In the last week we have seen one division totally reshaped by NHL free agency, and that is the Northwest. All 5 teams have thrown their hats into the ring, and seven of the most highly sought after free agents have signed with teams within the division. The Northwest Division has been the Vancouver Canucks domain, as the team has finished first in the division for 3 consecutive seasons. They have also won the President’s trophy the last two seasons, with no other Northwest club even finishing in the playoffs in either of those years. After watching the Canucks dominate the division, will the latest round of moves shift the balance of power in the division?
Calgary Flames: The Flames made a big time splash even before free agency officially began, trading with Washington to acquire the negotiating rights for Dennis Wideman. The Flames then quickly signed the offensive blue liner to a deal worth over $26 million for five years. They would follow that up by signing Jiri Hudler to a 4 year, $16 million deal.
While the Flames should be an improved club. I still question how much have they improved. They still have not addressed their concerns at centre ice, and in fact things have gotten worse with Olli Jokinen signing in Winnipeg. With star players Jarome Iginla and Mikka Kiprusoff not getting any younger, I don’t see the Flames challenging the Canucks for division supremacy. In fact I see them as a bubble club who will fight hard for a playoff spot, but will need a little luck and some good bounces just to sneak into the top 8.
Colorado Avalanche: The Avalanche added winger P.A. Parenteau on a 4 year $16 million deal to help boost their offence. Parenteau gives the team a solid top 6 group of forwards including Matt Duchene, Paul Stastny, Gabriel Landeskog, David Jones, and Milan Hejduk. The Avalanche also have a solid goalie tandem in Semyon Varlamov and J.S. Giguere. However I feel that their defence needs improvement and will keep them from challenging for the division crown this early. Moves to shore up the blue line, or the development of young blue liners in their system are needed before they can realistically challenge the Canucks.
Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers big free agent acquisition is young defenceman Justin Schultz. They also added #1 overall draftee Nail Yakupov and new head coach Ralph Krueger. I believe that with the amount of young stars maturing, that this could be a year the Oilers become one of the most improved clubs in the NHL and fight for a playoff spot. The Oilers lethal PP has only gotten better with the additions of Schulz and Yakupov. However there are still some areas of concern including whether or not Sam Gagner can succeed as the number 2 centre behind RNH, the overall defensive end of the ice, and the goaltending. If the Oilers can take that next step, the team may challenge for a playoff spot as early as this season. However, I do not believe they will be able to knock the Canucks off their perch just yet.
Minnesota Wild: As we all know by now, the Wild clearly made the biggest moves in free agency, grabbing the two biggest stars available. The team should be much improved with Parise and Suter and probably has the best chance of challenging Vancouver in the division. They are going to need a little bit of luck and the rapid development of their excellent prospect core, if they are going to challenge the Canucks this year. While I think the Wild have an excellent chance to make the playoffs, I think they are probably still a year or two away from taking this division. Once they add and develop their youth like Granlund, Coyle, Brodin et al. and have them firing on all cylinders though, look out.
Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks only major loss this offseason has been defenceman Sami Salo. However he was more than adequately replaced by signing Jason Garrison to a 6 year deal at $4.6 million per season. The Canucks still face the issue of having Roberto Luongo on the roster, however a summer trade should also help them to strengthen the club, as they will add assets in any deal. The Canucks were upset in the playoffs by the eventual champion L.A. Kings, bringing a strong season to a disappointing end. Still featuring a club that is deep in all areas, their goals include far more than just repeating as division champions. They should once again be viewed as a legitimate Stanley Cup Contender.
With so many quality free agents entering the division, each of these teams have Rocky Mountain high hopes that they have improved their clubs. And the quality of the 4 challengers should certainly improve this year. However, I feel that it will take a bit more time before any of the other clubs is ready to knock the Canucks off their mountain perch.
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