Roberto Luongo will be the center of attention on Canada\'s west coast this season. (Getty Images)
THN Prediction: Third in Western Conference
Key additions: Mathieu Schneider, D; Christian Ehrhoff, D; Mikael Samuelsson, RW; Brad Lukowich, D; Andrew Raycroft, G; Sergei Shirokov, LW
Key departures: Mattias Ohlund, D; Taylor Pyatt, LW; Mats Sundin, C
Twin brothers Daniel and Henrik Sedin don’t qualify for the ‘key additions’ category, but considering they could have gone anywhere else as unrestricted free agents, keeping them in Vancouver was a key signing by GM Mike Gillis.
The offense revolves around the Sedins just the way the defense is anchored by all-world stopper Roberto Luongo. Continued growth from Ryan Kesler, Mason Raymond and Steve Bernier will boost the secondary scoring, while rookie Cody Hodgson is the wild card. He has the credentials to step in and be an immediate hit if given ample opportunity on the top three lines.
Gillis made a concerted move just before training camp opened by adding mobility on the blueline in the form of Christian Ehrhoff and Mathieu Schneider. Vancouver’s defense was solid last season, but was at times plodding. Now the Canucks are five deep with defensemen who can move the puck quickly into the neutral zone, a trait the franchise has never enjoyed before. It was surely sparked by division rival Calgary’s signing of crafty Jay Bouwmeester.
THN Prediction: Fifth
Key additions: Jay Bouwmeester, D; Nigel Dawes, LW; Fredrik Sjostrom, RW
Key departures: Mike Cammalleri, LW; Adrian Aucoin, D; Todd Bertuzzi, LW; Jordan Leopold, D
Perhaps more important than the free agent signing of defenseman Jay Bouwmeester was the securing of coach Brent Sutter to guide a lineup studded with a half-dozen stars and a plateful of role players.
Players were given offensive freedom under deposed coach Mike Keenan, but as a group became irresponsible and scatterbrained defensively. Defenseman Dion Phaneuf regressed in a huge way both offensively and defensively and over-worked goalie Miikka Kiprusoff saw his save percentage sag for a fourth straight season.
Under Sutter, the Flames will surely start the season with a defense-first approach. Olli Jokinen has to step up and show he can produce for a full season, which shouldn’t be a problem playing on a line with Jarome Iginla. The loss of Mike Cammalleri will be felt, but candidates to pick up the scoring slack include Nigel Dawes and Rene Bourque. The Calgary defense with Robyn Regehr, Cory Sarich, Mark Giordano and sophomore Adam Pardy is among the top two or three in the league.
THN Prediction: 11th
Key additions: Nikolai Khabibulin, G; Mike Comrie, C
Key departures: Dwayne Roloson, G; Ales Kotalik, LW
Not a whole lot has changed from a lineup that finished 11th in the conference last season. Dwayne Roloson couldn’t have played any better in goal, so there’s no guarantee Nikolai Khabibulin will be much of an upgrade. It’s up to new coach Pat Quinn to squeeze more out of a group of underachievers under deposed Craig MacTavish.
The speed and skill from the likes of Ales Hemsky, Andrew Cogliano, Sam Gagner and Robert Nilsson is undeniable, but the team lacks grit in the trenches on the top two lines. Much more will be expected from big teddy bear Dustin Penner.
There are no issues with skill and mobility on the blueline, but again the Oilers lack the toughness in comparison to Western Conference contenders. Edmonton needs to embrace Quinn’s strategies and find a way to get consistent scoring from more than just a few players.
THN Prediction: 13th
Key additions: Martin Havlat, RW; Kyle Brodziak, C; Greg Zanon, D; Shane Hnidy, D; Petr Sykora, RW
Key departures: Marian Gaborik, RW; Martin Skoula, D; Stephane Veilleux, LW; Marc-Andre Bergeron, D; Kurtis Foster, D; Dan Fritsche, C
It’s a brave, new world in Minnesota with the departure of the team’s original top pick and superstar Marian Gaborik and defense-first coach Jacques Lemaire. With Todd Richards behind the bench and Chuck Fletcher replacing Doug Risebrough as GM, the Wild will surely be a more exciting, risk-oriented team than previous editions. Mikko Koivu will lean heavily on newcomer Martin Havlat to spearhead the attack, but a lot depends upon the maturation of second-line players Pierre-Marc Bouchard and James Sheppard. More offensive green lights will boost their stats, but may not translate into more wins.
Niklas Backstrom will be tested like never before behind an unheralded defense corps led by Brent Burns. Newcomers Greg Zanon and Shane Hnidy are steady presences who offer toughness. The new version of the Wild are bound to experience growing pains under a whole new playing philosophy.
THN Prediction: 14th
Key additions: Craig Anderson, G; Kyle Quincey, D; Matt Duchene, C; Tom Preissing, D
Key departures: Joe Sakic, C; Ian Laperriere, RW; Ryan Smyth, LW; Andrew Raycroft, G; Tyler Arnason, C; Cody McCormick, RW; Ben Guite, C
The retirement of Joe Sakic will hit the Avalanche franchise hard this season and a handful of expiring contracts that were not renewed promises there will be a lot of young, new faces in the lineup. Top draft pick Matt Duchene will be given every chance to make an offensive difference and young prospects such as T.J. Galiardi and Chris Stewart will have to play themselves off the roster. More than ever, Paul Stastny is the go-to player and wingers Wojtek Wolski and Milan Hejduk must ramp up the production if the Avalanche are to be consistently competitive.
This is Craig Anderson’s big break between the pipes and he’ll have a cadre of proven veterans in front of him on the blueline, such as Adam Foote, Scott Hannan, Ruslan Salei, Brett Clark and J-M Liles. The lack of depth and experience on the second and third lines will make Anderson’s mandate to come up with big-game performances imperative.
Brian Costello is The Hockey News’s senior special editions editor and a regular contributor to THN.com. You can find his blog each weekend.
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