LAST SEASON48-26-8 (seventh in West); lost in first round to Anaheim
KEY ADDITIONS CEric Belanger, D¬†Sean Hill
KEY LOSSES G MannyFernandez, C Todd White
October 7, 2007
On the day afterits playoff-opening loss to the eventual champion Ducks, Wild coach JacquesLemaire sought out G.M. Doug Risebrough after running his team throughpractice. Lemaire was awed by the intensity Anaheim had shown at its ownpractice earlier that day, and he contrasted the Ducks' purposeful preparationwith his club's off-day jitters. The nerves were a sign that despite ateam-record 104-point season, Minnesota players were somewhat naive about therigors of the postseason. "I never experienced anything like that,"defenseman Brent Burns says of the playoffs. "Every shift I wasshaking."
Convinced that thelessons learned from the five-game loss to Anaheim were enough to season histalented team, Risebrough kept his roster virtually intact. Two players arecrucial to a longer playoff run: Goaltender Niklas Backstrom, who took over foran injured Manny Fernandez in January and then led the league in goals-againstaverage (1.97) and save percentage (.929); and right wing Marian Gaborik, whodespite being limited to 48 games because of a groin injury still produced 57points.
Over the last twoseasons Gaborik has averaged .602 goals a game, second in the league to theSenators' Dany Heatley and an impressive feat on a team that thinks defensefirst. Gaborik's play also forces opponents to pay less attention to Minnesotaforwards Pavol Demitra and Brian Rolston, who tied for a team-high64¬†points last season.
The Wild willagain find the road to the Stanley Cup finals a tough one to navigate, butMinnesota is clearly the class of a weak division.
LAST SEASON44-31-7 (ninth in West)
KEY ADDITIONS DScott Hannan, LW¬†Ryan Smyth
KEY LOSSES C BrettMcLean, C Pierre Turgeon, D Ossi Vaananen
After missing theplayoffs for the first time since 1994, when the franchise was still in Quebec,the Avalanche had the most productive off-season of any team in theconference.
With skilledrookies Wojtek Wolski (22 goals) and Paul Stastny (78 points) complementingveterans Joe Sakic (his sixth 100-point season) and Milan Hejduk (his fifth35-goal season), many of the Avalanche's conference-leading 267 goals were ofthe highlight-show variety. That may change this year with the addition ofgritty forward Ryan Smyth, a garbage-goal scorer who feels as comfortable inscrums as other Avs do on the perimeter. Nobody is better than Smyth atdistracting goaltenders and redirecting point shots. His presence should add aneven deadlier dimension to the league's fourth-best power play.
Colorado alsosigned the feisty Scott Hannan to bolster a porous defensive corps thatsurrendered 247 goals last season (18th in the NHL). Plus, the Avs welcome backblueliner Jordan Leopold, who played only 15 games last season after beingacquired for Alex Tanguay.
"We love ourlineup," says Sakic, who led Colorado to championships in 1996 and 2001."There is definitely a different mind-set this year than last year. We'revery confident, and we think we have a chance to compete for the Cup."
LAST SEASON43-29-10 (eighth in West); lost in first round to Detroit
KEY ADDITIONS DAdrian Aucoin, RW¬†Owen Nolan, D Cory Sarich
KEY LOSSES D RomanHamrlik, D Brad Stuart
Darryl Sutter'sdecision to lure Mike Keenan back behind the bench gives the Flames the mosthard-nosed G.M.-coach tandem in the NHL. That may be just the kick in the pantsthis underachieving team needs: Last year Calgary led the NHL in home wins with30, but it had only 13 wins away from the Saddledome.
Keenan's arrivalshould be a hit with captain Jarome Iginla, the kind of talented leader Keenanhad in Mark Messier when he coached his only Stanley Cup winner, the 1993-94Rangers. Moreover, All-Star Miikka Kiprusoff is the type of consistent goaliewhom Keenan (a.k.a. Captain Hook) can ride and ridicule without having to worryabout his psyche.
For whipping boys,Keenan can look to forwards Alex Tanguay, who led the Flames with 59 assistsbut isn't physical and doesn't take criticism well, and Kristian Huselius (34goals in 2006-07), whom Keenan, then the Panthers G.M., branded as too softwhen he traded him to Calgary in December '05.
With four trips tothe Cup finals and one championship, Keenan is a proven winner and a perfectpartner in Sutter's bulldog act. Still, his presence won't be enough to get theFlames deep into the playoffs.
LAST SEASON49-26-7 (third in West); lost in conference semifinals to Anaheim
KEY ADDITIONS DAaron Miller, RW Ryan Shannon
KEY LOSS C BryanSmolinski
A subtleadjustment to his posture last fall may have turned around the season forgoaltender Roberto Luongo and his team. Luongo's old stance--legs spread lowand wide--limited his lateral mobility and kept him from seeing over traffic infront of him. So last November he began to stand taller in net. Weeks after thechange, the Canucks began standing taller too. A game under .500 at Christmas,Vancouver finished the season on a 32-8-6 tear. Luongo was second in the NHLwith 47 wins, fourth in save percentage (.921) and sixth in goals-againstaverage (2.29).
It helps thatLuongo may have the league's deepest group of defensemen playing in front ofhim, but he is the Canucks' meal ticket, a tireless worker whom coaches mustoften persuade to slow down in practice. "You always want to improve,"Luongo says. "When you stay at the same level, people start passingyou."
If only Vancouverhad such a force on offense. The Canucks scored 217 goals last season, secondfewest among playoff teams. In the first round they beat the Stars with 13goals in seven games and then scored only eight in a five-game elimination bythe Ducks.
LAST SEASON32-43-7 (12th in West)
KEY ADDITIONS RWDustin Penner, D¬†Joni Pitkanen, LW Geoff Sanderson, D¬†SheldonSouray
KEY LOSSES RWJoffrey Lupul, D Jason Smith, RW Petr Sykora
Kevin Lowe maywant to watch his back at the next G.M. meetings. Lowe loosened the Oilers'traditionally tight purse strings to sign former Ducks forward Dustin Penner toan astounding five-year, $21.25¬†million deal. Penner may have a promisingupside, having scored 29 goals and 45 points as a rookie, but he was also -2 ona Stanley Cup champion. Ducks G.M. Brian Burke called the signing "gutless. . . an act of desperation by a general manager who is fighting to keep hisjob." Indeed, Lowe had already whiffed on a seven-year, $50¬†millionoffer sheet to Sabres forward Thomas Vanek, which Buffalo reluctantlymatched.
His fellow G.M.'sshould cut Lowe some slack, because he was forced to deal from a position ofweakness. A year after a surprise trip to the Stanley Cup finals, Edmontonfinished last in the league with 192 goals and won only two of its last 20games. The Oilers then lost their top scorer, Petr Sykora, to the Penguins infree agency. During the Gretzky era, winning tempered the negative view of thefranchise. But those days, and Edmonton's playoff hopes, have passed.
At 38 he still has the blinding speed, superb vision,deft passing touch and lethal wrist shot that he displayed as a 19-year-oldrookie. Last season he became the second oldest player to have a 100-pointseason.
He's the most consistent shutdown defenseman on a teamthat must keep pucks out of the net to win. Regehr also has a mean streak andknows when to make the safe play to clear the puck out of the zone.
On the Verge
In '06-07 he led the Vancouver defense with 42 pointsand joined with Willie Mitchell to shut down opponents' top lines--not bad forthe 151st pick in the 2001 draft, who had not scored an NHL goal until lastseason.
PIERRE MCGUIRE'S In the Crease
Minnesota's group of forwards is scary deep and plentyquick; imagine Brian Rolston and Wes Walz as depth players. . . . New Flamescoach Mike Keenan will be a difference maker, especially for youngsters MatthewLombardi and Dustin Boyd, who should respond to his challenges. . . .TheCanucks' 19th-ranked power play has to get better, as does the offense ofBrendan Morrison and Markus Naslund. . . . One bright spot in Edmonton:First-rounder Sam Gagner is going to be a big-time scorer who is also keenlyaware defensively.