To say the Vancouver Canucks have been the only Northwest Division team that's mattered over the last few seasons is not hyperbole.
Not only has Vancouver won the last four division titles, but the Canucks also racked up 117 and 111 points, respectively, in 2010-11 and 2011-12, giving them the last two Presidents' Trophies. However, while the Canucks were busy dominating the regular season over the past two seasons, no other Northwest Division team even managed to make the playoffs.
This season, however, the Northwest Division shouldn't be nearly as top-heavy. The Minnesota Wild figure to be a vastly improved club thanks to the team opening up the checkbook to sign forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter to matching 13-year, $98 million contracts.
There's also the ever-improving Colorado Avalanche and Edmonton Oilers to consider. Both clubs are loaded with young talent even if they are a season or two away from being a serious threat to the Canucks.
As for the Flames, well, they still have Jarome Iginla, Miikka Kiprusoff and not a whole lot else.
2011-12 - (1st place, 111 points); Projected Finish: 1st place
REVIEW: After losing to the Boston Bruins in a classic seven-game battle for the Stanley Cup in 2011, the Canucks didn't even approach that success in last spring's playoffs. The top-seeded Canucks were ousted in five games in the opening round by the Los Angeles Kings, who kept on rolling to the franchise's first Stanley Cup title. Since their brief playoff run ended, the Canucks have been in the news constantly thanks to the ongoing trade rumors surrounding embattled goaltender Roberto Luongo. Luongo is still a member of the Canucks and has reported to training camp, but that doesn't mean he won't get dealt some time in the near future. Either way, it's apparent the future in net for Vancouver belongs to Cory Schneider and not Luongo.
KEY ADDITION: While the Canucks have yet to exchange Luongo for whatever pieces he can bring in a trade, Vancouver did shore up its defense in the offseason with the signing of Jason Garrison to a six-year, $27 million deal. Garrison turned in a breakout season last year in Florida, scoring 16 goals -- more than any NHL defenseman not named Erik Karlsson or Shea Weber. In Vancouver, Garrison hopes to join Alex Edler, Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa to form a potent top-four for the Canucks.
X-FACTOR: Ryan Kesler underwent surgeries to both his shoulder and wrist in the offseason and he won't be ready for the start of the season. In fact, there still isn't even a timetable for the valuable two-way forward's return. Kesler is extremely important to Vancouver's success, as he anchors the team's second-line (read: non-Sedin line) and his absence will leave a big hole in the middle of the Canucks' lineup. With Samuel Pahlsson gone, Vancouver will have to turn to either Maxim Lapierre or Manny Malhotra to take over the No. 2 center slot. No offense to either of those guys, but Ryan Kesler they most certainly are not. Maybe Luongo can be flipped for a better option down the middle until Kesler is able to return.
PROGNOSIS: If the Kesler injury bleeds deep into the shortened season, there's a chance the Canucks could see their Northwest crown knocked off their heads. Still, with the Sedin twins, Alex Burrows and one of the deepest blue lines in the NHL, the Canucks will be playoff bound once again.
2011-12 - (4th, 81 pts); Projected Finish - 2nd
REVIEW: After finishing out of the playoffs for a fourth straight season last spring, the Wild decided to shake things up in a big way with the dual signings of Parise and Suter. The free-agent spending spree doesn't make Minnesota an instant Stanley Cup contender, but it could lead to the end of the club's playoff drought and also should bring some much-needed excitement back to the "State of Hockey."
KEY ADDITION: Although they were signed to identical contracts, landing Parise means slightly more to the club than picking up Suter, who is expected to be the club's No. 1 defenseman. The Wild's 166 goals last season was the lowest total by an NHL club since the lockout and that was after acquiring Dany Heatley to boost the offense in the summer of 2011. Heatley did lead the team in goals (24) and points (53), but those were his lowest-ever totals in a season where he played in more than 31 games. Parise, who is expected to join fellow winger Heatley on the top line this season, is a bona-fide point producer with 194 goals and 216 assists over 502 NHL contests. The former New Jersey Devil has become the face of the franchise and has a chance to become Minnesota's first real superstar since Marian Gaborik left for free agency in the summer of 2009.
X-FACTOR: Centerman Mikko Koivu, the man who'll likely be in between Heatley and Parise this season, missed 27 games last season -- most of which came in the second-half of the campaign -- and the Wild were just 8-16-3 in those outings. Koivu, the team captain, is a strong two-way presence down the middle and his health is key to Minnesota's success. Like Koivu, forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who missed the last 41 games of last season due to a concussion, also expects to be ready for the start of the campaign. Minnesota fell apart without those two guys in the lineup last year, so having them both back could help the Wild to get out to a quick start this season.
PROGNOSIS: Minnesota added enough pieces to be a playoff team this season and failing to qualify for the postseason tournament this spring would be a major letdown. Things need to get better this season or second-year head coach Mike Yeo may be looking for another job.
2011-12 - (5th, 74 pts); Projected Finish - 3rd
REVIEW: The Oilers finished last in the Northwest Division in each of the last three seasons and they haven't qualified for the playoffs since making a surprise run to the Stanley Cup Finals in the spring of 2006. Despite improving 12 points last season to 74, Edmonton opted to fire head coach Tom Renney and replace him with Ralph Krueger, who among other things is tasked with getting this talented young club play with more of an edge.
KEY ADDITION: The Oilers have held the top pick in the draft in each of the past three seasons and all three of those selections -- Taylor Hall (2010), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins ('11) and Nail Yakupov ('12) -- eventually could form Edmonton's top line of the future. Yakupov, 19, has an excellent chance to make an immediate impact this year, but perhaps an even bigger pick-up than the No. 1 overall pick was the signing of Justin Schultz, a 22-year-old blue- chip defensive prospect who became a free agent after failing to come to terms with the Anaheim Ducks. After a standout college career at Wisconsin, Schultz turned many heads during the lockout by amassing 48 points (18 goals, 30 assists) in 34 games with Oklahoma City of the AHL. During his stint this year in the AHL only Jordan Eberle, another one of Edmonton's highly-drafted forward prospects, had more points than Schultz. With nearly all of Edmonton's young talent sitting on the offensive side, Schultz has a chance to make an even bigger impact than Yakupov this season.
X-FACTOR: At 26 years of age, it remains to be seen if goaltender Devan Dubnyk has what it takes to be a No. 1 goaltender at the NHL level. The 2011-12 campaign was an inconsistent one for the Saskatchewan native, but his 20 wins, 47 games and 2.67 goals-against average all represented career-highs. However, after nearly splitting starts with veteran Nikolai Khabibulin last season, the No. 1 job is Dubnyk's for the taking this season. With plenty of talent up front, how well Dubnyk plays this season could determine whether the Oilers can challenge for a playoff spot or not.
PROGNOSIS: A shortened season could benefit this extremely young roster and for the first time in a while making the playoffs seems like a realistic possibility. Still, this club is a few years away from reaching its potential and even staying in playoff contention late into this season could be a huge confidence builder for the Oilers.
2011-12 - (3rd, 88 pts); Projected Finish - 4th
REVIEW: While not loaded with quite as many top-notch prospects as the Oilers, Colorado still has a roster sprinkled with dynamic, young players. Perhaps, the most intriguing of all is Gabriel Landeskog, who won the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie last season while keeping the Avalanche afloat in the playoff race longer than it had any business doing so. In the end, Colorado finished out of the postseason for the second straight season and for the fourth time in six years.
KEY ADDITION: The Avalanche lured P.A. Parenteau away from the New York Islanders with a four-year, $16 million contract that many experts thought was way too high a price to pay for a late-blooming forward. Parenteau, a ninth- round pick by Anaheim in 2001, spent several years in the AHL before coming into his own as one of John Tavares' linemates on Long Island. Having played in only 27 NHL games before his time with the Isles, Parenteau recorded 20 goals and 53 points with New York in 2010-11 and added 18 tallies and 67 points last season. Now it's up to Parenteau to prove he wasn't merely leeching off Tavares, who is considered one of the best young playmaking centers in the NHL.
X-FACTOR: Along with Landeskog, goaltender Semyon Varlamov's play down the stretch kept Colorado in the playoffs before losing six of its last seven games caused the Avs to finish seven points out of a postseason berth. All told, it was an up-and-down year for the former Washington Capitals netminder, but this year the 24-year-old needs to live up to the expectations that came when he was acquired by Colorado for a couple of draft picks, including a first-rounder in the 2012 draft. Backup Jean-Sebastien Giguere played well when Varlamov struggled last season, but there is no guarantee the 35-year-old veteran will be able to pick up the slack so effectively once again.
PROGNOSIS: For the Avalanche, this shortened season could wind up turning out a lot like 2011-12 did. Colorado has the early makings of a tremendous roster but there are still too many holes at both ends of the ice to make them a serious playoff contender. Expect Colorado to be in the mix for the postseason at first before falling short.
2011-12 - (2nd, 90 pts); Projected Finish - 5th
REVIEW: The Flames failed to qualify for the postseason once again in 2011-12, making it three straight years outside of the playoffs. The 90-point effort was also Calgary's eighth straight campaign with 90 or more points, so it's not like the team is devoid of talent either. That being said, new head coach Bob Hartley, who led Colorado to a Stanley Cup title in 2001, will need to work a minor miracle to get the down-trending Flames back to the postseason this year.
KEY ADDITION: In an effort to add some scoring punch via the back end, Flames GM Jay Feaster signed offensive defenseman Dennis Wideman to a five-year, $26.3 million contract prior to the lockout. Wideman has posted at least 10 goals and 35 points in four of the last five seasons and he recorded 11 markers and 46 points in 82 games for Washington in 2011-12. If he can keep up that level of production in Calgary, Wideman easily would become the Flames' best scoring weapon from the blueline.
X-FACTOR: Iginla is a future Hall of Fame player who's given his all to the Flames over the last decade and a half, but his days in Calgary may finally be numbered. Trade rumors involving Iginla, who turned 35 years old last summer, have been a common occurrence for several years now and if Calgary struggles early on this season it may be trigger his departure. Iginla could fetch a nice return on the trade market even if his 67 points last year marked his lowest total since also scoring 67 in 2005-06. With no fewer than 31 goals in each of his last 11 seasons, Iginla still is the best player Calgary has but it may be time to flip him in the interest of building for the future.
PROGNOSIS: Iginla and Kiprusoff are both over 35 years of age, so Calgary is headed for a rebuilding phase whether it's ready to admit it or not. The Flames are quickly losing ground on the rest of the Northwest Division and this season could represent a bottoming out for a franchise that hasn't won a playoff game since the spring of 2004.