This was the best division in hockey coming out of the last lockout. They very damn near had 4 teams in the playoffs, the Flames had just gone to the final in 04, the Oilers went in 06, the next year they once again just missed putting 4 teams in the playoffs, same thing in 08 (actually in 08 all 5 teams were in the top 10 of the West). But in the last 3 seasons the division has been one of the worst in hockey. Now is that the Canucks dominating or are the Canucks dominant because the division has been so bad? Probably a bit of both, but it’s getting back to what it was. The Canucks have such a strong organization and the Avs, Wild and Oilers have stockpiled a lot while the Flames are….well….they’re a team that plays in the division as well.
1. Vancouver Canucks – The division bully will remain the division bully for at least 1 more season. The Wild are vastly improved, the Oilers and Avalanche are both coming, and Calgary….their fans will boo MIGHTLY at them when they come to town! But this is the first season where you start to get the sense like the door could shut soon on the Canucks Cup hopes.
The Ryan Kesler injury is devestating. The Canucks are acting like it’s not going to be a long term thing, they better be right because this team can’t win without him. I don’t like the way he acts on the ice, but you can’t deny this guy is one of the best 2 way centres in hockey right now and is in his prime. If he does miss something like half of this shortened season, the fan base will be all the more pissed at Mike Gillis for the Cody Hodgson trade.
But even without Kesler they’re still a very good team. You know what the twins will give you, Burrows is another guy who I don’t like his act but you can’t deny his ability, and I’m still a guy that believes the Hodgson trade in time will prove to be a good deal. But having said that, Zack Kassian needs to stop worrying about proving he has an offensive game. If he does start the season with the Sedin’s, he just needs to go out and do the dirty work. Be a beast on the forecheck and get to the front of the net.
Their blueline is almost among the best in the league at this point. Edler took a big step offensively last season (although he completely fell apart in the playoffs), Bieksa and Hamhuis is a great pairing, Jason Garrison probably got overpaid but I will take that contract any day of the week over what the Flames gave Dennis Wideman. That’s a great top 4, even though there might not be a true number 1 guy. They could upgrade over 1 of those 4, but it’s a good enough group to win a Cup.
And then we have the circus in net. It’s a great problem to have, Cory Schneider look terrific in his 3 games against the L.A. Kings in last year’s playoffs so they have absolutely no worries about him as the number 1 guy. Of course they also have the best and most expensive backup in the game (at least as of typing this) in Roberto Luongo. Nobody will ever convince me that this situation wasn’t a distraction for this team during the 2011 playoffs, and all of last season. Gillis needs to quit looking for a homerun and get him out of there. They also have Eddie Lack coming in from the AHL to back him up who is another real good young tendy ready to see some time at least as a backup. If there is one thing this team does better than most it is developing their draft picks.
The time is now for the Canucks, but I doubt the lockout will help this team. They already had a lot of time off after the 1st round loss in last year’s playoffs. I have my doubts about how this team will come out of the gate, and there won’t be much time to recover from a slow start. But if they can get through the first 10-15 games .500 or better I believe they will be fine.
2. Minnesota Wild – Well these won’t be your 2 year older brothers Wild!!! That sounds cool, right? Anyway, they had the best offseason in the NHL and did it all in about a 15 minute span. It is a lot of cap space to have tied up in 2 players and I wonder now under the new CBA if they will have to deal one of them in the next 2 years, but for now things look real good for the Wild going forward.
It’s not just those 2, Mikko Koivu is still one of the most underrated centre’s in the game. Mike Yeo can throw him out there in literally any situation and feel comfortable. And I love the kids that will most likely be playing behind him. Mikael Granlund is one of the top prospects in the league and is a serious threat to take home the Calder trophy this year. Overshadowed by Granlund is Charlie Coyle. They might just leave Coyle down in Houston for the remainder of the season, but he is going to be a gem and more than Parise and Suter going foward I love what this team has at centre for years to come.
On the wings Danny Heatley actually played a lot better than his stats indicated last season. He looked like he had his drive back, but I do wonder what he will look like not having played since last April. Considering he would be the Wild’s top buy out candidate I would guess he plays highly motivated this season. Having Pierre-Marc Bouchard back will help, but you can’t rely on him to stay healthy at this point.
The problem this team has is on the blueline. After Suter, it is as thin as any team in the league. I watched Tom Gilbert a ton when he was with the Oilers, and while people made a big deal about the minutes he could log trust me when I say they weren’t quality minutes. People get fixated on a guy that can be put into all situations but it doesn’t mean that they’re good in all situations. So to sum up, Gilbert isn’t a good number 2 d-man, and after that it’s flat out bad. Marco Scandella is their number 3 guy and if that’s not bad enough he is struggling with a groin injury. Jonas Brodin would be a rookie that could step right in but he’s still injured so they MIGHT be faced with rushing in Soups on Sports favorite Matt Dumba who has been underwhelming in Red Deer this season. If they do rush him, that could ruin Dumba. He needs at least another 2 years of seasoning before he’s ready for the show.
This team always gets underrated in net. Just awful news about Josh Harding having MS. Hopefully he will be able to continue his career without many issues. If he can, he is one of the top backups in the game. Niklas Backstrom hasn’t been exactly the same goaltender since Jacques Lemaire left, but he still is a top netminder, and this season he is playing for a new contract. I expect him to have a big season. He is 35 so this is his last shot to get a big deal.
In the fall I believed if the season were to start up that this group would take a while to gel as a unit. I don’t see that changing, but now there is an even shorter period of time to turn things around if that is the case. I had them finishing 5th at the start of the year, now that prediction has dropped….far enough to leave them out of the playoffs? I guess you’ll have to wait for my conference predictions to come out! What a tease hey?!
3. Edmonton Oilers – I’m going to get killed for this because I don’t deny my SLIGHT love for the Oil. I do my best to keep my bias at home. I’m not calling for them to win the division, I’m not calling for them to be better than the Wild, I’m just saying they’ll be right there with Colorado (I say they finish higher because the Avs management is a mess) and ahead of Calgary who they started to dominate at the end of last season. So kill me all you want, I think this is a fair predicition.
Now, allow me to say that the Oilers have had 4/5 of their number 1 PP unit playing together for most of this season in OKC. Not many teams have had those important and vital parts of their teams playing together like the Oilers have. They’ve benefited from this lockout more than any team. Justin Schultz getting AHL time is huge. Taylor Hall not having to rush back from his shoulder surgery is huge. Nail Yakupov playing in the KHL rather than going back to the OHL or jumping right into the NHL should be good for him. Anton Lander and Magnus Paajarvi despite not having great AHL seasons to this point will be helped by the half season in that league. Ryan Whitney had more time to get healthy and get himself into great shape which he wasn’t throughout last season due to his surgery the previous season. They’ve got a leg up on a lot of teams, but now they’ll have to jump on that oppurtunity.
Still not loving Sam Gagner as their 2nd line centre. He was rushed, he is small, he doesn’t have great speed, he’s not good in the dot, and he doesn’t play a 200 foot game. If he had gone pointless against the Hawks on Febuary 2nd of last year, he would have finished the season with less than 40 points. The fans, the media, and the organization all love this kid. Hell I would love it if he proved me wrong. But time is running out for him to become the player that the Oilers thought he would be. He’s still a useful player, but he’s not a 2nd line centre and is still a top candidate to be packaged by Tambellini for an upgrade at centre.
Other than that 2nd line centre spot, this team is loaded up front. Ales Hemsky might see a lot of time on the 3rd line this season. While he has produced like a 3rd line guy the last few seasons, he has 1st line talent. Nail Yakupov will for sure be used in the top 6 but probably won’t see a lot of PP time. That will be reserved for the junior’s and sophmore’s. Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, maybe Smyth so you have that net pressence, with Justin Schultz and Eberle at the point. That’s just a guess by me though. It was the 3rd ranked PP last season and I don’t think they will drop from that.
Of course everyone always harps on the blueline, but the talent back there is good. If (a BIG if) Ryan Whitney can stay healthy for the season, it’s a solid 1-6 with Whitney, Justin Schultz, Nick Schultz, Smid, Petry and the newly aquired Mark Fistric. Obviously Justin Schultz needs to keep up what he has been doing in the AHL so far this season, which won’t be easy to do at the next level. The problem is that collectively this team isn’t good defensively. Most fans and media believe that if a team is bad defensively it’s as simplistic as the team having a bad defense core, and when they can’t score it’s because the forward group is terrible. It’s a team game, and the Oilers biggest improvement this season needs to be at the defensive end as a team.
A big part of things appearing that way will be Devan Dubnyk. This is it for Dubnyk. He is now the number 1 guy. If he can improve his play from last season just slightly, the Oilers are laughing. I love his makeup, and at 26 he has yet to enter his prime as a goaltender. Again, better defensive play by the team would go a very long way towards making Dubnyk look like that legit number 1 netminder.
They’re loaded moving forward but the question is will they make a big jump to becoming a playoff team this season? They could. The Schultz signing was HUGE for this organization, and a lot of hockey people really loved the hiring of Ralph Kruger. But I think the safer bet is that they compete for a playoff spot, but come up just short.
4. Colorado Avalanche – As I said above, I see the Avs and Oilers as pretty even at this point. I can easily see the argument as to why some would have the Avs ahead of the Oilers. But I really don’t like the combination of Greg Sherman and Joe Sacco running this show.
Sherman seemingly makes terrible move after terrible move, and while those moves don’t pan out for him he seems to catch a break elsewhere. Chris Stewart had a disasterious season in St.Louis, yet Johnson for Shattenkirk is still a deal the Avs lose. But they were fortunate enough to be in a spot to draft Gabriel Landeskog the summer following that deal. While they made a horrific move trading their 1st and 2nd round picks for Seymon Varlamov, what was expected to be an amazing draft class had everything go wrong and the Avs managed to get themselves out of the bottom 10 to make the deal not so badly lopsided. Now I still wouldn’t trade Filip Forsberg let alone another pick for Varlamov, but it looked like it could be much much worse when the deal was first made.
They’re very “Oiler like” up front, and I LOVE what they have down the middle with Duchene, Stastny and O’Reilly. I already mentioned Landeskog, and while I think Sherman is terrible he did do a great deal to get Steve Downie at last year’s trade deadline. Still kind of thin on the wings, but better to be loaded down the middle and thin on the wings than the other way around. You never want to have a bunch of great WR’s with no QB, and you don’t want to have a bunch of great wingers with no centres.
The one thing that I don’t like was the contract they gave to P.A. Parenteau. That has potential to be one of the worst of the off season. I can’t help but think that 49 apples was a lot of 2nd assists as a result of being on a line with Tavares and Matt Moulson last year on the Island. He has good wheels, but whenever I’ve watched him play he has not impressed. To me he’s very 1 dimensional, although the Avs have a lot of multi dimensional guys up front so perhaps he will fit nicely.
Where they look scary bad however is on the blueline. Fans and analysts think the Oilers blueline is bad, take a look at what the Avs have….or lack there of. Erik Johnson isn’t very good offensively, doesn’t log a high amount of minutes, and he’s just flat out never lived up to expectations…not close actually. He’s still only 24 and it takes d-men longer to develop, but he’s not a top 2 d-man at this point. And guess what….he’s far and away the best they have!
I like the potential of Tyson Barrie and Stefan Elliott, but in no way can they depend on them. It’s scary bad, and while I know Varlamov had a good season last year I would say the jury is still out on him. Sacco basically had the Avs playing a more defensive version of the 2003 Ducks trap.
They have some pieces, but I don’t like the sum of the parts here. I think they’ll have a similar season to last year, maybe a few spots lower in the standings but still competing for a playoff spot. Like I say, the Avs and Oilers in my mind are interchangible.
5. Calgary Flames – By this point I’m pretty certain if you’re reading this that you don’t need me to tell you what I think of the Flames mangement. In a word….humiliating. They refuse to rebuild, they’ve thrown big money at average free agents, and there is seemingly no end in sight to this mess.
This is the worst team down the middle in the league. Their top centre is WINGER Alex Tanguay. That sounds like a bad joke I would say, not a fact. Sorry Flames fans, that’s a fact. This team used to be bad at centre with Darryl Sutter as GM. Roman Cervenka is expected to be their 2nd line centre. I don’t know that the “best player in the NHL” has ever been good when brought into the NHL. I recall Jiri Dopita being a total bust for example. Then they have Matt Stajan who was going to be this teams 1st line centre when they dealt Dion Phaneuf. I guess Mikael Backlund is still on the roster? It’s bad down the middle in Calgary….like expansion team bad.
They look ok on the wings, but I wouldn’t have given Jiri Hudler that kind of money. That contract will bite them in the ass for sure. The fan base is jacked about Sven Baertschi and rightfully so, but they have a lot of guys like him up front. Feaster has turned them into one of the smallest teams up front and I definitely think it’s the softest forward group in the league. Maybe Bob Hartley can fix all their problems, but I somehow doubt it.
It’s a scary situation because if they start off poorly, Hartley isn’t a guy that will help the chemistry in the room. And he won’t be going anywhere as long as Feaster is there. He stuck with John Tortorella all through the days with the Lightning, and Hartley is closer with him than Torts was.
The defense doesn’t look a whole lot better than the forwards. If the Jiri Hudler signing was bad, then I don’t even know how to describe the Dennis Wideman signing. He was the 5th defenseman for the Caps during the playoffs. He got points because Mike Green was hurt for a lot of last season so he was given all the power play minutes with Ovechkin and company. That will boost anyone’s stats. The last time Wideman had a big season was with Boston in 09 and once he got his big pay day he bounced around because he underachieved and nobody wanted him. He is a 2.5-3 mil a year d-man getting 5.25 mil per. Add to that, it’s a 5 year deal with a no movement clause. Just horrific.
Mark Giordano has become the anchor of this blueline and I like his game, hell I picked him for my 2014 Olympic team! And I rip on Jay Bouwmeester a lot but he is still useful. Grossly overpaid….but useful. Solid in his own zone, and maybe getting away from Sutter will help him get his offensive game back. After that there isn’t much. T.J. Brodie can skate, but he could be in their top 4 and I don’t believe he’s ready for that.
In goal Mikka Kiprusoff has to collapse one of these years doesn’t he?! He is a freak and quite frankly still doesn’t get enough credit as one of the games best tendy’s even after all these years. He’s a horse, but it can’t last forever. He’s now 36 and he like Iginla should be dealt now why the organization can still get something for them…but they won’t.
Feaster will have you believe that they have stocked the cupboard in terms of prospects, but I’m very skeptical. John Gaudreau was incredible at the WJC, but it’s a much different story dangling guys on big ice and dangling them in the NHL. For every Marty St.Louis and Theo Fleury, there are 20-30 Ryan Shannon’s and Eric Boguniecki’s. Baertschi is the only serious prospect they have right now, the rest are a lot of guys that still need a lot of time to see what they are.
Talent is there to be what they’ve been for the last 3 seasons, but I think it’s the year the wheels fall off which could easily be a blessing in disguise for the Flames.
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