Northwest

WESTERN CONFERENCE
October 03, 2010

VANCOUVER

Canucks

COACH

Alain Vigneault (5th season)

LAST SEASON

49-28-5 (3rd in West); lost in second round to Blackhawks

KEY ADDITIONS

D Keith Ballard, D Dan Hamhuis, C Manny Malhotra

KEY LOSSES

RW Steve Bernier, C Pavol Demitra, D Willie Mitchell

ROBERTO LUONGO logged more than a thousand miles on his bicycle over the summer and dropped from 215 pounds to 207. But eight pounds is nothing compared to the weight Luongo dropped when the captain's c came off his sweater—or if you want to be literal, off his mask. (A new captain has not yet been named.) He had publicly embraced the honor, bestowed on him two years ago by Canucks G.M. Mike Gillis, but it was always an awkward fit. An NHL captaincy carries responsibilities, and there's a reason teams don't anoint goaltenders—since the 1940s there has been an NHL rule against the practice. When Luongo, 31, vacated the position before the start of camp last month, he said, "[Goalie is] a weird position. You are on your own. You have to be focused all the time and thinking about your job."

The 6'3" Luongo (2.57 GAA, .913 save percentage last season) seems happy to once again be just another name on the roster. Along with new goaltending coach Roland Melanson, he has been steadily toiling to improve his angles, footwork and puckhandling skills.

Aware of the bumping and bashing Luongo took in the second-round playoff loss to the Blackhawks last spring, Gillis picked up two veteran defensemen: trading for Keith Ballard and signing Dan Hamhuis as a free agent. The defense also needs mild-mannered 6'3", 217-pound Swede Alexander Edler to continue his snarling playoff form from last season.

Vancouver's stylish and skilled forwards will be back in force. The Sedin twins are coming off magnificent seasons; Henrik led the league in both assists (83) and points (112), while Daniel's numbers (29 goals, 56 assists) were diminished only because of a broken left foot. Four others—Ryan Kesler, Alexandre Burrows, Mikael Samuelsson and Mason Raymond—each added at least 25 goals, making them the most balanced set of scorers in the NHL. "We feel we have the talent to compete with anybody," says Luongo. "It's a matter of putting things together at the right time."

COLORADO

Avalanche

COACH

Joe Sacco (2nd season)

LAST SEASON

43-30-9 (8th in West); lost in first round to Sharks

KEY ADDITIONS

C Daniel Winnik

KEY LOSSES

RW Marek Svatos, RW Darcy Tucker, C Stephane Yelle

THE AVALANCHE'S 26-point gain over 2008--09 was keyed by a brash cadre of rookies and one heroic goaltender. Encore performances are needed from Colorado's now-second-year players: Matt Duchene (below), who led all rookies with 55 points; Ryan O'Reilly, who amassed 17 points in the first 24 games before tailing off toward the end of the season; T.J. Galiardi, a strong penalty killer who saw time on the team's top line with Paul Stastny and Chris Stewart; Brandon Yip, an aggressive checker who scored 11 goals in 32 games; and Ryan Wilson, a steady blueliner whose +13 was the highest of any Colorado defenseman's. The Avs' kiddie corps should get a boost from Stewart, 22, who put himself through a fierce off-season conditioning program in hopes of surpassing the 64 points he put up last year.

Colorado's biggest surprise last year was journeyman goalie Craig Anderson. In 71 games he went 38-25-7, with a 2.64 GAA and a .917 save percentage—all while facing more shots, 2,233, than any other goalie in the NHL. Much of that onslaught can be blamed on his callow teammates, who gave up 32.1 shots a game. If everybody is one year better in 2010--11, that number should go down. And the Avs should be on the way up.

CALGARY

Flames

COACH

Brent Sutter (2nd season)

LAST SEASON

40-32-10 (10th in West)

KEY ADDITIONS

RW Tim Jackman, C Olli Jokinen, LW Alex Tanguay

KEY LOSSES

LW Chris Higgins, RW Jamal Mayers, LW Eric Nystrom

IN A SWAP that helped nobody, Calgary traded center Olli Jokinen to the Rangers last February for winger Ales Kotalik; in 26 games after the deal, Jokinen scored four goals and Kotalik three. So what did the Flames do for 2010? They inexplicably brought back both players. For good measure they also fished into the free-agent bin for 30-year-old left wing Alex Tanguay, another ex-Flame-out who scored 10 goals in 80 games with Tampa Bay last season. It's unlikely such an unproductive trio will be able to provide much lift for a club that scored a conference-worst 201 goals. Beyond captain Jarome Iginla (32 goals last year) and improving right wing René Bourque (27), no other Calgary forward had more than 15 goals or 37 points.

The Flames' strength is defense. The anchors are Jay Bouwmeester, a gifted skater, and Robyn Regehr, a capable banger. Mark Giordano, now in his fourth season, seems ready to assume the mantle of blue line stalwart. He was +17 in 2009--10, showing he'd learned his lessons well while playing for Dynamo Moscow of the KHL in 2007--08. No less an authority than Scotty Bowman called him the NHL's most improved defenseman last year.

Goalie Miikka Kiprusoff (2.31 GAA, .920 save percentage last year) is also strong. But without more scoring, it's hard to call the Flames a contender.

MINNESOTA

Wild

COACH

Todd Richards (2nd season)

LAST SEASON

38-36-8 (13th in West)

KEY ADDITIONS

C Matt Cullen, C John Madden, C Eric Nystrom

KEY LOSSES

LW Derek Boogaard, D Shane Hnidy, D John Scott

AFTER NEVER quite rallying from a disastrous 3-9-0 start last season, the Wild is committed to opening 2010--11 on a more successful note. "We lost the season in the first month [last year]," says coach Todd Richards. "It did us in mentally."

For psychological support, the Wild brought in a pair of centers with Stanley Cup rings: John Madden, a winner with the Devils (twice) and the Blackhawks, and one of the league's best defensive forwards; and Matt Cullen, who won with the Hurricanes in 2006. Cullen, 33, who grew up in Virginia, Minn., and was a Mr. Hockey finalist at 18, actually brought the Cup to his hometown after he won with Carolina, but the Wild will need to score more often if he's to do that again. Despite a fine year from center Mikko Koivu (above), who led the team with 71 points, no Minnesota player scored more than 25 goals. Marek Zidlicky had a nice 43-point season, but no other blueliner netted more than six goals. To get on track, the Wild needs more than veteran leadership and Stanley Cup rings.

EDMONTON

Oilers

COACH

Tom Renney (1st season)

LAST SEASON

27-47-8 (15th in West)

KEY ADDITIONS

D Kurtis Foster, C Colin Fraser, LW Taylor Hall

KEY LOSSES

LW Ethan Moreau, C Patrick O'Sullivan, RW Fernando Pisani

THE OILERS can take comfort in the unlikelihood that this season will be worse than last. Edmonton was 30th in the league in wins (27) and points (62), and topped the NHL in goals allowed (278) and giveaways (1,055).

With the No. 1 pick in the June draft, the Oilers took winger Taylor Hall, who amassed 106 points for the OHL's Windsor Spitfires last year. At 18, he may already be capable of stepping into a prominent role. Hall would be a good fit with 6'4", 245-pound power forward Dustin Penner, who broke out last year with a career-high 32 goals. Twenty-year-old rookie winger Jordan Eberle—who led Team Canada with 13 points at last January's World Junior Championship—may also make an impact.

But Edmonton lacks scorers, and goaltending isn't likely to steal the club many wins. Nikolai Khabibulin, 37, played just 18 games because of a herniated disk, and his status for 2010--11 is uncertain after he was sentenced in August to at least 30 days in an Arizona prison for a drunken driving and excessive speeding conviction. (He is free while the case is under appeal.) The likely starter is Jeff Deslauriers (3.26 GAA, .901 save percentage), who led the NHL with 28 losses last year.

The Oilers have reason for optimism—for the future. The present looks as if it's going to be tough to take.

PIERRE MCGUIRE'S IN THE CREASE

The Canucks are deep at every position, especially after the addition of defensemen Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard.... The Avalanche's scoring sensation, center Matt Duchene, could struggle this year as teams create game plans to shut him down.... The Flames cannot afford to have the NHL's 29th-rated offense again. That means new forwards Alex Tanguay and Olli Jokinen have to improve on the 25 total goals they combined for last year.... The offensively challenged Wild needs winger Pierre-Marc Bouchard(below), who missed all but one game last year after suffering a concussion in the opener, to return to the form he had in 2008--09 (16 goals, 30 assists).... If he stays healthy, expect Oilers wing Taylor Hall, the top pick in this year's draft, to compete for the Calder Trophy.

PHOTOJIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES (LUONGO)BACK TO BUSINESS By shedding the captain's C and its responsibilities, Luongo hopes to focus more on puck stopping. PHOTODUSTIN BRADFORD/ICON SMI (DUCHENE) PHOTOMARC PISCOTTY/ICON SMI (MUELLER) PHOTOGREGORY SHAMUS/GETTY IMAGES (KOIVU) PHOTOTOM DAHLIN/GETTY IMAGES (BOUCHARD) FIVE ILLUSTRATIONS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)