Flames cooking in tight Northwest
With every team bearing its share of glaring weaknesses, the Northwest is probably going to be the tightest division in the league. Sorting it out involves cracking a big box of Ifs and Buts, so here goes. (Teams are ranked in order of predicted finish.)
2007-08 RECORD: 42-30-10 -- 94 points; third in Northwest; lost in first round to San Jose
KEY ADDS: Todd Bertuzzi (Anaheim), Mike Cammalleri (Los Angeles), Mark Giordano (Russia), Rene Bourque (Chicago), Andre Roy (Tampa Bay), Curtis Glencross (Edmonton)
KEY LOSSES: Alex Tanguay (Montreal), Kristian Huselius (Columbus), Owen Nolan (Minnesota), Eric Godard (Pittsburgh), Stephane Yelle (Boston), Marcus Nilsson (Russia)
STRENGTHS: Star power, brute force
The margin of victory will be slim in the highly competitive Northwest, and that's why you can't underestimate the value of legitimate game-breakers. With Jarome Iginla, Dion Phaneuf and Miikka Kiprusoff, the Flames boast superstars in all three zones, a caliber of talent unmatched in the division. But the Flames also recognized that they needed more firepower after their offense ground to a halt in a first-round loss to the Sharks, so the arrival of former 80-point man Cammalleri gives them an excellent backup option.
The Flames also took on more of coach Mike Keenan's character, trading off creative but soft scorers like Tanguay and Huselius for reliable competitors with offensive upside like Bourque and Glencross. They also took a flyer on Bertuzzi, a long-time Flames nemesis who is hoping to rediscover his game under Keenan's tutelage. This team may not score quite as often, but it will carve out its pound of flesh on the way to trying.
WEAKNESSES: Special teams
It's tough to suss out exactly why Calgary's 20th-ranked penalty kill struggled as much as it did, but it was clearly an issue in the offseason. Bourque is an excellent defender, so his arrival helps. Kiprusoff has to be better as well. His periodic struggles clearly eroded the confidence of the PK unit. The failings of the 19th-rated power play were just as curious, although the ouster of pass-firsters like Tanguay and Huselius should lead to more pucks being directed on the net and more nard-nosed pursuit of rebounds.
MVP: Jarome Iginla
The West's premier power forward is coming off the finest statistical season of his career, finishing third in the NHL scoring race with 50 goals and 98 points. Whether he reaches the 50-goal mark again -- and it says here he will -- is moot. As the heart and soul of the franchise, Iginla has emerged as one of the game's finest leaders. Few find as many ways to help their team win.
ROOKIE TO WATCH: Adam Pardy
With Mikael Backlund likely ticketed for a return to Sweden, the only rookie with a chance to stick appears to be Pardy. The 24-year-old impressed in camp and looks ready to play a depth role on the blueline. But with eight defenders still in camp with one-way contracts, the Flames might decide it's easier to waive him than dispose of a pair of vets.
BIGGEST SUPRPSE: Rene Bourque
A dedicated banger with decent hands, the 6-2, 215-pound Bourque fits the profile of a Keenan player. He had just 24 points filling a depth spot in Chicago last season, but figures to play a more prominent role in Calgary. He's slotted for the second line with Cammalleri or Matthew Lombardi as his center, but should see first unit minutes when the reliably brittle Bertuzzi eventually heads to the IR.
BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: There's not much separating the top four teams in the division, but Calgary's improved offense, deep defense and nasty disposition suggest the Flames will emerge on top.
2007-08 RECORD: 41-35-6 -- 88 points; fourth in Northwest; ninth in conference, missed playoffs
KEY ADDS: GM Steve Tambellini, Erik Cole (Carolina), Lubomir Visnovsky (Los Angeles), Gilbert Brule (Columbus), Steve MacIntyre (Florida)
KEY LOSSES: Joni Pitkanen (Carolina), Jarret Stoll (Los Angeles), Matt Greene (Los Angeles), Raffi Torres (Columbus), Curtis Glencross (Calgary)
STRENGTHS: Go-go offense
Scoring by committee is an approach typically offered by coaches who know they have no go-to snipers. That's not the problem for these Oilers, who'll score by committee because there's only one puck to go around. The fleet-footed and gritty Cole should nicely complement All-Star Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky on what should be a very dangerous first unit. The Kid Line -- Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano and Robert Nilsson -- might see less ice than they did late last season, but they'll provide a dynamic secondary attack. The bottom six features 23-goal scorer Dustin Penner, and former first-rounders Brule and M-A Pouliot. And the blueline, bolstered by the arrival of Visnovsky, is loaded with slick-skating puck-movers who should maximize the transitional opportunities offered by the speed up front. They'll be a nightmare to defend, especially on the power play.
WEAKNESSES: Iffy goaltending, kitten-soft forwards
Mathieu Garon and Dwayne Roloson make for a reasonable netminding combo, but neither provides the confidence of an elite No. 1 stopper. Garon usurped the position midway through last season, and played a significant role in Edmonton's stellar final quarter (14-5-1), but at 30, there have to be concerns that the career backup simply caught lightning in a bottle. Roloson, so good during the run to the Cup final in 2006, might lose his roster spot if the Oilers decide to go with Jeff Deslauriers. The rookie would have to be exposed to waivers in order to be sent down, and there are thoughts that the Oilers might keep him around rather than risk losing the 2003 second-rounder.
The bigger concern might be the lack of sandpaper up front. The Kid Line notched 65 PIM between them, and no one would mistake Hemsky and Horcoff for bruisers. Cole helps address the issue, as could MacIntyre, picked up this week on waivers from the Panthers. The Oilers may beat you, but they won't exact a physical toll in the process. That could haunt them in the postseason.
MVP: Ales Hemsky
Watching him in the past, you always got the sense that his effectiveness was limited by the skating deficiencies of his linemates. With Cole on board, Hemsky should finally be able to show us what he's got under the hood.
ROOKIE TO WATCH: NA
After breaking in Gagner and Cogliano last season, the Oilers don't expect to start the season with any new faces unless they hold on to Deslauriers. At this point, that's unlikely.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Robbie Schremp
Although he might not make the cut, Schremp looks like the rookie to monitor. The former first-rounder has the kind of mind-boggling individual skills that the league would love to market, but he can't seem to adapt them to a team game. He might find himself on the trading block this season.
BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: The Oilers missed the cut by just three points last season, an amazingly close call considering the battered state of their lineup. A healthier, deeper roster suggests they'll return to the postseason after a two-year absence.