NHL 2013 Preview: Northwest Division

After previewing the Atlantic, Central, and Northeast, Puck Daddy turns its attention to the Northwest Division, starring the Vancouver Canucks and a cluster of bubble teams with a boatload of question marks.

The division sees a serious influx of talent in 2013, with veteran all-stars Ryan Suter and Zach Parise joining Minnesota, rookie sensations Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz coming to Edmonton, and Calgary and Colorado beefing up with pricey free-agent acquisitions like P.A. Parenteau, Dennis Wideman, and Jiri Hudler. The Northwest has been a weak division for a few years now, but there shouldn't be a real pushover in the bunch this time around.

That said, the Northwest could still see as little as one team graduate to the postseason. The Canucks are all but a lock to win another Division title, but Edmonton, Minnesota, Colorado and Calgary are all bubble teams. A few could eke into the playoffs or none could. And frankly, the order in which they finish is anybody's guess. It depends on how well the new acquisitions mesh and who gets off to a hot start in the short year.

Unfortunately, we have to make some predictions. So let's start with the easy one and work our way down.

Vancouver Canucks
Last Year’s Record: 51-22-9 (111 points)
Coach: Alain Vigneault
Pre-Lockout Preview: "The Canucks remain one of the league's best teams and they should be right in the mix for their third Presidents' Trophy. But at this point, the regular season couldn't be more inconsequential. Just as it was last year, their entire season will be defined by the shorter season that comes after it. If it's too short, the entire campaign is a wash."
What’s Changed: Ryan Kesler and David Booth are injured to begin the season. Cory Schneider looks to be the incumbent starter, unless something crazy happens with Roberto Luongo, which wouldn't come as a shock.
Pivotal Player: The Canucks' season begins and ends with the health of Ryan Kesler. The second-line centre will miss the beginning of the season as he recovers from a series of upper-body surgeries, and the speed and effectiveness with which he returns is paramount. If he can find the form from two years ago -- or better yet, two years ago in the playoffs -- the Canucks have to be considered a favourite. If he can't, then they're an impact player away from a chance to win it all.
Player That Benefits Most From 48-Game Season: Daniel and Henrik Sedin. The twins tend to come back from the summer with a new bag of tricks, so fewer opportunities for their opponents to scout their latest moves is a good thing. Plus they're getting older, and a shorter season should help with their freshness come playoff time.
Prediction: First.

Edmonton Oilers
Last Year’s Record: 32-40-10 (74 points)
Coach: Ralph Krueger
Pre-Lockout Preview: "The Oilers will flirt with a playoff spot, and with healthy seasons from Hall and Nugent-Hopkins, strong rookie campaigns from the new recruits, continued development, some residual lottery luck, and a renewed commitment to two-way play under new coach Ralph Krueger, they might even get one. But that's a lot of stuff that has to go right. I don't see it happening. A seventh straight season in ninth or lower awaits."
What’s Changed: During the lockout, most of the Oilers' core played together in Oklahoma. They should start strong, with a little more chemistry than some other teams.
Player That Benefits Most From 48-Game Season: Taylor Hall. The Oilers winger was able to work his way back from shoulder surgery slowly, then in the AHL, so he should be fully up to speed. Plus he destroys himself over the course of the season, so less time to chip away at his overall health could mean he's actually healthy down the stretch.
Prediction: Second. I wrote Edmonton's pre-lockout preview and predicted the Oilers would finish just outside the playoffs, but now I'll say just inside. The chemistry advantage should allow them a strong start, and Schultz and Yakupov look to have more of an immediate impact than I expected.

Colorado Avalanche
Last Year’s Record: 41-35-6 (88 points)
Coach: Joe Sacco
Pre-Lockout Preview: “I thought the Avalanche were a playoff team last year, and I think a year of development for that young core will do wonders. Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene, Ryan O'Reilly, Erik Johnson, and Semyon Varlamov will all be better, and that should be enough. The Avalanche aren't going to set the world on fire, especially with their issues on defence, but I can see them holding strong down the stretch this time around and eking out a 7th or 8th place finish.”
What’s Changed: While most of the players came home from the KHL, Ryan O'Reilly didn't, because he still doesn't have a contract. Gabriel Landeskog was named the youngest captain in NHL history.
Pivotal Player: Really, it's O'Reilly. If Colorado can't get him signed, an iffy defensive team becomes incredibly iffy. They can't afford to be without him. But since he's not on the team right now, I'll say Erik Johnson, who needs to be a more consistent presence on both ends of the ice for the Avalanche to contend.
Player That Benefits Most From 48-Game Season: Milan Hejduk, because he's old.
Prediction: Third, and vying for the final playoff spot.

Minnesota Wild
Last Year’s Record: 35-36-11 (81 points)
Coach: Mike Yeo
Pre-Lockout Preview: “It should go without saying that the Wild will be better. Parise and Suter are impact players that will help the Wild drive possession in the right direction, improve that abysmal 2.02 goals per game average, and help the Wild contend on any given night. But they're still not a playoff team, not yet. That should come next year, when a few more of their other high-end prospects like Charlie Coyle, Jonas Brodin, and Matt Dumba join the team and fill out the thin depth chart below the stars. The Wild's future is bright, but another year on the outside of the playoff bubble is in the offing.”
What’s Changed: Wild fans are still plenty excited about their two high-profile signings, even with a lockout pushing their debut back four months. They had over 13,000 fans attend a scrimmage Wednesday. And Pierre-Marc Bouchard is healthy.
Pivotal Player: Ryan Suter. Shea Weber's been the Nashville Predators' star and Suter's always been seen as his right-hand man (on the left side), but now Suter's out on his own. He'll find Jared Spurgeon a little less elite than Weber, so it'll be up to him to lead that pairing and the Wild's defence as a whole. For Minnesota to contend, Suter needs to play at an elite level himself.
Player That Benefits Most From 48-Game Season: Pierre-Marc Bouchard was able to use the lockout to finally get past his post-concussion symptoms. “I kind of needed that," he told the Associated Press. "It wasn’t a great situation for anybody — don’t get me wrong here — but it gave me a little bit more time to make sure I healed properly."
Prediction: Fourth. The Wild will contend for a playoff spot but they'll fall just short.

Calgary Flames
Last Year’s Record: 37-29-16 (90 points)
Coach: Bob Hartley
Pre-Lockout Preview: “The Flames are a much different team last year, and if everything goes well, they could be better too. But I'd wager that, despite spending heavily in the summer, they find themselves in about the same position in the spring: fighting for a playoff spot as the schedule winds down.”
What’s Changed: Jarome Iginla hurt his groin and then got better. Roman Cervenka came down with a blood clot and is out indefinitely.
Pivotal Player: Miikka Kiprusoff. This team is so weak down centre ice that Cervenka's injury is a body blow to their hopes, and teams weak in the middle tend to give up a lot of shots. Hence, Kiprusoff will be called on to stop a lot of shots. His play will determine Calgary's entire season.
Player That Benefits Most From 48-Game Season: Still Kiprusoff. The Flames' netminder won't have much help in goal, since the Flames' brass don't seem impressed with either Leland Irving or Henrik Karlsson. That means Kiprusoff will be doing what he usually does -- playing a lot of games. Thankfully, this season only has 48.
Prediction: Fifth. The Flames made some moves to punch up the roster, but I don't think it will matter. The team is spinning its wheels while the rest of the division improves.

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