Saturday, August 11, 2007

Pre-Season Predictions: Northwest Division

The race for the Northwest Division crown will be interesting this year. The Vancouver Canucks will certainly look to repeat this season, armed with Luongo in goal yet again. Luongo carried this entire team on his back this year, but especially in the playoffs. His teammates in front of him just couldn’t seem to find the net in the post-season, but Luongo somehow managed to get the team to the Western Conference Semi-Finals; it was a shame that the last goal against Luongo was a bad one. Look for this Montreal-born goalie to continue to be his brilliant self.

The Canucks have been relatively quiet this off-season, but I don’t think that they needed to necessarily make a lot of changes. Something that they do need is consistent scoring from their top forwards (hello Naslund and Sedin twins) – which was definitely absent in the playoffs. I expect that they will be fine during the season and they will make the playoffs, but they may want to add a little something at the trade deadline if they think they have a legitimate Cup contender.

Something Vancouver fans should be excited about: Bieksa’s going to be hanging around for awhile!

The Calgary Flames will certainly want to improve on their consistency this season by winning as many games on the road as at home. I think that the Flames have a really good team in place. They are solid in goal with Kiprusoff, their defense is looking good with shutdown guy Regehr, superstar-in-the-making Phaneuf, and the newly acquired Aucoin. And with Iginla leading the way, the Flames aren’t a bad team.

The big question mark that pops into my mind concerns new head coach Mike Keenan, who is certainly not a stranger to the NHL. If a good kick in the rear is what the Flames needed to play consistently, then Iron Mike is the guy to dish it out. But will Keenan go overboard and risk alienating the team? I guess this is where Iginla has to really step it up to rally the troops and keep them going. The Flames should be able to make the playoffs this year, but Keenan might ruin it all with his iron fist.

I think that fans of the Colorado Avalanche have something to be excited about this season. The Avs is one of many teams that missed the playoffs by thismuch, but they made a few big splashes in the free agent pool. Newcomer Scott Hannan improves the Avs defense; Ryan Smyth adds grit, leadership and offensive punch to a group of forwards that include youngsters Stastny and Wolski; and Budaj has proven himself worthy as a starting goaltender (although expect Theodore to make a push for that job).

The Avs have a history of success, and last year’s early end to the season should not be worrisome. The team is stocked with young talent, and they have the leaders to take them to the playoffs in 2008. Joe Sakic has led this team for 15 years, has won the Cup twice before, and still has more talent than most players in the NHL – I would not be shocked if he made another run for Lord Stanley’s Mug before he retired.

The Minnesota Wild is a team that I don’t know that much about, but I do know that they have some talent. Backstrom was very solid in net last season (you don’t win the Jennings Trophy by being a slacker) and I expect this trend to continue. They seem to favour a defensive style of play but they aren’t slouches up front, with the likes of Koivu, Rolston, and Gaborik. I think they are going to make it to the post-season, but I’m not sure if they can catch the Canucks and the Avs in the divisional race.

Finally, we come to the limping Edmonton Oilers. I feel really bad for this team and all the adversity and instability it has faced in the past 14+ months. They squeaked into the playoffs in 2006 and somehow made it all the way to Game 7 of the Finals before losing to Carolina. Not long afterward, Pronger bolted to Anaheim, Spacek left for Buffalo, and Peca wound up in Toronto. The Oilers had a tough season to begin with, but with injury trouble and the loss of Ryan Smyth, the team seemed to lose its heart and soul. Watching the Oilers play after losing Smyth was like watching a team that just simply gave up – and the fact that they only won 2 games illustrates that point.

MacTavish and the rest of his coaching staff will be fighting an uphill battle this year as they try to stabilize this team and develop some pride. There are a lot of young players in the Oilers’ dressing room - about 16 players have less than 3 years of NHL experience – so the veterans will really have to step up and lead the way through adversity. Without “Captain Canada” or Captain Smith in the lineup this season, leadership might just be the thing that will make or break the Oilers in 2007-08.

I have serious doubts that the Oilers will make the playoffs this coming season. Even though they were the Cinderella team that made it to the Finals in 2006, they are currently light years away from that team. Kevin Lowe made some serious mistakes with Smyth, and his escapades this summer are questionable (though understandable, in my opinion). If things get worse in the “City of Champions” – could they possibly get worse? – K.Lo. will certainly be shown the door.

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