2010-11 Pucking Awesome NHL Preview: Northwest Division
The Northwest division is one of the most exciting in the NHL. It features half of the Canadian teams in the NHL and the always exciting battle of Alberta. It also features the longest divisional trip in Vancouver to Minnesota, just edging out the San Jose to Dallas trip. The Canucks have locked up the Division two years in a row and they are gunning for a 3rd. The Edmonton Oilers are the only team to not with the Northwest division since it was founded in the 1998-99 season. Can they do it this season? (Not likely)
Rear-view Mirror: The Canucks are coming off of a highly successful season. A division crown, a 100+ point season and Henrik Sedin (29G-83A-112P) led the NHL in points and assists and won the Hart trophy for most valuable player. In the postseason the Canucks dispatched the Kings in the 1st round and then played their arch rivals the Blackhawks in the 2nd round. The Blackhawks once again got into the Canucks’ and Luongo’s head and the Canucks self destructed and were eliminated.
Roberto Luongo (.910 SV%, 2.57 GAA, 4 SO) was able to help lead Team Canada to an Olympic medal but he actually had one of his worst seasons in awhile. His SV% was his lowest since his rookie year with the Islanders. His shutouts were less than half of the previous season.
The Canucks were the 2nd highest scoring team with 268 goals or a 3.23 GFA, 2nd only to the Capitals. They were also 2nd to the Capitals in shooting percentage at 10.6%. Four (D. Sedin, Ehrhoff, H. Sedin, Burrows) of the top nine +/- leaders were on the Canucks, the other five were all Capitals. The Canucks were also 2nd in the league in shorthanded goals with 9.
Offseason Ins: Keith Ballard, Dan Hamhuis, Manny Malhotra
Offseason Outs: Michael Grabner, Willie Mitchell, Pavol Demitra, Andrew Raycroft, Kyle Wellwood
What Makes Them Tick: The Sedins are obviously the heart and soul of the Canucks. Including all of the above mentioned accolades, King Henrik finally logged his 1st 100+ point season. He should be able to continue that pace this season. His brother Daniel (29-56-85) missed 20 games last season, otherwise he probably would also have logged his 1st 100+ point season. Alexandre Burrows, (35-32-67) who led the team in goals, is generally paired with the Sedins and is one of the more physical 1st liners in the league. He logged 121 PIM last season, down from the previous few seasons. Ryan Kesler (25-50-75) anchors a decent second line. He has seen his point totals go up every season for the past four. Defensively the Canucks have arguably one of the best top six in the league. Keith Ballard and Dan Hamhuis are added to compliment Sami Salo, Kevin Bieksa, Christian Ehrhoff and Alexander Edler. On the checking line Rick Rypien is one of the top fighters in the league. If you haven’t seem him fight, you really ought too.
What Could Make Them Go Boom: The Canucks seem to have a big problem with keeping defensemen healthy. Salo, Mitchell (now departed) and Bieksa all missed portions of the last season. While the have about eight or so defenseman signed now, keeping their main ones healthy and in the lineup is a priority, albeit one they don’t have much control over. The Canucks also need to play more physical as they were one of the lowest shot blocking and checking teams in the league.
Player to Watch: Roberto Luongo finally gave up the C on his sweater. He also finally got the monkey off of his back (somewhat) by winning something big with the Gold medal in Vancouver. Now comes the hard part of elevating his game come playoff time. The last two times the Canucks have been eliminated in the playoffs, Luongo has not had his best game. Consistency has never been his strong point. Sometimes he makes such an amazing save, you wonder how did he did it. The next time he might let in a goal that leaves you scratching your head. With the length of Luongo’s contract he won’t be leaving anytime soon. He needs to find a way to keep his composure come playoff time. The door on the Canucks title hopes will be coming to a close in a few seasons.
Prediction: The Canucks should be able to wrap up their 3rd division crown. This is very much a win now team. The Sedin twins are also now in the prime of their careers. The Canucks boast experience and depth offensively and defensively. The two lingering questions come playoff time are: Can the Canucks maintain their composure and discipline? and Can Luongo raise his game to the next level come playoff time? The Blackhawks actually did the Canucks a huge favor by shipping Dustin Byfuglien to Atlanta. He tormented the Canucks the most in the previous postseasons and with him out of the way I think at least a Conference Finals appearance is very likely for the Canucks. The Canucks Stanley Cup aspirations lie squarely on Luongo.
Rear-view Mirror: The Avalanche finished dead last two seasons ago and nobody picked them to do much of anything last season. However between the pieces that were injured the previous season, a stellar draft and a few key accusations, the Avalanche were able to put it all together and make the playoffs as the 8th seed. The Avalanche battled the Sharks in the 1st round but it was clear they were over-matched.
In his first full season Craig Anderson (.917 SV%, 2.63 GAA, 7 SO) proved to be a workhorse and the goalie that the Avalanche have been looking for since Patrick Roy retired. Paul Stastny (20G-59A-79P) rebounded nicely after two injury plagued seasons and led the Avs in assists and points. 3rd overall pick Matt Duchene (24-31-55) immediately contributed and was 2nd on the Avs in goals. Kyle Quincey (6-23-29) was the Avs top defensemen in his 2nd full season and had a +9, 3rd on the team and 2nd for defensemen. The Avs were also 4th in takeaways with 684.
Offseason Ins: Daniel Winnik
Offseason Outs: Brett Clark, Ruslan Salei
What Makes Them Tick: The Avs, like the Penguins, have three quality centers. Stastny and Duchene are joined by fellow 1st round pick of last year Ryan O’Reilly (8-18-26). Duchene and O’Reilly’s further development will be the keys to another successful season. Veteran Milan Hejduk (23-21-44) and newly acquired Peter Mueller (13-24-37) round out the top line. Mueller (more on him below) was acquired in the trade for Wojtek Wolski last season. The 11 year vet, Hejduk showed that despite his age and injuries he could still produce. Hejduk and Adam Foote are the only Avalanche left from the 2001 Stanley Cup team. Chris Stewart (28-36-64) led the Avs in goals last season. He should be able to continue his development further alongside of Duchene and become a 30+ goal scorer this season. Defensively the Avalanche have a nice mix of young and old. Foote, Scott Hannan and John-Michael Liles (6-25-31) pair with the younger Quincey, Kyle Cumiskey (7-13-20) and Ryan Wilson. Hannan and Quincy were both in the top 25 for blocked shots. Quincey and Cumiskey were in the top eight for takeaways.
What Could Make Them Go Boom: The 2nd youngest team in the league, the Avalanche will now have a little pressure on them to try and duplicate the same success. Craig Anderson played 71 games last season, 5th most in the league. It didn’t seem to phase him in the playoffs, where he went on to face the most amount of shots in the 1st round. Still he needs to receive more of a breather and hopefully the Avs can knock his games played down to 60. The most pressing issue for the Avalanche is they need to get more shots on goal. They had 2287 shots last season 2nd worst in the league. They made the most of their shots though as they were 3rd in shooting percentage at 10.4%. Their shooting woes continued in the postseason. If they hope to advance further this season they will need to put the puck on net more. One way of doing that and creating more offensive chances would be to improve on the face-off. The Avs were 2nd worst in the league with a FO% of 47.7.
Player to Watch: Peter Mueller was taking 8th overall in the 2006 draft and had a fairly productive rookie year. His production slipped the following year and then slipped again with about 2/3 of the season complete last season. He requested a trade, which the Coyotes granted. He ended up being more productive in a third as many games with the Avalanche. In the final week of the regular season he suffered a concussion, which made him miss the rest of the year and the playoffs. Mueller says he is fully recovered from his concussion and it will be interesting to see how his game develops in a full season on the top line with the Avs. 30 goals is a distinct possibility for him, as I don’t believe he will suffer a second career slump.
Prediction: The Avalanche at this point are well ahead of where many thought they would be. It’s very possible the Avalanche could suffer a “sophomore” slump so to speak and not make the playoffs. However I think they have the talent necessary and will continue to develop and gel as a young group. A lower to middle playoff seeding is the most likely scenario. If Mueller, Duchene, O’Reilly and Stewart can continue to develop and can get more shots on goal ,with Anderson providing another stellar year in net, the sky is the limit for this young team.
Rear-view Mirror: After five straight seasons of making the playoffs, the Flames were in a good spot to sneak into the playoffs again but stumbled down the stretch and finished tied for 9th. Captain Jerome Iginla (32G-37A-69P) one again paced the Flames but he actually had his lowest point total in four seasons. About two thirds of the way through the season the Flames parted with longtime defenseman Dion Phaneuf.
Miikka Kiprusoff (.920 SV%, 2.31 GAA, 4 SO) had his best season in net in four years. But he struggled mightily against top western teams like Vancouver (4.69 GAA, .856 SV%) and Chicago (4.94 GAA, .851 SV%). The Flames as a team were 2nd to last in goals scored with 201. The power pay also struggled converting on only 16% of their chances, 4th worst in the league.
Offseason Ins: Olli Jokinen, Henrik Karlsson, Alex Tanguay, Tim Jackman
Offseason Outs: Nigel Dawes, Eric Nystrom
What Makes Them Tick: Olli Jokinen (15-35-50) found decent chemistry with Iginla when he was brought in the end of the 2008-09 season. That chemistry wore off the next season so Jokinen was shipped to the Rangers, only to find his way back again. The Flames have to hope the second time is the charm. Another new (old) line mate rejoining the team is winger Alex Tanguay (10-27-37). Tanguay’s number have dropped significantly since he left Calgary a couple of seasons ago. Rene Bourque has increased his goal production and penalty minutes the last 4 seasons and he hopes to do the same this season. Kiprusoff should have another stellar season in net but he will need to play better against top conference rivals particularly the Canucks. Mark Giordano (11-19-30) led the team in +/- with a +17. Look for Giordano to move up the depth chart and garner more ice time.
What Could Make Them Go Boom: Jay Bouwmeester has been somewhat of a disappointment since be acquired from the Panthers. His goal production is about a fifth of what it was in Florida the last few seasons. Defensively he is still contributing and he is logging about 25 minutes of ice time a game. Considering the Flames offensively struggles they will need to find a way to convert on their power play chances and Jokinen will need to find his power play touch. The Flames are also now without their two most dangerous fighters in Brandon Prust and Brian McGrattan.
Player to Watch: Olli Jokinen was a dynamic goal scorer for the Panthers scoring 38 then 39 and then 34 goals before being traded to Phoenix. His goal production slipped the following season, before it totally bottomed out last season. Playing for three different teams in two seasons is never an easy task though. Now reunited with Iginla, Jokinen will be expected to produce like he used to. If he doesn’t General Manager Darryl Sutter will feel even more heat, than he already is, and will probably lose his job.
Prediction: It’s hard to know what to make of this team and I have a feeling GM Darryl Sutter feels the same way. But the talent is there for the Flames to make another playoff push. They really need to increase their goal production and their only hope at this point seems to be hoping that Tanguay and Jokinen can score like they used to. Daymond Langkow (14-23-37) is another 30+ goal scorer who has seen his production slip. He was also the 3rd leading scorer with only 37 points. If the old guys can regain their scoring touch, the Flames could slip into the playoffs. Otherwise it will be another long season in Calgary.
Rear-view Mirror: The Oilers had a season to forget. After just missing the 8th playoff spot the past two seasons before, the Oilers finished dead last in the NHL. Dustin Penner (32G-31A-63P) led the Oilers in every major offensive category. He was the first Oiler to record over 30 goals since Ryan Smyth last did it the 2006-07 season. The Oilers had the 4th lowest goal total in the NHL with 206 goals. The Oilers were also dead last in face off wins, with a FO% of 46.4.
Goaltending wasn’t any better as the Oilers were 2nd to last with a team SV% of .898 and they finished last in GAA at 3.34. Nikolai Khabibulin (3.03 GAA, .910 SV%, 0 SO) was brought in to solve some of those woes but he end up only playing 18 games due to a herniated disk. Jeff Deslauriers (3.26 GAA, .900 SV%, 3 SO) ended up being the number one goalie. Though defensively they did have 4th highest shots blocked with 1305. Unfortunately they had the highest giveaway total with 1055, which was a 145 more than the next worst team.
Offseason Ins: Taylor Hall, Kurtis Foster, Colin Fraser
Offseason Outs: Patrick O’Sullivan, Ethan Moreau
What Makes Them Tick: Their newest addition 1st overall pick Taylor Hall well be a welcome addition to the team. Hall is the first player to ever be drafted that high by the Oilers in the NHL. The previous highest pick was the 4th overall selection of Jason Bonsignore who only played 21 games for the Oilers. Getting a healthy Ales Hemsky (7-15-22) back will be a huge boon to the Oilers. The former 1st round pick suffered a shoulder injury and only played 22 games last season. Hemsky had been averaging a point a game and has steadily increased his goal total the last few seasons. Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson, the Oilers 1st pick in the 2009 draft, will make his debut for the Oilers this season. Magnus just came off of a successful run in the 2010 World Championships as Sweden’s leading scorer. He is also shortening his name to Magnus Paajarvi. The 2008 1st round pick of the Oilers Justin Eberle is also poised to have his breakout season this year.
What Could Make Them Go Boom: When only one player on your team has over 30 goals or 30 assists, you know you have problems scoring goals. Finding consistent goal scoring is priority number one. Another problem is Khabibulin was convicted of drunk driving. He is set to appeal but if he loses that, he will need to serve jail time and will obviously miss some games. The Oilers are in rebuilding mode now and time would be better spent figuring out if Deslauriers, in the final year of his contract, is their guy instead. Of course Khabibulin has three years left on his deal, so the likelihood of that happening isn’t very high. Sheldon Souray who is a highly productive defenseman when healthy, has been asked to not attend camp. In all likelihood a trade will probably not happen and Souray will be released. It’s a shame because a quality defenseman is something the Oilers could really use and worse if he gets released the Oilers would get compensated. Considering the history though, it’s probably best for all parties to move on. The duo of Ryan Whitney (7-32-39) and Tom Gilbert (5-26-31) need to protect the puck better to cut down on their turnovers.
Player to Watch: Dustin Penner will be looked upon this season to carry the majority of the scoring load again but also to mentor the younger talent like Taylor Hall and Magnus Paajarvi. Penner started last season with a hot start only to struggle from the end of December until March before he got hot again in April. Consistency will be another challenge for Penner to work on. He does bring a lot of passion and hard work to his play and is always crashing the net for loose pucks. Another 30 goal season is very likely for Penner but with a healthy Hemsky again, Penner should be able to have his first 80+ point season.
Prediction: There isn’t anywhere to go but up for the Oilers but don’t expect a worst to playoffs finish like the Avalanche did last season. The Oilers haven’t had two goal scorers record 30+ goals since the 1996-97 season. The days of Messier and Gretzky it’s not but the Oilers hope the drafting of Taylor Hall will turn over a new page in their franchise. A healthy Hemsky, a motivated Penner, the electrifying Hall, Eberle and Paajarvi would give the Oilers offensive threats they haven’t seen for over a decade. Still one of the bottom spots in the conference seems likely. There are too many other talented teams in the conference and the Oilers still have some big defensive holes. They also need to stop turning the puck over. Not to mention there is no guarantee the new forwards will gel together like the Avalanche did last season. They should be at least moderately successful and I think the Oilers will produce two 30+ goal scorers this season.
Rear-view Mirror: After winning the division, the Wild have missed out on the playoffs the last two seasons. Mikko Koivu (22G-49A-71P) led the Wild in assists and points. Andrew Brunette (25-36-61) led the Wild in goals. Offensively the Wild had no 30+ goal scorers or players with 50+ assists. Niklas Backstrom (.903 SV%, 2.72 GAA, 2 SO) who had a remarkable 08-09 season, took a big step back last season. The Wild only had 6 players with a positive +/-. The team’s leader at +3 was Kim Johnsson who was traded to the Blackhawks (along with prospect Nick Leddy) for Cam Barker.
Offseason Ins: John Madden, Eric Nystrom, Matt Cullen
What Makes Them Tick: The Wild were one of the better face-off teams winning 52.2 of their draws. Greg Zanon (2-13-15) is one of the better unheralded defensive defensemen in the league. He was 11th in hits and 4th in blocked shots. Fellow blue-liner Nick Schultz (1-19-20) was 13th in blocked shots. Cal Clutterbuck (13-8-21), a fan favorite, led the NHL in hits last season with 318. The previous season he broke the NHL record with 356. His offensive game showed a little bit of improvement but the Wild would like to see him hit the levels of scoring he produced while playing for the Oshawa Generals. Martin Havlat (18-36-54), a former 30 goals scorer, is entering his second season with the Wild and will hopefully have better chemistry with Koivu on the top line. Brent Burns (3-17-20) has battled injures the past two season and accordingly missed a large amount of games. Getting him healthy again will hopefully produce another 15 goal season.
What Could Make Them Go Boom: While it’s nice the Wild acquired Barker, in the long run I have a feeling the better option would have been to keep the defenseman prospect Nick Leddy. While neither player brought anything to the table offensively, Boogard and Scott were quite a checking and fighting force to be reckoned with. Both were 6′ 8” and will be hard to replace physically. Backstrom will definitely need to play better for the Wild, if they hope to make a run at the playoffs. Offensively they didn’t add any new firepower. The additions of Madden and Nystrom are solid veteran additions to the bottom lines.
Player to Watch: Martin Havlat came to Minnesota from Chicago, after his best season as a pro, with much fanfare and a pretty decent contract. His first season in Minnesota was pretty disappointing though. Havlat is the only current Wild player to have scored 30 goals or more in a season. Coupled with his five million a year contract, the pressure is on for him to deliver. Last year was only the 2nd time in his career he had a negative +/-.
Prediction: It appears the Wild will be heading for a 3rd straight year of no postseason. The Wild will probably still be an offensively challenged team. The 1st line of Koivu, Brunette and Havlat is pretty decent but they have not been playing up to their potential. The other lines while adequate, don’t really scare opposing defenses. It might also be time to start looking for a new goalie especially if Backstrom can’t bounce back. Johan Gustafsson, taken in this past draft looks to be the best candidate for the job but his is only 18. Defensively the Wild have a pretty decent core with Zanon, Schultz, Barker, Burns and Marek Zidlicky (6-37-43).
Author: Alex Mueller
Alex Mueller graduated from Temple University with a minor in journalism over a decade ago. He’s been writing about NHL hockey, on and off, since the Fall of 2009. He’s written for Pucking Awesome, the Checking Line and now Hockey Recaps. He played goalie at San Diego Ice Arena. His first novel, Bobby Sterling vs Truth, is available on Amazon now.