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KELLEY: It's Avs and everybody else again in Northwest

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Jim Kelley

 
   
 

Northwest Division

After a while — unless you're a Colorado fan — it gets a little ridiculous. The season starts, the teams in the Northwest line up, everybody genuflects in the direction of Denver and the Avs prepare to accept yet another Division title. This has happened every season for the past eight years and it will happen again this season, giving the Avs an NHL record nine consecutive division championships. In that time, they've advanced to the Western Conference finals six times in seven seasons and won two Stanley Cups. No one else among Calgary, Edmonton, Minnesota and Vancouver has ever come close. Critics claim there should have been more Cups and seemingly no one wants to give Avs management and ownership kudos for building such a successful team and for sustaining it over such a long period of time. No? Why? We'll tell you why. It's because no one else in the division appears willing or even capable of competing. Look, we like the work general manger Pierre Lacroix and company have done. We feel they've often been slighted by the Eastern establishment press and knee-jerk reactions to their perceived haughty attitude. It's not fair and it's not right, but then how about a little competition here? Is there no point in time when the , , or step up and challenge? OK, we'll cut the some slack since that outfit is entering just its third season ever, but maybe it's time the NHL stick the Avs in a division with someone other than perennially challenged Canadian teams that can't seem to find the cash to compete. This season, the and the appear to be making strides and Calgary finally seems to at least have the truck in a forward gear, but at the end of the regular season it will still be Colorado collecting tribute at the top of the Rocky Mountains. Everyone else will be competing for a distant second place. Colorado Last Season: 45-28-8-1, 99 points; first in Northwest, second in West, fourth overall.
GM: Pierre Lacroix, ninth NHL season, first team
Coach: Bob Hartley, fifth NHL season, first team New Faces: , D; , LW; , C/LW; , C. Dearly Departed: , C; , D; , D; , C; , D. Strengths: A who's who of skilled players including , , , , and ... Avs have a solid sense of team and the ability to play any kind of game: All-out, close-checking, tight-defense, you name it, they excel at it ¿ Tremendous skating ability throughout the lineup. Weaknesses: Depth can be a problem at times, especially on the blue line, though that seems rectified via the trade with Calgary that landed Morris ¿ Some question whether Roy can remain an elite goalie playing as much as he does at age 37 (we don't) ¿ The offense can go south from time to time at key points in the game, especially when the kids fail to step up and take the load off players like Sakic and Forsberg. There's concern that losing Drury in a trade will hurt team chemistry and the offense. All minor stuff. Outlook: The trade for Morris should make strong a defense that has suffered the loss of players like Ray Bourque, and Kasparaitis in recent seasons. The crackdown on obstruction should allow this offense to soar. Those willing to write off Roy should remember that he had every right to win the Vezina Trophy last season and got swept aside by the spectacular one-year effort of . Those looking for a fall should remember the Avs dressed 11 rookies at times last season and still led the three games to two in the Western Conference finals before dropping the key Game 6 at home. If Forsberg stays healthy, or at least is healthy at the right time this season, this is a Cup-contending team again. Edmonton Last Season: 38-28-12-4, 92 points; third in Northwest, ninth in West, 15th overall
GM: Kevin Lowe, third NHL season, first team
Coach: Craig MacTavish, third NHL season, first team New Faces: , C; , LW; Alexei Semenov, D; , D. Dearly Departed: , C; , LW/RW; , RW. Strengths: had the second best goals-against total in the league last season. They play defense ¿ Decent corps of young forwards who skate well and play an up-tempo game ¿ Nice crop of young defensemen led by and the emerging . Veteran goalie is only slightly above NHL standards, but he's consistent, durable and approaching the top of his game. Weaknesses: have had trouble scoring in recent seasons. Last season only and broke the 20-goal plane ¿ Lack of a go-to forward really hurts this club in that they create chances but don't often finish them ¿ Special teams only average ¿ Defense doesn't chip in enough on offense. Outlook: This is a team that had 92 points last season and didn't make the playoffs. That will provide an edge, but the young players have to contribute to the offense to make it all work. If newly acquired can play up to his huge ability, the offense should be better for it. Vancouver Last Season: 42-30-7-3, 94 points; second Northwest; eighth in West, 13th overall
GM: Brian Burke, sixth NHL season, second team
Coach: Marc Crawford, ninth NHL season, second team New Faces: , D; , D; , G; , C. Dearly Departed: , C; , D; , LW. Strengths: Solid offense keyed by and led the NHL in goals last season (254) ¿ A well-sized and offensive-minded blueline headed by veteran and the slick ¿ Potent power play was good enough four fourth in the NHL last season and could be better this time around with Salo on the unit. Weaknesses: Not fair to say goalie is a weakness in that he was a big part of last season's success, especially the late playoff drive, but he is still very young and prone to swings of inconsistency. He also guesses too much ... Second line might struggle for goals with Cassels gone ¿ Penalty killing not aggressive enough ¿ Could be a problem if Cloutier goes down as much-traveled is the only backup of consequence. Outlook: This is very much a team on the rise, but it's no easy run in this division or in this conference. The were remarkably healthy last season and they also caught a lot of teams by surprise. They might stay healthy, but the surprise factor is gone. They'll have to fight for every point. Calgary Last Season: 32-35-12-3, 79 points; fourth in Northwest, 11th in West, 22nd overall.
GM: Craig Button, third NHL season, first team
Coach: Greg Gilbert, third NHL season, first team New Faces: , LW; , C; , C; , RW; Chuck Kobasew, RW; , G. Dearly Departed: , D; , C; , C; , G. Strengths: League scoring leader in and a solid No. 1 line ... Decent goaltending from . Weaknesses: Lack of overall depth, especially up front ¿ Poor penalty killing ¿ Nondescript defense. Outlook: Trading Morris hurts, but Drury brings leadership and a second-line center. Pairing him with should help the line grow into a productive second unit. Yelle is a good checker who should anchor a solid checking line. Defense will be less mobile without Morris, but there is a lot of promise there with youth and a bit of toughness. Team should improve markedly, but not yet a playoff club. Minnesota Last Season: 26-3512-9, 73 points; fifth Northwest, 12th West, 23rd overall
GM: Doug Risebrough eighth NHL season, second team
Coach: Jacques Lemaire, 10th NHL season, third team
New Faces: , LW; , C. Dearly Departed: , C; ,C/W; , G. Strengths: is a star destined to shine even brighter ¿ Solid all-for-one team work ethic ... Balanced goaltending with and in friendly competition ¿ Excellent veteran coach in Lemaire and patience in Risebrough. Weaknesses: Just about everywhere, a young team two seasons removed from a blank sheet of paper ¿ Some questions about Fernandez's confidence after a rough outing last season. Outlook: Team has a long way to go. Jim Kelley can be reached at his e-mail address: jkelley@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Bruins, Flames, Blackhawks, Red Wings, Oilers, Canadiens, Islanders, Rangers, Senators, Avalanche, Maple Leafs, Canucks, Capitals, Predators, Blue Jackets, Wild, Derek Morris, Jon Klemm, Eric Brewer, Mike Grier, Janne Niinimaa, Mike Comrie, Jason Chimera, Martin Gelinas, Jose Theodore, Sami Salo, Joe Sakic, Rob Blake, Chris Drury, Adam Foote, Stephane Yelle, Milan Hejduk, Markus Naslund, Ed Jovanovski, Mattias Ohlund, Dan Cloutier, Peter Schaefer, Marian Gaborik, Jamie McLennan, Manny Fernandez, Jarome Iginla

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