NHL preview: Northwest Division

VANCOUVER CANUCKS
2011-12 Record: 51-22-9 (1st place) Lost to Los Angeles (4-1) in Western Conference Quarterfinals.
Additions: D Jason Garrison, F Guillaume Desbiens, D Patrick Mullen, D Derek Joslin
Subtractions: D Sami Salo, D Aaron Rome, C Samuel Pahlsson, D Marc-Andre Gragnani
Where We Last Left Off: Los Angeles center Jarret Stoll scored on a wristshot early in overtime, sending a stunned crowd silently toward the Rogers Arena exits as the President’s Trophy winners were eliminated in a brisk five games by the eighth-seeded, eventual Cup-winning Kings.
2012-13 Outlook: While the Roberto Luongo saga makes for ongoing league-wide discussion, it’s really not a major on-ice issue for the Canucks. Goaltending remains a strength of this team, even when he eventually does get shipped out. We love Cory Schneider. We want to start an online Bring-Cory-Schneider-to-Sochi petition, even if he’d back up his former New England prep high school opponent Jonathan Quick for the United States. Schneider is more than ready to start at 26 and was terrific in the three games he spelled Luongo in the playoffs. It is up to GM Mike Gillis to continue to poke around for the best deal possible — one that involves a second or third line center? — for Luongo to reinforce a team with still-valid Cup aspirations.

It appears as though the Sedins will start out with Alexandre Burrows on a top line that combines speed and creativity and will be among the league’s most dangerous in the offensive zone this season. Ryan Kesler was never 100 percent healthy last season, and he’s going to need some time after multiple surgeries to return to action in 2013. The options at center on the second line aren’t particularly good in his absence. Manny Malhotra? He’s more of a depth, defensive center. Winger Chris Higgins doesn’t appear to slot there, according to coach Alain Vigneault, who stated, “We’re probably going to go with things that we know have worked in the past and put players in the positions that they’ve been successful in.” This is certainly a position that could be upgraded, and don’t be surprised if there’s a trade in the coming weeks. As for now, Andrew Ebbett and rookie Jordan Schroeder will get looks.

The Canucks remain deep and varied defensively, though Alex Edler was a cause for concern in his breakthrough 49-point season. He was brutal in his own end in the playoff loss to Los Angeles. Though Sami Salo leaves, Jason Garrison shouldn’t have any problem matching his productivity — and proclivity for heavy power play blasts. Kevin Bieksa remains the heart and soul leader of the unit, while Dan Hamhuis remains a reliable top-four workhorse comfortable in all situations. Vancouver was one of four teams to allow fewer than 200 goals last season, and they may be even stronger defensively this year. If Kesler returns, or if there is a satisfactory upgrade at center — we’re not entirely sold on Ebbett or Schroeder — the Canucks will be among the teams with a legitimate shot at the Cup. They’ll have to weather an improved Northwest Division for the first time in a long time, which may actually be a benefit for a team that has breezed through the regular season in recent years.

MINNESOTA WILD
2011-12 Record: 35-36-11 (12th place)
Additions: F Zach Parise, D Ryan Suter, F Zenon Konopka, F Torrey Mitchell, F Jake Dowell
Subtractions: F Erik Christensen, F Guillaume Latendresse, F Warren Peters, D Mike Lundin, F Nick Johnson
Where We Last Left Off: After 15 wins in the season’s final 52 games, Minnesota erased all memories of a tortuous second half slog by inking left wing Zach Parise and offensive defenseman Ryan Suter to identical 13-year, $98-million dollar contracts on the same day. Confidence and relevance for a previously underwhelming organization is in the process of being restored.
2012-13 Outlook: Karma is finally catching up for the Wild — in a good way. After years of boring, lunchpail-type defensive hockey and games often won by quality goaltending, two of the game’s stars are headed to the Twin Cities along with a collection of intriguing offensive talent ready to make the leap from the prospect pool. Other than the knee injury that limited him to 13 games in 2010-11, Zach Parise has been a remarkable model of health and consistency. He has appeared in either 81 or 82 games in his other six seasons, recording 30 goals five times and topping out at 45 in 2008-09. Even in his first year, he’ll be a character leader in the Wild’s dressing room and someone whose gutsy play should help him immediately endear himself to his new teammates. He’ll skate with playmaking center and team captain Mikko Koivu, and potentially Dany Heatley, who has been in a steady, constant decline since his back-to-back 50-goal seasons of 2005-06 and 2006-07. With the looser offensive restrictions and the influx of talent around him, he should be counted upon to better his pace of 24 goals in 82 games from a season ago. Second line right wing Devin Setoguchi is in a similar boat after falling to a four-year low of 19 goals last season.

Dynamic young reinforcements are available and likely to contend for scoring roles. Five-foot-10 highly touted Finnish rookie Mikael Granlund is very capable of earning the second line center job. Showing little fear in his North American debut, the creative puck handler and offensive catalyst was a point-a-game forward with the AHL’s Houston Aeros earlier this season, showing terrific bursts of speed. Jason Zucker had a six-game call-up last year and is another ready prospect waiting in the wings after a point-a-game campaign in Houston. Brett Bulmer and Charlie Coyle still look to be at least a year away.

On defense, Ryan Suter left the league’s No. 1 power play to anchor what was the 27th-ranked unit. His presence will wring more production out of fading snipers Heatley and Setoguchi and add an offensive punch to a defensive unit that was led in scoring by 5-foot-9 Jared Spurgeon, a poised decision-maker whose usage jumped up to 21-and-a-half minutes of ice time. Tom Gilbert is the best hitter and stay-at-home member of Minnesota’s blueline, which isn’t particularly deep. Marco Scandella is nursing a sore groin that is likely to keep him out of training camp, and there doesn’t appear to be a ton of viable options to step in to a top-four role should he miss any time — not that the 22-year-old Scandella was an inspiring contender for that much ice time to begin with. Franchise goaltender Niklas Backstrom has been amongst the more consistent above average goaltenders in the league, but he’s about to turn 35 and is in his walk year. There may be additional opportunities for Josh Harding, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis over the offseason, and prospect Matt Hackett, who enjoyed an encouraging stint with the big club last season, sandwiched around accomplished AHL campaigns. After bottoming out with a disastrous second half a season ago, the Wild have addressed their needs and should be a contending team for a Western Conference playoff berth. Sophomore coach Mike Yeo may be under some pressure to engineer immediate results after the major free agent signings, but there are still too many question marks on defense to think of the Wild as anything other than amongst the playoff bubble teams.

EDMONTON OILERS
2011-12 Record: 32-40-10 (14th place)
Additions: D Justin Schultz, F Dane Byers
Subtractions: D Taylor Chorney, F Ryan Keller
Where We Last Left Off: Edmonton was the standings equivalent of Neptune last season, finishing a distant 21 points out of a playoff spot. Since then, they pulled off a major coup by signing defensive prospect Justin Schultz away from Anaheim before selecting first overall at the NHL Draft for the third consecutive year, taking Nail Yakupov.
2012-13 Outlook: Optimism continues to grow, but a 21-point playoff deficit is an awfully big barrier to overcome. They’ll be better this year, but by what degree? When that turn is made toward relevancy, will it be gradual? Or will this be a team that clicks together and immediately rises into the Western Conference’s elite? The answers: Modestly, Yes, and No.

There are too many concerns on defense and in net for this team to immediately be taken seriously as a Northwest Division contender, but this certainly has the making of the year the Oilers begin receiving that unified contribution at all ends of the ice and develop into a playoff bubble team. We like goaltender Devin Dubnyk, who posted a .933 save percentage in March and April. For Edmonton to make the most significant step forward this season, he’s going to have to provide a string of outstanding performances in net, because there will be hiccups in his end.

Though an impressive collection of elite young talent, the top two lines of Edmonton’s forward corps aren’t particularly adjusted defensively. There is, however, speed and playmaking ability, especially in the makeup of Taylor Hall. Entering his third year in the league, 2010’s first overall pick is going to be eyed for a breakthrough after the number two pick, Tyler Seguin, has surpassed him in development. If Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was capable of putting up 52 points in 62 games as a slight-framed 18-year-old, it’s almost scary to think what he could be capable of when he fills out. Jordan Eberle returns after a 34-goal, 76-point season, though his near-a-point-per-game offensive pace is likely to be cut into by the increased contributions from others in this young offense. 2012 first overall pick Nail Yakupov’s goal in the brief training camp is to try and earn a spot alongside Ales Hemsky and Sam Gagner as part of a potential second line, though Ryan Smyth, as a natural left wing, is likely to start the season in that role.

Defensively, the hockey world has its eyes on 22-year-old uberprospect Justin Schultz. Though he hasn’t played in the league in over a week, he ranked second (as of last Sunday) in AHL points with 48. That’s 18 goals and 30 assists for the defenseman playing in his first professional season. By most accounts, he’s a lock to settle in nicely in the top four — top two, perhaps — and has the inside shot at the Calder Trophy. Edmonton’s power play, which ranked third in the league at 20.6 percent last year, shouldn’t see much of a decline at all. He’s likely to skate with stay-at-home defender Nick Schultz (no relation), while Ryan Whitney is another top-four D-man who battled injuries a year ago before finding a nice groove once Edmonton was out of playoff contention. There’s a wide level of variance in Edmonton’s projections, due to the unforeseeable direction of the impressive amassing of young offensive talent on the roster under new head coach Ralph Krueger. The most encouraging signs in the march toward a postseason berth would be the increased reliability of Dubnyk and the continued maturation of Taylor Hall, who still has ample room to grow. Really, anything from a mid-level playoff seeding to another lottery pick is possible.

COLORADO AVALANCHE
2011-12 Record: 41-35-6 (11th place)
Additions: F P.A. Parenteau, D Greg Zanon, F John Mitchell
Subtractions: F Peter Mueller, F Kevin Porter, F Jay McClement
Where We Last Left Off: Primed for a run at a low playoff spot, the Avalanche offense sputtered down the stretch as they lost six of seven games and tumbled down to 11th in the unforgiving Western Conference. Head coach Joe Sacco was given a two-year extension.
2012-13 Outlook: Was the lockout good for this appealing collection of young, speedy forwards? Led in scoring by 21-year-old two-way character forward Ryan O’Reilly a season ago, and led by the youngest team captain in NHL history, Gabriel Landeskog, the work stoppages didn’t do any favors in the direction of this group’s development together. With Paul Stastny, Matt Duchene and O’Reilly slotting down the middle, this team has a wealth of options with three terrific young centers, assuming Duchene is able to rebound from the injuries that plagued his 2011-12 season. P.A. Parenteau etched his own success alongside John Tavares on Long Island and will now likely be placed alongside Duchene, with Jamie McGinn, a productive addition after joining the team from San Jose at last season’s trading deadline, skating on the left side. Steve Downie’s drive to win often results in an antagonistic streak as one of the league’s grittiest forwards. He may slot alongside McGinn and Landeskog on a skilled, difficult-to-play-against first line.

There are questions defensively, and Erik Johnson doesn’t inspire a supreme amount of confidence as a number one guy. The first overall pick in 2006, Johnson’s career high water mark was a plus-1 rating in 2009-10; he registered a career-low 26 points in 2011-12. Jan Hejda has size and reach at 6-foot-4 but it playing above his head as a first-pairing type. Greg Zanon is a physical veteran defenseman who can block shots but is better suited for a depth defensive role. He’ll likely get his share of minutes on one of the Western Conference’s weaker bluelines. Semyon Varlamov was inconsistent in goal a year ago and will once again be pushed by Jean-Sebastien Giguere. He’s still only 24 years old, and some improvement can be expected in his second season in Denver. Despite the speed and intriguing young forwards, Colorado was a bland team at times last year. There’s plenty of offensive potential, and if Duchene, Landeskog, Stastny and O’Reilly continue their rising trajectory, the Avalanche could eventually develop into a playoff mainstay. That prospect is still several years away for a team struggling to find more comfortable footing on the playoff bubble.

CALGARY FLAMES
2011-12 Record: 37-29-16 (9th place)
Additions: D Dennis Wideman, F Jiri Hudler, F Roman Cervenka
Subtractions: F Olli Jokinen, F David Moss, F Raitis Ivanans, D Jordan Henry, F Guillaume Desbiens, Jordan Henry
Where We Last Left Off: The Flames were in the playoff race until their elimination in the final week of the season as they finished five points behind the eventual Cup winners. Brent Sutter and the club mutually agreed to part ways, and out-of-nowhere hire Bob Hartley was chosen by GM Jay Feaster to coach the team after guiding the ZSC Lions to the Swiss NLA title.
2012-13 Outlook: This would appear to be the last chance Calgary has at making noise in the Western Conference before their inevitable gutting, fire sale and rebuilding. A ninth place team without cap space that offers little direction was aided by several additions over the summer in forward Jiri Hudler, who will be expected to produce as a top-six forward at the Saddledome after serving in more of a depth capacity in Detroit, and Dennis Wideman, a puck-moving defenseman capable of stirring some life into the Flames’ 24th-ranked offense and 13th-ranked power play from a season ago. Legend Jarome Iginla hasn’t been held below 30 goals since 1999-2000 and will skate opposite Alex Tanguay or Mike Cammalleri, both of whom have seen their numbers begin to decline as they’ve hit the wrong side of 30. Mikael Backlund will be given another opportunity to earn minutes as a center on the top two lines — an effort that has challenged him thus far in his career. Sven Baertschi offers enormous upside and is one of the league’s most promising rookies to watch in 2013. As attuned defensively as he is a wizard with the puck in the offensive end, he comes from a background of sustained success at both the major junior and AHL levels. He had three goals in a five-game emergency call-up last season.

This isn’t a bad group defensively, led by well-rounded veteran workhorse Jay Bouwmeester, who was on the ice for nearly 26 minutes a game last year. Mark Giordano is a tough, intelligent defender likely to see time with the elusive, puck-moving Wideman, while Cory Sarich and Anton Babchuk offer plenty of size. Miikka Kiprusoff is coming off another outstanding season in net and is capable of stealing a game from an opponent on any given night. A 48-game season should be a piece of cake for the veteran who has averaged 73.4 games per year over the last seven years. There’s not a ton of upside on this Flames team, and simply making the playoffs would be viewed as a success by management. For Calgary to get there, they’re going to need renaissance seasons from Tanguay and Cammalleri as well as an immediate impact from Baertschi. More realistically, they’re looking at a ninth-to-12th place finish and increased pressure to start trading assets in a full-fledged rebuild. The status quo can only go so far, and this middling Flames squad appears to be at the end of its rope.