1. The Minnesota Wild
Although this division has been dominated by the Canucks in the past, I’m picking the Wild to win because of their offseason acquisitions of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Adding two superstars to play with the likes of Dany Heatly and Mikko Koivu, the Wild have scoring prowess. I know this is the popular pick and all of that talk and skepticism, but the fact of the matter is that the two players brought in are that special. Parise was the difference between the Devils making the Stanley Cup Final and (as I believe will happen) not making the playoffs the year after. Suter was a member of what could have been named the best defensive pairing in the league last season, and now he’s looking to do it again in Minnesota. Last season, without the two acquisitions, we saw the Wild play very well in the first half of the season. With the tools they now have, what’s to say they can’t do it again and prolong it into the playoffs and the top of the division?
2. The Vancouver Canucks
The Canucks are suffering from a problem that is a luxury – having too many goalies. Cory Schneider is the number one net-minder in town after he replaced Roberto Luongo on many occasions last season, including in the playoffs. The problem for the Canucks is that they are paying both goalies starting money. With a shrinking salary cap under effect as part of the new CBA, the Canucks have to deal one of their goalies, and soon, to make ends meet financially. Luongo could be dealt to the Leafs, which would open up Vancouver’s cap space. For this season however, the Canucks are as consistent as you can find in this division. Despite being ousted by the Cup Champion LA Kings in the first round last season, expect the Canucks to come storming back again led by the Sedin brothers. They can get a bigger boost from Ryan Kessler’s return from shoulder surgery, and secondary scoring with the return of David Booth. I certainly expect the Canucks to be in the playoffs again this year, not as the President’s Trophy winners, but as a middle-of-the-pack seed.
3. The Edmonton Oilers
Photo Credit: Larry Wong/Edmonton Journal
When looking at the Oilers roster currently, the only thing that comes to my mind is “have they been this bad for this long?” With an overflow of top picks and prospects in their system, I think this is the year that a turnaround shows. Boasting a top line of what could be three first-overall picks (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, and Nail Yakupov), the Oilers have great potential. Also factor in the prize of the free-agent class Justin Schultz on the blue line, and the Oilers look nothing short of formidable on paper. The only thing that could hinder the success of this team is chemistry, but if the three stars can figure it out, then the offense should be good to go. The most glaring weakness for the Oilers is goaltending. With Nikolai Khabibulin being placed on the IR a few days ago, the Oilers starter is Devan Dubnyk. In 47 games last year Dubnyk posted a 2.67 GAA and a .914 SV% – relatively impressive numbers. However, in a shortened season, I look for durability and a proven-track record, neither of which I have seen from Dubnyk. The Oilers will be fine on the offensive side of the puck, but the question mark lies between the pipes this year.
4. The Colorado Avalanche
I don’t necessarily think that the Avalanche have gotten worse from last season, I just don’t see any improvement. The Avalanche have budding stars in Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog, but aside from that, where are their goals going to come from? Ryan O’Reilly is back, after he led the team with 55 points last season, and in comes winger P.A. Parenteau, who would have led the team in scoring last year, with 67 points. For the Avalanche to be competitive this season, they are going to need a bounce-back year from Duchene. After posting 67 points in his sophomore season two years ago, Duchene only posted 28 points and a -11 rating in a season shortened by his ankle injury. Duchene is going to need to score at will for the Avalanche. Landeskog became the youngest captain in NHL history this offseason in a questionable move, but as captain Landeskog is going to have to step up for his team on and off the ice. As with every team in this division, goaltending will be key. Semyon Varlamov will be the starter, and after posting a mediocre 2.59 GAA last year, Colorado is going to need more to stay competitive.
5. The Calgary Flames
The Flames stayed relatively quiet throughout the entire offseason. The Flames boast an aging core, led by 35-year-old Jerome Iginla, and 36-year-old goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff. With the amnesty buyout clause in place this season and with a waver system, I’m not quite sure why these two players are still under contract. It is clear that the Flames are not going anywhere soon, and with these stars’ careers in waning, the rebuilding process needs to begin in Calgary. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Iginla moved before the trade deadline this year. For a class act that has been playing for the Flames his entire career, since 1996, it should be a bittersweet goodbye. Aside from Iginla, the Flames only had one other skater score more than fifty points – Jiri Hudler. Also watch out for Dennis Wideman, who was a rock on the blue line for the Flames, racking up 46 points while playing in all 82 games last year. Maybe the Flames can turn heads and surprise everyone this year – I’m not counting that out – it’s just highly unlikely.