Mountains to climb in Northwest

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Can Miikka Kiprusoff regain his old form?

Arguably the best team in the division, the Flames have several issues that could prevent them from finishing on top, including a dearth of talent on the right wing and the chemistry problems that are bound to arise from the departure of familiar key faces (Alex Tanguay, Kristian Huselius) and the arrival of new ones (Mike Cammalleri, Todd Bertuzzi).

But the key to Calgary's fate is in the hands of Kiprusoff, the 2006 Vezina winner who came into camp last fall poorly conditioned and never regained his groove. Coach Mike Keenan tried to play him back into shape, but Kiprusoff's 77 appearances simply exacerbated the problem. Though he won 39 games -- the ultimate arbiter of success in the NHL -- Kiprusoff ranked 28th in goals-against and 30th in save percentage. Given that the Flames were outscored by just four teams in the West last season, and look to have at least as much offensive potential this time around, a return to form by their No. 1 netminder could see them establish themselves among the conference's elite squads. It may very well help significantly if the Flames are willing to rely more regularly on backup Curtis McElhinney. The relatively untested 25-year-old could do more than just open the bench gate, and Kipper might get the rest he needs to stay fresh and focused.

Will they have the worst goaltending in the West?

With the Joe Sakic situation finally resolved -- the 39-year-old captain signed a one-year deal on Aug. 27 -- the Avs now face a more perilous challenge: surviving with the goaltending tandem of Peter Budaj and newcomer Andrew Raycroft. Outside of the L.A. Kings, this looks to be the weakest pair in the conference -- on paper -- and potentially the worst netminding the state of Colorado has seen since the immortal Hardy Astrom drove Don Cherry into the broadcast booth nearly 30 years ago.

After losing the resurgent Jose Theodore to free agency, Colorado is counting on Budaj to grab the starter's reins. It's a risky bet. In three seasons, Budaj has yet to prove himself anything more than a competent journeyman. His numbers (2.57 GAA and .903 save percentage) accurately reflect a player who can run hot and cold -- hardly the qualities of a reliable No. 1. Raycroft was run out of Toronto after his wonky mechanics resulted in too many game-changing softies, and he hardly shores up the position. Of course, Denver was the scene of Theodore's career re-birth. For the Avs to have any chance this season, it might take a second such miracle. That's asking a lot.

Can they defend?

This isn't a knock on goaltenders Dwayne Roloson and Mathieu Garon, although the fact that both appear to be middle-of-the-road quality at best has to be a concern. Nor is it a swipe at a blueline that, if it lives up to its paper, actually could be a dynamic unit ideally suited to take advantage of the team's speed up front with its passing prowess.

No, the big concern for the Oilers coming into this season is how the forward corps will fare against opposing strikers. Based on last season's returns -- the team was a dismal 27th in goals-allowed when playing five-on-five -- and the loss of key defensive forwards Jarret Stoll, Raffi Torres and Marty Reasoner -- things don't look promising.

It'll help to get healthy seasons out of Ethan Moreau and Fernando Pisani, both of whom can pick up pick up some of the slack. But the Oilers will have to get something out of youngsters such as Kyle Brodziak and possibly Marc-Antoine Pouliot if they hope to make significant improvement in this area. They also have to be concerned about losing ground on special teams. Stoll and Reasoner were the primary forwards on Edmonton's fifth-rated penalty kill, so their absence will keenly be felt there.

For the backend to meet its potential, the Oilers will need their forwards to do more than wave the cape at onrushing attackers. That may be asking too much from a group that looks well prepared to light the lamp, but ill-suited for a season-long commitment to backchecking.

What to do with Marian Gaborik?

They've talked. And talked. And talked. But with less than 10 days before the start of camp, the Wild and Gaborik had yet to agree on a deal that would ensure that the franchise's all-time leading scorer remains in the fold beyond this season.

Not hard to see what the problem is. Gaborik, entering the final year of his contract, sees a future that includes the chance to become a highly sought-after unrestricted free agent next summer. The money he could generate in that market probably wouldn't eclipse the $8.5 million-per-year that Minnesota reportedly is offering to convince him to stay long term. But the chance to move to a system that is more in line with his electric offensive skills might be more compelling than a few extra bucks in the bank.

Of course, there's some risk inherent in playing out the string, if that's the way Gaborik chooses to go. Though healthy much of last season, he averaged nearly 25 games on the sidelines over the previous three campaigns. He could explode for a career year...but the chance for unfortunate history to repeat itself has to be playing out in his mind as well.

The Wild have some flexibility with their star, but not a lot of patience. Their offer looks plenty generous in comparison to other salaries. If they determine that Gaborik is simply not willing to sign -- at least for anything less than an extortionist's rate -- they have to consider their options, including trading him before the season starts. He'd likely draw a sizable package of players and prospects, but that would do little to advance the short-term chances of a team that is desperate to make some postseason noise after failing to capitalize on last season's division title. The longer this plays out, however, the more likely a deal becomes.

Have they really improved?

Incoming GM Mike Gillis promised sweeping changes to a sub-par roster when he assumed control of the franchise this summer, but three months into his reign it appears that he's done little more than re-arrange the deck chairs on a ship heading toward the same icy destination as last season.

Effecting real change is difficult, of course, but fans certainly expected more than what they've seen so far. Allowing underachieving vets like Markus Naslund and Brendan Morrison to move on feels like addition by subtraction, but the players who were brought in to fill their roster spots don't suggest that a turnaround is imminent for the league's 23rd-rated offense. Steve Bernier may be the winger that the Sedin Twins have long lacked -- he certainly shares their lack of foot speed -- but it's a stretch to suggest that he can lock down a spot on anyone's top line. Pavol Demitra can be a point-per-game player, but just how many games will the brittle forward play? And while Kyle Wellwood has proven to be effective on the power play, his lack of size (and legendary inattention to conditioning) makes him a liability at full strength.

The Canucks still have one of the world's best netminders in Roberto Luongo, and a defense that should remain among the stingiest in the conference. But the inability to make significant improvements to a shallow forward corps seems to doom Vancouver to also-ran status.