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Flames cooking in tight Northwest

With every team bearing its share of glaring weaknesses, the Northwest is probably going to be the tightest division in the league. Sorting it out involves cracking a big box of Ifs and Buts, so here goes. (Teams are ranked in order of predicted finish.)

2007-08 RECORD: 42-30-10 -- 94 points; third in Northwest; lost in first round to San Jose

KEY ADDS:Todd Bertuzzi (Anaheim), Mike Cammalleri (Los Angeles), Mark Giordano (Russia), Rene Bourque (Chicago), Andre Roy (Tampa Bay), Curtis Glencross (Edmonton)

KEY LOSSES:Alex Tanguay (Montreal), Kristian Huselius (Columbus), Owen Nolan (Minnesota), Eric Godard (Pittsburgh), Stephane Yelle (Boston), Marcus Nilsson (Russia)

STRENGTHS: Star power, brute force

The margin of victory will be slim in the highly competitive Northwest, and that's why you can't underestimate the value of legitimate game-breakers. With Jarome Iginla, Dion Phaneuf and Miikka Kiprusoff, the Flames boast superstars in all three zones, a caliber of talent unmatched in the division. But the Flames also recognized that they needed more firepower after their offense ground to a halt in a first-round loss to the Sharks, so the arrival of former 80-point man Cammalleri gives them an excellent backup option.

The Flames also took on more of coach Mike Keenan's character, trading off creative but soft scorers like Tanguay and Huselius for reliable competitors with offensive upside like Bourque and Glencross. They also took a flyer on Bertuzzi, a long-time Flames nemesis who is hoping to rediscover his game under Keenan's tutelage. This team may not score quite as often, but it will carve out its pound of flesh on the way to trying.

WEAKNESSES: Special teams

It's tough to suss out exactly why Calgary's 20th-ranked penalty kill struggled as much as it did, but it was clearly an issue in the offseason. Bourque is an excellent defender, so his arrival helps. Kiprusoff has to be better as well. His periodic struggles clearly eroded the confidence of the PK unit. The failings of the 19th-rated power play were just as curious, although the ouster of pass-firsters like Tanguay and Huselius should lead to more pucks being directed on the net and more nard-nosed pursuit of rebounds.

MVP:Jarome Iginla

The West's premier power forward is coming off the finest statistical season of his career, finishing third in the NHL scoring race with 50 goals and 98 points. Whether he reaches the 50-goal mark again -- and it says here he will -- is moot. As the heart and soul of the franchise, Iginla has emerged as one of the game's finest leaders. Few find as many ways to help their team win.

ROOKIE TO WATCH:Adam Pardy

With Mikael Backlund likely ticketed for a return to Sweden, the only rookie with a chance to stick appears to be Pardy. The 24-year-old impressed in camp and looks ready to play a depth role on the blueline. But with eight defenders still in camp with one-way contracts, the Flames might decide it's easier to waive him than dispose of a pair of vets.

BIGGEST SUPRPSE:Rene Bourque

A dedicated banger with decent hands, the 6-2, 215-pound Bourque fits the profile of a Keenan player. He had just 24 points filling a depth spot in Chicago last season, but figures to play a more prominent role in Calgary. He's slotted for the second line with Cammalleri or Matthew Lombardi as his center, but should see first unit minutes when the reliably brittle Bertuzzi eventually heads to the IR.

BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: There's not much separating the top four teams in the division, but Calgary's improved offense, deep defense and nasty disposition suggest the Flames will emerge on top.

2007-08 RECORD: 41-35-6 -- 88 points; fourth in Northwest; ninth in conference, missed playoffs

KEY ADDS: GM Steve Tambellini, Erik Cole (Carolina), Lubomir Visnovsky (Los Angeles), Gilbert Brule (Columbus), Steve MacIntyre (Florida)

KEY LOSSES:Joni Pitkanen (Carolina), Jarret Stoll (Los Angeles), Matt Greene (Los Angeles), Raffi Torres (Columbus), Curtis Glencross (Calgary)

STRENGTHS: Go-go offense

Scoring by committee is an approach typically offered by coaches who know they have no go-to snipers. That's not the problem for these Oilers, who'll score by committee because there's only one puck to go around. The fleet-footed and gritty Cole should nicely complement All-Star Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky on what should be a very dangerous first unit. The Kid Line -- Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano and Robert Nilsson -- might see less ice than they did late last season, but they'll provide a dynamic secondary attack. The bottom six features 23-goal scorer Dustin Penner, and former first-rounders Brule and M-A Pouliot. And the blueline, bolstered by the arrival of Visnovsky, is loaded with slick-skating puck-movers who should maximize the transitional opportunities offered by the speed up front. They'll be a nightmare to defend, especially on the power play.

WEAKNESSES: Iffy goaltending, kitten-soft forwards

Mathieu Garon and Dwayne Roloson make for a reasonable netminding combo, but neither provides the confidence of an elite No. 1 stopper. Garon usurped the position midway through last season, and played a significant role in Edmonton's stellar final quarter (14-5-1), but at 30, there have to be concerns that the career backup simply caught lightning in a bottle. Roloson, so good during the run to the Cup final in 2006, might lose his roster spot if the Oilers decide to go with Jeff Deslauriers. The rookie would have to be exposed to waivers in order to be sent down, and there are thoughts that the Oilers might keep him around rather than risk losing the 2003 second-rounder.

The bigger concern might be the lack of sandpaper up front. The Kid Line notched 65 PIM between them, and no one would mistake Hemsky and Horcoff for bruisers. Cole helps address the issue, as could MacIntyre, picked up this week on waivers from the Panthers. The Oilers may beat you, but they won't exact a physical toll in the process. That could haunt them in the postseason.

MVP: Ales Hemsky

Watching him in the past, you always got the sense that his effectiveness was limited by the skating deficiencies of his linemates. With Cole on board, Hemsky should finally be able to show us what he's got under the hood.

ROOKIE TO WATCH: NA

After breaking in Gagner and Cogliano last season, the Oilers don't expect to start the season with any new faces unless they hold on to Deslauriers. At this point, that's unlikely.

BIGGEST SURPRISE:Robbie Schremp

Although he might not make the cut, Schremp looks like the rookie to monitor. The former first-rounder has the kind of mind-boggling individual skills that the league would love to market, but he can't seem to adapt them to a team game. He might find himself on the trading block this season.

BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: The Oilers missed the cut by just three points last season, an amazingly close call considering the battered state of their lineup. A healthier, deeper roster suggests they'll return to the postseason after a two-year absence.

2007-08 RECORD: 44-28-10 -- 98 points, first in Northwest; lost in first round to Colorado

KEY ADDS:Andrew Brunette (Colorado), Owen Nolan (Calgary), Antti Miettinen (Dallas), Craig Weller (Phoenix), Marek Zidlicky (Nashville), Marc-Andre Bergeron (Anaheim)

KEY LOSSES:Pavol Demitra (Vancouver), Brian Rolston (Minnesota), Mark Parrish (free agent), Keith Carney (Chicago), Sean Hill (free agent), Aaron Voros (NY Rangers), Todd Fedoruk (Phoenix), Chris Simon (Russia)

STRENGTHS: The mobility of the blueline

Don't accuse GM Doug Risebrough of being a mindless slave to the system. The Wild GM recognized that the recent run of success in Detroit could be attributed primarily to the puck possession skills of the Red Wings' defenders. So he supplemented his in-house talent -- the sublimely gifted Brent Burns, veteran Nick Schultz and the mending Kurtis Foster -- with Kim Johnsson and now Zidlicky and Bergeron The skill level ranks near the top of the league, and that's an asset that should help mask the shortcomings up front.

WEAKNESSES: The Gaborik situation

This is a defining moment for the Wild. How they handle the contract situation of Marian Gaborik -- a potential UFA after this season -- will determine whether he is the franchise player at the center of their Stanley Cup plans or dealt for inexperienced parts that will set that plan back years. Clearly, the Wild want to get a deal done. There is sufficient cap room to make Gaborik, a 42-goal man last season, one of the game's highest-paid performers. Of course, there are mitigating factors, such as the room they'll need to re-sign goalies Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding, but nothing that stands out as a roadblock.

The trick is to convince Gaborik that this is where he wants to play...and do it soon. Unfortunately, replacing Rolston and Demitra, the team's second- and third-leading goal scorers, with aging plodders like Nolan and Brunette probably doesn't qualify as a carrot. The longer this gets drawn out, the greater the level of distraction, and the more likely Gaborik decides to explore his options.

MVP: Niklas Backstrom

After leading the league in save percentage and GAA in 2006-07, Backstrom's numbers suffered last season. With his deal up at the end of this season, expect the 30-year-old to stake a long-term claim to the No. 1 job with a strong bounceback campaign.

ROOKIE TO WATCH:Colton Gillies

With a long history of giving an early chance to top picks, it's no surprise that 2007 first-rounder Gillies is in contention for the roster spot that opened up with the buyout of Parrish. The big (6-4, 196) winger hasn't shown much in the way of offensive touch, but he's impressed with his skating and physical play, and could find himself employed as a big league grinder this season.

Tyler Cuma, a 2008 first-rounder, earned a fan in coach Jacques Lemaire with his smart preseason play, but he's headed back to junior hockey.

BIGGEST SURPRISE:James Sheppard

He'd better be. With Mikko Koivu elevated to the first line, the 20-year-old soph is slotted to center the second unit. The Wild will need someone to step up to replace all those lost goals, so his ability to create chances for his wingers, or light the lamp himself, is critical to their chances. Sheppard was an outstanding playmaker two years ago in the QMJHL, but his 19-point rookie campaign doesn't inspire a lot of confidence.

BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: With so few reliable options up front, the Wild will hunker down and do what they do best: play defense. That might be enough to get them back into the playoffs, but it'll come down to the wire. And that should encourage the Wild to do whatever it takes to clear up the Gaborik situation well before it gets to that point.

2007-08 RECORD: 39-33-10 -- 88 points, fifth in Northwest, 11th in conference, missed playoffs

KEY ADDS: GM Mike Gillis, Pavol Demitra (Minnesota), Steve Bernier (Buffalo), Ryan Johnson (St. Louis), Kyle Wellwood (Toronto), Darcy Hordichuk (Nashville), Rob Davison (San Jose), Nolan Baumgartner (Dallas)

KEY LOSSES: Markus Naslund (NY Rangers), Brendan Morrison (Anaheim), Trevor Linden (retirement), Luc Bourdon (deceased)

STRENGTHS: Miserly defense

The Roberto Luongo that Canucks fans suffered with last season was a pale shadow of what he can be. Distracted by personal issues and forced into extended periods of self-reliance by an almost comically battered blueline, Luongo's numbers sank to the middle of the pack. He can, and will, be an elite goalie again this season, if only because fate can't be so cruel to the defense two years in a row. There's no star power on the back end, but what it lacks in sizzle it makes up for by offering three consistent units. If they can stay healthy (the depth additions of Davison and Baumgartner should help), they'll keep the Canucks competitive.

WEAKNESSES: Scoring depth

It didn't take long for Gillis to address a deeply flawed offense that lacked both depth and a reliable physical presence. The question is, will his solutions work? Offering a friendly wave to departing vets like Naslund and Morrison was a good start. But his main acquisitions, Demitra and Bernier, suggest he's only treading water. Both are crafty scores who can be more effective than they were last season, but they also have their own issues with fragility and neither is particularly difficult to play against. Demitra's presence on the point should boost the potential of the power play, but it's more important that he solidifies a secondary scoring line that will consistently relieve the pressure on Henrik and Daniel Sedin's first unit.

MVP: Roberto Luongo

The Canucks boldly underlined his importance this week by ignoring NHL rules and naming the goaltender team captain. He won't wear the C, but the honor points out the obvious: this is Luongo's team, and they'll go only so far as he carries them.

ROOKIE TO WATCH:Cody Hodgson

Don Cherry compared the potential of the 2008 first-rounder to that of a young Steve Yzerman. Overly effusive? Maybe, but Hodgson, an underager who has a chance to break camp with the team, is a gritty competitor with a real knack around the net. A natural center, he'll have to switch to right wing if he sticks. He'll start out on the third line, but could see time on the power play.

BIGGEST SURPRISE:Mason Raymond

A little bit of chemistry can go a long way. As a rookie last season, the speedy winger was given every chance to mesh with the Sedins on the first line, but the match was as forced as Tom and Katie. He's looked more comfortable with Demitra on the second line, and has the chance to double the 21 points he scored in 2007-08.

BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: Barring another wrath-of-God string of injuries, the Canucks almost can't help but be better than last season. That said, they don't match up well against the rest of the Northwest. Luongo alone will keep them in the hunt, but they're a very long shot to grab a playoff berth.

2007-08 RECORD: 44-31-7 -- 95 points, second in Northwest; lost in second round to Detroit

KEY ADDS:Andrew Raycroft (Toronto), Darcy Tucker (Toronto), Daniel Tjarnqvist (Sweden)

KEY LOSSES:Andrew Brunette (Minnesota), Jeff Finger (Toronto), Jose Theodore (Washington), Kurt Sauer (Phoenix), Peter Forsberg (health-related limbo)

STRENGTHS: A pair of sixes

The Avs don't have the luxury of running four dangerous lines, but they do have a half-dozen skiled forwards capable of generating consistent offense. Led by the generation-spanning duo of Paul Stastny and Joe Sakic, they should improve on last season's average of 2.73 goals per game.

With the (*crossed fingers*) healthy return of Jordan Leopold, the Avs also run six deep on the blueline. It's an experienced group, with Adam Foote, Scott Hannan, Ruslan Salei and Brett Clark keeping the opposition honest, and Leopold and John-Michael Liles adept at moving the puck.

WEAKNESSES: A pair of deuces

Both Raycroft and Peter Budaj have assayed the role of an NHL starting goalie in the past couple seasons, but the recent play of both men suggests they're better suited for the role of backup. A good No. 2 is a valuable commodity. A pair of them, absent the services of a legitimate No. 1? Not so much.

Budaj's vanilla play in camp has done nothing to dispel his reputation, but at least he's looked better to this point than Raycroft, the fallen former Calder- winner who survived camp despite being outperformed by career minor leaguer Jason Bacashihua.

If you didn't know any better, you'd think the Avs were willing to roll with this combo because they planned on tanking the season. But they wouldn't do that to Sakic, would they?

MVP: Paul Stastny

He fully asserted himself as Colorado's centerpiece during Sakic's absence last season. Despite injury issues of his own that limited him to 66 games, Stastny nearly bested his impressive rookie totals (28 goals, 78 points). Playing alongside Milan Hejduk and Wojtek Wolski, he's poised for an offensive breakthrough that should see him notch 90 points.

ROOKIE TO WATCH: Per Ledin

It tells you all you need to know about Colorado's feeder system that the only "rookie" with a chance to crack the roster isn't much younger than the guy who's planning to retire next spring. Ledin is a 30-year-old vet of the Swedish circuit, but unlike last year's Euro-flyer Jaroslav Hlinka, he doesn't arrive with a recent scoring title to his credit. If he makes the cut, Ledin will be relegated to an energy role on the fourth line.

BIGGEST SURPRISE: Jordan Leopold

He's been hockey's answer to Bad Luck Schleprock over the past two seasons, the guy who walks around on a sunny day with his own personal little black rain cloud showering him with misfortune. But Leopold, acquired two years ago in exchange for Alex Tanguay, appears to be in top health after playing just 50 games for the Avs over that span. If that's the case, he'll add a much-needed offensive element to an otherwise conservative blueline.

BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: There's a lot to be said for going out on top. Sadly, Sakic will have to ask his buddy Ray Bourque what that was like. Barring an upgrade in goal, the Avs are facing a long, frustrating season. A return to the playoffs is unlikely.

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