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.)
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
The Flames also took on more of coach
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Don't accuse GM
This is a defining moment for the Wild. How they handle the contract situation of
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.
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.
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.
He'd better be. With
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
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.
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.
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
With the (*crossed fingers*) healthy return of
Both Raycroft and
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
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?
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
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
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