Before the injuries, the break-outs and the disappointments, it's time for the annual ritual - prognosticating. On the eve of the new season, Robert and I present our takes on the North West:
Robert - Vancouver. They have the two most consistent top-end forwards in the division, Ryan Kesler is a very good second line center, they have decent team depth, and their goalie is elite. They're running very tight to the cap, so I suppose a late season injury burst like Calgary had last season could hamper them, but good coaching, the Sedins and Luongo can paper over a lot of problems. The X factor for Vancouver, IMO, is Kesler. He took a major step forward last year. If he's truly the type of player that can regularly outplay good competition while producing 55-60 points, his line combined with the Sedins' guaranteed output make Vancouver the favourite in the NW.
Kent - Vancouver. When asked earlier in the summer by various people, I actually picked the Flames for the NW crown and that still might be a good bet. But, with lingering doubts about the Flames goaltending and the potential for the club to struggle at first to implement a new system, I have to choose the Canucks. Not only do they not have any glaring weaknesses in the line-up, AV has them playing as a single, cohesive unit which was clear even in the pre-season. It'll take a step forward by the Flames money players or some sort of catastrophe to unseat Vancouver.
Robert - Calgary. Bouwmeester is a significant addition not only because he can play against other teams' good players, but because he pushes Phaneuf down the ladder at EV. The back-end looks very good, and the over-all forward depth is solid. Brent Sutter is likely also an upgrade behind the bench. At the very least, they'll practice the PP on occasion. The Flames still have more question marks than the 'Nucks, though, and that's why I have them at number two. Iginla needs to bounce back at EV, Jokinen needs to not bleed goals, Nigel Dawes needs to be productive, and the most important X factor of them all is Kiprusoff. The Flames likely can't live with another .903 SV% year and hope to be a contender. I'll put a marker out there. If Kiprusoff ends the season at .910 or above, the Flames win the division.
Kent - In what was previously the most competitive division in the league, the Flames are the second horse in what is a two-horse race. Calgary has the best blueline in the division (conference?) and they are probably three lines deep in quality forwards (four lines sans McGrattan). The addition of Brent Sutter and Dave Lowry is likely to be positive one as well. Unfortunately, as Robert notes, the Flames still have some real question marks. The top end of the forward roster is a little thin and Calgary needs $12M worth of Iginla/Jokinen to bounce back after lack luster seasons. Also, Kipper must halt the decline.
Robert - Minnesota. Havlat, Sykora and Brodziak are three good additions at forward, Mikko Koivu is excellent, their defence is OK, if a level below the other teams in the division, and their goaltending appears to be good. Backstom at 6 million a year might look like an over-pay down the road, but he and Harding are a good tandem. The two major X factors for the Wild are a) will they be able to play a more up-tempo style under Todd Richards and still be relatively stingy in terms of GA and b) can Marty Havlat play more games than Marian Gaborik? I love Havlat as a player, so if he if can play 70 games or more, the Wild will be in the mix for the play-offs, and might give the Flames a run for 2nd.
Kent - Minnesota. I don't know what to make of the Wild now that the old regime has been swept aside. I do know, however, that they now possess two of the most capable two-way forwards in the conference in Koivu and Havlat as well as potential bounce back season for Brent Burns, who was looking like a future Norris candidate before injuries slowed him last year. A total wild card, since we don't know what kind of coach Richards is, although their celing may be limited by their lackluster forward depth.
Robert - Edmonton. They aren't quite as terrible as some precincts in the Oilogisphere might have you believe, but they look susceptible in their own end. The defence is highly skilled, and Tom Gilbert is a player any team would covet, but they aren't the hardest group to play against. The forward group also has a few nice pieces. Horcoff could play on my team any day, Hemsky is a talent, if slightly erratic, and I'd expect Penner to have a better year under Quinn. Gagner and Cogliano will also be good soon, but they still can't be relied upon to play tough minutes at this point and Moreau and Pisani appear to be on the slide. With all that, Khabibulin is the biggest question mark in all of this, because he's been injury-prone for years, and Deslauriers isn't ready to carry a team. They need a lot to go right to challenge for a playoff spot.
Kent - Edmonton. A middling squad with lots of pretty good players, the Oilers don't have any heavy hitters (aside from maybe Souray...on the power play). The fact that Edmonton is a cap squad with no superstars warms my heart. Their ntable kids are still learning not to get their heads beat in at ES (kinda like, say, Boyd), their front liners are good but not great (Horcoff, Hemsky, Penner) and their starter is inconsistent and injury prone. Unless Gagner and Cogliano take a giant leap forward, the Oilers will be on the outside looking in again.
Robert - Colorado. This is the first rebuilding period for the team since they were in Quebec City. Stastny, Matt Duchene and Wolski are this team's future, but the forwards behind them are non-descript, and their defence is old, expensive and not great. They will be better in net. Craig Anderson was a very good pick-up at the price as a free agent, and not having Andrew Raycroft as a semi-regular is always an improvement. Joe Sacco might be an upgrade behind the bench, if only because Tony Granato looked completely lost. The 'Lanche have three veteran D that will be UFAs at the end of this year. I'd suspect the biggest news Colorado makes will be if/when they trade those players, because the team won't be any good on-ice. They're in the Taylor Hall sweepstakes, IMO.
Kent - Colorado. The rebuild is on. The Avs are a no-brainer to finish last even though the goaltending should be improved with Anderson in net. Stastny is a great player but guaranteed to miss 20+ games and the rest of the forward unit behind him is unimpressive (to be charitable) now that Smyth is gone. Expect to see both Darcy Tucker and JM Liles to be agressively shopped this year at the deadline - it doesn't make any sense for a team with zero hope of making noise to pay out some $6M+ for these two rather average players (well...it probably doesn't make much sense for any team, but you catch my drift).
That's where we stand. There was no collusion here, just honest agreement. Feel free to add your own division rankings in the comments.