NHL Northwest: Ups, Downs, Unknowns of the League's "Toughest Division"

M MacDonald Hall@@DocMacHallSenior Analyst ISeptember 10, 2008

(Above: Jarome Iginla and Sam Gagner battle in Alberta)  The Calgary Flames are projected to top the NHL’s Northwest Division, but what will rival underdogs have to say about that?

In a league of Cinderella performances and unexpected failures, the Northwest Division epitomises the unpredictable elements of NHL hockey.  The past few years have treated fans of these teams to tight, nerve-wracking standings and bitterly heated rivalries. Talented rosters inexplicably fail and unlikely heroes emerge all over the league, but in the Northwest even the slightest stutter or improvement by one squad can hugely affect each of the other four clubs.  In such a tight division, every team is a potential dark horse.

Last year the Northwest continued their tradition of subtle superiority, but will soon be in for a slide.  Though universally considered one of the toughest divisions in the league by experts, it is often underrated by casual observers because none of its teams boast extravagant point-totals.  Intense divisional competition and “point-snatching” lead to lower but more closely-knit standings. 

In 2007-08 only ten points separated the team in first place from the two tied for last (MIN-98 pts; COL-95 pts; CAL-94 pts; VAN and EDM-88 pts) in what was the tightest division in the NHL.  If analyst forecasts are correct this year won’t be much different, and each club has unique intangibles which will guide them through a tough season and hopefully give them an edge.


Many are predicting the Calgary Flames to rule the roost in '08-'09, still possessing some of the top talent in the West.  Issues with chemistry and regularity led to major forward subtractions (Alex Tanguay, Kristian Huselius, Stephane Yelle, Owen Nolan), but GM Darryl Sutter balanced losses with younger, less-expensive replacements like Mike Cammalleri, Rene Bourque, Curtis Glencross, and Todd Bertuzzi, while retaining an enviable core.

Physicality with a gung-ho/flash style is a Calgary hallmark, re-solidified in recent years with increasingly gifted players and dedicated team focus.  Progressively worrying consistency issues have called this identity into question however, and other teams have learned to take advantage of Flames who now fail to adapt. Can Cammalleri, Bourque, and Glencross finally reach their potential within the team's talented roster, and if so, how will the team adjust?

The addition of new faces will inevitably alter Flames identity, but there will be no bigger question-mark than Todd Bertuzzi and the baggage he carries.  Will the support of well-respected captain Jarome Iginla help him re-integrate into the top of the League?

Star goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff has been questioned in recent years for his slow starts and baffling inconsistencies, issues which are beginning to overshadow the astounding acrobatics he still performs. Skater performance and reaction often reflects goaltender confidence and consistency.  If Kipper does not regain his trademark reliability, the Flames in front of him will change their style and lose that important go-get-’em aspect of their game which has stemmed from an unwavering confidence in their Vezina-winning netminder.

These factors, along with Calgary’s unpredictability (and occasionally disastrous predictability) are the Flames’ most prevalent "unknown" elements.  If they can find consistency though, watch out!  They could take doubters by surprise, since many "outsiders" grossly underestimate their  now-considerable depth. 


The Vancouver Canucks are anticipated to be at the bottom of the standings again, but their offensively-depleted roster will provide fresh players a legitimate chance at promotion.  With so many leaders lost (Trevor Linden, Markus Naslund, Brendan Morrison) and such a decline after the Sedin twins’ projected point-totals, there will be a lot of roles to fill. 

Roberto Luongo, Vancouver's star goalie and now their captain, will have a lot on his plate and will need to play well to hold his team up through the year and down the stretch.  But goaltending isn't the question for the Canucks; how well can the rest of the roster come together to balance the team at the other end of the rink?

New additions like Steve Bernier, Pavol Demitra, and Kyle Wellwood are expected to fit seamlessly into the Canucks system and to some extent replace outgoing skaters.  Players with past and present potential will need to exploit this golden opportunity to carve their own niche in the “rebuilding” team.  On the blueline, Kevin Bieksa will have the most responsibility so far in his NHL career.  Those who were once the focus of high expectations, such as Ryan Kesler, Taylor Pyatt, Matt Pettinger, Wellwood, and Bernier have a chance to overcome personal hurdles and make a real difference to their team.  Vancouver’s season outcome may well depend on it; if they want a come-from-nowhere rally they will need 110% effort from their entire cast.**

In Minnesota it could be time for sophomore centreman James Sheppard and other youthful players to join the Wild’s top scorers.  Coping with their roster’s facelift, St. Paul’s finest young talent will have more room to advance this year.  Many are well integrated into the system and have already found franchise success: seven of Minnesota’s original eight 1st Round draft picks are currently valued members of the team, including captain-in-waiting Mikko Koivu.  Many also hold hope for newly acquired possible call-up Corey Locke.

A returning Andrew Brunette has a chance to revamp his game as second banana to oft-injured Marian Gaborik, while many of Minnesota’s other summer additions possess quality potential not yet fully realised (Marc-Andre Bergeron, Marek Zidlicky, Antti Miettinen).  Veteran leader Owen Nolan will undoubtedly make an impact in the locker room, but how another move late in his career will affect his play remains to be seen.

How well will a Division-title-defending club adapt to recent changes?  How will the youth respond in this strict environment?  The Wild can be incredibly stable, and players on this squad know their roles and how to play them.  Their frustrating-yet-dryly entertaining style of play, together with new step-up role-players give Minnesota a chance to surprise the critics once again.


In a somewhat predictable Colorado squad it may be the goaltending department which provides the biggest surprises.  Peter Budaj and Andrew Raycroft are set to start the season for the Avalanche, but Jason Bacashihua could capitalise on any failings.  Raycroft will have a chance to answer the consistency questions which have shadowed him since his Calder-winning season, and Budaj should improve with the departure of Jose Theodore.  Will the Denver-based backstops respond or flounder under such responsibility?  How long coach Tony Granato’s patience will last is a story which may yet dramatically unfold.

The Avalanche’s scoring sources are no surprise (Joe Sakic, Ryan Smyth, Paul Stasny, Milan Hejduk), though there will be youngsters like Wojtek Wolski and TJ Hensick who will improve enough to be regular contributors.  Darcy Tucker may seem like a fish-out-of-Toronto, but the gritty and emotional spark-plug could flourish in pressure-free anonymity. Can the Avs aging roster keep up the pace and glory of years past?

This group is being counted out early this season, but include many skilled players and have shown in the past that they have the character to battle steadily forward.  They can give other Northwest squads trouble game-to-game; watch for possible upsets by the Avs.


Saving the best (if most hated) dark-horse team for last, the Edmonton Oilers have high hopes despite what detractors say.  Their young-guns stepped up in an injury-plagued 2007-08 and gained invaluable confidence and experience.  If Robert Nilsson, Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano, and Tom Gilbert build on last year’s successes, hopefully they haven’t tipped their hands too much and still catch the competition unawares.  They may help their team indirectly as well: while the name Gilbert Brule may sound familiar it has rung hollow in the NHL, but he could find renewed inspiration among other young and developing talent.

The Oil will be the division’s most promising underdog, carrying last year’s end-of-season momentum and a young lineup full of potential breakout performances into 2008-09.  There is also just enough veteran experience to shore up any slip-ups, especially on the back end.  Freshly-acquired Erik Cole and Lubomir Visnovsky (and to a lesser extent, Jason Strudwick) will join old familiars and help shape the new dynamic.  Can the Oilers' experienced reliables help newcomers and youth find Edmonton's old magic spark?

If the team receives depth production, and depending on how the goaltending situation plays out between Dwayne Roloson and Mathieu Garon, the Oilers could cause competitors fits this year even if they don't top the standings.


The rest of the NHL should always be wary of Northwest teams.  Because divisional rivalries and point-pilfering are so rampant in the upper corner of the continent, these survivalist clubs realise their best chance for “free” points is away from familiar terrain.  Many underestimate these teams, an advantage they all share.  Physical and fast, Northwest crews can throw even the best organisations for a loop.

As in all of hockey most of these issues affect every team to some degree, though every one relies on its own unique and often unexpected qualities.  Each could fail or succeed depending on endless factors.  There may be no arguing with the predictions, but there is an unofficial Northwest Division credo worth remembering: Expect the unexpected, and like the weather, if you don’t like it wait five minutes. 


** If Mats Sundin does miraculously appear in Vancouver then the team’s structure could change dramatically, but for now it’s safe to assume the Canucks will remain status quo.
Northwest Division Abbreviation Legend:
CAL - Calgary Flames
COL - Colorado Avalanche
EDM - Edmonton Oilers
MIN - Minnesota Wild
VAN - Vancouver Canucks

Thanks to DLH for the fresh perspectives and fantastic support.  Photo credit: C. De Neve, Calgary Herald.  Article syndicated through CBS Sports.

Also, discover and discuss what it takes to succeed in hockey, be it in the NHL's Northwest or down in Junior 'B' with Open Discussion.  More Northwest and Calgary Flames news to come.

M MacDonald Hall is the Bleacher Report Calgary Flames Community Leader, and is a regular columnist for the NHL department.  Future articles include a breakdown of Calgary Flames playoff performance in the 21st Century, prospect news (Parts One and Two are already published), roster changes and information, detailed hockey trivia, game reports, and more.  M’s Bleacher Report archive includes an wide assortment of Flames/NHL articles.

M also writes on various other topics, sport and non-sport related.  Enquiries regarding NHL writing or other subjects may be directed to M’s Bleacher Report profile or via email. 


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