Preseason Preview - Ranking The Northwest Division

The team here wanted to do a preseason roundtable, and I wanted to do a preseason divisional rankings post.  Like cheese sauce and jalapenos combine to make fantastic stadium nachos, our ideas melded into our Northwest Division preseason preview.  We ranked each line and pairing against the rest of the Northwest (yes, we know the Oilers' lines change by the hour) to come up with a top-to-bottom ranking system.  I can't speak for the rest of the crew, but I thought for sure that Vancouver was my preseason favorite.  Then I put pen to paper...

Enjoy the discussion, and please feel free to add to it in the comments section.

1st Line

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DEREK: That Vancouver line is just so hard to play against.  The Sedins are like bulldogs on the puck in both zones and they cycle viciously.  They're just excellent even strength players.  Burrows has really come into his own and understands the play pretty well.

BRUCE:  I like that Minnesota trio a lot, and would certainly rank them ahead of Edmonton's (at least the Edmonton one that starts the season, which is all we can work with in this format). Koivu is a complete player a la Horcoff, Havlat can at least hold his own with Hemsky, while Brunette v. Jacques is hardly a fair fight. Division-wide, it'll be the performance of the third guy on the line -- JFJ, Burrows, Brunette, Moss, Wolski -- that will be the tell.

BEN:  The Flames unit is being unfairly slighted by a few pessimistic souls, but they're running out certainly the best right wing in the conference and possibly the best centre in the division. Olli Jokinen was a disappointment coming from Florida but he's a talented player with a successful track record and was being misused by a coach he had a bad history with. Jarome Iginla needs no further comment. David Moss is big, young, banged in twenty goals last season, and is getting the best opportunity of his young career. The Flames certainly won't be let down by their top line.

JONATHAN:  That Minnesota trio, if healthy, could be dominant.  Koivu's just coming into his own and Martin Havlat is one of the best five-on-five players in the entire league (Havlat had 63 even-strength points; in the entire NHL only Evgeni Malkin had more) and is almost certainly the best in the division.  Of course, they won't stay healthy, and Jacques (1 goal in 60 GP) probably won't stay on the Oilers' top line.  Beyond that, the Sedins are always underrated, Iginla needs to bounce back and Olli Jokinen is generally overrated.  In Colorado, Stastny is flanked by a man who has seen too many winters and one who has seen too few.

SCOTT:  Koivu and Havlat are both bonafide against the other teams's best and Andrew Brunette has the best track record of the "also-appearing" bunch which gives them the edge over Calgary.  Bruce and Derek have chosen Vancouver as their top unit and while the Sedins are certainly good I usually prefer to have all three members of my top line with 0 games of ECHL experience.  I certainly don't expect Alex Burrows to shoot 16% again this year.  Still, the inclusion of Burrows looks positively inspired when he's put next to the one-point wonder on the Oilers left flank.  The Oil are ahead of Colorado only on the strength of Hemsky and Horcoff's track record together. 

2nd Line

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DEREK:  Bourque has come out of nowhere to be a reiable guy in both ends.  He's found a bit of a scoring touch as well.  Dawes on that line speaks more to Calgary's lack of depth than anything.  That Minnesota line is extremely soft and will likely require a guiding hand from Richards.

BRUCE:  I've been wating for Nigel Dawes to break out for a while now, and he could hardly ask for a better opportunity. That said, there's an unknown commodity on every second line in the Division except Minnesota's. Expressed as regular season GP for each threesome: Minnesota 2473; Calgary 1315; Vancouver 788;  Edmonton 740; Colorado 390.

BEN: The Canucks second-line trio has an attractive combination of exciting youth and veteran talent. Ryan Kesler can play both ends of the ice at a near-elite level, and 23-year-old Sergei Shirokov looks like the real deal after three first-class Russian campaigns and a remarkably exciting training camp. Mikael Samuelsson, a solid role player who has proven his NHL pedigree but can't generate much on his own, is the closest thing to a weakness.

JONATHAN:  Nigel Dawes is the weak link on what should be a very good line for Calgary.  Other than that, I like Ryan Kesler, and both Edmonton and Colorado are running some guys out there better suited to the bottom-six.

SCOTT:  Derek must have forgot to rearrange Colorado out of alphabetical order.  Either that or he forgets how much pain there is in having (even a good) 18 year-old in the NHL.  Now imagine him playing with Cody McLeod.  Yikes.  5th by a mile.  Langkow is the best player here and he has some very good support with Calgary.  I'd certainly take them heads up against any of the other trios, though Vancouver and Minny could give them a run. 

3rd Line

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DEREK:  Calgary's "third" line will play more and tougher minutes than their "second" line.  That Minnesota line is going to be nasty sometime really soon. 

BRUCE:   Is Darcy Tucker still in the league? Times are tough in Colorado; the Avalanche don't show well at whatever level of the roster. Presumably some of their unknowns are like our unknowns and will turn out to be real hockey players, but there are harsh lessons to be learned between here and there. Flames' third line is killer.

BEN:  The Oilers' third line has more talent than anybody on this list except Calgary. But will they put it together? For that matter, will the even stay together? Dustin Penner and Andrew Cogliano could both be the best players on this list by a country mile, but they could also both wind up bleeding goals if their preseason commitment to fitness and defense doesn't hold up.

JONATHAN:  Edmonton and Minnesota both have fine lines with the weak link slotted at centre.  Vancouver has a trio of skilled but flawed players with Bernier probably being the best of the bunch, and despite not having the greatest amount of talent Calgary wins this by icing three fine two-way players.

SCOTT:  Edmonton's line is talented but could be a lot better if they had someone else in there over Brule.  Anyone but MacIntyre really.  The line could be much improved if it morphs into Penner-Cogs-Nilsson, Penner-Cogs-Pisani or Penner-Poo-Cogs. It could also drop to #5 with a bullet if Penner is moved to the top line and we end up with Jacques-Brule-Cogs.  This might shed some light on why the rubbydubs have been strewn through the Oilers lineup. 

4th Line

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DEREK:  Edmonton's fourth line is better than their second, by my eye.  It's the only line that has three NHL players there, though they will struggle to score.

BRUCE:  This is one area where direct comparison is important, since the fourth lines frequently line up against each other in what Dennis calls the "Gentleman's Agreement". Oilers' trio has useful players although I have my doubts about the chemistry.

BEN:  The Wild and Canucks have both put their fourth line together the way one should be put together: three talented, responsible players who play simple styles and won't blow anyone away but will be a bitch to play against. The three Wild players could fill in on most third lines in the NHL, to say nothing of the fourth.

JONATHAN:  Vancouver and Colorado both have one player (Johnson/Hensick) who should be average or better in this role.  The others are either too young (O'Reilly) or else too useless in the bits of the game that count (in order, best to worst: Hordichuk, Koci, Glass) to really be effective.  Sjostrom, Belanger and Brodziak are fine players, but the Oilers have easily the best group here, icing a third-liner, a second-liner, and a a fine fourth-liner in Zack Stortini.

SCOTT:  If the Oilers group actually plays the fourth line of other teams they could dominate.  Moreau has his faults but he's a decent shooter and with Gagner as his center against sub-par opponents those two could put up some points.  Minnesota also has some nice things.  The other three groups are filled with guys whose primary value comes through penalty killing, fighting and holding on for dear life at EV. 

1st Pairing

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DEREK:  Bouwmeester is just so good and Regehr is still the mean old hit-from-behind guy that everyone knows and loves.  Bouwmeester will likely get the tough matches like he did in Florida, but given Calgary's ability to tilt the ice, he won't have the same difficult starting position.

BRUCE: These listed first pairings are well-matched, as all should be considered the shutdown pair of their respective teams. Calgary's starting pair might be the envy of the league. Staios gets unsteadier by the year, but Souray is by far the biggest offensive weapon among the 10 and a rock in his own end. (As mobile as a rock, you say?)

BEN: None of these pairings are that bad, not even Edmonton's. Well, okay, Colorado is awful. Adam Foote is done done done. He is cooked like Christmas dinner. And Scott Hannan was never all that nice to begin with.  Even the immobile horror that will be Sheldon Souray and Steve Staios trying to defend Thornton and Heatley will pale next to the shitkicking the Avalanche will absorb.

JONATHAN:  Edmonton's paired a very good defenseman with a guy who is easily the worst of any of those listed above.  Other than that, Calgary's pairing is incredible, Vancouver's is good and Minnesota's is porridge.

SCOTT:  Minnesota's group was given an impossible task last year with Schultz and Johnsson among the league leaders in defensive - offensive zone faceoffs which gave others a real opportunity to clean up.  I think they end up being more valuable than Vancouver's group. 

2nd Pairing

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DEREK:   Grebeshkov and Gilbert might get pinned deep every once in awhile, but they are both silky on the ice and have fantastic first passes.  Neither are overly physical, but they both understand position and leverage pretty well for their age.

BRUCE:  Lots of talented puckmovers in this group, including Edmonton's fine pair. Surprising to find a $6.5 MM man on the second pairing, but Phaneuf is there on demerit. Awesome physical talent, though, and if Giordano continues to blossom they'll be tough to contain.

BEN:  Not much debate except nibbling around the edges. The Oilers are clearly in a class by themselves, but both Gilbert and Grebeshkov have had consistency problems and it could fall apart in a real hurry. Watch the Minnesota Wild: both of those guys are reliable talents and Brent Burns could score twenty goals this year.

JONATHAN: All of these are solid pairings, including the underrated tandem of Kyle Quincey and Brett  Clark.  Clark's a guy who has never really gotten the credit he deserves.

SCOTT:  I think Greg Zanon is in way over his head on a second pairing.  He's lucky that nearly all of the tough assignments will go to the first group but he could end up getting exposed.  Phaneuf takes a lot of crap because he was pushed too hard as a young guy and because he comes off as a bit of a jerk but he still is a very good player.  Quincey was unreal on the PP for LA, so that's something positive for Colorado fans (assuming they play him). 

3rd Pairing

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DEREK:  Smid is ready for a big year, and without Staios' "hard-around" breakout, he should be able to join the play.  He's big, he has a post-whistle nasty streak and he's still learning.  Quinn has paired him with the amazing Visnovsky who possesses the puck so much, he'll immediately take the pressure off of Smid and make him a better player.

BRUCE: Each team seems to have a puckmover paired with a stay-at-home in the last pair. Visnovsky is easily the best of the former, and Smid should hold his own against the other grinders with a very decent chance of emerging to a higher level altogether.

BEN: The Oilers have the talent, of course, but Minnesota has once again quietly assembled a strong pairing of a reliable, no-nonsense veteran and a skilled offensive defenseman who seldom makes mistakes. And the combined cost of those two would barely pay for Lubomir Visnovsky's haircuts. Edmonton is better but I'd rather have Minnesota.

JONATHAN:  Edmonton has easily the best defenseman here in Visnovsky, with the caveat that I don't trust him to be 100% on opening night.  Liles and Zidlicky are incredibly one-dimensional types, and I'm a big fan of both Sarich and Bieksa, who are definitely top-four types.

SCOTT:   Visnovsky is by far the best player in this group and he alone should give Edmonton the win.  Minnesota's group also looks good to me.  Zidlicky should be put into some very favourable situations at EV and he should be able to capitalize.  Shane O'Brien's 48 minor penalties (fourth in the league last year, five more than Ethan Moreau) gives Vancouver's pair a lot of negative value to make up.  I don't think they'll be able to do it. 

Goaltending

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DEREK:   Minnesota's depth at the position got them my first place vote.  Luongo is obviously amazing, but Raycroft is likely an AHL goaltender at this point.  If Backstrom goes down for any length, Harding can easily stand in and deliver.

BRUCE: Surprised to see Harding still in Minnesota, where he is head and shoulders the best back-up in the Northwest judging by the percentages. In theory (although not in practice to date), that should translate into more regular season wins for the Wild. The three Canadian teams all suffer a significant drop-off in quality, meaning the health and endurance of the #1 is key.

BEN:  Yes, Josh Harding could eat Andrew Raycroft for breakfast, but Roberto Luongo hardly gets tired and never gets hurt. If he does go down, the Canucks will go straight to Cory Schneider and skip Raycroft as much as possible. Miikka Kiprusoff, meanwhile, is not only expensive but increasingly horrible. Calgary's goaltending is worse than Edmonton's but even pricier.

JONATHAN:  Minnesota vs. Vancouver is a tough choice but I'll go with the best player over depth here.  I'm a big fan of the gamble the Avs are taking with Anderson and expect he'll do well despite the team's other problems.  Edmonton and Calgary are really only a coin toss apart; aging and overrated starters with very questionable backups.  I took Edmonton because Khabibulin's recent track record (i.e. the past two seasons) is a lot better than Kiprusoff's, even if he is more likely to get hurt.

SCOTT:  Luongo never gets hurt... except for last year.  With the condensed schedule, every backup is going to be playing 15% of the games and when that 15% is Andrew Raycroft, you're in trouble.  The same applies for Deslauriers and McElhinney.  I really like Colorado's pair.  I think they'll find out that Anderson is the way to go and that Budaj will outperform the other backups enough to give the Avalanche the win.  Minnesota might take a bit of a tumble with Lemaire in New Jersey.  That said, maybe they won't.  We'll see.  In my opinion, Calgary is fifth by a fair margin. On the bright side, they won't have a huge dropoff is Kipper goes down to injury :) 

Power Play

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DEREK:   Minnesota's system was the reason for their success previously, including a 20.1% conversion rate last year, but adding Havlat really increases their talent level. I think he and Sykora are enough to offset any dropoff from changing systems.  Burns is outstanding on back end with a man advantage.

BRUCE:  I have high hopes for Edmonton's powerplay. Pat Quinn has an impressive array of talent to choose from, even if the closest thing he has to the mythical "one-shot scorer" plays the point. With Ales Hemsky running the show on the first unit and the Human Eclipse, Dustin Penner providing heavy shade in the goal mouth, good things can and will happen. Four gifted offensive blueliners and an array of smurfs should ensure two solid units.

BEN:  The Wild get the "ov-er-ra-ted!" chant from me: so much of their powerplay success last year was smoke, mirrors, and lucky percentages. The Canucks, meanwhile, have top talent and very good coaching. With Sami Salo healthy, they should rebound to the top of the division.

JONATHAN:  Wayne Fleming is powerplay magic, or at least has been in his previous stops.  Vancouver and Minnesota are both going to ice capable units, while Colorado is rebuilding and the Calgary Flames were not only bad offensively last year but also allowed 15 short-handed goals.

SCOTT:  The Oilers should improve in this area as there's plenty of talent there.  I think the Canucks will be good as the PP was the one area where Samuelsson exelled.  As much as that may have been the talent around him in Detroit, he'll have a whole lot of talent around him in Vancouver as well.  Bouwmeester never has been great on the PP and I imagine he'll get more time there than he earns which will drive the unit's production down. 

Penalty Kill

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DEREK:   Calgary's kill is going to get a huge boost from Bouwmeester and from Sutter's system, probably enough to offset the fact that Kiprusoff's Legend plays goal for Calgary now.  If Kiprusoff continues his long, slow decline, Calgary could be the worst short-handed team in the division.

BRUCE:  This was a sore spot for Edmonton in 2008-09. The departure of Brodziak won't help, nor will the injury to Pisani. While O'Sullivan should be a useful piece and Cogliano play a bigger role, the ranks up front are dangerously thin. I'm not sold on Stone or JFJ in a PK capacity. Khabibulin will be hugely important, as will the team's capacity to stay out of the darn box.

BEN:  The Minnesota Wild have had good defensive forwards since forever and this year is no exception. Their blueline has its share of effective penalty-killers, with the only real downside being that their most effective penalty-killers are also their most effective power play men. The Wild could send out three penalty kills better than the best the Oilers could muster.

JONATHAN: The Oilers are the team with the fewest legitimate penalty-killers, I have serious doubts about Colorado's coaching, and the rest should all be decent barring a total collapse from Minnesota's new coaches or Calgary's goaltender.

SCOTT:  I like Minny and Vancouver.  Good goaltending and solid veterans everywhere.  And those comments reveal what's missing from all of the other units.  Calgary's missing the goaltending.  Colorado needs some vets.  Edmonton doesn't have either. 

Depth

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DEREK:   Edmonton's lack of reliable two-way players on the NHL roster is humorously opposed by their options at forwards 13 and 14 and the AHL callups.  Edmonton is able to call on Marc Pouliot, Robert Nilsson at the NHL level, AHL veterans Chris Minard and Dean Arsene for emergency callups and the nicely-developing Theo Peckham on the blueline if they need some muscle.

BRUCE:  Oilers remind me of my fantasy league team, which traditionally is notoriously thin on top-end players but always has a whole bunch of decent guys who might have trouble clearing waivers. This is why my team, like the Oilers, is always just competitive enough to never wind up with a lottery pick.

BEN:  The Oilers have eight defensemen and fifteen forwards in the system who could play in the NHL. Unfortunately, most of them couldn't play in the NHL very well. Depth is about more than just having a bunch of guys, but about having a bunch of guys who can fill a bunch of roles. That's where the Wild stand strong again: they have fewer spare parts, but the ones they have are interchangeable.

JONATHAN: Calgary has guys like Jamie Lundmark, Jason Jaffray and Colin Stuart plying their trade in the AHL; it's very difficult to argue with depth like that.  Colorado has two 18-year olds in their reguloar lineup, along with every capable AHL'er.  Vancouver and Minnesota have both iced typically successful farm teams, showing their depth, and while Edmonton has some guys injured (Pouliot/Pisani) and some decent guys in the minors, there's little reason to believe they've eclipsed the other teams in the division yet.

SCOTT:  I really like Calgary's depth at forward.  They've got at least three more forwards who can play well (Jaffray, Stuart, Lundmark) but beyond their top guys on D and G they're a bit lacking.  Colorado's "depth" is irrelevant when forwards 5-12 are barely above replacement level.  The Oilers have some solid guys at both forward and on defence but that leaves them weak where an important injury is most devastating.  Minnesota doesn't have much on D, but, as Ben says, they've got a nice fill-in for G and F (Dubielewicz, Hilbert).  Still, two injuries on D and they're in real trouble.  Vancouver's depth guys are already in the lineup with Demitra and Hansen on IR to start the year. They're solid everywhere (Rypien, Hansen, Rome, Schneider*2).  

Coaching

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DEREK:  Sutter is excellent - methodical and meticulous.  He's not the greatest tactician, but he's not getting outcoached by many  Quinn's strength is in the staff he's assembled if they find the right roles.  Renney is a whiz on the power play and on handling and developing defensemen. 

BRUCE:  Oilers deep-sixed the most senior coaching staff in the division, and replaced them with the most experienced coaching staff in the history of the league. On paper they should achieve a nice balance of technical instrtuction and freibrand leadership. In terms of continuity (which as we discovered isn't always a good thing), only the Canucks are well-versed in their coach's expectations and system.

BEN:  I'm growing more and more optimistic in the Quinn-Renney combination with every press conference. But I'm also going to say that I don't like Alain Vigneault and I don't like his staff. Apart from playing Roberto Luongo a lot they don't seem to get most of their decisions right, and some of their line changes have reeked of the capriciousness and favouritism that so haunted Edmonton over the last decade.

JONATHAN:  Frankly, I like every team's coaching except Colorado, where they've taken the guys who guided their AHL team to nowhere and installed them at the NHL level.  Minnesota has a coach with a very good AHL track record, Edmonton has brought in three very good coaches, and Brent Sutter knows what he's doing.  Alain Vigneault's a guy who always struck me as being a little overrated, but he's handled his team well for the most part.

SCOTT:  I don't like Brent Sutter much but he's a very good coach.  Not a big fan of Vigneault but from what I understand Quinn is planning on running four lines and Colorado's coaches were hired to be fired.  Basically, I don't know how to evaluate coaching. 

Overall

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DEREK:  Apparently, I like Minnesota to win the division and I didn't even know it.  The group also has Minnesota winning the division.  The only thing keeping the Oilers around is that defense.  The comparison between Minnesota and Edmonton is pretty stark - Minnesota is full of muckety-mucks and Edmonton is full of rubbydubs.  I thought Vancouver was the team to beat, but given the even strength killers that Minnesota has, it might not be a stretch if Havlat can stay healthy.  Healthier than Gaborik, anyway.

BRUCE:  Adding all my rankings together, I have it (1) Calgary, (2) Vancouver, (3) Minnesota, (4) Edmonton, and (Distant 5) Colorado. The top four are surprisingly close, although I have attempted no weighting and obviously some categories are more important than others. All that said, I like the Canucks to take the division, even though, technically speaking, I don't "like" the Canucks at all. In fact I hate the Canucks. And the Flames. And especially the fact that I think Oilers will be looking up at both yet again this year. Sigh.

BEN: Call me bullish on the Minnesota Wild if you like, but I think it's going to be between them and Vancouver for the division crown. I give Vancouver the edge based on superior top-end talent, but one Sedin or a goalie gets hurt for the Canucks and it could all come crumbling down. For the Oilers to finish better than fourth in the division, though, would take either a miracle or Miikka Kiprusoff finally notching a save percentage lower than his batting average.

JONATHAN:  Calgary's the best team in the division, minus their goaltender, so I give Vancouver the division crown.  The Oilers and Minnesota are both good teams (slight edge to Edmonton, given that Havlat's bound to get hurt any day now) that should battle for a playoff spot and Colorado's the only one that doesn't belong in anything other than the lottery discussion.

SCOTT:  I have Minnesota winning the division on the strength of their forwards and no serious weaknesses in other areas.  The Flames and Canucks are next with the Canucks having the slight edge thanks to better goaltending.  Then it's a pretty big drop to the Oilers and another significant drop to the Avalanche.  That said, the Northwest is weak this year IMO with Minnesota probably being the fifth best team in the Conference.

 

----Special thanks to Sean Zandberg from the aptly named Nucks Misconduct, David Driscoll-Carignan from Mile High Hockey, Nathan Eide from Hockey Wilderness and Kent Wilson from Matchsticks and Gasoline for providing the lineup combinations for this article.

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