For four seasons, the Vancouver Canucks have reigned over what one could easily call the weakest division in the NHL They've been one of the best teams in the entire league, in fact, and they even have one Stanley Cup Final bid to show for it.
But are times changing in the Northwest Division? The Oilers are on the rise thanks to years of ineptness and high draft picks, the Wild signed the top two free agents on the market a year ago, both to deals longer (13 years) than all of Wild franchise history (12 years), the Avalanche are generally unremarkable but continue to rise behind budding captain Gabriel Landeskog. And the Flames... well, they still have Jarome Iginla, right?
2011-12: (37-29-16) This team was never quite good enough last year, missing the playoffs again and eventually parting ways with coach Brent Sutter. Jarome Iginla had another 30-goal, 60-point season, and Miikka Kiprusoff was solid in goal, yet it wasn't good enough.
Offseason changes: Bob Hartley is back in the NHL as head coach of the Flames, taking over for Sutter. GM Jay Feaster acquired the negotiating rights to defenseman Dennis Wideman before July 1, then overpaid for his services, giving him a $26.25 million contract. The Flames were rumored to be seeking a new home for fellow overpaid blue-liner Jay Bouwmeester, but he is still on the roster.
Strengths: Iginla can still go. I know he entered training camp banged up, but once he's good to go, he'll be a force, especially in a short season. Youngster Sven Baertschi is ready to make an impact. Bouwmeester and Wideman should be a solid anchor in the back, helping make Kiprusoff's life easier.
Weaknesses: This team isn't getting younger. Key pieces Iginla, Alex Tanguay, Mike Cammalleri, and Curtis Glencross are all 30 or older. Kiprusoff is 36, and Calgary continues to struggle in its search for a quality backup for the perennially-overworked backstop (70 games last season). Bouwmeester and Wideman should lead a quality defense, but we all know it's probably asking a lot.
2011-12: (41-35-6) A non-playoff year, yes, but great signs for the future. 2011 first-rounder Gabriel Landeskog ran away with the Calder, impressed virtually everyone, and is now the youngest team captain in NHL history. Ryan O'Reilly emerged as one of the league's better young centers, leading the team in scoring.
Offseason changes: The Avalanche didn't do a ton in the offseason, signing PA Parenteau to a free-agent deal and also bringing in shot-blocking specialist Greg Zanon to help on the blue line.
Strengths: The youth is no more prevalent on this team than it is up front. Landeskog quickly became a top player and leader last season, and his ascension to captain -- while perhaps a tad premature -- was simply inevitable. If the Avalanche can get O'Reilly re-signed (he's currently playing in the KHL while awaiting a contract offer to his liking), it would take a ton of pressure off center Matt Duchene, a former first-round pick who struggled last season. Paul Stastny continues to be one of the really underrated players in the NHL. I thought Semyon Varlamov exceeded expectations in goal last season.
Weaknesses: The blue line is solid but generally unspectacular. Erik Johnson still has upside, but we're waiting to see him blossom. The Avalanche aren't particular strong on the wings, outside of Landeskog and David Jones, unless Jamie McGinn has a big season.
2011-12: (32-40-10) Young guns Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Taylor Hall all showed flashes of brilliance, but defensive and goaltending issues combined with injuries to end Tom Renney's run as head coach. Fear not, because "Oil Change" was still awesome.
Offseason changes: Assistant Ralph Krueger was elevated to head coach, and if he can bring the team a little snarl and help them improve defensively, it's a good move. Another year with the No. 1 pick was used on another forward, as Nail Yakupov joins a loaded front line for Edmonton. The Oilers also won the race to sign coveted free agent defenseman Justin Schultz, who is already considered an early Calder favorite. In a sneaky-good move this week, Edmonton acquired defenseman Marc Fistric from Dallas. Expect the hometown boy to play top-four minutes.
Strengths: Obviously, this forward group is as talented and dynamic as you'll find. Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins, and Hall all tore up the AHL during the lockout, while Yakupov played well in junior hockey, including for Russia in the World Juniors. Schultz looked great in the AHL, too, and the Oilers have defensive-minded blue-liners Nick Schultz and Fistric to compliment.
Weaknesses: Devan Dubnyk got a No. 1 goalie contract, and now has to justify it. 47 games last season is a career high for him. Outside of the legendary eight-point game, Sam Gagner struggled. More is also needed out of guys like Ales Hemsky and captain Shawn Horcoff, who was a hideous minus-23 in 81 games. A healthy Ryan Whitney would be a great boon to the work-in-progress blue line.
2011-12: (35-36-11) A lightning-fast start turned sour once the calendar flipped to 2012, as the Wild became simply unwatchable for stretches of the season's second half. Injuries and a lack of forward depth doomed Minnesota to another non-playoff finish.
Offseason changes: Relatively weak on faceoffs, the Wild signed Zenon Konopka to center a bottom-six line. Two-way forward Torrey Mitchell's speed and work ethic should help make the team tougher to play against. 2010 first-rounder Mikael Granlund has arrived, and will be a big part of the offense. Oh, and the Wild signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, too. I've heard they are decent players.
Strengths: Parise and 2011 trade acquisition Dany Heatley will flank Mikko Koivu on what should be a lethal top line. Both Parise and Suter make the power play more dangerous, and take pressure off guys who aren't ready to play the kind of minutes they were asked to play last year. Goalies Nicklas Backstrom and Josh Harding are both very good, and Matt Hackett is waiting in the wings in Houston if needed.
Weaknesses: The Wild need Pierre-Marc Bouchard to stay healthy after a history of concussions, including one last season that coincided with the start of the team's free fall. Suter is a fantastic addition, and Tom Gilbert should have a huge year in a system that really fits his strengths. However, the Wild are not deep in the back. Harding is dealing with a diagnosis of MS that puts his career up in the air.
2011-12: (51-22-9) The Canucks dominated the Northwest and earned the No. 1 seed in the West. Then Los Angeles ended their season in five games, and all the good that was accomplished during the regular season went out the window.
Offseason changes: Rampant rumors didn't lead to a deal for goalie Roberto Luongo, who is still on the roster. Vancouver did make a big add on the blue line, signing hometown guy Jason Garrison to a long-term deal. Garrison had a big season with Florida last year, and has developed into a very good NHL defenseman.
Strengths: The Sedins still stir the drink, so to speak, but Vancouver's forward depth is deceptive. David Booth -- out a month or so thanks to an injury suffered in fitness testing -- was a nice pickup for the Canucks. Ryan Kesler was good again last year. Mason Raymond took a paycut in arbitration, and is out to prove he's fully healthy after a scary back injury in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. Alexander Edler, Kevin Bieksa, and Dan Hamhuis join Garrison in a formidable defensive top four.
Weaknesses: Will the Luongo/Cory Schneider drama create a distraction? Can the Canucks get more consistent wing production? There is serious doubt whether this team is deep enough to overcome a clearly-improved division, despite the recent history of dominance.
Predicted order of finish: Wild, Canucks, Oilers, Avalanche, Flames.