Northwest preview: Improved Canucks could contend for Cup

by | CBSSports.com Staff Writer
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Earlier this year, fans in Vancouver were thrilled to witness the 'home' team win gold at the Olympics. Satisfying as that particular title might have been for the faithful, the season's real prize again eluded them because the Canucks were eliminated from the playoffs by Chicago for the second successive spring.

Roberto Luongo will have an upgraded defense in front of him come this season. (Getty Images)  
Roberto Luongo will have an upgraded defense in front of him come this season. (Getty Images)  
For Vancouver, it was a frustrating end to what had been an impressive campaign, one that included a division title, and the league MVP award and scoring title for Henrik Sedin. And it prompted the Canucks to make several significant changes that has them heading toward training camp as the clear class of the Northwest Division once again.

"You still have to come together as a team and make it happen on the ice," said Sedin's twin brother and linemate Daniel. "But no doubt when you're doing your workouts in the summer and you hear things that are going on back here, it makes it that much easier to push yourself knowing you're going to have a good team with a chance to do something."

Quite a bit perhaps since the Canucks have a real shot at winning the Stanley Cup for the first time. Credit that to several moves made by GM Mike Gillis to push the pace of his five-year plan. Gillis upgraded a defense that was exposed at times last season in front of franchise goalie Roberto Luongo, adding talented blue liners Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard to the back end and shutdown center Manny Malhotra up front. And it didn't cost the Canucks any of its six top forwards, all of whom scored at least 25 times. In fact the most significant departure from last season's roster was punishing rear guard Willie Mitchell who missed the second half of the schedule because of a concussion.

"We went into the summer with an objective and we targeted certain players we really liked and we were able to accomplish what we wanted," Gillis said. "Now we'll see if we get the results."

Thing is, the Canucks won't really figure that out until playoff time. Vancouver won the division by a comfortable margin last season and figures to do so again because none of its Northwest rivals improved themselves enough to be considered serious challengers to its crown.

The upstart Colorado Avalanche was the Northwest's only other playoff team, but only because they got off to a fast start in what was supposed to be a rebuilding season and overworked goalie Craig Anderson generally stood on his head. But Colorado faded badly down the stretch, lost the first round to San Jose and then dumped several veterans from a lineup that will be one of the league's youngest and is likely to experience more growing pains.

Further north in Calgary, the Flames fizzled and quickly flopped despite the star presence and solid seasons from Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff. GM Darryl Sutter tried to shake things up at midseason with trades that included shipping Dion Phaneuf to Toronto, but his deals backfired and cast doubt about the direction he has taken the team in the last few seasons. And Sutter didn't help himself by bringing back free-agent veteran forwards Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay, both of whom were maligned in previous stints with the team.

For their part, the Minnesota Wild got a little older by making centers Matt Cullen and John Madden their offseason signings, something that doesn't seem to bode well for a team effectively out of the playoff hunt by the Olympic break. Minnesota finished in the bottom third of both the offensive and defensive rankings and is likely to watch the playoffs from the fourth time in six years unless it gets major turnaround seasons from Martin Havlat and goalie Niklas Backstrom. Havlat, brought in to help fill the scoring void left by Marian Gaborik, managed just 18 goals, while Backstrom, a Vezina candidate a season ago, had his worst numbers in four years after signing a lucrative contract extension.

Meanwhile, the Edmonton Oilers head to training camp with a couple of serious issues to resolve, the biggest being how the 30-day DUI jail sentence Nikolai Khabibulin has to serve in Arizona will impact the goaltending. Rather than putting the situation behind him, Khabibulin is appealing which could end up interrupting his season.

At the same time, Edmonton is trying to figure out what to do with expensive veteran defenseman Sheldon Souray, who wants out but has drawn no interest on the trade market or waiver wire. Even so, the Oilers should be worth watching if only because of the kids who will dominate their lineup.

Last June's first overall choice Taylor Hall is a superstar in the making under new head coach Tom Renney. He and highly touted prospects Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paarjavi will get plenty of on-the-job NHL training. Unfortunately, that should be a lot of very long nights in Edmonton for a team that seems destined to contend for the lottery pick once again.

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