NHL Preview: 2008-09
Western Conference: Northwest
Among the players Minnesota imported are soft-handed, concrete-footed left wing Andrew Brunette, a popular Wild player from 2001–02 through '03–04; veteran winger Owen Nolan, who still has an edge at age 36; and, most important, puck-moving defenseman Marek Zidlicky. They should compensate for the loss of offensive-minded forwards Brian Rolston (31 goals last year) and Pavol Demitra (54 points) and yield Risebrough's desired fresh outlook.
The Wild's playoff fortunes, though, will likely continue to revolve around two holdovers: right wing Marian Gaborik, whose 42 goals led the team in 2007–08; and Jacques Lemaire, the only head coach in Wild history. Lemaire, who can find a way to win a 2–1 game as well as any coach, will goad his talented team -- defenseman Brent Burns and center Mikko Koivu are budding stars -- to clamp down defensively. The explosive Gaborik needs to avoid the groin injuries that slowed him at times in recent years. He is set to be a free agent next summer, and Lemaire, 63, has intimated that this could be his final season.
Now, if those two leave, Minnesota would really be in for a change.
A 14-5-1 run to close last season; an off-season buoyed by a new, happy-to-spend owner and the acquisition of big-minute players Erik Cole and Lubomir Visnovsky; the healthy returns of defenseman Sheldon Souray and forwards Shawn Horcoff and Ethan Moreau. Folks, there's excitement in Edmonton. "The level of expectation is probably higher than it's been since I've been here," says Horcoff, an Oiler since 2000–01.
Coach Craig MacTavish even says that his players "fit the mold" of a championship-caliber team. Edmonton's forwards, goosed by creative youngsters Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano will be effective -- and entertaining -- as they push the puck up-ice. The defense promises to be more consistent than last year's. Yet journeyman goalie Mathieu Garon remains a question mark, and the Oilers cannot expect to replicate last year's uncanny 15–4 record in shootouts. These are indeed high times in Edmonton, but perhaps not quite as high as the team wants to believe.
When Calgary gave Todd Bertuzzi a one-year deal 10 days after he was bought out by Anaheim, it was either a desperate measure or a worthy gamble. The Flames, up against the salary cap, lost two productive forwards, Kristian Huselius and Alex Tanguay, and needed scoring. Bertuzzi came cheap and is being reunited with Flames coach Mike Keenan, who helped get the power forward's career on track in Vancouver in the late 1990s. "A lot of my success has come from him and how he used me," Bertuzzi says.
Of course, Bertuzzi, 33, hasn't been the same after drawing a yearlong ban for his on-ice attack of Avalanche forward Steve Moore in 2004 -- Bertuzzi has 42 goals in 165 games since his return; he had 46 in the 2002–03 season alone. He does, at least, add intrigue to a bland team again headed up by superb right wing Jarome Iginla, elite goalie Miikka Kiprusoff and big-hitting defensemen Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr. That core is what makes Calgary a playoff threat.
It's been six years since Patrick Roy hung up his pads, and it's been six years that the Avalanche has been looking for a true No. 1 goalie. last season Peter Budaj was expected to establish himself, but midway through he had lost his starting job to the usually erratic José Théodore, who played surprisingly well in Colorado's playoff push. Now Budaj is back in net despite middling statistics -- 2.57 GAA and .903 save percentage -- that were worse when the pressure was on: .750 save percentage in OT and a 4–9 record in shootouts. Colorado's insurance policy in the absence of Théodore, who went to Washington as a free agent? Andrew Raycroft, who was booted out of Toronto after a .890 save percentage over the past two years.
Old pros Joe Sakic, the Hall of Fame–bound 39-year-old center, and Adam Foote, 37, the leader of a decent defensive corps, could make the Avalanche respectable. The goaltending, though, could dash any hopes for the playoffs.
At his introductory press conference last April new general manager Mike Gillis observed of the disappointing Canucks, "There are a number of areas that need to be addressed." Yet it doesn't appear that Gillis, a first-time G.M., has adequately addressed the shortcomings that resulted in Vancouver's finishing the season on a 1–7 skid and missing the playoffs. In particular, Vancouver still lacks scoring depth. Gillis did extend a standing offer to free agent Mats Sundin, who at press time remained noncommittal about playing hockey this season, and he lured free-agent center Pavol Demitra (15 goals, 54 points with the Wild) with the promise that the Canucks would open up on offense; last season coach Alain Vigneault emphasized defense with essentially the same roster.
Young Steve Bernier could thrive if he stays alongside Henrik (33) and Daniel Sedin on the Canucks' top line, and Roberto Luongo is one of the league's finest goaltenders, but, to borrow a phrase, there are still a number of areas that need to be addressed.
-- Sarah Kwak
MVP: Jarome Iginla
On the Spot: Ryan Smyth
No Avalanche player earns more than the 32-year-old left wing, who got a five-year $31.25 million contract before last season. The return? An injury-plagued year that produced only 14 goals (including just two on the power play) and 37 points in 55 games.
On the Verge: Brent Burns
At 23 the 6' 5", 219-pound Minnesota blueliner is coming off a fine 43-point season, and an annual trip to the All-Star Game may be in store for this two-way horse: He was named top defenseman while playing for Canada at the world championships in May.
Pierre McGuire's In the Crease
Expect Wild forward Mikko Koivu to be a Selke Trophy finalist.... With the return of hard-shooting defenseman Sheldon Souray and the acquisition of world-class puck-mover Lubomir Visnovsky, the Oilers' power play, ranked 21st in the league last season, should be among the top 10.... In Calgary, Jarome Iginla could win the Rocket Richard trophy (his third).... Colorado will have to rely on team defense and a lot of heart for whatever it accomplishes this season.... If the Canucks again have trouble scoring, coach Alain Vigneault may soon be out of a job.
NHL Truth & Rumors