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Northwest Division

In a brutal pack, the Avalanche are ready to rumble

Posted: Tuesday September 25, 2007 7:58PM; Updated: Thursday September 27, 2007 4:42PM
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By Scott Wraight, SI.com

Other previews: Central | Pacific | Atlantic | Northeast | Southeast

Northwest Division
Vancouver Canucks
2006-07: 49-26-7, 3rd in Western Conference
Style: With an all-world goaltender like Roberto Luongo, the Canucks have turned to a defense-first approach.
Strengths: The formidable top six blueliners provide a strong penalty kill. Another recent plus: the Sedin twins, Daniel and Henrik, who combined for 46 goals and 165 points last season.
Weaknesses: Scoring. Of all playoff teams last season, only the Devils scored fewer goals. Unless Markus Naslund can revert to his old form, lighting the lamp will again be a challenge. There's no true game-breaker in the mix. Daniel Sedin is close, but one stellar season doesn't make him a sure thing.
MVP: Roberto Luongo (left). When Marty Brodeur retires, Luongo will quickly grab the torch as the NHL's top netminder. It's hard to fathom where this team would be without him. A solid defense helps, but the 28-year-old should easily pocket another 40-win season.
Don't count on: Brendan Morrison. A good chance he'll start the season centering the second line and be dropped to the third by the end of December. He'll turn in his typical yeoman numbers, but the days of 65-70 points are long gone without premier linemates.
Kid to watch: Kevin Bieksa. The 26-year-old came out of nowhere last season to notch 12 goals and 42 points. In his third full season, he'll see big minutes on the top defensive pairing and PK unit. He also brings a gritty edge Vancouver has usually been without.
Overview: As long as Robby Lu stays healthy and the Sedins don't take a step back, the Canucks will again be in the hunt for the Northwest crown and the fourth or fifth seed.
Summer Report Card: Offseason moves and analysis
Calgary Flames
2006-07: 43-29-10, 8th in Western Conference
Style: With Mike Keenan in town, the Flames will likely go with a defense-first philosophy. The run-and-gun last season didn't work.
Strengths: The key is again between the pipes, where Miikka Kiprusoff has been as consistent as any goalie, and the physical, deep defense corps. The top six forwards -- I'm tempted to call 'em 5 1/2 since Owen Nolan's best days are behind him -- is fairly solid.
Weaknesses: Depth. Beyond the top two lines, there isn't much. If anyone can get the most out of role players, it's Keenan. For the Flames to go deeper in the playoffs, they'll have to add a player or two for the stretch run.
MVP: Jarome Iginla (left). The heart and soul captain was signed to a five-year extension in July. Smart move. Iggy has scored 60 or more points in seven of his 10 NHL seasons as Calgary's most consistent forward.
Don't count on: Nolan. The move to Calgary may help. He'll add depth and leadership, but 35-40 points isn't exactly what you want from a second-line guy.
Kid to watch: Dion Phaneuf. If not for Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger and Nicklas Lidstrom, he'd get a lot more attention. A beast on the power play, he has solid offensive skills and is one of the game's biggest hitters. At 22, he may even get better.
Overview: They may be the favorite in the Northwest. Even if they doen't win the division, Calgary should easily get into the postseason.
Summer Report Card: Offseason moves and analysis
Colorado Avalanche
2006-07: 44-31-7, 9th in Western Conference
Style: They still place a premium on speed and skill, thus a trap system, but they won't be shy about dump-and-chase.
Strengths: Depth at forward. Last season, the Avs had a better-than-average top six. They've added Ryan Smyth's scoring, toughness, experience and leadership. Firepower from the back end especially if Jordan Leopold (only 15 games last season) stays healthy.
Weaknesses: Goaltending. Is Peter Budaj a legit No. 1? Does it make sense to keep Jose Theodore and his huge contract on the stool? A platoon may be used, preventing either from getting into a groove. Another issue: smallish defensemen.
MVP: Smyth (left). He's the type of power forward the Avs have been missing for some time. He'll be on the top line with Joe Sakic, who remains one of the game's best playmakers, and should also see a lot of time on the power play -- a big weakness last season.
Don't count on: Marek Svatos. After 32 goals and 50 goals as a rookie, Svatos took two giant steps back -- just 15 goals and 30 points. If he can remember to play defense, the 25-year-old might establish himself on the third line.
Kid to watch: Paul Stastny. A sophomore slump is possible, but not likely. A solid playmaker with great vision and defensive instincts, he should see even more PP time. When Mighty Joe retires, Stastny will slide into the No. 1 center slot.
Overview: Smyth immediately turns this club into a legit contender in what could be the most brutal division in the league. If the Avs settle on a goalie, they could win 50 games.
Summer Report Card: Offseason moves and analysis
Minnesota Wild
2006-07: 48-26-8, 7th in Western Conference
Style: Over the last five seasons, they've been all about defense and goaltending. That won't change.
Strengths: Two potent lines. But Marian Gaborik must stay healthy -- which hasn't happened since 2002-03. Goaltending, with Niklas Backstrom assuming command after Manny Fernandez was shipped to Boston, and one of the more elite defensive corps.
Weaknesses: Secondary scoring. They have two potent lines, but not much else. Maybe Mikko Koivu or Benoit Pouliot can step up.
MVP: Backstrom (left). He put up stellar numbers last season, but will the pressure of being the No. 1 get in his head? Probably not. It may be only his second NHL season, but he's 29 and poised, a former star in the Finnish Elite League.
Don't count on: Kim Johnsson. Since notching 42 points in 2003-04, he's failed to break 25. That'll happen in a defense-minded system, but he's still a top-line guy who gets solid minutes on the power play. Another puzzling stat: he had 189 shots in 2003-04, but just 195 in the past two seasons combined.
Kid to watch: Koivu. In just his second season, he surprised by scoring 20 goals and 54 points. One of coach Jacques Lemaire's favorites for smart play and defense, the 24-year-old should see a bigger role and may stick on one of the scoring lines.
Overview: They'll compete for the division title. If Gaborik's groin holds up and Backstrom stays strong, the Wild should be back in the playoffs.
Summer Report Card: Offseason moves and analysis
Edmonton Oilers
2006-07: 32-43-7, 12th in Western Conference
Style: They may be forced into a trap, considering their transition game last season was abysmal.
Strengths: Juice from the defense. New faces Sheldon Souray and Joni Pitkanen combined for 30 goals and 107 points last season. They probably won't duplicate that, but they'll be counted on to energize a dismal offense.
Weaknesses: They're a bit thin up front. The top line is solid, but many youngsters must learn the NHL game. With a handful of new faces on the blue line, how well will that unit will mesh?
MVP: Ales Hemsky (left). Injuries limited their best playmaker to just 64 games last season after he stormed out of the gate with 18 points in the first 23. With a gunner on his line (Dustin Penner), je should return to the 70-point plateau.
Don't count on: Dwayne Roloson. He's not bad, but a below-average defense makes his job much tougher. I've never been sold on him as a No. 1, and maybe neither are the Oilers, who may give backup Mathieu Garon a decent chunk of the starts.
Kid to watch: Rob Schremp. He's still at least another season away from making an impact. He'll probably start at AHL Wilkes-Barre, but could earn a promotion by mid-December. He has all the skills, but needs to focus on defense.
Overview: It'll be a tough season going with a youth movement, so expect growing pains. Playoffs is asking way too much, but once all the prospects get some valuable time, the Oilers will be back on track.
Summer Report Card: Offseason moves and analysis
 

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