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Posted: Friday September 25, 2009 6:23PM; Updated: Wednesday September 30, 2009 4:17PM
Allan Muir Allan Muir >
INSIDE THE NHL

2009-10 Northwest Div. Preview

Story Highlights

Roberto Luongo is the key to Vancouver getting past underachieving Calgary

With a new coach and system, the Wild will be more entertaining if less successful

The young Oilers are too thin to contend; the full rebuild is on for the Avalanche

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When last seen, Roberto Luongo was down and out against the Blackhawks.
Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images
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Here's how I see them shaking out, in predicted order of finish:

VANCOUVER CANUCKS

2008-09 RECORD: 45-27-10, 100 points, first in Northwest

FRESH FACES: Mikael Samuelsson (Detroit), Andrew Raycroft (Colorado), Mathieu Schneider (Montreal), Christian Ehrhoff (San Jose), Brad Lukowich (San Jose)

OTHER PLACES: Mattias Ohlund (Tampa Bay), Mats Sundin (retired), Taylor Pyatt (Phoenix), Ossi Vaananen (Russia), Jason LaBarbera (Phoenix), Curtis Sanford (Montreal)

STORYLINE: After successfully locking down his core for the long term, GM Mike Gillis began the tinkering that precedes an evolution from pretender to contender. He saw the Canucks' soft spots exposed in their second round loss to the Blackhawks, so he added transitional skill with Ehrhoff and Schneider and grit and experience in Samuelsson and Lukowich. On paper, Vancouver now boasts the most balanced blueline in the game and maybe the most talent they've ever had up front. The onus falls on the highly compensated stars --Daniel and Henrik Sedin and Roberto Luongo -- to prove they can be the backbone of an elite squad.

MVP: Luongo. Faced with the possibility of losing the perennial All-Star to free agency after this season, Gillis tagged Luongo as a Canuck for life with a staggering 12-year extension. It's impossible to overstate the goaltender/captain's importance -- the team won just nine of 23 while he rehabbed a midseason groin injury -- or his potential for a monster year. Luongo will be motivated both by a disappointing playoff run and a strong desire to start for Team Canada at home in the Winter Olympics in February.

ROOKIE TO WATCH: Cody Hodgson. He tore up the junior ranks after being among the final cuts from camp last season, earning recognition as the CHL Player of the Year and assaying a critical role on Canada's world juniors team. His second chance has been delayed by a bad back, but he returned to the ice this week, skating alongside Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows on what could be an important line for the Canucks. The fly in the ointment? Salary cap issues may necessitate a return to the OHL.

KEEP AN EYE ON: Sergei Shirokov. The 23-year-old winger had 17 goals and 41 points in 56 games for CSKA Moscow last season, hinting at his potential to claim a vacant spot on one of the top two lines. He has impressed with his speed and creativity in the preseason -- a light cap hit and instant chemistry with the Sedins won't hurt his cause, either. If you're in the market for a fantasy sleeper, here's your guy.

BOTTOM LINE: Retaining the Northwest title should be the least of their goals. This is a club that has to contend for the conference crown.

CALGARY FLAMES

2008-09 RECORD: 46-30-6, 98 points, second in Northwest

FRESH FACES: Coach Brent Sutter (New Jersey), Jay Bouwmeester (Florida), Nigel Dawes (Phoenix), Fredrik Sjostrom (NY Rangers), Brian McGrattan (Phoenix), Brandon Prust (Phoenix)

OTHER PLACES: Mike Cammalleri (Montreal), Todd Bertuzzi (Detroit), Wayne Primeau (Toronto), Adrian Aucoin (Phoenix), Jordan Leopold (Florida), Jim Vandermeer (Phoenix), Andre Roy (UFA)

miikka-kiprusoff.jpg
Miikka Kiprusoff
Getty Images

STORYLINE: At this point, calling Miikka Kiprusoff a world-class goaltender is like ranking Eddie Murphy as a top box-office draw. The reputation is there, but recent results paint a decidedly less flattering picture. Though Kiprusoff led the NHL with 45 wins, it was a testament more to an eighth-ranked offense and his 76-game workload than a flashback to his 2005-06 impenetrability. Truth is, Kipper was miserable, failing to finish among the top-30 in GAA or save percentage, and his inability to make the big save when needed most ultimately sank the Flames. Surprisingly, GM Darryl Sutter failed to bring in a veteran capable of spelling Kiprusoff (who's also expected to backstop Finland at the Olympics), so he's unlikely to get the rest he needs to stay fresh down the stretch. Of course, that may not be an issue if his start mirrors his camp. "He hasn't looked all that impressive," one observer told SI.com.

At least Kipper shouldn't be left alone quite so often. The backend now boasts an unmatchable (on paper, anyway) top four of Bouwmeester, Dion Phaneuf, Robyn Regehr and Cory Sarich. They're big (averaging 6-3, 215), experienced and balanced enough to shut down the opposition's top lines and create chances in transition. Sutter's system-heavy approach will take some adjustment, but the Flames should buy in quickly. Based on his past success, expect them to be more positionally sound and defensively responsible. More important, they'll all be pulling in the same direction. For a team that played at odds with itself much of last season, that would signal significant improvement.

MVP: Jarome Iginla. An effort to spread the scoring bolstered Calgary's offensive numbers last season but dramatically cut into Iginla's personal output. With Cammalleri gone, and a lack of reliable touch beyond the first line, the Flames need Iggy to be the 50-goal scorer of 2007-08 rather than the 35-goal man he was last season.

KEEP AN EYE ON: Curtis McElhinney. The relatively untested backup needs to give the Flames 20 quality starts to effectively spell Kiprusoff...but if he's called on much more often than that, Calgary is in serious trouble.

BOTTOM LINE: After four consecutive first round exits, the Flames no longer deserve the benefit of the doubt. The additions of J-Bo and Sutter should keep these chronic underachievers in contention for the division crown and in the playoffs, but until they prove otherwise, it's safer to assume that Calgary will again fall short of their considerable potential.

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