We're into the home stretch with my division-by-division previews of how each grouping of teams will finish at the end of the regular season. (Atlantic is HERE; Central is HERE; and Northeast is HERE.) The Pacific and Southeast will be done over the next two weeks.
Before I get into the Northwest preview, let me say this division is by far the toughest to call. In my mind, four of the five teams could finish anywhere from atop the division to out of the playoffs. Still, THN pays me to have an opinion, so here goes nuthin':
Northwest Division (in predicted order of finish)
Coming: Adrian Aucoin, Anders Eriksson, Owen Nolan, Cory Sarich
Going: Tony Amonte, Brad Ference, Jeff Friesen, Mark Giordano, Roman Hamrlik, Darren McCarty, Jamie McLennan, Byron Ritchie, Brad Stuart, Andrei Zyuzin
Why 1st? Because this is precisely the type of veteran team new coach Mike Keenan can succeed with. With the exception of multiple-Norris-Trophy-winner-in-the-making Dion Phaneuf, the top six members of their reconstituted and improved defense corps all have at least seven NHL seasons under their belt, and although their forward unit has only four players coming off of 70-point campaigns, many believed more than a few of them underachieved.
Undoubtedly, much of their success will depend on Miikka Kiprusoff, but even in the so-called Â“off-yearÂ” he had last season, the Finn had 40 wins, a 2.46 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage. I know a lot of netminders who'd cut off the left portion of their protective cup for those numbers.
Coming: Brad Isbister, Aaron Miller, Byron Ritchie, Curtis Sanford, Ryan Shannon
Going: Jan Bulis, Marc Chouinard, Rory Fitzpatrick, Wade Flaherty, Lee Goren, Josh Green, Brad Moran, Dany Sabourin, Tommi Santala, Brent Sopel, Yannick Tremblay
Why 2nd? Because, for as outstanding as Roberto Luongo was in carrying Vancouver to the regular-season division title last year, other Northwest teams have improved (at least, on paper) at a greater rate than the Canucks did this summer.
That doesn't mean I don't think the addition of Aaron Miller wasn't one of the more underappreciated moves of the off-season. But, as everyone who saw them eke out 2-1 win after 3-2 win last year, this team needs more offense if it hopes to contend for a Stanley Cup. And I'm sorry, Canucks fans, but you and I both know Brad Isbister, Byron Ritchie and Ryan Shannon are not the second coming of Alfredsson, Spezza and Heatley.
Coming: Scott Hannan, Jeff Jillson, Dale Purinton, Ryan Smyth
Going: Patrice Brisebois, Ken Klee, Antti Laaksonen, Brett McLean, Mark Rycroft, Pierre Turgeon, Ossi Vaananen
Why 3rd? Because the additions of Smyth and Hannan represent a significant, performance-enhancing needle in the arm for a franchise transitioning toward younger players such as Paul Stastny, Wojtek Wolski and John-Michael Liles.
The Avs certainly have their share of trouble spots, including a defense corps that appears to be decidedly average, and a salary-cap-eating backup goaltender whose confidence can only be found on the back of milk cartons in convenience stores across the continent.
Those factors used to mean a lot in my ranking of Colorado as a non-playoff team. With Hannan and Smyth amping up the franchise's heart-and-soul quotient Â– as well as its pitiful penalty kill in '06-07 Â– those factors don't seem nearly so worrisome anymore. If goalie Peter Budaj can match his play over the final five weeks of last season, the Avs will be playoff-bound once again.
Coming: Eric Belanger, Sean Hill, Petr Kalus, Andre Lakos, Nolan Schaefer
Going: Manny Fernandez, Adam Hall, Wyatt Smith
Why 4th? BecauseÂ…well, to be honest, I had a tough time with ranking an above-par team like the Wild second-last in their division.
There really is a lot to like here Â– most notably, the superior on-ice talent that is Marian Gaborik and brimming-with-promise youngsters such as forwards Pierre-Marc Bouchard, defenseman Brent Burns, and goalie Josh Harding. If Gaborik stays healthy and newly-anointed No. 1 netminder Niklas Backstrom plays to the level he did last year, the Wild could very well win the Northwest.
What nags at me most with GM Doug Risebrough's plan is this: he's brought back the same group of players that basically laid down and got steamrolled by Anaheim in the first round of the playoffs last spring. If there's any residual psychological hangover from that humiliation, the Wild could dig themselves an early-season hole that most NHL teams have found impossible to dig out of thanks to the division-heavy schedule.
I'm not saying that's definitely going to happen, but the potential for a step backwards is definitely there. And when you consider how tough Minnesota's divisional opponents are, even the slightest slip could mean the difference between them enjoying a return to the playoffs and premature golf season.
Coming: Mathieu Garon, Denis Grebeshkov, Dustin Penner, Joni Pitkanen, Geoff Sanderson, Sheldon Souray, Dick Tarnstrom
Going: Jan Hejda, Joffrey Lupul, Jussi Markkanen, Petr Nedved, Toby Petersen, Jason Smith, Petr Sykora, Daniel Tjarnqvist, Brad Winchester
Why 5th? Because let's face it Â– everyone who is hired to work at The Hockey News has to swear an oath that they despise the Oilers and will do everything in their power to bash them.
(Just kiddin', people. Put your angry email trigger finger away and lighten up a little.)
The truth is, I've developed a newfound respect for GM Kevin Lowe over the last half-year or so. Sure, he blew his chance to re-sign Ryan Smyth when he could've in the summer of 2006; but he had no reservations about dealing Smyth when it became clear he couldn't re-sign him. Despite the late-season freefall that followed Smyth's departure, it absolutely was the right move for the franchise.
Lowe got even bolder after that, morphing into the Jack Sparrow of the NHL's GM community this summer with his attempts at raiding the rosters of the competition. He failed to land Buffalo's Thomas Vanek, but still came away with a nice building block in former Duck Dustin Penner.
Unfortunately, Lowe still requires a few more components to build with before this team can honestly talk about a playoff berth. Other than Penner, Geoff Sanderson is the only new forward among a group that finished dead-last in offense last season; and, although Sheldon Souray's leadership will help ensure another two-wins-in-20-games tailspin never happens again, his presence alone won't ensure their wussified '06-07 power play suddenly grows a pair.
With the exceptions of Phoenix and Columbus, no team has fallen as hard and far as the Oilers have in the last year. They're moving in the right direction now, but the recovery period likely will take at least a season to complete.
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