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Here's how I see them shaking out, in predicted order of finish:
2008-09 RECORD: 45-27-10, 100 points, first in Northwest
FRESH FACES: Mikael Samuelsson (Detroit), Andrew Raycroft (Colorado), Mathieu Schneider (Montreal), Christian Ehrhoff (San Jose), Brad Lukowich (San Jose)
OTHER PLACES: Mattias Ohlund (Tampa Bay), Mats Sundin (retired), Taylor Pyatt (Phoenix), Ossi Vaananen (Russia), Jason LaBarbera (Phoenix), Curtis Sanford (Montreal)
STORYLINE: After successfully locking down his core for the long term, GM Mike Gillis began the tinkering that precedes an evolution from pretender to contender. He saw the Canucks' soft spots exposed in their second round loss to the Blackhawks, so he added transitional skill with Ehrhoff and Schneider and grit and experience in Samuelsson and Lukowich. On paper, Vancouver now boasts the most balanced blueline in the game and maybe the most talent they've ever had up front. The onus falls on the highly compensated stars --Daniel and Henrik Sedin and Roberto Luongo -- to prove they can be the backbone of an elite squad.
MVP: Luongo. Faced with the possibility of losing the perennial All-Star to free agency after this season, Gillis tagged Luongo as a Canuck for life with a staggering 12-year extension. It's impossible to overstate the goaltender/captain's importance -- the team won just nine of 23 while he rehabbed a midseason groin injury -- or his potential for a monster year. Luongo will be motivated both by a disappointing playoff run and a strong desire to start for Team Canada at home in the Winter Olympics in February.
ROOKIE TO WATCH: Cody Hodgson. He tore up the junior ranks after being among the final cuts from camp last season, earning recognition as the CHL Player of the Year and assaying a critical role on Canada's world juniors team. His second chance has been delayed by a bad back, but he returned to the ice this week, skating alongside Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows on what could be an important line for the Canucks. The fly in the ointment? Salary cap issues may necessitate a return to the OHL.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Sergei Shirokov. The 23-year-old winger had 17 goals and 41 points in 56 games for CSKA Moscow last season, hinting at his potential to claim a vacant spot on one of the top two lines. He has impressed with his speed and creativity in the preseason -- a light cap hit and instant chemistry with the Sedins won't hurt his cause, either. If you're in the market for a fantasy sleeper, here's your guy.
BOTTOM LINE: Retaining the Northwest title should be the least of their goals. This is a club that has to contend for the conference crown.
2008-09 RECORD: 46-30-6, 98 points, second in Northwest
FRESH FACES: Coach Brent Sutter (New Jersey), Jay Bouwmeester (Florida), Nigel Dawes (Phoenix), Fredrik Sjostrom (NY Rangers), Brian McGrattan (Phoenix), Brandon Prust (Phoenix)
OTHER PLACES:Mike Cammalleri (Montreal), Todd Bertuzzi (Detroit), Wayne Primeau (Toronto), Adrian Aucoin (Phoenix), Jordan Leopold (Florida), Jim Vandermeer (Phoenix), Andre Roy (UFA)
STORYLINE: At this point, calling Miikka Kiprusoff a world-class goaltender is like ranking Eddie Murphy as a top box-office draw. The reputation is there, but recent results paint a decidedly less flattering picture. Though Kiprusoff led the NHL with 45 wins, it was a testament more to an eighth-ranked offense and his 76-game workload than a flashback to his 2005-06 impenetrability. Truth is, Kipper was miserable, failing to finish among the top-30 in GAA or save percentage, and his inability to make the big save when needed most ultimately sank the Flames. Surprisingly, GM Darryl Sutter failed to bring in a veteran capable of spelling Kiprusoff (who's also expected to backstop Finland at the Olympics), so he's unlikely to get the rest he needs to stay fresh down the stretch. Of course, that may not be an issue if his start mirrors his camp. "He hasn't looked all that impressive," one observer told SI.com.
At least Kipper shouldn't be left alone quite so often. The backend now boasts an unmatchable (on paper, anyway) top four of Bouwmeester, Dion Phaneuf, Robyn Regehr and Cory Sarich. They're big (averaging 6-3, 215), experienced and balanced enough to shut down the opposition's top lines and create chances in transition. Sutter's system-heavy approach will take some adjustment, but the Flames should buy in quickly. Based on his past success, expect them to be more positionally sound and defensively responsible. More important, they'll all be pulling in the same direction. For a team that played at odds with itself much of last season, that would signal significant improvement.
MVP: Jarome Iginla. An effort to spread the scoring bolstered Calgary's offensive numbers last season but dramatically cut into Iginla's personal output. With Cammalleri gone, and a lack of reliable touch beyond the first line, the Flames need Iggy to be the 50-goal scorer of 2007-08 rather than the 35-goal man he was last season.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Curtis McElhinney. The relatively untested backup needs to give the Flames 20 quality starts to effectively spell Kiprusoff...but if he's called on much more often than that, Calgary is in serious trouble.
BOTTOM LINE: After four consecutive first round exits, the Flames no longer deserve the benefit of the doubt. The additions of J-Bo and Sutter should keep these chronic underachievers in contention for the division crown and in the playoffs, but until they prove otherwise, it's safer to assume that Calgary will again fall short of their considerable potential.
2008-09 RECORD: 40-33-9, 89 points, third in Northwest
FRESH FACES: GM Chuck Fletcher, coach Todd Richards, Martin Havlat (Chicago), Kyle Brodziak (Edmonton), Shane Hnidy (Boston), Greg Zanon (Nashville), Petr Sykora (Pittsburgh), Jaime Sifers (Toronto)
OTHER PLACES:Marian Gaborik (NY Rangers), Stephane Veilleux (Tampa Bay), Kurtis Foster (Tampa Bay), Martin Skoula (Florida), Marc-Andre Bergeron (UFA)
STORYLINE: Here's a word you've rarely heard used in association with the Minnesota Wild: entertaining. While he's not entirely renouncing the defensive leanings of predecessor Jacques Lemaire, Todd Richards was hired to implement a system that focuses on an aggressive forecheck that will allow the Wild to assert its will, rather than simply react to the opposition. That style should thrill the players, and the die-hards at the jam-packed Xcel Center, but will it return the Wild to the playoffs? Tough to say. They lack the firepower to turn into a run 'n' gun team overnight, and that places greater expectations on youngsters like Benoit Pouliot and James Sheppard to drop the understudy tag. But the transformation of the Wild promises to be the season's most watchable facelift.
MVP:Mikko Koivu. It says a lot about the franchise that just three players have ever topped the 67 points Koivu scored last season...but that total only hints at what's possible for the 26-year-old. Already one of the game's elite defensive forwards, Koivu should fully assert himself as an offensive force with the additions of Havlat and Sykora.
KID TO WATCH: Danny Irmen. The 25-year-old winger has done everything asked of him in a make-or-break camp. A former Golden Gopher, he brings speed and energy that make him a logical fit for the third line. The 6-8 defender John Scott may also survive the final cut now that Derek Boogaard has been sidelined with a concussion.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Sheppard. All of Minnesota's centers should see their numbers improve as a result of Richards' system, but Sheppard, who struggled under the weight of his defensive responsibilities, will find it especially liberating. It also helps that added depth on the wings means he'll skate between Andrew Brunette and Antti Miettinen or Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Owen Nolan.
BOTTOM LINE: There's little room for error in the thick middle of the Western Conference, but for a team that just lost the face of the franchise, the Wild have to be feeling pretty good about their chances. Health will be an issue given a lack of organizational depth, but Minnesota should be more competitive -- and entertaining -- than last season even if they don't make the playoffs.
2008-09 RECORD: 38-35-9, 85 points, fourth in Northwest
FRESH FACES: Coaches Pat Quinn and Tom Renney, Nikolai Khabibulin (Chicago), Mike Comrie (Ottawa)
OTHER PLACES:Dwayne Roloson (NY Islanders), Kyle Brodziak (Minnesota), Ales Kotalik (NY Rangers)
STORYLINE: A third straight playoff DNQ precipitated the cashiering of Craig MacTavish and the hiring of an All-Star-caliber coaching staff featuring Quinn and Renney. The duo has its work cut out. Although the Oil are pushing up against the cap, the team doesn't look much different than last year's failed bit. The defense is mobile and armed with quick-strike potential, but lacks grit. The forwards are undersized and need a true game-breaker (though not for lack of trying, given their public courting of Dany Heatley). Ultimately, the challenge for Quinn and Co. will be to expedite the growth of Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano and Ales Hemsky into a core of reliable scorers...and if they can be convinced to play bigger than their size, so much the better.
MVP: Khabibulin. For years, the Northwest has been defined by nothing so much as the quality of its goaltending. After signing UFA Khabibulin, the Oilers now have a keeper capable of equaling the star power of Luongo, Niklas Backstrom and the rest. Khabibulin have trouble matching last season's record (25-8-7) on this weaker Edmonton squad, but if he can live up to his stats (2.33, .919), Khabi could generate a 10-point swing.
KID TO WATCH:Ryan Stone. Heading into the last week of camp, the Oilers have yet to make the call on Jordan Eberle and J.F. Jacques, and with 10 of the expected 14 forward spots spoken for, there's a chance they could survive the last round of cuts. The best bet is Stone, a 6-2, 207-pound winger who fills a clear need for size and sandpaper. He's not pretty, but he competes every shift, finishes his checks and isn't afraid to wade into the muck out front.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Eberle. By most accounts the best forward in camp, the 19-year-old sniper has a bright future in copper and blue. The problem is that the Oilers may need to send him down to protect assets like Schremp, Gilbert Brule and Marc Pouliot, all of whom would need to clear waivers to be assigned to the minors. That would be a tough break for Eberle who, despite being held off the scoresheet thus far, has shown the type of creativity and jam that seems ideally suited to Quinn's game plan.
BOTTOM LINE: Growth of the young core and improvements to last season's ineffectual special teams should keep their playoff hopes alive down the stretch, but this is essentially the same team that missed the target last season. Despite the best efforts of "Quenney," they'll be in tough to grab a spot.
2008-09 RECORD: 32-45-5, 69 points, fifth in Northwest
FRESH FACES: GM Greg Sherman, coach Joe Sacco, Craig Anderson (Florida), Kyle Quincey (Los Angeles), Tom Preissing (Los Angeles), David Koci (Tampa Bay)
OTHER PLACES:Joe Sakic (retirement), Ryan Smyth (Los Angeles), Ian Laperriere (Philadelphia), Andrew Raycroft (Vancouver), Tyler Arnason (NY Rangers)
STORYLINE: Last season's descent into irrelevance will feel like an overtime thriller compared to the 82-game beatdown that lies ahead for Avs fans. Sakic's retirement and the dumping of Smyth's contract set the inevitable rebuild into full-tilt boogie, and it's about to get ugly. How bad are things in Denver? Only one center, Paul Stastny, has more than 11 games of NHL experience, and with his history of injuries (he's missed 53 games over the past two seasons), the Avs may have to consider bringing back Peter Forsberg and his floppy ankles. If there's one bright spot on the horizon, it's this: the 2010 draft is loaded at the top.
MVP: Anderson. After authoring a breakthrough season as Tomas Vokoun's stand-in with the Panthers, Anderson finally earned his shot as a starter with the Avs. Hard to determine which side is assuming the bigger risk, though: the team that's betting on a career backup to stop the bleeding or the player who's about to become the biggest target since Kanye West.
KID TO WATCH: Matt Duchene. The third-overall pick last summer has earned comparisons to Sakic for his hockey sense, creativity and leadership skills. For the past two weeks, he's put the total package on display and challenged the Avs to cut him. The team is making a concerted public effort to lower expectations, but off the record, they're thrilled. "He's for real," said one team official.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Sherman. Most teams would dread the thought of seven potential UFAs after the season. For a rebuilding team like the Avs, they're the ticket to the fast lane...as long as GM Sherman extracts a suitable return in exchange for their late-season services. Expect him to be put to the test as contenders seek a boost from Adam Foote, Brett Clark, Ruslan Salei, Marek Svatos and others.
BOTTOM LINE: Forget season tickets. The best investment an Avs fan could make is in the Ontario Hockey League's online viewing package. No better way to keep tabs on the development of Taylor Hall and Cam Fowler of the Windsor Spitfires. Chances are Sherman will be handing one of them a maroon and blue sweater next June.
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