Sunday, August 28, 2011

On the 2011-12 Northwest Division

With training camps around the NHL set to open in less than a month, the time seems about right to examine some of the offseason moves within the Northwest division, and there have certainly been a lot of them, to see how the Edmonton Oilers stack up against their rivals. The Oilers will play 24/82 games this seasons within the division, meaning there are 48 potential points to be won or lost, not including 3 point games. With the return of the Winnipeg Jets and likelihood of realignment next summer, this may be the last season with the Northwest division as we know it. So here's the breakdown on the five teams in the order they finished last year.

Vancouver Canucks
This summer has been more about subtraction rather than addition for the team that made it to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final this past season. The biggest loss for the Canucks this summer was Christian Ehrhoff to the Buffalo Sabres, which came at the cost of re-signing Kevin Bieksa. A 50 point defenceman is hard to come by in the NHL and the Canucks will have to look within to replace the lost offense. Up front the Canucks also lost Raffi Torres, and while he was streaky offensively, the grit and energy he brought to the lineup will be missed, though retaining the services of Chris Higgins will help.

Up or Down?
Considering this team lead the league last season in Wins, Points, Goals For, Goals Against, Powerplay %, tied for second in Penalty Kill %, and went to the final round of the playoffs, there's really no place to go but down. Given their new reputation as an NHL powerhouse they can expect the oppositions' best effort night in and night out this season. There should be no easy games this year and the Canucks will be hard pressed to repeat their incredible season, especially given their shortened offseason. Finally if Ryan Kesler is not 100% to start the season, that will be another setback the Canucks will have to overcome. Regardless, they should still easily capture the Northwest division and compete for top seed in the West again.

Calgary Flames
The Flames basically decided to stand pat this summer and hope that their veteran core of Jarome Iginla, Alex Tanguay, and Olli Jokinen can lead them back to the playoffs. This Flames did make a major move this offseason in trading away Robyn Regehr, probably much to the delight of Ales Hemsky and Oilers fans. While he didn't contribute a lot offensively, he was a reliable, physical force on the Calgary blue line every night. Replacing him will be Scott Hannan, who Jay Feaster recently signed to a low risk deal of 1 year/$1 million. The blueline will now have to be lead by Jay Bouwmeester and Mark Giordano. Up front, younger forwards like Curtis Glencross and Rene Bourque will provide some depth beyond the big three veterans, but they will need to keep producing as there is not much else behind them.

Up or Down?
While every other team in the Northwest made significant moves to try and get better, the Flames have stood still. Jarome Iginla is coming off another impressive season in which he scored 43-43-86 but at 34 years old those type of seasons will be harder to come by. In net Mikka Kiprusoff is still an elite goaltender but he will need to steal a lot of games if the Flames are going to stay in playoff contention. The Flames fell short last season, and made more subtractions than additions this summer, so they are likely on their way down this year.

Minnesota Wild
The Wild made arguably the biggest moves in the division this offseason by acquiring former 50 goal scorer Dany Heatley and former 30 goal scorer Devin Setoguchi. Moving out in exchange for them was the teams best defenseman Brent Burns and Martin Havlat, who never quite found his offensive stride in Minny. While the roster took a hit on the blue line, they've added to their depth up front by adding two established NHL goal scorers. Although Heatley and Setoguchi haven't scored those career highs in goals again in recent history, the potential for big offense is still there. The Wild also added two first round prospects in the Setoguchi deal, so they have made moves to try and improve their roster for now and for the future. While the Wild will need to look from within their system to replace Burns on the blue line, they still have a rock in net in Niklas Backstrom to rely on.

Up or Down?
The Wild have upgraded a bit this summer. Lack of offense has plagued this franchise for years but with their new forwards and a new coach, they now appear to be moving away from their defense first mentality. Depth of scoring beyond their top line will still be a problem for the team that scored the second fewest goals in the Western conference last year. The upgrade this team made on offense however, came at the expense of defense as the blue line is left quite thin. Niklas Backstrom will need to be very good if the Wild are to move up in the standings this season.

Colorado Avalanche
The Avs made big moves at the trade deadline last season bringing in former first overall pick Erik Johnson and moving out a big scorer in Chris Stewart. To offset the loss the Avs brought in a potential replacement for Stewart at the draft by selecting Gabriel Landeskog, who is expected to make the team this year. The biggest move was trading for Semyon Varlamov and signing JS Giguere for insurance in net. Those two moves represent a big upgrade for the Avs as they suffered through the leagues worst goaltending last season. The team moved offensive defenseman John-Michael Liles but managed to add to their blueline by signing Jan Hejda and Shane O'Brien.

Up or Down?
The Avalanche are clearly on the upswing. Bringing in Semyon Varlamov to be the number one goaltender was a huge move, as the drop off in goaltending was the big difference between the team that made the playoffs in 2010 and the team that missed in 2011. The play of Varlamov will factor in largely to where the Avs finish this season. While it would be unfair to expect a rookie like Landeskog to immediately make an impact this season, he will still fill the power forward role that Stewart previously had and should provide a good two-way game. The Avs are also still very strong down the middle with Matt Duchene one year older and Paul Stastny likely to rebound from a down season. Shipping out Liles was a bold move, but having Johnson for the full season should help with the offense from the back end. This team could make the biggest jump in the standings this season.

Edmonton Oilers
The moves by the Oilers this summer have already been covered extensively around the Oilogosphere so I'll spare you the analysis again. In are Ryan Smyth, Eric Belanger, Ben Eager, Darcy Hordichuk, Cam Barker, Andy Sutton, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Out are Andrew Cogliano, Zack Stortini, Jim Vandermeer, Jason Strudwick, Colin Fraser, and Kurtis Foster.

Up or Down?
The Oilers are definitely on the way up. With the rookies one year better and a number of holes in the roster filled with role players, there should be improvement over the past few seasons. The key issue is still goaltending and team defense, but this team will not be picking first overall again at the 2012 NHL entry draft.

Putting it all together
So how will the Northwest division shape up this season? Given how competitive the Western Conference has become it is still very likely that only one team from the Northwest division will finish in the top 8 again this year. Here's how I see the Northwest finishing:

1. Vancouver Canucks
2. Colorado Avalanche
3. Calgary Flames
4. Edmonton Oilers
5. Minnesota Wild

Care to discuss?

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Monday, August 15, 2011

On Finishing Last in the West

Today The Hockey News began their series of 2011-12 NHL regular season predictions and have selected two Canadian teams to finish last in their respective conferences. In the East the rebuilding Ottawa Senators have drawn the short straw, and in the West they've predicted none other than the Edmonton Oilers to finish 15th for a third consecutive season. This came as perhaps a bit of a surprise considering the rebuild in Edmonton is already entering its third year, and THN is suggesting with their choice that essentially no progress has been made with this franchise.

Here's their reasoning behind not moving the OIL up in the standings just yet:

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was added to the exciting core of youth in Edmonton, but like the Senators, the Oilers still have a couple years of bumps and bruises ahead of them. While the prospects should have fans giddy with excitement, the fact is Edmonton is buried in a deep conference full of Stanley Cup contenders, so expectations have to be tempered. Once their prospects earn some experience, the Oilers will be off and running.

The Western conference has certainly become more and more competitive these past few seasons. Looking at last years standings, the Columbus Blue Jackets finished with nearly a .500 record (34-35-13) and 81 points and still only managed to place 13th. From there however, it was a large drop off in points to 14th with the Colorado Avalanche finishing with 68 points on the year. While the Blue Jackets have definitely improved this off season, the direction the Avalanche are headed this season is not as obvious. Although Semyon Varlamov is an upgrade on Craig Anderson and a full season of Erik Johnson and adding Gabriel Landeskog should yield some positive results.

So if the teams directly above the Oilers have improved, what are their chances of moving up this year? Clearly the Oilers have done some upgrading of their own this offseason, which should bring improvement assuming the injury bug doesn't bite as bad as it has in recent history. But will that improvement be enough to catch the Avs and Blue Jackets? Adding to this debate is the fact that while number of teams in the West did get better this summer, some have also managed to get worse, with the Phoenix Coyotes being the standout. The Coyotes had the 8th best offense in the Western Conference last season scoring a total of 231 goals. However, with the exit of Eric Belanger and Scottie Upshall this summer, the Coyotes lost 35 of those goals, which they will likely be hard pressed to replace. Without the offense those two players brought, the Coyotes would have been only 3 goals better than the Oilers. The biggest departure from the roster though is of course Ilya Bryzgalov. Phoenix won 43 games last year (36 from Bryzgalov) and 20 of those came in 1 goal games. The goaltending of Bryzgalov certainly played a big part in a lot of those victories. Replacing him with the tandem of Mike Smith and Jason Labarbera, who together only have just over 300 games in the NHL, is a downgrade to say the least. If Oilers fans think that entering the season with Khabibulin and Dubnyk is questionable, then consider what Coyotes fans must have on their minds. Dave Tippett will have his work cut out for him this year, and short of a stroke of genius on his part, the Coyotes are poised for a tumble down the standings in 2011-12 and are my early pick to finish 15th in the West.

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Sunday, August 7, 2011

On Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Red vs. White

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was cut from Team Canada's World Junior Championship selection camp last December after failing to make a good impression with coaches. This year, coming into the summer development camp he vowed to assert himself more and to make better on last year's performance. So far Nugent-Hopkins has done just that by demonstrating his high end skills during the drills and scrimmages, and then topping it off with a game breaking performance at last night's intrasquad matchup in front of his home crowd.

For the most part of last night's Red vs. White game, Nugent-Hopkins was rather quite offensively while his linemate Devante Smith-Pelly put on dominating performance. It may have been the nerves of playing in front Oilers fans at Rexall Place for the first time as a member of the Oilers or perhaps a bit of mid summer rust in his game, but the chances weren't coming as easy as they usually do in the offensive zone. Despite the slow start, Nugent-Hopkins was still able to get into the game by winning faceoffs, something we didn't see much of from him when he was here last playing against the Oil Kings in the WHL playoffs, and getting in on the forecheck and penalty kill. His puck pursuit and quick feet were evident on the forecheck and in his own zone, and he demonstrated his ability to separate opposing players from the puck a number of times throughout the game. But still, for the first 55 minutes of the game, the offensive brilliance that Oilers fans were expecting to see was a bit lacking.

However like skilled players so often do, when Nugent-Hopkins finally got his opportunity he buried it. With his team down by one late in the third, Nugent-Hopkins got in on a rush and managed to find a loose rebound and put it away with a beautiful spin-a-rama backhand. The goal definitely gave him a shot of confidence and just a few minutes later he showed off his quick hands and quick release and scored the game winner with 20 seconds left in the game.

While it wasn't a dominating game by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins last night, Oilers fans got a glimpse of what he can still do when the bounces aren't going his way, a scenario that is guaranteed to appear for a rookie in the NHL if he makes the team this year. Considering it was only an exhibition, the game had a decent pace and the players certainly didn't shy away from the physical play, which was perhaps not surprising when there are 47 players battling for 22 spots on the tournament roster. Nugent-Hopkins didn't look outmatched physically by any means, but of course the opposition was fellow junior players and doesn't really give any indication of how he'll perform in the NHL. It was good to see though that the additional 10 pounds he has put on his frame since the draft didn't seem to affect his speed, which is such an asset to his game. It's still unclear whether Nugent-Hopkins will even be available to play for Team Canada this December, but his showing last night certainly didn't disappoint Oilers fans and helped add to the growing excitement here in Oil Country.

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Monday, August 1, 2011

On the 2013 or 2014 Edmonton Oilers

Kevin Allen of USA Today (@kausatoday) recently posted his 10 early projections for the 2011-12 NHL season and had an interesting one that involved the Edmonton Oilers. Here's what he had to say:

"Whether the Edmonton Oilers are close to competing for a playoff spot is unknown, but they will be exciting. It's easy to project them as an elite Pittsburgh Penguins-style contender by 2013 or 2014. There are a good number of general managers who gladly would trade their team for the Oilers' roster." While a number of OIL country writers and bloggers have been writing the same things about the direction this Oilers rebuild is heading in, it's nice to hear it from a writer who is on the outside looking in. It's even nicer when it comes from a hockey writer who is as respected as Kevin Allen is.

One thing that is for certain in Mr. Allen's bold prediction is that this season's Oilers will be exciting. With Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi, and Linus Omark all one year smarter, Ales Hemsky and Ryan Whitney both one surgery stronger, and the roster itself one Ryan Smyth, a first overall draft pick, and four free agents better, it should make for a much more impressive showing than Oilers fans have seen in recent years. Over at OilersNation they often talk about the Oilers and playing ELPH, or Exciting Last Place Hockey, but I wouldn't be surprised to see the LP dropped this coming year. That is, of course assuming that the Oilers can avoid the massive injury bug that has plagued them for the past few years.

With regard to becoming a "Pittsburgh Penguins-style contender" by 2014, that is definitely what fans across OIL country have been dreaming of, but are they really that close? The 2008-2009 Stanley Cup Champion Penguins finished the regular season 2nd in the Atlantic Division and 4th in the Eastern Conference with 99 points that year. Their roster boasted a great deal of depth on offense, including 2 players that reached triple digits in scoring, 4 forwards that scored 20+ goals, and 7 other players that scored 10-20 goals. The Penguins also had 4 forwards score 46 or more points that season, the Oilers didn't have any this past year. But while the Oilers may not currently be the high powered offensive force that the Penguins are, the depth on offense is starting to appear and should only improve as the current crop continues to develop, and promising prospects graduate to the next level. It is interesting to note though, while the Penguins forwards scored a lot that year, there was still quite a disparity among them with Crosby and Malkin both scoring more than double the points of third leading scorer Jordan Staal. While no one is expecting Hall and Nugent-Hopkins to become Art Ross and Hart trophy winners like Crosby and Malkin, if they can both become offensive leaders that will drive the Oilers night in and night out, then perhaps the comparison to the Penguins might not be that far off.

Where the Oilers are lacking in comparison to the Penguins though is in the goal crease and the depth on defense. While the help on the blue line is coming for the Oilers thanks to strong drafting in recent years, the goaltending situation is not that clear. With Nikolai Khabibulin struggling to show that he is still a number 1 goalie in the NHL, the Oilers have had to rely on Devan Dubnyk more than they had hoped they would need to this early in his career. While Dubnyk played very well last season (35gp, .916 SV%, 2.17GAA), whether he is ready to handle the physical and mental rigors of being a starting goalie is to be seen. Marc-Andre Fleury may not be a Vezina caliber goaltender, but what he does is give the Penguins a chance to win every night. If the Oilers can find his type of consistency, either in Dubnyk or someone else, then their chances of becoming a solid contender in the coming years will be greatly improved.

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