NHL preview, pick: Northwest Division

NHL 2013 Preview: Northwest Division

Teams listed in predicted order of finish.

Vancouver Canucks (2011-12: 51-22-9; eliminated in first round of playoffs)

Even with long-term injuries to top-six forwards Ryan Kesler (shoulder) and David Booth (knee) to start the season, and a potentially impatient goaltender on the bench, the Canucks should be able to handle these 48 games with relative ease.

No NHL team dominated any division in 2011-12 with the authority the Canucks did their own, going 18-5-1 versus Northwest foes. The Presidents’ Trophy winners also posted the West’s best intra-conference record last season: 40-16-8.

The unflappable Cory Schneider squeezed in a few games in the Swiss league before the lockout ended and should be ready to seize his new opportunity as the No. 1 guy, while the man who literally wears No. 1 is wearing a ballcap and biding his time.

New signee Jason Garrison, a British Columbia native, has a big contract, so it’s on him to prove that he can help this club rebound from its crushing Round 1 loss to the L.A. Kings last spring.

With the Sedin twins as reliable an offensive duo as you can get, the regular-season intrigue here will be off the ice. Will GM Mike Gillis be able to get good value for Roberto Luongo and make up for the absence of centre Cody Hodgson, who was dealt at the deadline last winter?

Key acquisitions: Jason Garrison, Derek Joslin

Key departures: Sami Salo, Aaron Rome, Samuel Pahlsson, Byron Bitz

Minnesota Wild (2011-12: 35-36-11; did not make playoffs)

With season ticket sales up by more than 4,000 and some home games already sold out, the Minnesota fan base is more excited to see $98-million men Zach Parise and Ryan Suter than they are angry that the stars’ Wild debut was delayed by three months. Combined, Parise and Suter bring 232 goals, 416 assists, 648 points and 1,044 games worth of experience to the state. Crowd noise will not be an issue.

More compelling is how Dany Heatley will respond. If the talented line of setup centre Mikko Koivu (who played only 55 games last season) and wingers Parise and Heatley clicks, and stays healthy, the Wild could become the league’s most improved team.

Key acquisitions: Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Torrey Mitchell

Key departures: Guillaume Latendresse, Mike Lundin, Nick Johnson, Kurtis Foster

Edmonton Oilers (2011-12: 32-40-10; did not make playoffs)

“We have skill in our room that’s so exciting, and I need to find ways that their instincts can play freely,” new coach Ralph Krueger said when he was charged with the task of molding a team consisting of three No. 1 draft picks. One of those ways was having the young Oilers develop some chemistry and stay in game shape by playing for the AHL’s Oklahoma City Barons during the lockout.

Add explosive Russian teenager Nail Yakupov to a crop that includes Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and coveted D-man Justin Schultz, and the Oilers will be incredible in four years. But will they be incredible this year? Or even good enough to make the playoffs for the first time since ’06?

Remember, only the Columbus Blue Jackets were worse than this club last season. Still, we see a significant step up here, boosted by the short schedule, and the Oil making a run for that eighth spot. Goaltender Devan Dubnyk is only 26 and could benefit from improved team defence, which hopefully Krueger is able to install.

Key acquisitions: Justin Schultz, Nail Yakupov, Mark Fistric

Key departure: Cam Barker

Colorado Avalanche (2011-12: 41-35-6; did not make playoffs)

Gabriel Landeskog won the Calder Trophy and was awarded the captaincy of this young club last summer. Now the 20-year-old Avalanche leader will try to get the Avs back to the playoffs, and it looks like he has a talented new linemate in P.A. Parenteau, who’s coming hot off a career year (67 points) for the New York Islanders. They’ll be joined by a healthy Matt Duchene, a highlight-reel hog in 2011-12 save for the 24 games he missed.

Overall, the Northwest was the softest division in the West last year. Colorado should improve, especially with 24-year-old goalie Semyon Varlamov having already warmed up in the KHL to the tune of a 1.74 GAA. Problem is, the Wild and Oilers are better than they were last year too.

Key acquisitions: P.A. Parenteau, John Mitchell, Greg Zanon

Key departures: Peter Mueller, Jay McClement

Calgary Flames (2011-12: 37-29-16; did not make playoffs)

There are two ways to look at Calgary’s league-leading 16 losses in overtime or shootout in 2011-12. One: Man, they had some bad luck; had they scored a few more shootout goals, they could’ve made the postseason. Two: Wow, this team only had 37 “real” wins and were still in the hunt last March?

The Flames aren’t very good, and neither was the price they paid for defenceman Dennis Wideman ($26.25 million for five years) in the offseason.

But hope comes in the form of a new head coach, Bob Hartley, who is coming off a Swiss A league championship with the ZSC Lions and led the Avalanche to a Stanley Cup in 2001.

A healthy season (if not a full mouth of teeth) is hoped for from Michael Cammalleri, and a strong showing from prospect Sven Baertschi would be encouraging.

All of this will be overshadowed by the story of Jarome “Contract Year” Iginla. The team’s heart could be move before trade deadline if the Flames don’t look playoff-bound.

Key acquisitions: Bob Hartley (coach), Jiri Hudler, Roman Cervenka, Dennis Wideman

Key departures: Olli Jokinen, David Moss, Scott Hannan, Guillaume Desbiens

Hottest rivalry: Flames vs. Oilers – The Battle of Alberta should kick into high gear with the Flames desperate to make the playoffs in Iginla’s contract year and the young Oilers a darkhorse favourite to make noise in a short season.

Big question mark: Will Minnesota’s twin acquisitions of Parise and Suter pay immediate dividends and help owner Craig Leipold reap some playoff gate money?

And the divisional champ will be… Vancouver Canucks

Who win will the Northwest Division?

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