NHL Season Preview: Northwest Division

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It’s that time of year again!!! The air is getting colder, and the sweaters are coming out.  The hockey sweaters that is.  From now until Opening Day of the NHL 2010 season, look out for new division previews, new in depth team outlooks, and big predictions and prognostications of the glorious season to come.  Today, we take a look at the Northwest Division, and what to expect this season.

2010-2011 NHL SEASON INFORMATION EXTRAPOLATION

By: Bryan Vickroy

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1. Vancouver Canucks

2009-10 Record:  49-28-5       2009-10 Leading Scorer:  Henrik Sedin, C (29-83-112)

Offense

The Canucks had the second best offense in the league last year, and even missed key players for periods of the year.  This team will send wave after wave of quick, puck moving wingers into the offensive zone.  They are all about pressure and attacking, which makes for a fun game to watch.

Defense

Possibly the weak link in a possible chance at the Stanley Cup.  This unit is not overly sexy, and doesn’t posses a lot of offensive punch.  Their goals against dropped sharply last year due to too many gambles and breakdowns, especially in the postseason.  Should expect improvement just with experience, but it doesn’t mean anybody in this group will necessarily blow you away with talent.

Goalies

Roberto Luongo wised up and finally dropped the captain C from his sweater, or his mask, or wherever he felt like putting it.  He can get back to focusing on stopping the puck, which he struggled at times with last season.  He is still one of the handful of truly elite net minders in the game, but Luongo must refocus himself behind Vancouver’s up tempo style.  Cory Schneider will continue to play Robin to Luongo’s Batman,

Top Player:  HenrikDaniel Sedin, C/LW.  While this may be considered cheating, I find it impossible to separate the twins.  No two players in the league function together so well as the Sedins, and the numbers show it.  While Daniel missed some time to injury last year, Henrik just went out and led the league in scoring.  Look for them to keep getting better, which is disturbingly scary.

Breakout Star:  Alexander Edler, D.  The big Swede has found a home in the top 4 for Vancouver.  He is a wreaking ball on the ice, which is an important contrast to the rest of the Vancouver defense.  He also stepped his game and ice time up during the Canucks playoff scamper last season.  Big things are doing for this big boy.

Outlook

Vancouver has two huge advantages in its favor:  a deep veteran team and probably the weakest division in the Western Conference.  With the Canucks meltdown in the last few playoffs, getting home ice advantage is possibly more important for Vancouver than any team in the wild, wild West.  Best case has them keeping their heads on straight and getting to the promised land and celebrating harder than they did at the Olympics.  Worst case has another classic postseason apocalyptic breakdown and the Canucks will suffer more heartbreak.

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vancouver skyline

2. Minnesota Wild

2009-10 Record:  38-36-8       2009-10 Leading Scorer: Mikko Koivu, C (22-49-71)

Offense

Last year was a learning curve that the team never seemed to actually climb.  They didn’t seem to be able to score a goal.  They could barely manage to get any shots of during periods.  While injuries robbed players of game play and cohesiveness, the team never was able to fully implement their high speed forechecking.  This year should be better in both ends for the Wild.

Defense

While the offense gets all the blame for not scoring goals, the defense was even worse at getting torched and beaten for goals.  Terrible breakout passing, lapses in judgment, and poor play led to numerous odd man rushes, with most of them being buried in the net.  They need to learn to pick and choose their own rushes, and not leave Backstrom hanging out to dry.

Goalies

Niklas Backstrom is on of the most solid goaltenders in the league.  While some of the surprise may have come off from his coming from Sweden, he still makes all the saves and then some.  A nagging hip and terrible defensive play hurt him last year, and he looks to come out stronger than ever this year.  Jose Theodore was signed to back up Backs in the last few days due to Josh Harding’s need being shredded mere minutes into his preseason debut.

Top Player:  Mikko Koivu, C.  Mikko is officially the first permanent captain in Wild franchise history.    He had a career year last year, and is looking to improve again this season.  Possibly even better in his own end than in the offensive third.  If PM Bouchard can stay healthy, look for huge numbers for Sakku’s little brother.

Breakout Star:  Casey Wellman, C.  Wellman took the extra ice time created by injuries this preseason, and used it to keep himself on the opening day roster for the Wild.  He showed a lot of skill in a brief stint last year, and can only be expected to become another legitimate scorer for a team who lacks for goals.

Outlook

Whether last year was a fluke caused by injuries, a new system, an equipment bonfire, a lack of scoring, etc, or is symptomatic of the team, the Wild will find out about themselves early.  Things should be better this go round, with players healthy and knowledgeable of their responsibilities.  Best case scenario has the Team of 18,000 back into the playoffs and making life difficult for opponents.  Worst case has them continuing their free fall, possibly even to hosting their own #1 pick next summer.

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3. Colorado Avalanche

2009-10 Record:  43-30-9       2009-10 Leading Scorer:  Paul Stastny, C (20-59-79)

Offense

In terms of age, the Avalanche fielded a group of high flying college kids.  In terms of NHL production, they showed that they really do belong in the pros.  While they seemed to hit a wall in the dead of winter, they held on and surprisingly snuck into the playoffs.  If they can avoid a sophomore slump, they should continue to light the lamp and play meaningful hockey.

Goalies

Craig Anderson was brought in knowing that he would have a lot of mistakes made in front of him.  He faced the most shots in the league, and was stellar in keeping this team steady and winning.  While it might be hard to match his numbers of last year, Anderson will steal some games to add to the win column.  Peter Budaj is the back up, but will only see limited action barring injury.

Top Player:  Paul Stastny, C.  While still a kid himself, Stastny is the “veteran” of this team, and the most dangerous offensive weapon.  He can fly, and is even more dangerous on the power play.

Breakout Star:  Matt Duchene, C.  A finalist for rookie of the year last season, Duchene has been likened by some in Colorado as the heir apparent to Joe Sakic, both on the ice and in leadership.  Look for him to be even better in a second full season.

Outlook

Last year was quite the surprise for a team who wasn’t shy about stripping down and letting their own products fill out the NHL roster.  The kids did better than OK and pushed back into the playoffs.  While it will be difficult to sneak up on anyone this time, Colorado will be a pesky team for years to come.  Best case is a return trip to the postseason and a start of another great chapter in Avalanche history.  Worst case is the dreaded sophomore slump for this team, and a tumble out of the playoffs and back to the bottom of the West.

4. Calgary Flames

2009-10 Record:  40-32-10     2009-10 Leading Scorer:  Jarome Iginla, RW (32-37-69)

Offense

Last season saw every scorer on the Calgary roster fall off the deep end, never to be heard from.  While some of these could be considered inevitable or likely, the fact that the Flames couldn’t buy a goal was baffling.  Not surprising since the team barely has a dollar between it and the salary cap.  Some of these players should return to goal scoring form and hopefully make life more bearable near the North Pole.

Defense

The Flames have built themselves into a version of the recent Pistons dynasty.  They are lockdown tight on defense, and while they won’t chip in many goals themselves, they definitely won’t be giving many up.  Unless they can start to contribute from the blue line, they will continue to suffer through many close loses.

Goalies

Mikka Kiprusoff may not be a household name, but he is well known in NHL circles, or ovals to be accurate.  Kippy had a strong season last year, but was undone by his team’s lack of cohesion and scoring.  He will go nearly every game, with free agent Henrik Karlsson getting the rest of the starts.

Top Player:  Jarome Iginla, RW.  While I wholly despise Iginla, he has proven himself to be one of the best wingers in the league throughout his career.  His production has been dipping, either due to wear and tear, or a lack of anything resembling talent around him.  He can still bring it with the best, and just may show it again this season.

Breakout Star:  Mark Giordano, D.  Giordano may not get the ice time of the other shutdown defenseman on this team, but he seemed to be out there when the Flames scored, as he led the team in +/-.  He played in all 82 games last year, and if he gets some more ice time, his numbers should look even better.

Outlook

The Flames struggled with scoring, and decided to bring back players who had down years, but have scored for the Flames in the past, would be the best idea.  While someone will end up scoring goals by law of averages, they will usually be in games thanks to their defensive abilities and strong goaltending.  Just hope that no injuries beset the team, or they may have to play roster roulette again to stay under the cap. Best has the offensive finding some type of spark and getting back into the playoffs.  Worst case has the fire go cold again, and another cold winter in Alberta near the bottom of the conference.

5. Edmonton Oilers

2009-10 Record:  27-47-8       2009-10 Leading Scorer:  Dustin Penner, LW (32-31-63)

Offense

The Oilers got an instant jolt of offense with the drafting of Taylor Hall, and they possess some players who should be able to score.  However, the supporting cast for Hall has underperformed and is nothing that other teams in the league fear.  They fall behind and never catch back up, and have to bury goals early to hang in games

Defense

The worst defense in the league last year, and isn’t expected to get much better.  They are rather young, but haven’t shown the ability yet to stop the other team at the NHL level.  While maturity and repetition may alleviate some of the problems, there are still holes in many of these player’s game.

Goalies

Nikolai Khabibulin missed nearly all of last year with an injured back. Unfortunately, that didn’t keep the Bhulin Wall down, as he picked up a DUI in Phoenix while hurt.  He got some jail time, and is looking to be ready to play this season, healthy and theoretically problem free.  If the Wall crumbles, Devan Dubnyk is the kid who will get his first shot in the bigs.

Top Player:  Taylor Hall, LW.  The #1 pick in this summer’s draft, Hall will make an immediate impact on the stat sheet for the Oilers.  He has speed and skill, and has already shown a scoring touch through the preseason.  Will be one of the more exciting players in the league for a long time.

Breakout Star:  Colin Fraser, C.  While Fraser got to experience the thrill of winning a Stanley Cup last year, he didn’t get the ice time he needed to unleash his all around game. He can put the puck in the net, or scrap it up, but Fraser will find a way to make a play for a team that needs a lot of playmaking.

Outlook

While last season was beyond ugly for the Oil, this season might not be much better in terms of standing, but it will be a hell of a lot of fun to watch Taylor Hall begin to become an elite NHL superstar.  While his impact will be felt, he can’t create a whole new atmosphere on his own.  Best case has the team playing hard all season, fighting for the eighth spot in the playoffs.  Worst case has a second straight #1 pick for Edmonton to build with.

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Bryan Vickroy has an addiction to hockey, and is willing to partake in all its forms.  He is skating extra shifts this season, covering the Minnesota Wild, the NHL, and NCAA hockey all year long.  Look for new articles throughout the week.  He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bryanvickroy/ If you’d prefer to speak in more than 140 characters at a time to him, he can be reached at bryan.vickroy@gmail.com

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