Monday, July 28, 2008

A Northwest nosedive

The Northwest Division has recently been one of the more difficult divisions to play in. Five teams with solid fan bases and stable ownership groups willing to spend, clubs that often fight it out until the final week of the regular season to see who comes out on top.

It's been a pretty contentious battle since the lockout:
  • Last season, three Northwest teams made the playoffs, and the two non-playoff clubs finished ninth and 11th
  • In 2006-07, three made the playoffs, Colorado finished ninth and Edmonton was 12th
  • And in 2005-06, Vancouver and Minnesota missed the playoffs and were ninth and 11th
No bottom feeders and only one pick in the top eight in the past three years (Sam Gagner). We haven't seen a genuine rebuild from a Northwest Division team postlockout.

That could soon change given this summer's activity:

Inbox Outbox
Calgary Cammalleri, Bertuzzi, Bourque, Giordano,
Glencross, Roy
Tanguay, Huselius, Nolan, Hale, Yelle, Joseph, Smith, Godard
Colorado Tucker, Raycroft, Willsie, Tjarnqvist Sakic (?), Theodore, Brunette, Sauer, Forsberg, Finger
Edmonton Cole, Visnovsky, Brule, Strudwick Pitkanen, Stoll, Torres, Greene, Reasoner, Sanderson
Minnesota Zidlicky, Brunette,
Miettinen, Nolan, Bergeron, Weller
Rolston, Demitra, Radivojevic, Carney, Fedoruk, Nummelin, Hill, Simon
Vancouver Demitra, Bernier, Wellwood, R. Johnson, Hordichuk, Davison Naslund, Morrison, Miller, Linden, Ritchie, Weaver, Isbister

At first glance, Edmonton's the only team that's noticeably improved, with Erik Cole and Lubomir Visnovsky as the key additions.

The Avalanche, meanwhile, have dropped Andrew Brunette and two top six defencemen while replacing Jose Theodore with Andrew Raycroft. Calgary and Vancouver appear to have downgraded up front, and Minnesota lost two veteran forwards.

That said, it's never quite as simple as taking account of players in and out and forecasting where teams will fit in. Last season, for instance, the Canadiens added only Roman Hamrlik and Bryan Smolinski yet jumped from 10th in the Eastern Conference to first. The Predators lost a handful of key contributers and stayed a playoff team.

Etc., etc.

The Wild won the Northwest last year by a nose, and by adding Marek Zidlicky likely remain the favourites — but it's anything but a slam dunk. Injuries, as always, will play a major role, and all five teams need their youth to step up.

But if Vancouver signs Mats Sundin, it's once again a four-horse race (with Colorado's goaltending letting them down).

It's just a weaker field this time around.

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At 5:44 a.m., July 28, 2008, Blogger Tom said...

Nice article, although there are a few things I'd like to clear up.
First of all, the Avs also signed Per Linden and Willsie, who both will be putting up 50 Goal seasons this year.
Secondly, Finger and Sauer are NOT top 6D. They were alright depth defenders, but neither of them will fit in, if our current D stays healthy: (Foote, Liles, Hannan, Clark, Salei and Leoprone).
Assuming Leopold will be playing 5 games this season, Cumisky will pick up his slack.
This Defense makes me very happy to be an Avs fan.

At 8:30 a.m., July 28, 2008, Blogger wade little said...

Has anyone signed Yelle yet? If not, he'll probably get signed after pre-season when teams start looking for a 3rd-4th line PK specialist.

At 9:45 a.m., July 28, 2008, Blogger Jonathan said...

And here I thought it was the addition of Marc-Andre Bergeron that was going to put Minnesota over the top...

Nice article, and that's basically how I see things breaking down too.

And Kurt Sauer is easily a top-6 D; I think he'd be top-4 on a lot of teams.

At 9:46 a.m., July 28, 2008, Blogger Sean said...

First of all, the Avs also signed Per Linden and Willsie, who both will be putting up 50 Goal seasons this year.


I dont know why Sundin would want to go to a team that is marginally better than Toronto. Unless Kipper returns to form I see it as a 2 horse race with Minnesota likely the favorite.

At 11:03 a.m., July 28, 2008, Anonymous aberesf said...

You can add Torres to the list of Outbox for Edmonton.

At 11:13 a.m., July 28, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's Per Ledin, not Linden. And it's 50 Pims, not 50 goals.

Ledin is agitator, not skilled scorer.

At 12:04 p.m., July 28, 2008, Blogger Matt said...

the Avs have the best D in the entire NW, but major questions on their top 6 and in net. the top 6 issues go away for a year if Joey comes back, and they may be moot without him -- Jones, Stewart, and Hensick are all promising youngsters ready to break out soon.

Budaj is a question mark, but I don't think a big one at all. He's been rock solid consistent, though not always spectacular, his whole career, and his stretches with consistent play have only been better. I think he's going to surprise a lot of folks this year, especially with the D in front of him.

As the roster sits, I understand why the experts are calling the Avs a bottom 5 team in the west just based on the question marks, but I bet they outperform those expectations to some degree. And don't forget FG has not been shy about plugging holes at the deadline either -- if Budaj or the top 6 isn't in good shape, he WILL fix it.

Minnesota and Vancouver seem like teams with larger issues to me. they both glaringly lack any scoring depth.

At 12:35 p.m., July 28, 2008, Blogger Darren Barefoot said...

"the Avs have the best D in the entire NW" Really? Vancouver has its problems, but the one area they're really deep on is D. Let's compare:





I have no time for a statistical analysis, but at worst I'd say those D rosters are even.

At 4:28 p.m., July 28, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You forgot:
Luongo v Budaj
(or Inanimate Carbon Rod v Raycroft)

Either way, Advantage Vancouver.

At 5:37 p.m., July 28, 2008, Blogger Matt said...

darren -- there's no doubt Vancouver's got a good one especially in stats, but thats probably Luongo-inflated too. they're also lacking some experience in their bottom 3 imho. Both may have some injury questions, but Vancouver has far more. the most telling thing to me is that 4 players in their 6 have played a significant amount of time as a top pairing defenseman. None were Blake or Pronger type #1 super Dmen, but all were that much above average. And the 2 that didn't -- Hannan and Liles -- are both considered to be well above average experienced defenders too. Major experience edge to CO's D.

anon -- Luongo is certainly better than Budaj, no question, but I never talked about goaltending, I was talking about defense.

At 6:23 p.m., July 28, 2008, Anonymous Selanne said...

Ohlund < Foote
Mitchell = Hannan
Salo > Clark
Bieksa < Salei
Edler < Liles
Krajicek < Leopold (if he plays)

Luongo >>> Budaj
??? > Raycroft

Neither Vancouver nor Colorado will be playing pylons on D, but when matching up players, Colorado's depth is slightly more skilled than Vancouver's D-Corps. Where Vancouver obviously has a clear advantage is in goaltending. In the end they will end up pretty even, with Vancouver's combined defensive squad having a slight advantage in the D zone, but with Colorado's D making more contributions on offense.

At 9:05 p.m., July 28, 2008, Blogger Jonathan said...

Budaj is a question mark, but I don't think a big one at all. He's been rock solid consistent, though not always spectacular, his whole career, and his stretches with consistent play have only been better.

Budaj's consistent: constistently sub-average. A .900, .905 and .903 SV% since the lockout indicate a goaltender who should not even be considered for the number one role.

At 9:35 p.m., July 28, 2008, Blogger Ian Walker said...

Mitchell = Hannan
Bieksa < Salei

Must be an avs fan. Mitchell is a far better defensive D and has leadership qualities that make him one of the favorites for the C this season.

Bieksa is not just potentially good he already showed he has offensive abilities that go beyond Salei's plus he is younger, tougher, and plays with a mean streak.

At 10:00 p.m., July 28, 2008, Blogger Steve said...

I agree that Vancouver's defense is better, and I still see a fifth place finish for them, because their offense is just so incredibly bad. Remember, they finished last in the division last year with the same defense and goaltending, still finishing behind a worse Oilers team.

As for Colorado, they've lost some offense and gotten much worse in the backup goalie department, but don't see them finishing behind Vancouver.

It will be a close division, but I think we'll see something like the following (with a high margin of error that could see any of those teams finish two positions from where I placed them):

1. Minnesota
2. Edmonton
3. Calgary
4. Colorado
5. Vancouver

I'll stand by this prediction even if Sundin signs.

At 3:22 p.m., July 29, 2008, Anonymous Keith said...

The Northwest won't nosedive simply because it wasnt all that great to begin with. It is, quite frankly, a very mediocre division, and has been since the lockout. The 05-06 Flames (4th), 06-07 Oilers (12th) and 07-08 Wild (4th) are the only three clubs that finished above 6th or below 11th in overall points in the west over the past three years. This division has been stupidly competitive, but there are no outstanding teams, and there are no horrible teams.

So no, I don't think it will nosedive. I think, for the most part, the division will remain in that same middle of the pack finish.

Each team has some major concerns though:

Calgary: offensive concerns, Need Kipper (and the D in front of him) to return to 05-06 levels.

Colorado: Goaltending, and an overrated defence given the comments above. Foote is but a shadow of what he once was, and I really hope Leopold can stay healthy. Offensive concerns as well, especially if Sakic calls it a career.

Edmonton: Second worst defence in the west last year and trading Pitkanen for Vishnovsky on the blue line doesn't really improve that. Potential sophomore slumps, needs shootout luck to hold (which historically has not happened, albeit with only three years of data)

Minnesota: Offence after Gaborik. I'm not sold on the defensive core, but in Lemaire's system...

Vancouver: They couldn't score last year, and their additions have been a who's who of who's not.

I'd say we're looking at a fourth year of a consistently mediocre division.

At 10:06 p.m., August 01, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Vancouver has at best a good D since 3-5 of their D are hurt at one time or another during the season the last 3 seasons


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