With a strong offseason and the stellar Sedin brothers, the Canucks look to be one of the NHL's strongest teams. But the question is: Will their talent produce results? We continue our offseason reports with a look at the Northwest Division.
We put the Canucks at the top of the heap almost by default. Vancouver GM Mike Gillis addressed concerns along the blue line by adding British Columbian-born Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard, who struggled during his time in Florida. They lost Sami Salo (of course) to an offseason Achilles tendon injury, which complicates plans to move a defenseman and add scoring depth up front. Still, in a division marked by mediocrity and upheaval, the Canucks look like the best offseason bet. The big question heading into training camp: Which of the Sedin brothers will come out of nowhere to challenge Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, et al., for the NHL scoring title this season? Don't bet against Daniel, who quietly amassed 85 points in 63 games last season.
Kudos, once again, to coach-of-the-year candidate Joe Sacco and GM Greg Sherman, who somehow managed to get the overachieving Avs into the playoffs last year. Now, can they do it again? Not much has changed for the Avs personnel-wise, which means they will have to count on the continued evolution of youngsters like T.J. Galiardi, Brandon Yip and Peter Mueller, who played well after coming over from Phoenix at the trade deadline. Craig Anderson, who blocked more shots than any other netminder in the NHL last year, will need some more downtime, and we're not sure Peter Budaj is the guy to provide that relief as a backup and still keep the Avs in the thick of the playoff hunt.
The Flames returned Alex Tanguay and Olli Jokinen to the fold after both flopped in their previous stops in Tampa and New York, respectively. This is all part of GM Darryl Sutter's grand plan for what exactly? The chaos that enveloped the Flames last season when Sutter made wholesale changes to his roster in midstream, only to see his squad bottom out and miss the playoffs for the first time since 2003, seems to have gone on unabated this offseason (although we would be remiss if we didn't applaud the hiring of former Tampa GM Jay Feaster as assistant GM). Sutter's decision to re-sign Jokinen and Tanguay at a discount may turn out to be genius, in which case we will all owe Sutter a huge mea culpa next April. Or it may be more of the same aimlessness in Cowtown this season, in which case it's hard to see that this isn't Sutter's last stand.
The Wild appear to be another team mired in mediocrity. Kudos to sophomore GM Chuck Fletcher for locking up franchise player Mikko Koivu to a long-term deal and adding nice depth down the middle by signing former Cup winner Matt Cullen. But the Wild still look like a team destined to be just outside the bubble given a lack of offensive depth and a so-so blue line. Martin Havlat will have to step forward after a disappointing turn in his first year in Minnesota, and at some point, some homegrown talent will have to assert itself if the Wild are going to shake free of the stagnation that seems to have taken root in the state of hockey.
It really is shocking to think this franchise actually appeared in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals as recently as 2006. Pat Quinn has been unceremoniously bumped upstairs after one year as coach, leaving Tom Renney to mind the store. Renney, a gifted teacher of the game, is more than capable of turning things around in Edmonton, but he'll have to see marked improvement from young talent like Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano and Gilbert Brule. Having talented forward Ales Hemsky, who played in just 22 games before going down with injury last year, for the whole season will be a boon to the Oilers. No. 1 netminder Nikolai Khabibulin must sort out a drunken driving charge in Arizona, not to mention recovering from injuries that limited him to 18 games last season. Even with No. 1 pick Taylor Hall joining the lineup, it looks like a long, uphill climb for the Oilers.