Northwest preview (cont.)
2008-09 RECORD: 40-33-9, 89 points, third in Northwest
FRESH FACES: GM Chuck Fletcher, coach Todd Richards, Martin Havlat (Chicago), Kyle Brodziak (Edmonton), Shane Hnidy (Boston), Greg Zanon (Nashville), Petr Sykora (Pittsburgh), Jaime Sifers (Toronto)
OTHER PLACES: Marian Gaborik (NY Rangers), Stephane Veilleux (Tampa Bay), Kurtis Foster (Tampa Bay), Martin Skoula (Florida), Marc-Andre Bergeron (UFA)
STORYLINE: Here's a word you've rarely heard used in association with the Minnesota Wild: entertaining. While he's not entirely renouncing the defensive leanings of predecessor Jacques Lemaire, Todd Richards was hired to implement a system that focuses on an aggressive forecheck that will allow the Wild to assert its will, rather than simply react to the opposition. That style should thrill the players, and the die-hards at the jam-packed Xcel Center, but will it return the Wild to the playoffs? Tough to say. They lack the firepower to turn into a run 'n' gun team overnight, and that places greater expectations on youngsters like Benoit Pouliot and James Sheppard to drop the understudy tag. But the transformation of the Wild promises to be the season's most watchable facelift.
MVP: Mikko Koivu. It says a lot about the franchise that just three players have ever topped the 67 points Koivu scored last season...but that total only hints at what's possible for the 26-year-old. Already one of the game's elite defensive forwards, Koivu should fully assert himself as an offensive force with the additions of Havlat and Sykora.
KID TO WATCH: Danny Irmen. The 25-year-old winger has done everything asked of him in a make-or-break camp. A former Golden Gopher, he brings speed and energy that make him a logical fit for the third line. The 6-8 defender John Scott may also survive the final cut now that Derek Boogaard has been sidelined with a concussion.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Sheppard. All of Minnesota's centers should see their numbers improve as a result of Richards' system, but Sheppard, who struggled under the weight of his defensive responsibilities, will find it especially liberating. It also helps that added depth on the wings means he'll skate between Andrew Brunette and Antti Miettinen or Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Owen Nolan.
BOTTOM LINE: There's little room for error in the thick middle of the Western Conference, but for a team that just lost the face of the franchise, the Wild have to be feeling pretty good about their chances. Health will be an issue given a lack of organizational depth, but Minnesota should be more competitive -- and entertaining -- than last season even if they don't make the playoffs.
2008-09 RECORD: 38-35-9, 85 points, fourth in Northwest
FRESH FACES: Coaches Pat Quinn and Tom Renney, Nikolai Khabibulin (Chicago), Mike Comrie (Ottawa)
OTHER PLACES: Dwayne Roloson (NY Islanders), Kyle Brodziak (Minnesota), Ales Kotalik (NY Rangers)
STORYLINE: A third straight playoff DNQ precipitated the cashiering of Craig MacTavish and the hiring of an All-Star-caliber coaching staff featuring Quinn and Renney. The duo has its work cut out. Although the Oil are pushing up against the cap, the team doesn't look much different than last year's failed bit. The defense is mobile and armed with quick-strike potential, but lacks grit. The forwards are undersized and need a true game-breaker (though not for lack of trying, given their public courting of Dany Heatley). Ultimately, the challenge for Quinn and Co. will be to expedite the growth of Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano and Ales Hemsky into a core of reliable scorers...and if they can be convinced to play bigger than their size, so much the better.
MVP: Khabibulin. For years, the Northwest has been defined by nothing so much as the quality of its goaltending. After signing UFA Khabibulin, the Oilers now have a keeper capable of equaling the star power of Luongo, Niklas Backstrom and the rest. Khabibulin have trouble matching last season's record (25-8-7) on this weaker Edmonton squad, but if he can live up to his stats (2.33, .919), Khabi could generate a 10-point swing.
KID TO WATCH: Ryan Stone. Heading into the last week of camp, the Oilers have yet to make the call on Jordan Eberle and J.F. Jacques, and with 10 of the expected 14 forward spots spoken for, there's a chance they could survive the last round of cuts. The best bet is Stone, a 6-2, 207-pound winger who fills a clear need for size and sandpaper. He's not pretty, but he competes every shift, finishes his checks and isn't afraid to wade into the muck out front.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Eberle. By most accounts the best forward in camp, the 19-year-old sniper has a bright future in copper and blue. The problem is that the Oilers may need to send him down to protect assets like Schremp, Gilbert Brule and Marc Pouliot, all of whom would need to clear waivers to be assigned to the minors. That would be a tough break for Eberle who, despite being held off the scoresheet thus far, has shown the type of creativity and jam that seems ideally suited to Quinn's game plan.
BOTTOM LINE: Growth of the young core and improvements to last season's ineffectual special teams should keep their playoff hopes alive down the stretch, but this is essentially the same team that missed the target last season. Despite the best efforts of "Quenney," they'll be in tough to grab a spot.
2008-09 RECORD: 32-45-5, 69 points, fifth in Northwest
FRESH FACES: GM Greg Sherman, coach Joe Sacco, Craig Anderson (Florida), Kyle Quincey (Los Angeles), Tom Preissing (Los Angeles), David Koci (Tampa Bay)
OTHER PLACES: Joe Sakic (retirement), Ryan Smyth (Los Angeles), Ian Laperriere (Philadelphia), Andrew Raycroft (Vancouver), Tyler Arnason (NY Rangers)
STORYLINE: Last season's descent into irrelevance will feel like an overtime thriller compared to the 82-game beatdown that lies ahead for Avs fans. Sakic's retirement and the dumping of Smyth's contract set the inevitable rebuild into full-tilt boogie, and it's about to get ugly. How bad are things in Denver? Only one center, Paul Stastny, has more than 11 games of NHL experience, and with his history of injuries (he's missed 53 games over the past two seasons), the Avs may have to consider bringing back Peter Forsberg and his floppy ankles. If there's one bright spot on the horizon, it's this: the 2010 draft is loaded at the top.
MVP: Anderson. After authoring a breakthrough season as Tomas Vokoun's stand-in with the Panthers, Anderson finally earned his shot as a starter with the Avs. Hard to determine which side is assuming the bigger risk, though: the team that's betting on a career backup to stop the bleeding or the player who's about to become the biggest target since Kanye West.
KID TO WATCH: Matt Duchene. The third-overall pick last summer has earned comparisons to Sakic for his hockey sense, creativity and leadership skills. For the past two weeks, he's put the total package on display and challenged the Avs to cut him. The team is making a concerted public effort to lower expectations, but off the record, they're thrilled. "He's for real," said one team official.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Sherman. Most teams would dread the thought of seven potential UFAs after the season. For a rebuilding team like the Avs, they're the ticket to the fast lane...as long as GM Sherman extracts a suitable return in exchange for their late-season services. Expect him to be put to the test as contenders seek a boost from Adam Foote, Brett Clark, Ruslan Salei, Marek Svatos and others.
BOTTOM LINE: Forget season tickets. The best investment an Avs fan could make is in the Ontario Hockey League's online viewing package. No better way to keep tabs on the development of Taylor Hall and Cam Fowler of the Windsor Spitfires. Chances are Sherman will be handing one of them a maroon and blue sweater next June.