don’t have much offensive punch after the Sedin’s
-Sami Salo is starting the season injured with a fractured wrist.
Question Marks:
-Can the Sedin’s continue to improve or have the reached their career potential?
-Will the downward trend of Markus Naslund’s career continue or can he turn it around?
-Can Bieksa repeat what was a stellar season in 2006-07?
-Can Taylor Pyatt score 20+ goals again?
-Let’s be honest here. The Canucks are very similar to the Dallas Stars and depend significantly on defence and goaltending to win games. That isn’t necessarily a bad thin as New Jersey has had a lot of success doing that over the past dozen years but it does mean the margin for error is slim as the Canucks will probably win a ton of one goal games. If Luongo or either of the Sedin’s suffer a long term injury the Canucks playoffs hopes could fizzle away. But if their big guys stay healthy and perform as expected the Canucks should make the playoffs relatively easily and once there almost any team can ride a hot goalie to the Stanley Cup.