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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