Thursday, September 1, 2011

2011/12 NHL Preview - Northwest Division

We've covered the Central and the Pacific, so today we round out the Western Conference with a preview of the Northwest.


Projected depth chart / lines:
Alex Tanguay - Olli Jokinen - Jarome Iginla
Rene Bourque - Brendan Morrison - Curtis Glencross
Niklas Hagman - Mikael Backlund - Lee Stempniak
David Moss - Matthew Stajan - Tom Kostopoulos

Jay Bouwmeester - Mark Giordano
Cory Sarich - Scott Hannan
Anton Babchuk - Chris Butler

Miikka Kiprusoff
Henrik Karlsson

Traditionally, the Flames had been criticized for leaning too much on a single line - that of captain Jarome Iginla - to produce the vast majority of their offense. Well, quietly, Calgary has amassed an extremely deep group of talented forwards with 10 guys who easily have 40+ point potential (this is not to say they will hit that mark, of course...). Mikael Backlund looks poised for a breakout year at age 22, and the recent addition of Lee Stempniak ensures he'll have two offensively inclined wingers to play with. Rene Bourque and Curtis Glencross both had 2010-11 campaigns that cemented their credentials as top 6 wingers, and while many mocked the club's "experiments" of last off-season bringing in Olli Jokinen, Alex Tanguay, and Brendan Morrison, all produced well above expectations with successful years they will look to build on.

To make room for all the new talent up front, the Flames had to do a bit of gutting of what was arguably the league's best defense. Jay Bouwmeester has not lived up to the hype since being acquired from the Florida Panthers, but fortunately Mark Giordano has been a pleasant surprise in picking up some of the offense-from-the-blueline slack. In fact, Giordano looks to be a much better pick for your fantasy hockey drafts than the bigger name Bouwmeester. For the bargain basement price of $1,000,000, Scott Hannan was a great signing to round out the group; those of you who have read this site regularly know that I was a major advocate of the Habs picking him up for added depth.

It's no secret who Calgary's man in net will be, but Miikka Kiprusoff's game has shown kinks as he's aged (now 34). While his numbers haven't been poor, three of his last four seasons have seen GAAs above 2.60 and save percentages below .910, so it will be something to watch. Henrik Karlsson proved to be an adequate back-up after joining the Flames straight out of the Swedish Elite League last year, but at age 27 already, it is unclear whether he'll ever be more than that.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Bubble playoff team.


Projected depth chart / lines:
Peter Mueller - Paul Stastny - Milan Hejduk
Gabriel Landeskog - Matt Duchene - David Jones
Brandon Yip - Kevin Porter - Ryan O'Reilly
Chuck Kobasew - Jay McClement - Cody McLeod

Erik Johnson - Jan Hejda
Kyle Quincey - Ryan O'Byrne
Matt Hunwick - Shane O'Brien

Semyon Varlamov
Jean-Sebastien Giguere

Over the past year, the Avs have made a number of controversial deals which critics were quite vocal about. This trend continued into the summer with the dealing of a couple of high draft picks to the Washington Capitals for young goaltender Semyon Varlamov whose days in that organization seemed numbered at best to begin with. Certainly there will be a lot of pressure on the 23 year old former first round selection, who set a career high in games played at the NHL level last season... but it was still just 27! In fact, Varlamov's career high for games at the AMERICAN LEAGUE level is also just 27, so despite good numbers wherever he has played, he is not yet a proven NHL #1 and represents another intriguing storyline for the upcoming season.

Varlamov will need to be on his game for the Avalanche to make any noise as, though the team has a stocked cupboard of young talent, their offense remains shallow and inexperienced. At times during the last 2 seasons, Brandon Yip, Ryan O'Reilly, and/or David Jones have emerged from nowhere as pleasant surprises, but their inexperience makes it tough to predict how they will perform in 2011-12. The lack of top end talent means we should see Gabriel Landeskog's NHL debut this year as a compliment to young stars Paul Stastny and/or Matt Duchene, making him one of the top options for a rookie in your pool.

On the blueline, Colorado paid a hefty price to acquire Erik Johnson last season, so they will expect a lot out of him in leading a group that leaves much to be desired. Still, he represents a building block on D that they severely lacked and should be a cornerstone to the team the organization is trying to put together - something that can't really be said about any of the other 5 starters, despite the fresh four year deal handed to Jan Hejda.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Out of the playoffs.


Projected depth chart / lines:
Taylor Hall - Shawn Horcoff - Ales Hemsky
Ryan Smyth - Ryan Nugent-Hopkins - Jordan Eberle
Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson - Eric Belanger - Linus Omark
Ryan Jones - Sam Gagner - Ben Eager

Ryan Whitney - Tom Gilbert
Andy Sutton - Ladislav Smid
Theo Peckham - Cam Barker

Devan Dubnyk
Nikolai Khabibulin

The Oilers' offense looks perhaps scarier than the Pittsburgh Penguins team when Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal were all just breaking into the league. Four lines deep, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins should make his NHL debut, adding to Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Magnuss Paajarvi-Svensson, and more... a veritable "who's who" of top NHL prospects. This summer's addition of Ryan Smyth will bring a sound veteran presence to the locker room and on the ice, and will shelter some more inexperienced rookies from some difficult minutes.

But offense hasn't been this team's true problem. Their defensive and goaltending situations have not been addressed for the short term, and could be what keeps the club out of the post-season. Ryan Whitney and Tom Gilbert are mobile, two-way blueliners that any team would be happy with, but there is a big drop-off after them. Theo Peckham was a nice find last season as a tough guy on the back end who could slot in as an everyday player, but the club still desperately needs to improve its top 4 in order to reach "contender" status.

The situation in goal is even more precarious, with Nikolai Khabibulin's legal issues raising almost as many concerns as his deteriorating play with his age (38) and health. Devan Dubnyk showed some of the potential that many once saw in him last season, posting solid numbers and undoubtedly positioning him to push Khabibulin for ice time. The Oilers added depth by bringing former Canadien Yan Danis back from Russia, though if Khabibulin can play, he may start out in the AHL.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Bubble playoff team.


Projected depth chart / lines:
Dany Heatley - Mikko Koivu - Devin Setoguchi
Pierre-Marc Bouchard - Matt Cullen - Guillaume Latendresse
Kyle Brodziak - Eric Nystrom - Cal Clutterbuck
Casey Wellman - Darrell Powe - Colton Gilles

Marek Zidlicky - Nick Schultz
Greg Zanon - Chay Genoway
Mike Lundin - Clayton Stoner

Niklas Backstrom
Josh Harding

The Wild shook up their offense this summer thanks to a couple of trades with the San Jose Sharks, and now present a very respectable top 6. Look for a strong year from ex-Hab Guillaume Latendresse as he returns from injuries that sidelined him most of last season. If Dany Heatley is to be believed, he should be highly motivated to bounce back from a career-worst points-per-game season that saw him finish with just 64 in 80 contests. Given that he may have some skilled new linemates, snatch up center Mikko Koivu quickly in your pools, as he should get back above the 70 point mark. Still, the offense is thin outside of two lines (and even those have some question marks).

The Wild's defense ranks in the lower half of the league, but one interesting player to watch will be NCAA signing Chay Genoway. Never drafted because of his size (5'9", 165 lbs), the 24 year old finished his college career on a high note with an over a point-per-game season, leading to an NHL bidding war for his services.

In goal, Niklas Backstrom has shown he can be a top 5 or 8 'tender in the league when he's on his game, but Josh Harding has also shown he may be ready for starting duties. With Harding a pending UFA next summer, look for the club to try to upgrade the back-end at some point with a deal.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Out of the playoffs.


Projected depth chart / lines:
Daniel Sedin - Henrik Sedin - Alexandre Burrows
Mason Raymond - Ryan Kesler - Mikael Samuelsson
Chris Higgins - Manny Malhotra - Marco Sturm
Jannik Hansen - Cody Hodgson - Maxim Lapierre

Dan Hamhuis - Kevin Bieksa
Alexander Elder - Sami Salo
Keith Ballard - Andrew Alberts

Roberto Luongo
Corey Schneider

There was lots of criticism up and down the Canucks roster after the team came oh so close to winning their first Stanley Cup in franchise history, but failed to close the deal. It is hard to argue with the regular season numbers of Daniel and Henrik Sedin, but many question their ability to win the big game come post-season. With three straight seasons above the 25 goal mark, Alex Burrows has proven that his success was no fluke, and the Canucks will be very happy to bolster their offense through the return of a healthy Mikael Samuelsson. The team managed to retain trade deadline acquisitions Chris Higgins and Maxim Lapierre, both of whom played large roles in the playoff run, but there were no real significant acquisitions (no offense intended to Marco Sturm, but he appears to be on the downside of his career).

Vancouver's defense - despite being ravaged by injuries all year long - was amongst the league's best last year, and they still present a formidable group despite the loss of Christian Ehrhoff. Other than the eternal question of Sami Salo's health, the other one to watch will be how the team handles Keith Ballard. Considered a steal of an acquisition when he was brought over from the Florida Panthers, Ballard began last season with injury issues and never regained his form. He fought for ice time on the club's blueline and was even often a healthy scratch. With 4 years remaining on his deal at $4.2M per season, the team will have to do what they can to extract the best value out of him starting this year.

I don't think it's time for Vancouver to push the panic button on Roberto Luongo's post-season struggles, as he did put up several big money performances. Still, he has not yet shown himself to be a big game goalie, and those who point to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics forget that he was quite poor in the gold medal game, and Team Canada won almost in spite of his play. The question becomes, with Corey Schneider's emergence as a solid NHL netminder, how will the club split games? This is certainly still Luongo's team, but perhaps we will see a larger role for his back-up in 2011/12.

YourCanadiens Verdict: (Regular Season) Conference contender.

Thanks for reading. Tomorrow we switch over to the Eastern Conference and hit the Southeast Division!

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