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2009-10: 49-28-5, 103 points, first in the Northwest
FRESH FACES: Dan Hamhuis (Nashville), Keith Ballard (Florida), MannyMalhotra (San Jose), Eddie Lack (Sweden), Raffi Torres (Buffalo), VictorOreskovich (Florida), Jeff Tambellini (N.Y. Islanders)
OTHER PLACES:Willie Mitchell (Los Angeles), Steve Bernier (Florida), Michael Grabner (N.Y. Islanders), Andrew Raycroft (Dallas), Brad Lukowich (Dallas)
STORYLINE: The last Canadian-based team to win the Stanley Cup? That would be the 1993 Montreal Canadiens. It's been a long drought up north, but now the Canucks have emerged as a team capable of bringing the old mug home. The decision was made after yet another premature exit last spring to beef up the depth of its blueline, so GM Mike Gillis dealt for Ballard and signed free agent Hamhuis. Both are solid top-four types who give Vancouver arguably the best back-end in the West ... even without the perpetually injured Sami Salo. With this group in place, there's no more room for excuses.
MVP:Henrik Sedin. Hard to deny last season's Hart recipient, even if he'll be hard-pressed to repeat those sensational numbers he posted. Still, teamed with brother Daniel, he provides the sort of game-breaking offense that few teams can answer. East Coast bias might suggest other answers, but with all he brings to this team, Sedin has to be regarded as hockey's most compelling player.
KID TO WATCH: Cody Hodgson. His coronation already delayed a year by a string of back woes, Hodgson's near future didn't look good when his start at camp was delayed by assorted setbacks. Then, it was his play in camp that suggested he might be better served by an apprenticeship in the minors. Still, the Canucks are in a hurry to give him a chance to crack the roster, and it looks like he'll be part of the lineup this weekend. He's clearly a big part of their future, but whether that's now or a year down the road could be decided over the next week or so.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Alex Burrows. Not yet recovered from offseason shoulder surgery, Burrows follows up his career-best campaign with a stint on the IR. He did most of his damage playing with the Sedins, and should get a chance with them again when he returns, but that's no sure thing, especially if his replacement is on a roll. It'll be up to the gritty winger to prove he's more than just Robin to the Sedins' Batmen.
BOTTOM LINE: Barring any serious injuries, it's hard to see an area where this team is lacking. They'll run away with the division and have to included on the very short list of Cup favorites.
2009-10: 43-30-9, 95 points, second in the Northwest
FRESH FACES:Daniel Winnik (Phoenix), Jonas Holos (Sweden)
OTHER PLACES:Darcy Tucker (retired), Marek Svatos (Russia), RuslanSalei (Detroit), Stephane Yelle (free agent), Brett Clark (Tampa Bay), T.J. Hensick (St. Louis)
STORYLINE: Dead last in the West two years ago, the Avs crafted a remarkable turnaround on the backs of no-name goalie Craig Anderson and a slew of young players who didn't realize they weren't supposed to be so good so fast. The problem with this type of result is that expectations rise. Their fans will want more, and the opposition won't be as easy to ambush as they were early last season. How this young team responds to those pressures will determine the course of this season.
MVP:Craig Anderson. The former Florida backup turned himself into an Olympic candidate in a matter of months with his sensational first turn as a starter. He'll be eager to prove that last season was no fluke, that he's really a guy who belongs in the Vezina conversation and not just a flash in the pan. He's also playing for a new contract this summer, so there's financial -- not just personal -- motivation on the line.
KID TO WATCH: Kevin Shattenkirk. He failed to make the team out of camp, but it's only a matter of time before this highly skilled defender is given a chance to prove himself at the NHL level. He's a dynamic passer who sees the ice exceptionally well. He makes good reads and is tremendous off the rush. A bit of seasoning to work on his evolving defensive game is all that stands between him and a top-four role in Colorado.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Peter Mueller. It looked as though the change of scenery from Phoenix to Denver had reawakened the fabulous offensive force that he'd been in the Western Hockey League, and he was expected to play a significant role on the Avs' second line. That, of course, was before he suffered a concussion in preseason action against the Kings that will keep him out indefinitely. Coming on the heels of the head trauma that sidelined him during last spring's series against the Sharks, Mueller's entire future is up in the air.
BOTTOM LINE: There's a very real chance that this team will suffer a setback this season, but the quick pace they displayed in the preseason suggests they're ready to prove they weren't flukes. They'll be more dangerous up front, but it will take some improvement on the blueline to secure their spot in the postseason
2009-10: 40-32-10, 90 points, third in the Northwest
FRESH FACES:Olli Jokinen (N.Y. Rangers), Alex Tanguay (Tampa Bay), RaitisIvanans (Los Angeles), Henrik Karlsson (San Jose), Brendan Morrison (Washington)
OTHER PLACES:Chris Higgins (Florida), Eric Nystrom (Minnesota)
STORYLINE: This season boils down to a simple premise: the validation of Darryl Sutter. Under heavy fire all season for the construct of a club that could neither win nor fit under the salary cap, he undertook a significant rebuild that included trading Dion Phaneuf midseason and returning Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay to the fold over the summer. The results should quickly reveal whether he's smarter than the rest of us...or whether he'll be out of work next season.
MVP: Miikka Kiprusoff. As captain Jarome Iginla's career appears to be winding down (a drop from 98-89-69 points over the past two seasons), Kipper may be all that stands between these Flames and a complete overhaul. The problem is that he's become to valuable to rest, as his 73 starts last season attests, and even though he put up his best numbers in four years (2.31 GAA, .920 save percentage), he could provide even more if given a chance to do it less often.
KID TO WATCH: T.J. Brodie. The Flames are inclined to climb out of their hole on the backs of veterans, but the 20-year-old Brodie had the sort of camp that couldn't be ignored. The young defender stood out at times as the best blueliner on the team, forcing Sutter's hand. He'll play limited minutes early on, but he brings the sort of steady, reliable play that coaches live by when games are on the line.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Jay Bouwmeester. His debut season with Calgary was mostly underwhelming. Not that J-Bo was bad, but he rarely lived up to the hype that accompanied his signing as a free agent last summer. Some think that the player we saw last year was all that should be expected, but others believe he has more to give. Considering how much ice he's given, he needs to find a way to make a larger splash, both on the scoresheet and his own end.
BOTTOM LINE: Maybe the Flames gel magnificently and prove Sutter really does know best ... but don't count on it. Calgary is headed for another playoff DNQ.
2009-10: 38-36-8, 84 points, fourth in Northwest
FRESH FACES:Matt Cullen (Ottawa), Eric Nystrom (Calgary), Brad Staubitz (trade, San Jose)
OTHER PLACES:Owen Nolan (retired), Derek Boogaard (N.Y. Rangers), John Scott (Chicago), Andrew Ebbett (Phoenix)
STORYLINE: A slow start that saw the Wild win just seven of their first 21 games effectively put an end to their season before the calendar flipped to December. Blame part of that slump on the transition the team was making from the lockdown game of former coach Jacques Lemaire to the offensive stylings of new coach Todd Richards. There were plenty of growing pains along the way--they didn't score a whole lot more and they ended up allowing a whopping 42 more goals against--but they should be over that culture shock by now. This team still isn't loaded with talent, but if this group can settle comfortably into Richards' system, they should start seeing some results.
MVP:Mikko Koivu. The team's first permanent captain proved his worthiness last season with one of the best offensive campaigns in Wild history. Already a tremendous defensive player, he finally displayed his full confidence and creativity at other end of the ice. If he had wingers better able to convert his passes, one scout said, Koivu could have had 90 points. He's coming off a pair of operations last April to repair injuries to his right shoulder and right knee, but he's looked hale and hearty in the preseason and should be ready to write his name in the team's record book.
KID TO WATCH: Justin Falk. The tall, rangy blueliner was a revelation in camp and arguably the team's best defender in the preseason. He'll catch your eye with his physical play, but his surprising mobility makes him an effective deterrent in open ice as well. He'll start with depth minutes, but could see time on the second pair if he continues to play with the same confidence he's displayed this fall.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Guillaume Latendresse. The former Canadiens' winger looked promising after joining the Wild, scoring 25 goals in just 55 games for Minnesota. Maybe a change of scenery was all the budding power forward needed ... or maybe he just caught lightning in a bottle. He'd been a streaky player in the past who had never scored more than 16 goals in a season, so there are no guarantees he can continue to provide that kind of offense. Without it, however, the light-scoring Wild are sunk.
BOTTOM LINE: You can see what Richards is trying to do with this team, but he doesn't quite yet have the horses to make his system successful. They'll make progress this year, but not enough to see postseason action.
2009-10: 27-47-8, 62 points, fifth in the Northwest
FRESH FACES: Taylor Hall (draft), Jordan Eberle (system), Magnus Paajarvi (system), Kurtis Foster (Tampa Bay), Alexandre Giroux (Washington), ColinFraser (Chicago), Steve MacIntyre (Florida), Jim Vandermeer (Phoenix)
OTHER PLACES:Sheldon Souray (minors), Patrick O'Sullivan (Carolina), Ethan Moreau (Columbus), Fernando Pisani (Chicago), Ryan Potulny (Chicago)
STORYLINE: When the wheels fly off as wildly as they did last season in Edmonton, it was clear that changes had to be made. The organization underwent a dramatic makeover, from the coaching staff (Tom Renney promoted, Pat Quinn bumped to the front office) to the scouts, the training staff and, of course, the on-ice lineup. An influx of young talent, led by Hall, Eberle and Paajarvi gives Edmonton's faithful a reason to believe, if not to expect immediate results. This could be the start of something big, but it'll be up to Renney and his crew to piece it all together with a brand new system and a brand new approach. Expect a bumpy ride.
MVP:Ales Hemsky. With seven goals and 22 points through his first 22 games, it looked as though the fleet winger would enjoy his finest season in 2009-10. Instead, he was felled by a shoulder injury that sidelined him the rest of the year and left the Oilers with just one real offensive option in DustinPenner, Back and none the worse for wear, Hemsky will join Penner and Sam Gagner on what should be an effective first line. How effective depends on whether he can pick up from where he left off last November.
KIDS TO WATCH:Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi. It's been a long time since any one team debuted a trio of rookies blessed with such immense. The team isn't expecting miracles this season from its three most recent first rounders, but all will be given significant minutes to expedite their development. Hall and Eberle will join Shawn Horcoff on Edmonton's second line. Paajarvi will skate with Gilbert Brule and Andrew Cogliano on what may be the league's fastest line. Each of them could contend for the Calder.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Nikolai Khabibulin. The Oilers thought they'd bought a mid-range solution in goal when they signed Khabibulin to a generous deal last summer. Instead, they landed a player with a wonky back and questionable decision-making skills. The body has held up through the exhibition season, but it'll be a constant concern. So will the legal issues surrounding an appeal of his recent conviction for drunk driving in Arizona. The Oil need 60 games out of the 37-year-old veteran, but at this point that seems like a long shot.
BOTTOM LINE: If you can't sell the fans on wins, sell 'em on hope. The Oilers will have the latter in abundance and should be one of the most entertaining teams in hockey this season. Still, a return to respectability is still at least another year away.
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