Calgary Flames: The biggest story of the preseason for the Flames surrounded one of their top stars getting criticized on television by a former NHL player who has now become an analyst. Michael Peca's comments about Calgary defenseman Jay Bouwmeester being "easy to play against" had a pointed tone to them, and created an uproar that lingered for days, mostly because it was Flames president Ken King who started it.
|Roberto Luongo is considered the most important piece Vancouver needs to make a good run. (AP)|
The Flames have been living off the memory and expectations of their Stanley Cup Finals run in 2004 for too long, and the natives have gotten restless with the direction that has been set from the top. That didn't change this summer when Calgary brought back forwards Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay, both of whom had worn out their welcomes quickly after brief previous stints with the club, and this week, Vancouver castoff Brendan Morrison. Despite the presence of captain Jarome Iginla and a surprisingly big season from Rene Bourque, Calgary's biggest problem was its lack of offense last season and the jury is still out on whether the newcomers will help improve it.
Calgary's strength though is still in the back end, where Bouwmeester, despite Peca's contention, is still considered one of the league's better defensemen and leads a group that made big strides under coach Brent Sutter, jumping to fifth overall in that category from 23rd the season before. Much of that, of course, was due to stellar play from goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, who should remain one of the game's elite if the Calgary defense doesn't overwork the 34-year-old again.
On paper, this team has some talent and the kind of mix of youth, experience and size that should keep them be competitive in a tough Western Conference. Calgary finished the preseason schedule with the NHL's best record as well, but they'll start the new season with four regulars on the shelf, not to mention lots of added weight on their shoulders.
Colorado Avalanche: If reality didn't catch up to the Colorado Avalanche by the end of last season, it seems to be doing so as the team heads into the new one.
The rebuilding organization went full force into a youth movement and turned into one of the league's biggest surprises by making the playoffs after challenging for the lottery pick a year earlier. But Colorado's progress was in large part due to a great start that had the Avs challenging for the Northwest crown in the early going. Once the rest of the league started paying attention, Colorado faded noticeably in the second half and had to hang on to get to the postseason.
Which begs the question of what one of the league's youngest teams will do for an encore, particularly after a disappointing preseason effort that saw the Avs finish 2-5. More troubling was the output of an offense that was sixth in the league last season, but managed only 11 goals in seven games in September, with four of the top six forwards failing to connect at all.
|2010-11 Season Preview|
That obviously doesn't bode well for Colorado heading into the new season especially with Peter Mueller, one of the Avs' top six forwards sidelined indefinitely with the third concussion of his career. Aside from the long-term ramifications of the injury, the immediate concern for Colorado will be the impact of his absence on the power play, where Mueller does some of his best work. Without him the Avs scored only twice in 36 chances in the preseason.
The bright side is that goalie Craig Anderson, who had a Vezina-quality campaign in his first season in Colorado while facing more shots than anyone, seems to be picking up where he left off. Anderson posted a .931 save percentage in exhibition play and a 2.02 goals-against average, in part because the Avs defenders managed to cut down slightly the number of shots against him. They'll have to do better when the real games begin though, and in a lot of areas.
Edmonton Oilers: It seems a little odd that the worst season in franchise history has gotten the locals really excited.
In part that's because there's nowhere to go but up for the Oilers, who finished 30th overall and in the bottom five in offense, defense and penalty kill. You know, all the fundamental areas of the game. But there was a bright side to the dismal campaign a year ago because it earned Edmonton the chance to grab the biggest prize in the draft, a potential franchise building block in left winger Taylor Hall.
Hall, the MVP of the last two Memorial Cup junior championship tournaments, will be in the lineup alongside a couple of other highly-touted recent first-rounders with Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson joining the fray under new head coach Tom Renney, who took over after Pat Quinn was bumped upstairs. And they'll be part of what isn't necessarily a bad nucleus up front that includes Dustin Penner, who had a career-best 32 goals last season, Ales Hemsky who is healthy again and Sam Gagner.
Edmonton still has concerns along the blue line, where dressing room cancer Sheldon Souray has effectively been kicked off the team and no true No. 1 type currently resides, and particularly in goal with a DUI sentence in Arizona hanging over veteran Nikolai Khabibulin's head. Khabibulin appealed so he was able to take part in training camp, but his .880 save percentage and 3.50 goals-against average aren't exactly causes for optimism.
"This is a work in progress," Renney said.
Minnesota Wild: The Wild probably figured they would have to go through some transition pains with Todd Richards taking over from the franchise's original coach Jacques Lemaire last season, just not enough to ruin it almost before it started. Minnesota opened by winning only three of its first 12 games and despite a few surges, never managed to recover.
And things don't look any more promising in year two of the new era, despite the tweaks Minnesota has made to its roster. The Wild added forward depth in Matt Cullen, John Madden, Eric Nystrom and Brad Staubitz, but this is a team that has struggled to score goals throughout its brief lifetime and these newcomers won't do much to help in that regard. A better season from highly-paid winger Martin Havlat would help though, along with a strong comeback by Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who played only one game last season because of a concussion, and an appropriate follow-up by Guillaume Latendresse, who had a breakout season after coming from Montreal in a trade.
There will be another ex-Canadien in Minnesota as well this season with free agent goalie Jose Theodore signing a one-year deal just before the team headed to Europe for its season opener in Finland. Theodore was a stop-gap solution to the season-long loss of backup Josh Harding, and he'll be counted on to spell starter Niklas Backstrom enough to keep him sharp.
When he's on his game, Backstrom can be a Vezina candidate, but on a team that really has no high-end offensive producers, a group of defensemen that leaves much to be desired and not much helping coming from the system, that's not enough.
Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks are turning 40 this season and a lot of people -- not all of them local -- expect them to win the Stanley Cup. It's a level of pressure that only one Vancouver player has actually experienced, although fortunately for the Canucks, the one who is ultimately the key to their fortunes.
Thing is goalie Roberto Luongo still has to prove he can do it. And this season would be as good a time as any because the Canucks won't be seriously challenged within the Northwest and have all the right pieces in place to win it all.
Luongo is supposed to be the biggest, which is one reason the Canucks gave him a lifetime contract last season. But his status among the league's elite goalies, something he enjoyed even before Vancouver acquired him from Florida in 2006, has been diminished in recent seasons. Barring a long playoff run, it likely will be again next spring.
But if he lives up to his reputation, Vancouver will be tough to beat.
The Canucks already had the West's best offense with Henrik Sedin, who won the scoring title and MVP award, leading the way and their top two lines, everyone with a minimum 25 goals, remains intact heading to the new season. Vancouver added one of the league's better shutdown third-line centers in Manny Malhotra as well, and made an even bigger upgrade along the blue line with Dan Hamhuis signing as a free agent and Keith Ballard coming in a trade.
It's a lineup that is talented, fast and deep but as the Canucks have learned in the last few seasons, they don't get far unless Luongo steps it up in the playoffs.
He won't have to worry about being captain after giving up the title last summer, but the focus on him in an intense market like Vancouver will remain. The bright side is Luongo went through and survived a similarly-pressured situation to win the gold medal game for Team Canada at the Olympics here.
But he wasn't brilliant. And he won't necessarily have to be behind a very good Vancouver team when the playoffs roll around this season.
Just better than he has been.