by The Cleated Traveller, Tristan Noble
Since the lockout, the Canucks have won the Northwest division title all but two times—in ‘06 (Calgary) and ‘08 (Minnesota). As of today, 18 points above 2nd place Colorado in the standings, the Canucks look poised to raise their fourth straight Northwest Division banner to the rafters. While the Canucks are a polished product that is (almost) always firing on all cylinders, the rest of the division is in disarray. The following is a survey of the rest of the Northwest division denizens, what problems they suffer from, and their budding stars that look to change shape of the Northwest Division.
Edmonton Oilers – 56 points, 20 games remaining, 32 points behind
Much is made about the Oilers’ future, and rightly so. They have all the right ingredients to produce a playoff contender a few years down the road. At the beginning of the current season, it looked as if the Oilers were about to turn the corner as a team, but still encountered the growing pains inherent to the rebuilding process. The Oilers have many great players to look forward to, but it will be some time before they develop a goaltender that is a number one puck stopper. Oliver Roy and/or Tyler Bunz may provide that stability in the future, but predicting the success of a goaltender is notoriously difficult. Oilers fans are excited for potential that resides within Oscar Klefbom, and rightly so: Klefbom made the World Junior Hockey Championship’s all-star team. This is by no means an indicator of guaranteed success, but it is an accolade worth considering. Klef-Bomb is a big, imposing presence with an offensive upside.
A big plus for the Oilers is that all the young players that are important to the future success of the team will continue to have time to develop the chemistry that will help to make them great players. While the front office continues to ship in more talent, the team will become more attractive to free agents. In fact, don’t be surprised if the promise of Hall, Gagner , Nugent-Hopkins and co. will inevitably have a Penguins effect on the free agent market. If those guys develop into 40-goal scorers, other players are going to want to play with them, and the Oilers will experience an influx of free-agent talent, provided that they have the cap space of course. Note to Canucks fans: enjoy rolling over the Oilers for an easy two points while it lasts, because it is only a matter of time before the Oilers reverse the situation on the Canucks in an embarrassing fashion.
Minnesota Wild – 65 points, 19 games remaining, 23 points behind
The Minnesota Wild are no longer doing well in their traditional strong suit: defence. The Minnesota representatives are hovering at around -25 on goal differential so far this year. When a team makes its grits and gravy from defensive work, and can no longer rely on that staple to win games, there are serious problems. There are more players on the wrong side of the +/- than there are on the right side of it, and not a single player has reached 20 goals yet this season (with Dany Heatley being 1 away from the mark). Former Head Coach Todd Richards was barely above .500 in win percentage in just over 2 seasons , and did not lead the Wild to the playoffs. It is unclear as to what Richards’ overall coaching philosophy was and whether or not the players had bought into said mysterious philosophy. Before Richards’ departure, one thing was clear: there was no offense in Minny. Even if the Wild were instructed to continue playing a Lemaire-esque brand of hockey, there should have been more goals scored on Richard’s watch.
It is simply too early to pass judgement on Mike Yeo, but the mountain he has to climb is very clear. It might be worthwhile for Yeo to attack the core of the dressing room in the offseason and for the Minnesota front office to give him permission to do so. Prospects in the notoriously cold American state don’t have the same hope for the future that their Oiler counterparts do, and quite frankly, the Wild faithful should be angry; Minny is one of the true great American hockey cities where the fans are dedicated and knowledgeable, and they deserve a better product than what they have paid for. Granlund, Coyle, Brodin, and Scandella all seem destined to reach their potential as solid players, according to certain publications, so Minny’s draft choices aren’t a total loss; however, it will be a long while yet before the Wild look like the team that made it to the conference final all those years ago. As such, the Wild are a long way off from challenging the Canucks—or anyone else for that matter—for the division title.
Calgary Flames – 67 points, 19 games remaining, 21 points behind
The Flames have fallen on hard times in terms of competent coaching and administration. Jay Feaster has not inspired morale in the players, hope in the fans, or fear in his opponents. At first, I wanted to blame Feaster for his own inept handling of Flames affairs, but as Ryan Lambert points out, if your team is in 11th place and you’re not buying at the deadline, then you’d better be selling. The most interesting part about Lambert’s article is that the Flames ownership group may be handcuffing Feaster, and not allowing him to make the moves he wants to make. If this is the case, then it is the Flames ownership that is to blame for the plight of the team. Team owners—barring any formal expertise in coaching a professional hockey team—should not interfere with the choices of the coach and the GM. I don’t feel as though there is much of a point in discussing the Flames budding talent when their futures could be compromised by the meddling of uneducated owners . Much like the Wild faithful who deserve better than what they are getting, the Red Mile deserves better as well. Nonetheless, it will be a while before the Flames will again challenge for the NW Division title
Colorado Avalanche – 70 points, 18 games remaining, 18 points behind
Despite being 7-2-1 in their last 10, the Avalanche are still almost 20 points behind the Canucks in the Northwest Division standings. Milan Hejduk made part of his career on being a Canuck killer (67 points in 76 career games vs Vancouver). As Hejduk enjoys his twilight years with the Avs, Gabriel Landeskog looks poised to take his place. This season, Landeskog has 40 points and is +22; not bad for someone who is a strong Calder trophy candidate. However, Landeskog has no points and is a -5 in 4 games versus the Canucks this year. It is only a matter of time before he starts racking up points at the Canucks’ expense, but right now, if there is some intangible weakness that the Canucks possess, Hejduk knows what it is. Canucks fans should be hoping Hedjuk can’t teach it to Landeskog.
The Avs have a few prospects worth taking a look at. Duncan Siemens looks to bring his imposing physical presence to the Pepsi Center. Siemens was drafted 11th overall by the Avs in 2011, and his 6’3”, 200 lb frame will be looking to crush the Avs’ opponents into the boards. Stefan Elliot is another Avs Defence draftee that has loads of potential. Elliot is almost the polar opposite of Siemens, with a huge offensive upside. If both these players develop to their potential, the Canucks will not only have to fend off the young guns from Edmonton for the title, but they will also have to contend with the kids from the mile-high city as well. The future looks promising for Colorado, but let’s be clear: no one is guaranteeing a return of the Sakic, Forsberg, Blake, and Roy years—the salary cap says “hi.” Nonetheless, the Avs look like they could challenge the Canucks for the division title in the next few years.
It would be disingenuous to say that the Northwest division title will remain the personal property of the Canucks for several more years, as Colorado and Edmonton continue their strong rebuilding processes. At this point in time, those two teams look like they are the most likely candidates to knock the canucks off the NW perch. Minnesota may return to divisional contendership, but it appears as though they will take longer than Edmonton or Colorado will. If Minnesota does return to being a respectable team, they could make life very tough for Vancouver as they did during the early part of the Lemaire era. Enjoy the massive divisional leads while they last Canucks fans, because it won’t be this good forever.
Editor’s Note: The Cleated Traveller will be bringing us stories from all over the world of sport – it just so happens that his first story is about hockey.