Today I will begin previewing and analyzing my second division of the six total divisions in the NHL, the Northwest Division. I have to be honest in saying that I am not nearly as familiar with the Western Conference teams as I am with the Eastern Conference. Nevertheless, I will do my best to give my idea of the team and how it will fair in 2008-2009.
So I start with the Vancouver Canucks, who finished last in the division. Canucks’ fans can take pride in the fact that they were the best, last-place team in the NHL last season. With 88 points, Vancouver finished tied for ninth-pace in the West, three points out of a playoff spot.
Vancouver was active during free agency, and also retained quite a bit of talent as well. In the Northwest, all is up in the air this year. It’s nearly impossible to predict how this division will unfold in the upcoming season.
The defense was the strong point for Vancouver last season. The Canucks finished first in the Northwest, and fifth overall in the Western Conference, in goals allowed with 215. From that unit, Mike Weaver and Aaron Miller are gone. Weaver was a plus-1 over 55 games, and Miller a plus-9 over 57.
Signed as free agents were Nolan Baumgartner and Rob Davison. Neither played as much, or as well, as Weaver and Miller last season. Heck, Baumgartner didn’t play at all. What’s got to worry Cancucks’ fans, and their front office and coaching staff, is that a lot of experience lies in a few players.
Baumgartner didn’t play at all last year, and Davison saw limited time due to a nagging finger injury. Those aren’t the only guys who were rather absent last year.
Kevin Bieksa and Lukas Krajicek both played less than half of a season while on the Canucks roster. Both are back and should be expected to play a larger role next season.
I wouldn’t worry too much about that inexperience though. Sammi Salo, Mattias Ohlund and Alexander Edler lead the way. The three combined for a plus-13 in ’07-’08, as well as 69 points. Not too many teams are fortunate enough to have three guys who can pitch in offensively like Vancouver. And the plus/minus rating proves that they are not one-track defensemen.
Willie Mitchell returns as well. He played in 72 games and was a plus-6. So it appears that the defense should continue to shut down offenses considering the core of talent is still in tact.
Offensively the Canucks have a very different problem, finishing last season fourth from the bottom in the Western Conference at scoring goals with 213. To make matters worse, the former third leading scorer and captain of the team is now playing in New York.
Marcus Naslund finished the year with 55 points (25 G – 30 A), but it was his lowest total since the ’97-’98 season. At 35-years-old, Naslund may continue his descent in point production. Nevertheless, he was always the constant in Vancouver and will surely be missed.
At the center position, many have left from last year’s squad. Brendan Morrison (25 pts.), Trevor Linden (12 pts.) and Byron Ritchie (11 pts.) are all gone. Morrison is now an Anaheim Duck, while Linden retired and Ritchie is still unsigned.
‘Mr. Clutch’ Trevor Linden became the fan favorite of Vancouver in his long career as a Canuck, and provided many memorable goals. He was a hero in Vancouver, but his progression had gone down drastically and his decision to retire was probably the right one.
The returning centermen are Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler. Both will have added responsibility and should play well. Sedin led the team in scoring last year, and the same is expected of him. Kesler has a tremendous upside and is still young. He has a chance to break out in ’08-’09.
Kyle Wellwood was signed on the first day of free agency, and will fill one of the vacancies. In 59 games with Toronto last season, he put up 21 points (8 G – 13 A). He is a prototypical third line center right now, but could eventually move to a second line.
Ryan Johnson was also signed as a centerman, filling the second void. He will likely man the fourth line.
On the left wing, Naslund is the big loss. The rest of the corps is till in tact though, and it got a bit stronger with the signing of Pavol Demitra.
Demitra is getting older, but still is still putting up good numbers as his 54 points (15 G – 39 A) and plus-9 rating last year prove. Demitra can also play the center position if needed, which will help the weakness there.
He joins Daniel Sedin, Taylor Pyatt and Alexandre Burrows in a strong left side.
On the right side, a few moves were made in free agency. The position is interesting in that they have very little experience on the right wing, yet have a lot of young players with unknown potential.
Most recently, Mike Brown and Ryan Shannon were resigned to new contracts. Brown is a fourth line guy who will be dropping the gloves from time-to-time. Shannon is a third line winger that could potentially develop in to more.
It is unknown how much time either will play in the NHL next season. Both played sparingly last year.
Another move at the right wing should help to improve the position more immediately. Vancouver signed 23-year-old Steve Bernier, who split time between San Jose and Buffalo last season. In that time, the winger registered 32 points (16 G – 16 A) in 76 games.
He has a lot of potential, and could develop in to a first line winger at some point in his career. The knock on this guy is his conditioning. Canucks’ fans are hoping Vancouver might just be the place where he takes off.
An attempt to claim David Backes was unsuccessful on the first day of free agency as St. Louis matched the deal on an offer sheet submitted by Vancouver.
This position is never a question mark when Roberto Luongo is in net. With 35 wins, a 2.38 GAA and .917 SV%, this guys is just about as solid as one can be as a starting goaltender. He also played a huge role in allowing the fewest goals in the division.
With 73 games played by Luongo last season, there is not too much concern as far as a backup goes. However, Curtis Sanford will be backing up the starter.
I think Vancouver seems to be at about the same level as they were last season. If they can get extra production from some of their younger players than this team could steal a seven or eight seed. And with Minnesota seemingly on the downfall, wins may come a bit easier for the Canucks in the Northwest.
This is a rather solid team. They have the important thing down: defense. With 15 more goals than last year, the Canucks are in the playoffs. Someone has to step up though.