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Northwest Division: The Canucks clearly superior

Sam McCaig
Yahoo Sports
Northwest Division: The Canucks clearly superior
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All eyes will be on Roberto Luongo to see how the Canucks goalie responds after a roller-coaster playoff …

The Northwest Division is basically the Vancouver Canucks on one level, and the other four teams on various tiers down below. The manner in which the Canucks lost to Boston in the Stanley Cup final last June was an emotional gut shot, and the jury’s still out on Vancouver’s intestinal fortitude. But the Canucks ran away with the Presidents’ Trophy last season and are as talented and deep as ever – and certainly motivated. The Calgary Flames should make the playoffs and the Colorado Avalanche could surprise, while the Minnesota Wild and Edmonton Oilers are much more likely to extend postseason droughts than to be playing in the spring. Edmonton hasn't qualified for the playoffs since an unexpected run to the Cup final in 2006; Minnesota hasn't advanced since 2008.

Predicted order of finish:

1. Vancouver Canucks*

2. Calgary Flames*

3. Colorado Avalanche

4. Minnesota Wild

5. Edmonton Oilers

(Asterisk denotes playoff team.)

1. VANCOUVER CANUCKS

Five Most Important Players

1. Ryan Kesler(notes), C: He scores, defends, skates, hits, fights, leads ... what else is there?

2. Roberto Luongo(notes), G: Needs to work on his rebound control, literally and figuratively, but he’s been knocked down before and gotten back up.

3. Henrik Sedin(notes), C: The Canucks have good scoring depth, but rise and fall on the first-line output of Henrik and Daniel.

4. Kevin Bieksa(notes), D: Joins Dan Hamhuis(notes) and Alex Edler to form the backbone of the team’s defense, but Bieksa is the only one with the pitbull element in his game.

5. Manny Malhotra(notes), C: The Canucks are much more effective when this two-way checker and faceoff ace is centering the third line. Here’s hoping for a complete recovery from his frightening eye injury.

Best-Case Scenario: They get back to the final and close the door before it gets to a Game 7.

Reality Check: The Stanley Cup hangover applies to the losing teams in the final, too. It’s tough to get all the way back there the following season.

2. CALGARY FLAMES

Five Most Important Players

1. Jarome Iginla(notes), RW: Perennial power forward is the heart and soul of the team, and the driving force on offense. Look for Goal No. 500 in the first half of the regular season.

2. Miikka Kiprusoff(notes), G: He’s the foundation upon which Calgary’s defensive style is based. Look for Win No. 300 in the second half of the regular season.

3. Jay Bouwmeester(notes), D: Great size, wonderful skater and adept passer, but somehow always leaves you wanting more.

4. Alex Tanguay(notes), LW: Seven goals and 26 points in the final 22 games of 2010-11; more of that, please.

5. Curtis Glencross(notes), LW: The Flames are desperate for secondary scoring, and 20-plus goals from Glencross (and Rene Bourque(notes) and Mikael Backlund(notes) ) would help immensely.

Best-Case Scenario: A return to the playoffs for the first time since 2009 – and they win a round for the first time since 2004.

Reality Check: The Flames remain the same defense-first, goal-challenged team that they’ve been for years; thus, they remain the same borderline playoff team. Win a couple more shootouts and they’re in, lose a couple more and they’re out.

3. COLORADO AVALANCHE

Five Most Important Players

1. Matt Duchene(notes), C: The future’s in good hands in Colorado. For that matter, so is the present.

2. Erik Johnson(notes), D: The first overall pick in the 2006 draft had a bumpy tenure in St. Louis, but he’s the complete package and he’s only 23.

3. Semyon Varlamov(notes), G: He burst onto the scene in the 2009 playoffs with Washington, then missed most of the past two seasons with injuries. Colorado has taken a big gamble here, but there’s no denying Varlamov’s upside.

4. Paul Stastny(notes), C: The other half of the Avs’ impressive 1-2 punch down the middle, and he’s the old guy at 25.

5. Jan Hejda(notes), D: Free-agent acquisition will help solidify the blue line with his physical, fearless style.

Best-Case Scenario: Remember when they snuck into the 2010 playoffs and pushed first-place San Jose to the brink in Round 1? Well, all the youngsters have had two years to improve.

Reality Check: They’re better than last season’s 29th-place finish, but there’s a lot riding on Varlamov and creaky veteran Jean-Sebastien Giguere(notes) in net.

4. MINNESOTA WILD

Five Most Important Players

1. Mikko Koivu(notes), C: Saku’s little brother is bigger, but just as feisty and skilled.

2. Niklas Backstrom(notes), G: The Wild’s struggles in recent years have nothing to do with their world-class goaltender.

3. Dany Heatley(notes), RW: The pressure is on to reverse the disturbing trend of decreasing goal totals and prove that he’s still an elite scorer with speed.

4. Devin Setoguchi(notes), RW: Minnesota needs sniping wingers, and Setoguchi loves to shoot.

5. Marek Zidlicky(notes), D: The trade of Brent Burns(notes) puts a lot of heat on the team’s lone offensive defenseman. The success of the power play depends on Zidlicky more than ever.

Best-Case Scenario: Heatley and Setoguchi thrive as the team’s go-to goal-scorers, and the ever-defensive Wild claw their way into the postseason.

Reality Check: The defense drops off after Nick Schultz(notes) and Zidlicky, and the overall talent level explains why the Wild haven’t been a playoff participant in recent seasons.

5. EDMONTON OILERS

Five Most Important Players

1. Ales Hemsky(notes), RW: The Oilers are a much better team when their best offensive player is in the lineup – which hasn’t been the case that often in the past two seasons.

2. Ryan Whitney(notes), D: The Oilers are also a much better team when their best defenseman is in the lineup. If he can pick up on his career-best start of last season (27 points in 35 games) and avoid injury, it’ll be a big boost for the team’s defense corps.

3. Nikolai Khabibulin(notes), G: Was last year the beginning of the end or just a reflection of the battered blue line in front of him? A game-saving goalie gives the Oil a fighting chance.

4. Taylor Hall(notes), LW: Hall’s progress in Year 2 will go a long way towards Edmonton’s relevance in the standings.

5. Ryan Smyth(notes), LW: Look who’s back in town.

Best-Case Scenario: You could argue the best-case scenario is another top-three lottery draft pick, and this time the Oilers snag a blue-chip defenseman. But if Edmonton experiences unprecedented health and simultaneous breakouts by the young guns, the postseason is within grasp.

Reality Check: Look for the Oilers early at the draft podium, snagging a blue-chip defenseman.

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