The North West: My best estimation is that this division will come down to a very tight 3-horse race. That level of competitiveness which has existed among the Flames, Canucks, Oilers, Wild and Avalanche will eliminate their odds at a high seed in the West, but condition them nicely for playoff-style hockey.
-- Started last season at a geriatric pace and it cost them. Mikka Kiprusoffs' lukewarm performance and sub-par conditioning was the focus during that stretch, events which certainly need to be avoided for the '09 Flames to be successful. Built from the Net out, their defense is as strong as ever. Unless Dion Phaneuf catches the Hollywood-girlfriend jinx he will compete for the Norris Trophy with support coming from Reighr, Sarich, Aucoin and Warrener (although cap issues might see one of the latter two be dealt). Their only significant changes were up-front, signing Mike Cammelleri and Todd Bertuzzi to replace Tanguay and Owen Nolan, respectively. I consider both of these at least marginal upgrades, especially considering Cam's upside and the chip on Bertuzzi's shoulder. Otherwise, Iginla is the best captain in hockey and one of the leagues' most adept goal-scorers. All things considered I think they have what it takes to win the division and advance a few rounds in the tourney.
2008 Record: 42-30-10, 3rd Northwest
'09 Projection: 44-27-11, 1st NW
-- Are a team defined by the sum of their parts. They are the system: boring, defensive, effective. They are also -- notably -- the defending Champs of this very tough division. The Wild lost former captain and 30-goal scorer Brian Rolston to free agency and failed miserably filling that void. For some* reason free agents want to play in Minnesota about as bad as they want gonorrhea (*the only thing people hate more than the coach is the system he forces upon his players). They'll need to cripple other teams offensive output to repeat as division champs (which is feasible given that Edmonton is the only club with a thoroughly intimidating attack). In the last year of his contract, pending UFA Marion Gaborik will be celebrating either way: his freedom at the end of the year, or as the highest-payed player in team history. Playing for a contract, I anticipate 40+ goals for Mighty Marion (10+ GWG, anyone?) and equally exciting efforts from the most under-rated tender in the game: Nik Backstrom. Minni needs everything to go right for them to win and I think they lack the punch for a title run.
2008 Record:44-28-10, 1st Northwest
'09 Projection: 42-31-9, 3rd NW
-- OMG Joe Sakic is back! With that announcement the Avalanche and their fans have experienced the most exciting moment of the entire campaign -- 2 months before it even started. Thanks largely to Jose Theodore over-achieving in a contract year (and then leaving town) the Av's won an impressive 44 games on their way to a playoff appearance last year. This year, however, is a different story. They will ice the goaltending tandem of Andrew Raycroft and Peter Budaj behind a line-up that fails boost my confidence. Can you blame me with aging stars Foote, Sakic, and Hejduk featured alongside others who've also jumped the shark: Tucker, Hannan, Smyth? On the upside lies their younger players who old-new Coach Tony Granato will rely on this year and beyond (Stastny, Wolski, Svatos). The combination of pillow-ish offensive punch, age, questionable goaltending, and a new coaching regime means this team is trending down and has a very real possibility of missing the playoffs.
2008 Record:44-31-7, 2nd Northwest
'09 Projection: 39-34-9, 4th NW
-- finished the season as one of the hottest teams in the NHL. Kevin Lowe is building a winner and we are going to get a taste of that this season. Up front they boast diversity in their size, skill and talent: the finesse of Gagner and Hemsky, strength from Penner and Eric Cole (acquired through trade) and the finish from Horcoff and Cogliano. This is a sexy under-dog pick for those looking at NHL futures, but beware of their defensive abilities. In order to acquire Cole they dealt promising D-man Joni Pitkanen leaving Souray, Visnovsky and Staios anchoring the unstable, but potentially brilliant combination of Dwayne Roloson and Mat Garon. Young, hungry and competitive I like this team to make the playoffs on their live ice and potentially battle their way into the second round. While the time is nigh for a run, the Cup is moving in another direction in the Western conference almost as dangerous as Kandahar.
2008 Record: 41-35-6, 4th Northwest
'09 Projection: 42-30-10, 2nd NW
-- ask fired GM Dave Nonis how to waste the best goalie in the NHL and he'll direct you to Vancouver's roster. Purged from this years squad is the last semblance of success in Van City as Naslund and Morrison bolted to greener pastures. Notwithstanding their marginal impact on the new clubs, Trevor Linden's retirement leaves a massive leadership void (to go with -- regrettably -- similarly abysmal talent). Bearish is the feeling on the Canucks this year and you shouldn't be surprised. Their only meaningful additions were Steve Bernier (via trade), and Kyle Wellwood (via giveaway). Nucks suck this year, sorry to my West Coast brethren but your only hope is an MVP-Vezina season from Luongo.
2008 Record:39-33-10, 5th Northwest
'09 Projection: 38-34-10, 5th NW