Friday, January 18, 2013

HOCKEY IS BACK!!! Northwest Division Preview

What do you get when you have the reigning President's Trophy winner, three of the best young stars in the NHL, a team that picked up the two biggest free agents on the market, and a retooled Canadian team that is sick of seeing American teams having all the Stanley Cup fun?  You have the most fun filled division in hockey.  It is a shame that none of these teams made it past the first round of the playoffs (in fact Vancouver was the only one who made the playoffs).  Expect much more from this division in this shortened schedule. 

There may not be another division with as much star power as the Northwest has.  The funny thing is the talent is all in different parts of their career.  You have Jarome Iginla who is in the twilight of a sure fire Hall of Fame career.  The Sedin twins are still in their prime, but they are on the wrong side of thirty.  You have the Wild's two pick ups in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter who are just now entering their prime and are going to give this division fits for more than a decade.  Then you have Gabriel Landeskog on Colorado and the duo on Edmonton of Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.  Who ends up where at the end of this season has a lot to do with more factors than you can count.  This division is so stacked that the pressure is on in this shortened season to come out firing. 

Calgary Flames: 37-29-16 2nd in the Northwest Division; Missed the Playoffs
Biggest Acquisition: LW Jiri Hudler
Biggest Loss: C Olli Jokinen
Overview: This team looked like they could play spoiler and make the playoffs in 2012.  They fell short in the last week of the season again and they ended up on the outside looking in.  It must sting a little more seeing the Kings go on and win it all from that 8th spot.  Calgary is in the worst spot a franchise can be in.  They have enough talent to be competitive, but not enough to be a true contender.  So what do you do?  Do you blow it up or ride it out?  Is it worth it to pay all this money to players who may be slightly overpaid at this point in their career?  The Flames are in a spot where they need to decide if they are going to make a splash to try and contend or move some money so they can start from scratch.

The problem they are having is it is the end of their superstar Jarome Iginla's career.  You don't want a player of his caliber to end his career on a team that can't win.  Is it worth delaying the rebuild of your franchise for one player?  Can you actually fathom trading Iginla away from Calgray?  The Flames decided to go with win now.  They made a few moves during the offseason to sure up parts of their game that were lacking.  They brought in Hudler to add scoring to a team that ranked 24th in goals per game.  Dennis Wideman was brought in to help a defense that was just middle of the pack in 2011-12.  They upgraded their offense, defense and special teams.  They showed that they are ready to win now and will do everything they can to make that happen.

Biggest Question Going Into The Season: What can Roman Cervenka bring to this team?
It all depends on how he develops to the difference between the Russian game and the NHL game.  He is a big time scorer with a great shot.  Cervenka can fit in nicely on a team who needs scoring and has defense.  He isn't a liability on the defensive end, but it isn't his best attribute.  He will provide scoring for a team that has very limited assets in that stat.  Cervenka is going to center a line which involves all newcomers to Calgary.  He will play in between Michael Cammalleri and Hudler.  This line should be able to produce thirty-five to forty goals in the shortened season, which isn't too shabby.  Cervenka has the skills you need to do well in every league.  He can shoot and skate with the best of them and will be an underrated signing for the rest of the year.  This guy may be the reason that the Flames make it back into the playoffs.

Analysis: We are getting close to the end here for Iginla.  How much longer can he be this great? He has scored 30 or more goals every season since the 99-00 season.  He may be the most underrated star in the NHL over the past decade.  This team wants to win for him.  He wants more than anything to hold up Lord Stanley's Cup in the Scotiabank Saddledome.  They made moves that will help.  They have a very good lineup that will compete.  They have a division that has become, and will continue to become, a lot better.  There are question marks on every team in this division and it could help the Flames when it comes to sneaking up on teams this year.  With the issues that come with a shortened season, anything can happen.  The Flames have improved and they will get production from Cervenka, Cammalleri and Hudler as well as defense from Jay Bouwmeester and Dennis Wideman.  This team has dark horse written all over it.  The Flames will not be one of the outside teams looking in.

Colorado Avalanche: 41-35-6 3rd in the Northwest Division; Missed the Playoffs
Biggest Acquisition: RW P.A. Parenteau
Biggest Loss: C Jay McClement
Overview:  When you ask most of the experts about what teams will succeed in the lockout shortened season, they will usually tell you it will be the teams with the young legs.  This is great news for the Avalanche.  Their team captain and best player is 20-year-old Gabriel Landeskog.  Landeskog is the defending Calder Trophy winner and is primed to lead this team to the places it was back in the late 90s.  He has help from other younger players on the team.  Ten players on this team are twenty-five and under, including Matt Duchene and starting goalie Semyon Varlamov.  Young legs means less injuries most of the time.  Even if these players get injured, they will recover faster than the older players.  This is a good thing since in this season a two week injury could cause you to miss eight games.  That would be about 17% of the season missed for a minor injury.  Colorado has plenty to be excited for if all the analysts are correct.

The Avalanche have to fix their defense.  Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere had a lot to do with the fact that their goals against average went down from 3.5 to 2.6 in 2011-12.  This had nothing to do with the defensive corps as they allowed basically the same amount of shots per game.  It won't help that they lost defensive minded center McClement.  They brought in Greg Zanon to help, but he isn't going to make much of a difference.  They need work in this area if they are going to go anywhere.  Erik Johnson needs to finally play up to his potential.  He needs to lead this defense to do better.  Behind him and Jan Hejda, they just don't have much to brag about.

Biggest Question Going Into The Season: Is Semyon Varlamov the guy who almost won them into a playoff spot, or the guy who lost his starting role to Giguere?
Varlamov was a tale of two seasons last year.  There were times where the Berlin Wall was more penetrable than him.  Then there were times that it seemed like they put that halftime cardboard cutout in net instead of a real person.  Varlamov's month by month save percentage is as follows: October .924, November .878, December .889, January .901, February .942 and March .935.  His season was completely bi-polar.  He could be one of the top goalies in the league, exactly what the Avalanche thought they paid for, or he could be a complete disaster.  He may have had a tough time dealing with the plane crash that killed a lot of his former teammates with Lokomotiv in the KHL.  Looking at the skill set this guy possesses, he wouldn't just go bad for no reason.  Varlamov is the key to the Avalance in 2013.  He will be the reason they succeed or fail.  From the looks of it, as long as he can handle the schedule then Colorado will be loving their new ace in net.

Analysis: This team is very young.  Like, they are extremely young.  The average age of this team is roughly twenty-seven years old (and that is with Milan Hejduk and Giguere skewing the number in the old guy's favor).  They have as much raw talent as any team in the NHL.  The add of Parenteau on the wing will help cause mismatches on the first line.  They still seem like they are a year away.  They will compete because of the skill they have, but their defense will hurt them in the long run.  They will get good play from Varlamov, and Giguere is more than qualified to play in his absence.  They have a good team, there will just be too many mistakes that comes with having a below average defense and a young team.  Colorado will be one of the more fun teams to watch, we just won't be watching them in June.

Edmonton Oilers: 32-40-10 5th in the Northwest Division; Missed the Playoffs
Biggest Acquisition: D Justin Schultz
Biggest Loss: D Cam Barker
Overview:  Now that is just greedy.  They already have two of the very best young players in the game in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall, but then they go and take Anaheim's future great defenseman in Schultz.  On top of it all, they overcome the odds and win the first overall pick to take Nail Yakupov.  The Oilers are sick of picking first.  Who wouldn't be?  Well last year was a sign of things to come.  Remember when the Penguins first got Sidney Crosby and they were bad so the next year they got Evgeni Malkin?  Are you excited now Oilers fans?  This team is going to be the team to beat in all of hockey in three to four years, if they are able to keep their young stars in house.  As of right now, this team will feel some growing pains.  They have all these great players who still need some work.  The top forwards on this team need to learn how to play both sides in order for this team to go anywhere in 2013.

Ryan Smyth is still a good player who will teach this team how to play the game.  Not in the sense of the rules, but how to take your talents from raw to just plain good.  They need Devan Dubnyk to continue to grow as a goalie and to take the number one goalie job from Nikolai Khabibulin for good.  Edmonton will come into this season firing and will throw their immense amounts of talent at everyone who comes forth.  The fact that you can go this long into an Oilers preview without mentioning Jordan Eberle speaks to how deep this team actually is.  Eberle led the team in both goals and points last year and looks to become even better.  If you are a fan of the other teams in this division, are you scared yet?

Biggest Question Going Into The Season: Is it finally the year that Edmonton isn't at the bottom of the league?
There is too much talent here for it to be.  Between young stars Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Schultz, Yakupov, Dubnyk, and Eberle and their veterans Smyth, Khabibulin, Shawn Horcoff, and Nick Schultz I think that this team is ready to make the next step.  What exactly is the next step from having the first overall pick three years in a row?  It is scaring the rest of the league to the point that they don't want to face you come playoff time.  You heard that right.  I am going out on a limb and saying with the talent on this team that they will work through the growing pains (unlike the Avalanche) and will find a spot in the Western Conference Playoffs.  The shortened schedule will help in that their pure talent will overcome the flaws that other teams won't have as much time to study.  This team is dangerous.  I am happy I am a fan of an Eastern Conference team.

Analysis: I may have given it away in the last paragraph.  This Oiler team is unlike any team we have seen in years.  They are so talented it literally boggles the mind.  They can play with anyone and will surprise a lot of people.  They are playing to show the people of Edmonton that they should pony up to stay there over moving to Seattle (an underrated story line in this whole saga).  Expect the young crew to step up and become leaders.  Hall and Eberle took the hockey world by storm last year.  This year it will be interesting to see how we react when we are expecting it.  Only thing that will stop this team is folding under the pressure of it all.  Unfortunately, that is impossible to predict.  It seems from the outside, however, that the psyche of the team shouldn't come under question.  2013 Edmonton Oilers will be the start of something special.

Minnesota Wild: 35-36-11 4th in the Northeast Division: Missed the Playoffs
Biggest Acquisition: LW Zach Parise
Biggest Loss: RW Nick Johnson
Overview: The biggest splash in the 2012 NHL offseason is no argument.  The Minnesota Wild came out on Independence Day and announced that not only did they sign the top free agent on the market, but also signed the second best free agent on the market as well.  There is a certain type of pressure that comes with making that kind of statement.  There was a lot of controversy that came after these two coveted free agents signed mirroring 13 year 93 million dollar contracts.  The Wild are going to have some serious targets on their backs.  They are this division's statement game.  The Canucks are in flux, the Flames are question marks and the Avalanche and Oilers are young, who else would the target go to?

Parise comes to a team that ranked dead last in points per game last year.  He joins a line with Mikko Koivu and Dany Heatley.  Heatley was the only positive offensive force on a pathetic 2011-12 Wild club.  They were a good defensive team, ranking 13th in goals against average.  Even though he doesn't have the wins to show for it, Niklas Backstrom had a good season.  If he can stay healthy (which is a lot to ask) then the Wild can do big things this year.  It all falls on the shoulders of the goaltender to keep this team afloat.  Suter is coming in to make a good defense great, and to show that he is better than Robin to Shea Weber's Batman.  There is a lot to prove for this Wild team.  They will have more pressure than most people on this team have ever felt before.  Pressure can either make a person fall under and do terrible or it can make an athlete thrive in the spotlight.  Which will we see next year?

Biggest Question Going Into The Season: Where does the offense come from after the first line?
I have no idea.  They have serviceable players on their second and third lines, but besides Devin Setoguchi and Kyle Brodziak I don't see anyone who can score more than ten goals in this season (and even they are iffy).  Mikael Granlund is going to be expected to live up to his expectations in his rookie year.  He is manning the center position on the second line.  They Wild will need at least 45 goals from their second and third line.  They have a great first line, but that isn't going to be the end all be all for them to make it to where this team expects.  They didn't bring in these two superstars to wait and rebuild, they brought them in to win now.  They are going to need help from all over this team.  They need Brodziak to repeat the play he had when he scored twenty-two goals last year.  They need Setoguchi to stay on the ice for most of the season.   They need goals, plain and simple.  They can't rely on the homecoming of Zach Parise to just make goals appear for the other three lines.

Analysis: The Wild made everyone do a double take with the moves they made.  A closer look into their roster says that there may be too much riding on those two to make this team win.  Minnesota was fourteen points out of a playoff spot last year, and outside of Parise and Suter there are still holes that need to be filled.  Minnesota will be much improved and will be contenders, but I don't think they should be done improving.  Maybe some deadline deals for second and third line forwards and another defenseman.  If Backstrom is on the ice for the good majority of the season then the Wild will make the playoffs.  They may not go as far as they were hoping, but they are on their way to getting better in a division with so much talent that you can get lost very quickly.

Vancouver Canucks: 51-22-9 1st in the Northwest Division; Lost in the First Round to the Kings
Biggest Acquisition: D Jason Garrison
Biggest Loss: D Sami Salo
Overview: Another year, another time being on the wrong side of a playoff upset.  The Vancouver Canucks came into last year's playoffs as the number one overall seed and the Presidents Trophy winner.  They were ceremoniously knocked out of the playoffs five games later.  They may have run into the team of destiny which was the LA Kings, but this fan base won't take a first round exit after they had a Stanley Cup within their grasp the year prior.  The Sedin twins are the reason the Canucks are where they are today.  They had somewhat of a down year last year.  Henrik had 13 less points from the year prior, and 31 points less than 2010-11 (although 81 points is still a very respectable number).  Daniel missed ten games last year and as a result had 37 points less than the year prior.  The Canucks need the twins to produce like they were two years ago to go back to one of the best teams in the NHL.

The Canucks are very deep and are still one of the best teams in the NHL.  The Canucks are expected to do well in the regular season.  It will be the playoffs that determine whether this season is a success.  A big question mark is how will Ryan Kessler come back from having surgery on his shoulder and his wrist.  He may be inclined to try to speed up his recovery as his original due date was in January anyway, but that is a bad idea.  What the Canucks need is the healthiest of Ryan Kessler.  The fact that last year he was playing visibly injured is one of the reasons the Canucks didn't live up to expectations.  Another blow to this team is when they lost David Booth to a groin injury in the first practice.  He will be said to be out for about four to six weeks.  That is two-thirds of the second line that is going to be missing for at least a month.  Maxim Lapierre and Mason Raymond are going to need to step up their game to try and replace those 38 goals that are going to be out of the lineup.  If they don't it is going to be a long season offensively.

Biggest Question Going Into The Season: What the hell do you do with Roberto Luongo?
The Canucks say they are willing to keep Luongo as the backup for the season.  Is it a bluff or are they really willing to pay over six million per year to keep him as a backup?  It isn't like he is going to be a free agent anytime soon.  He still has ten years left on his 64 million dollar deal.  On top of that the team is asking for an NHL ready player AND a top flight prospect in return for the backup goalie.  Luongo still has a lot left in the tank and can help a contending team.  The Canucks GM Mike Gillis has to see that either his demands or the contract are going to deter any team from making that trade.  He has given good years to this organization.  If they want to move on it is fine, but don't keep Luongo hanging on.  By the trade deadline, Luongo will be donning a new jersey and Corey Schneider won't have to look over his shoulder every time he isn't perfect.  The best thing for all parties is for Gillis to slightly lower his demands and to trade Luongo ASAP.  Expect this to happen by March.

Analysis: So many question marks surround this team, but one of them is not will this team be very good this year.  I think it is conceivable that with all they have they still may win the division and contend in the Western Conference until the end.  I think the injuries, the goalie issue and the fact that their division has improved exponentially will hurt their chances of taking their third straight Presidents Trophy, but this team will still be one of the best in the NHL.  Schneider looks like the real deal and is ready to take the reigns.  The team will turn into a bonafide power house once they get back Kessler and Booth.  This team will be motivated after what happened last year in the playoffs.  They are out to prove that they are still a team that you have to fear.  They are going to prove that when they take this division once again.  The other teams may have improved exponentially, but Vancouver is still the team to beat in the Northwest Division.

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