Western Conference Previews

Western Conference Previews

NHL Western conference team previews: Northwest division
ASSOCIATED PRESS

NORTHWEST DIVISION

VANCOUVER CANUCKS


LAST SEASON: 49-26-7, 105 points. Lost to Anaheim 4-1 in conference semifinals.

COACH: Alain Vigneault, 2nd season; 6th overall, 158-148-42.

ADDED: RW Brad Isbister, D Aaron Miller, C Byron Ritchie, G Curtis Sanford, RW Ryan Shannon.

LOST: LW Jan Bulis, C Marc Chouinard, D Rory Fitzpatrick, C Josh Green, G Dany Sabourin, C Tommi Santala, C Bryan Smolinski, D Brent Sopel, D Yannick Tremblay.

PLAYER TO WATCH: G Roberto Luongo was more than advertised in his first season with Vancouver, smashing the team record with 47 wins and finishing as the runner-up to the Hart and Vezina Trophies. The Canucks' success this season will hinge on his performance.

ICING: The Canucks set team records with 49 wins and 105 points and helped Vigneault win the Jack Adams Trophy as top coach. Expectations in the Pacific Northwest are now high, but can the Canucks continue keep pace in the competitive Western Conference and challenge Anaheim, San Jose and Detroit for a spot in the Stanley Cup finals? ... Who will be on the line with Daniel and Henrik Sedin this season? Taylor Pyatt replaced Anson Carter on the right side last year and finished with 23 goals, but only 37 points. Pyatt could remain with the twins, or could be replaced by either newcomer Isbister, Matt Cooke or even 18-year veteran Trevor Linden. Daniel led the team in scoring with 84 points last season, three better than Henrik. ... The defensive corps is already banged up. Miller had abdominal surgery the day before training camp started, Sami Salo fractured his wrist in an intrasquad game, and Willie Mitchell has been resting a sore groin. The team is hoping Kevin Bieksa and Alexander Edler can continue their growth. ... Longtime captain Markus Naslund slumped to 60 points last season, his lowest since 1997-98, and is in the final year of his contract.


MINNESOTA WILD

LAST SEASON: 48-26-8, 104 points. Lost to Anaheim 4-1 in first round.

COACH: Jacques Lemaire, 8th season, 209-212-71; 14th overall, 456-371-140.

ADDED: C Eric Belanger, D Sean Hill, RW Petr Kalus, C Steve Kelly.

LOST: G Manny Fernandez, RW Adam Hall, C Wyatt Smith, C Todd White.

PLAYER TO WATCH: RW Marian Gaborik has yet to play a full NHL season, missing 34 more games with a groin injury, but changed his offseason training habits. When Gaborik played, the Wild went 33-8-6.

ICING: Minnesota set franchise records in wins and points last season and led the league with 191 goals against, but were outmuscled against a more physical Anaheim team that went on to win the Cup. The Wild got only two goals in 27 man-advantage opportunities against the Ducks after finishing with the sixth best unit during the regular season (19 percent). ... G Niklas Backstrom dominated in goal last season (23-8-6, 1.97 GAA), enabling the team to trade Fernandez to Boston over the summer. Backstrom gave up three goals or fewer in 38 of 41 appearances. ... Hill will miss the first 19 games of the regular season to finish his suspension for violating the league's drug policy during last season's playoffs. The 37-year-old Duluth native had 25 points in 81 games for the Islanders last season, while ranking third in the NHL in hits and sixth in blocked shots. ... Minnesota had six 20-goal scorers last season, paced by Brian Rolston's 31. Gaborik has 30 in four of five seasons.


CALGARY FLAMES

LAST SEASON: 43-29-10, 96 points. Lost to Detroit 4-2 in first round.

COACH: Mike Keenan, 1st season; 19th overall 584-491-147.

ADDED: D Adrian Aucoin, D Anders Eriksson, RW Owen Nolan, D Cory Sarich, C Grant Stevenson.

LOST: RW Tony Amonte, LW Jeff Friesen, D Roman Hamrlik, RW Darren McCarty, G Jamie McLennan, D Richie Regher, C Byron Ritchie, D Brad Stuart, D Andrei Zuyzin.

PLAYER TO WATCH: G Miikka Kiprusoff has won at least 40 games in each of his last two seasons, but his GAA rose to 2.46 in 2006-07 from 2.07 the previous campaign. The Flames do not have a proven backup among Brett Krahn and Curtis McElhinney, so the Flames could go as far as Kiprusoff takes them.

ICING: Keenan was brought in to light a fire under a team that appeared to tune out previous coach Jim Playfair, who remains on the coaching staff. But Keenan has a history of infighting with past team officials so his relationship with GM Darryl Sutter could bear watching. ... Four players reached the 70-point mark, with RW Jarome Iginla leading the way for the sixth straight season with 94. The club ranked seventh in the league last season with 3.11 goals per game. ... Nolan, 35, had 16 goals and 40 points during his comeback season with Phoenix in 2006-07. He hadn't played since injuring his right knee with Toronto in 2004.


COLORADO AVALANCHE

LAST SEASON: 44-31-7, 95 points. Out of playoffs.

COACH: Joel Quenneville, 2nd season, 87-61-16; 10th overall 393-269-95.

ADDED: D Scott Hannan, C Matt Hussey, D Jeff Jillson, D Dale Purinton, LW Ryan Smyth.

LOST: D Patrice Brisebois, D Ken Klee, LW Brett McLean, RW Mark Rycroft, C Pierre Turgeon, D Ossi Vaananen.

PLAYER TO WATCH: G Petr Budaj outplayed the enigmatic Jose Theodore to be the No. 1 goalie last season, but he has no playoff experience and has a tendency to give up bad goals.

ICING: The Avalanche, who missed the playoffs by a point last year, made a huge splash in the free agent market by adding Smyth to the third-best offense in the NHL in 2006-07, and the gritty Hannan to an offensive-minded defense. They will also help a penalty-killing unit that ranked tied for 23rd last season (80.2 percent). ... C Paul Stastny (28-50-78) was the runner-up for the Calder Trophy as top rookie last season. LW Wojtek Wolski (22-28-50) also impressed in his first year, giving the Avs another building block for the future. ... Last season, 37-year-old C Joe Sakic became the second-oldest player in NHL history to reach 100 points, joining Gordie Howe, who had 103 at age 40 in 1968-69.


EDMONTON OILERS

LAST SEASON: 32-43-7, 71 points. Out of playoffs.

COACH: Craig MacTavish, 7th season, 222-203-67.

ADDED: G Mathieu Caron, D Denis Grebeshkov, LW Dustin Penner, D Joni Pitkanen, D Allan Rourke, LW Geoff Sanderson, D Sheldon Souray, D Dick Tarnstrom

LOST: D Jan Hejda, RW Joffrey Lupul, G Jussi Markkanen, C Toby Petersen, D Jason Smith, RW Petr Sykora, D Daniel Tjarnqvist, LW Brad Winchester.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Anaheim declined to match Edmonton's five-year, $21.25 million offer sheet to Penner, who had 29 goals but only 16 assists last season.

ICING: GM Kevin Lowe had a tough offseason trying to rebuild a team that missed the playoffs one year after reaching Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals. He had a handshake deal with Michael Nylander before he signed with Washington days later and came under fire later in the summer for signing Buffalo's Thomas Vanek and Penner to expensive offer sheets. He eventually landed Souray, who reached career highs of 26 goals and 64 points last season, including 19 tallies on the power play, but also had a minus-28 rating. ... Tarnstrom returns after playing last season in Switzerland.

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Re: Western Conference Previews

NHL Western conference team previews: Central division
ASSOCIATED PRESS

CENTRAL DIVISION

DETROIT RED WINGS


LAST SEASON: 50-19-13, 113 points. Lost to Anaheim 4-2 in conference finals.

COACH: Mike Babcock, 3rd season 108-35-21; 4th overall, 177-111-40.

ADDED: C Carl Corazzini, C Mark Cullen, LW Dallas Drake, C Mark Hartigan, D Brian Rafalski.

LOST: RW Todd Bertuzzi, RW Darryl Bootland, LW Kyle Calder, C Matt Hussey, C Robert Lang, D Danny Markov, D Brad Norton, D Mathieu Schneider, D Dan Smith.

PLAYER TO WATCH: G Dominik Hasek finally avoided the groin injuries that have plagued him in recent seasons and posted solid numbers in only 56 games (38-11-6, 2.05 GAA). He turns 43 in January.

ICING: The Red Wings didn't miss a beat after Steve Yzerman's retirement and Brendan Shanahan's defection, tying Buffalo for the most points in the league last season while moving within two games of the Stanley Cup finals. The slow transition to the younger players will continue, but there are still enough battle-tested veterans in the mix to keep Detroit a top contender in the West. ... The Wings boast one of the top forward lines in the league in LW Henrik Zetterberg, C Pavel Datsyuk and RW Tomas Holmstrom, who combined for 90 goals and 207 points last season while carrying that production into the playoffs (19-38). ... D Chris Chelios is back for his 24th NHL season and ninth with Detroit. Chelios, who turns 46 in January, needs to appear in just two more playoff contests to surpass Patrick Roy for the most career postseason games in the NHL. ... LW Igor Grigorenko is attempting a comeback after his near-fatal car accident four years ago.


NASHVILLE PREDATORS

LAST SEASON: 51-23-8, 110 points. Lost to San Jose 4-1 in first round.

COACH: Barry Trotz, 9th season, 283-297-76.

ADDED: C Radek Bonk, D Greg de Vries, G Dan Ellis, LW Martin Gelinas, RW Josh Langfeld, RW Jed Ortmeyer, RW Shane Willis.

LOST: C Peter Forsberg, LW Scott Hartnell, LW Paul Kariya, D Kimmo Timonen, D Vitali Vishnevski, G Tomas Vokoun.

PLAYER TO WATCH: G Chris Mason inherits his first No. 1 goalie job after Vokoun was traded to Florida. Mason filled in during the 2006 playoffs and appeared in 40 games last season, recording 24 wins and a .925 save percentage.

ICING: The euphoria of the team's best season was marred by the uncertainty of the franchise's future and a fire sale that jettisoned several key members of the team. The Predators were close to moving to Hamilton, Ontario, but on Aug. 31, a local group that put down a $10 million nonrefundable deposit to buy the team for $193 million signed a deal that includes the purchase agreement with current owner Craig Leipold. ... Five of the top six defensemen are back from last season, with the gritty de Vries replacing the offensive-minded Timonen. ... The Predators scored a Western Conference-leading 272 goals last season. ... Nashville has lost to San Jose in the first round of the playoffs in each of the last two seasons.


ST. LOUIS BLUES

LAST SEASON: 34-35-13, 81 points. Out of playoffs.

COACH: Andy Murray, 2nd season, 27-18-9; 9th overall, 242-220-72.

ADDED: LW Paul Kariya, RW Keith Tkachuk, G Hannu Toivonen.

LOST: RW Dallas Drake, RW Radek Dvorak, C Glen Metropolit, RW Vladimir Orzagh, D Jamie Rivers, G Curtis Sanford.

PLAYER TO WATCH: D Erik Johnson, the first overall pick in the 2006 draft, will make his much-anticipated debut and is an early season Calder Trophy contender for top rookie. The 19-year-old Johnson decided to go pro after his freshman season at Minnesota, where he totaled four goals and 20 assists in 41 games.

ICING: The Blues were 7-17-4 when Mike Kitchen was fired and replaced by Murray, and they responded by climbing to third in the Central Division, one season after finishing last overall with 57 points. There is even more optimism with the signings of Kariya and Tkachuk, who is back after a brief stint with Atlanta. ... The defensive corps could be a solid group if it could stay healthy. Of the returning blue liners, only Eric Brewer appeared in more than 70 games. ... Special teams were a problem for St. Louis last season. It had the second worst power play at 12.1 percent and the fifth worst penalty-killing unit at 80 percent. ... G Manny Legace missed the last 21 games of the 2006-07 season with an injured right knee. The No. 1 job is still his, with former Bruin Toivonen and Jason Bacashihua battling for the backup spot.


COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

LAST SEASON: 33-42-7, 73 points. Out of playoffs.

COACH: Ken Hitchcock, 2nd season, 28-29-5; 13th overall, 436-278-105.

ADDED: D Sheldon Brookbank, C Jiri Novotny, C Michael Peca,

LOST: G Brian Boucher, D Bryan Berard, D Anders Eriksson, D Aaron Johnson, C Alexander Svitov,

PLAYER TO WATCH: Nikolai Zherdev continues to be an enigma after dropping from 27 goals in 2005-06 to 10 last season. Hitchcock is trying him as a first-line center between LW Rick Nash RW David Vyborny.

ICING: Scott Howson was hired as general manager in June, but his only major signing came in late August in Peca, who had four goals and had 11 assists in 35 games with the Maple Leafs before breaking his right leg in a collision last December. ... Svitov signed a two-year, $2.25 million contract with the Blue Jackets in early July, but has since remained in Russia to play for Avangard Omsk of the Russian Super League. ... Goaltending continues to be a question mark. Pascal Leclaire was limited to 24 games last season because of a knee injury and finished 6-12-2, but Frederik Norrena was a competent replacement with a 24-23-3 mark. ... The Blue Jackets are the only one of the 30 NHL teams to never play in the playoffs. ... C Sergei Fedorov and D Adam Foote may both be playing in their final seasons in 2007-08.


CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

LAST SEASON: 31-42-9, 71 points. Out of playoffs.

COACH: Denis Savard, 2nd season, 24-30-7 .

ADDED: D Jim Fahey, G Wade Flaherty, C Robert Lang, C Yanic Perreault, LW Sergei Samsonov, D Andrei Zyuzin.

LOST: RW Nikita Alexeev, C Denis Arkhipov, D Adrian Aucoin, RW Peter Bondra, D Jassen Cullimore, C Jeff Hamilton, C Michal Handzus, RW Mikael Holmqvist, LW Tony Salmelainen.

PLAYER TO WATCH: LW Sergei Samsonov disappointed during his one-year stint in Montreal and was a healthy scratch in the last 13 games after he questioned whether signing with the Canadiens was the right move. The Blackhawks need him to return to the form he showed early in his career with Boston and Edmonton.

ICING: The Blackhawks have missed the playoffs in eight of nine years, but the future continues to look bright with the arrival of C Jonathan Toews, the third overall pick in the 2006 draft, and possibly RW Jack Skille, the team's top selection in 2005. The 19-year-old Toews had 18 goals and 28 assists in 34 games at North Dakota and followed that with a two-goal, five-assist performance for Canada at this year's world junior championships. ... RW Martin Havlat missed 26 games with various injuries, but still led the team with 25 goals and 57 points. The lack of scoring depth caused the Hawks to plummet to 29th in the NHL at 2.38 goals per game. ... G Nikolai Khabibulin is 42-52-11 with a 3.06 GAA and .895 save percentage in his first two years with the Blackhawks. ... William Wirtz, the longtime owner of the Blackhawks, died on Sept. 26 at age 77.

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Re: Western Conference Previews

NHL Western conference team previews: Pacific division
By ASSOCIATED PRESS

PACIFIC DIVISION


ANAHEIM DUCKS

LAST SEASON: 48-20-24, 110 points. Won Stanley Cup 4-1 over Ottawa.

COACH: Randy Carlyle, 3rd season, 91-47-36.

ADDED: RW Todd Bertuzzi, D Shane Hnidy, RW Jason King, LW Dan LaCouture, C Mark Mowers, D Mathieu Schneider.

LOST: C Tim Brent, G Sebastien Caron, C Mark Hartigan, D Richard Jackman, RW Joe Motzko, LW Dustin Penner, C Ryan Shannon, RW Shawn Thornton.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Bertuzzi is on his third team in a little more than a year after injuries limited him to 15 regular-season games last season. The Ducks are hoping he can come close to the 46-goal scorer he was in 2002-03 to help offset the possible loss of RW Teemu Selanne.

ICING: Captain Scott Niedermayer and Selanne have yet to decide whether to return to the defending champs or retire. The Ducks signed Schneider to replace Niedermayer, but he will miss the start of the regular season after breaking a bone in the left ankle during his first preseason game. ... G Jean-Sebastien Giguere signed a 4-year, $24 million contract two weeks after the Cup clincher, leaving backup Ilya Bryzgalov (10-8-6, 2.47 GAA) as possible trade bait to fill other needs. ... There hasn't been a repeat Cup champion since Detroit in 1998. Carolina won it in 2006, but failed to make the playoffs the following season.


SAN JOSE SHARKS

LAST SEASON: 51-26-5, 107 points. Lost to Detroit 4-2 in conference semifinals.

COACH: Ron Wilson, 4th season, 157-111-35; 14th overall, 469-423-117.

ADDED: D Brad Norton, LW Jeremy Roenick, D Alexei Semenov.

LOST: LW Mark Bell, LW Bill Guerin, D Scott Hannan, G Vesa Toskala.

PLAYER TO WATCH: LW Jonathan Cheechoo went from a team-record 56 goals in 2005-06 to 37 with 69 points last season. Can Joe Thornton get him back to his form of two years ago?

ICING: For San Jose to be a serious contender in the West, it has to halt the current trend of strong regular seasons and second-round playoff disappointments. It surrendered a 2-1 series lead to the Red Wings last year after blowing a two games to none lead in a 2006 semifinal loss to Edmonton. ... G Evgeni Nabokov no longer has to look over his shoulder after Toskala was traded to Toronto during the offseason. But an injury to the former Calder Trophy winner could be disastrous with rookies Thomas Greiss and Dimitri Patzold as the only fallback options. ... The roster is set except for a sixth defenseman to replace Scott Hannan, who departed for Colorado over the summer. Some of the candidates include former Shark Sandis Ozolinsh, who is in camp on a tryout basis, free agents Norton and Semenov, and holdovers Doug Murray and Rob Davison.


DALLAS STARS

LAST SEASON: 50-25-7, 107 points. Lost to Vancouver 4-3 in first round.

COACH: Dave Tippett, 5th season, 190-97-41.

ADDED: LW Todd Fedoruk, LW Brad Winchester.

LOST: RW Matthew Barnaby, D Jon Klemm, C Eric Lindros, LW Ladislav Nagy, C Patrick Stefan, D Darryl Sydor.

PLAYER TO WATCH: C Mike Modano turned 37 in June and is showing signs of breaking down after missing 23 games with hip and groin injuries. His minutes may have to be reduced, but he's still the heart and soul of the team.

ICING: The Stars failed to land the premier scorer they needed to improve the league's 21st-ranked offense (2.65 GPG) from a year ago, so the team will again rely on their greatest strengths, defense and the goaltending of Marty Turco to get them back into the playoffs. But a fourth straight first-round exit or worse could finally cost Tippett and GM Doug Armstrong their jobs. ... Turco was stellar in last season's playoffs with a 1.30 GAA and .952 save percentage against the Canucks. But can he be a one-man show again if the team can't give him any offensive support? ... The Stars are 21-5 in shootouts over the past two seasons.


LOS ANGELES KINGS

LAST SEASON: 27-41-14, 68 points. Out of playoffs.

COACH: Marc Crawford, 2nd season, 69-76-17; 13th overall 438-342-125.

ADDED: LW Kyle Calder, C Michal Handzus, LW Ladislav Nagy, D Tom Preissing, D Brad Stuart.

LOST: G Mathieu Garon, D Jamie Heward, RW Tom Kostopolous, RW Jamie Lundmark, D Aaron Miller, D Mike Weaver.

PLAYER TO WATCH: D Jack Johnson, the third overall pick in the 2005 draft, will begin his first full NHL season and should benefit from a veteran-laden defense, including possible partner Rob Blake. Johnson was acquired from Carolina just before last season and had a five-game stint with the Kings.

ICING: Despite bolstering their scoring lines and defensive corps, the Kings could again have trouble making the playoffs because of their goaltending. Injury-prone Dan Cloutier was sent to the minors, Jason LaBarbera has yet to carry over his solid play from the AHL to the next level, and Jean-Sebastien Aubin is coming off a tough 20-game stint in Toronto. ... Los Angeles has a good young scoring nucleus in LW Michael Cammalleri (34-46-80), RW Alexander Frolov (35-36-71) and C Anze Kopitar (20-41-61). Cammalleri was rewarded with a two-year contract through arbitration.


PHOENIX COYOTES

LAST SEASON: 31-46-5, 67 points. Out of playoffs.

COACH: Wayne Gretzky, 2nd season, 69-85-10.

ADDED: G David Aebischer, G Alex Auld, RW Matt Murley, LW Tomas Surovy, LW Mike York,

LOST: G Curtis Joseph, RW Owen Nolan, C Mike Ricci, C Jeremy Roenick, C Dave Scatchard.

PLAYER TO WATCH: For Phoenix to be at least respectable, G David Aebischer has to regain the form he showed as a 32-game winner with Colorado in 2003-04.

ICING: The growing pains will likely continue for the Coyotes as they turn toward a youth movement rather than fill holes with veteran free agents like last season. Phoenix, coming off its worst season since moving from Winnipeg in 1996, has a new GM in Don Maloney, who helped transform the New York Rangers from a free-spending team to a grow-from-within bunch that has made the playoffs the past two seasons. ... Phoenix had the second-worst defense in the league last season, averaging 3.40 goals against. ... RW Shane Doan, C Steven Reinprecht and York are the only forwards on the roster to have 50-point seasons.

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Re: Western Conference Previews

2007-08 NHL Previews: Pacific Division
FOXSports.com

Anaheim Ducks

Even though it appears the Anaheim Ducks will be without Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne for the 2007-08 season, don't count the defending Stanley Cup champs out just yet.

Even though the two veterans were huge contributors to the Anaheim cause last season, the Ducks still have enough ammo in their artillery to repeat as Cup champions. Give GM Brian Burke lots of credit for not sitting by the phone waiting for answers from his two undecided superstars. Instead, Burke dialed up two other proven NHL players who were on the open market — Mathieu Schneider and Todd Bertuzzi. Burke signed the veterans just in case Niedermayer and Selanne did decide to end their careers on a high note.

Schneider should blend in just fine with a defensive corps that only gave up 198 goals in 82 games and contributed 196 points last season. The former Detroit backliner registered 52 points in 68 games last year for the Wings off 11 goals and 41 assists. That type of offensive production, along with his plus-12 rating from last year, should make Anaheim sleep a little better in the absence of Niedermayer's 69 regular season points and plus-6 ranking.

Replacing Selanne with Bertuzzi may be a little more of a reach. Selanne not only led all Ducks players in scoring last season, he also finished the memorable year ranked third in goals in the entire league. Bertuzzi, on the other hand, is coming off a forgettable year where back surgery cost him virtually all of the 2006-07 regular season. The 32-year-old winger only appeared in 15 regular season games with the Florida Panthers and Detroit Red Wings, posting a paltry 11 points off three goals and eight assists. Burke is hoping to catch lighting in a bottle with the once-feared power forward.

Burke is also hoping that a youngster like Bobby Ryan can replace the offensive production the team lost when Dustin Penner signed a restricted free-agent deal with the Edmonton Oilers. The Anaheim GM decided against matching the Oilers' steep five-year, $21.25 million offer sheet. Burke is hoping Penner's loss is Ryan's gain. Ryan was the second player chosen overall at the 2005 NHL Entry Draft behind Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby.

Jason King will also be given a chance during the year to show what he's got. The 26-year old, who was originally drafted by the Vancouver Canucks in the seventh round at the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, once scored 63 goals in 61 games playing for the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL.

One area up front where the Ducks have no questions is their third line. The trio of Rob Niedermayer, Travis Moen and Sammy Pahlsson proved last year that they are the best checking line in the business. In the 2007 postseason, they showed the entire hockey world just how good they are, displaying their ability to shut down opposing team's top lines, while also turning their defense into offense in the blink of an eye.

While the Ducks have some unanswered questions on their frontlines and backlines, there is no question heading into the season as to who their No. 1 goalie is. Jean-Sebastien Giguere signed a multi-year contract extension in June to remain in Anaheim. Giggy led the Ducks to the '07 Cup championship, netting a 13-4 record in the playoffs with a 1.97 GAA and .922 save percentage. Giguere played in 56 regular season games last year, registering a 36-10-8 record, 2.26 GAA and .918 save percentage. Heading into the year, Ilya Bryzgalov will be Giguere's backup, but don't be surprised if the club deals the talented backstop during the year, especially if the Bertuzzi experiment flops. Bryzgalov, who was 10-8-6 with a 2.47 GAA and .907 save percentage in 27 appearances last season, has all the tools to be a No. 1 goalie in the NHL.

Prediction: First place

San Jose Sharks

Even though the San Jose Sharks had their best regular season ever last year, the team could have been better — especially in the playoffs. When all was said and done, the Sharks finished in second in the well-stocked Pacific Division and entered the postseason as the fifth seed in the Western Conference. San Jose managed to upset the favored Nashville Predators in the first round of the playoffs, but bowed out in the next round against Detroit after holding a 2-1 series lead.

This year the Sharks are expected to not only challenge for the top spot in the Pacific, they are also expected to go deep into the playoffs — despite having a very young defense. On the backend, San Jose sports three very talented youngsters in Christian Ehrhoff (25), Matt Carle (23) and Marc-Edouard Vlasic (20), all of whom came into their own last year. Ehrhoff only missed one game during the regular season, finishing with 33 points off 10 goals and 23 assists and a plus-8 rating. Carle and Vlasic also put up decent numbers, combining for 67 points off 14 goals and 53 assists and a plus-22 rating. At the end of the season, the freshman backliners were voted onto the NHL's All-Rookie team, becoming the first two defenders from the same team to receive the honors since Vladimir Konstantinov and Nicklas Lidstrom did it for Detroit following the 1991-92 campaign.

The defense took a hit in the offseason when time-on-ice leader Scott Hannan signed with Colorado, but experienced blueliners like Kyle McLaren and Craig Rivet will still be around to eat up some of Hannan's minutes and provide the veteran leadership this club will need in its own end.

On offense, the Sharks have plenty of firepower. With players like Joe Thornton, Jonathan Cheechoo, Patrick Marleau and Milan Michalek on their roster, San Jose can keep up with anybody in the league. Last year, the Sharks scored the sixth-most goals in the league, averaging 3.12 goals-per-game.

Evgeni Nabokov will be back between the pipes trying to keep the opposition's goals-per-game average down. The team elected to ship Vesa Toskala to Toronto, paving the way for Nabokov to once again be the team's top puck-stopper. Nabokov finished the 2006-07 season with a 25-16-4 record to go along with his seven shutouts, 2.29 GAA and .914 save percentage. In 11 playoff games, Nabby was 6-5 with one shutout, a 2.23 GAA and a .920 save percentage. The pressure will be on Nabby to perform, especially in the postseason where the Sharks have been a huge disappointment in recent years. Nabokov will also feel the heat as San Jose has no safety net in goal like they had in recent years with Toskala. The backup duties will fall to either Thomas Greiss or Dimitri Patzold, two unproven 20-somethings.

Prediction: second place

Dallas Stars

While it's true that defense and goaltending wins Stanley Cups, don't tell that to the Dallas Stars. The team had a monster regular season, finishing with 107 points and 50 wins, while giving up the third fewest goals in the league. But the team couldn't score a lick last year. Dallas ended the regular season ranked 22nd on offense, and in the playoffs the squad continued to struggle to find the back of the net, scoring only 12 times on 240 shots in its first-round, seven-game ouster at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks.

The only good thing that came out of the Stars' first-round loss was that goaltender Marty Turco silenced the critics who said he couldn't win in the postseason. Turco was the only reason Dallas was able to push that series to the limit, as the goaltender recorded three shutouts, a minuscule 1.30 GAA and a rock solid .952 save percentage. During the regular season, Turco was also brilliant, picking up 38 wins in 67 appearances to go along with his six shutouts, 2.23 GAA and .910 save percentage. Expect Turco to once again be stellar in goal. The workhorse goalie may get a few more breathers this year after rookie Mike Smith proved last season that he was more than capable of spelling Turco in goal every now and then. Smith finished the 2006-07 season 12-5-2 in 23 games with three shutouts, a 2.23 GAA and a .912 save percentage.

One of the reasons the Stars struggled to score goals last year was because two of their best offensive players, Mike Modano and Brenden Morrow, missed a ton of action due to injuries. As a matter of fact, the injury bug hit the Stars quite hard overall last season, as the team lost over 300 man-games to injury. In limited action, Modano was still able to score over 20 goals last year, which bodes well for Dallas. What doesn't bode well is that Modano's best days are behind him. Dallas can't be relying on a 37-year-old to lead its offense.

The Stars need younger players to step it up if they are going to make some noise in the playoffs. Morrow has shown signs that he can carry some of that load, but a wrist injury caused him to play in only 40 games last year, where he netted 16 goals and 15 assists. Players like Mike Ribeiro, who led the team in scoring last season, Nicklas Hagman, Jussi Jokinen, Vojtech Polak, must chip in consistently this year on offense in order for the Stars to have success in the 2007-08 campaign. The team will also need veteran Jere Lehtinen, who led the team in goals last year, to contribute on a nightly basis.

The defense, which is led by veterans Sergei Zubov, Philippe Boucher and Mattias Norstrom, must also chip in on offense whenever possible. Zubov was the Stars most productive defender last year, contributing 54 points off 12 goals and 42 assists in 78 games. Boucher was no slouch either last season when it came to offense from the Dallas blueline, scoring 51 points in 76 games, including the third-most goals (19) in the league by a defenseman.

With plenty of options on the backline to choose from in Norstrom, Nolan Baumgartner, Stephane Robidas, Trevor Daley, Niklas Grossman, Mark Fistric, and Matt Niskanen, expect Dallas to deal from this strength during the season in order to add some more pop up front. If GM Doug Armstrong is able to bring in another proven scorer to this lineup, Dallas may be able to reach for the stars in the postseason.

Prediction: third place

Los Angeles Kings

Entering the 2007-08 season the Los Angles Kings have more questions than answers regarding how they will fare in the wild, wild West.

On offense, the team will once again look to a bunch of young forwards to lead the way. Michael Cammalleri led the team in scoring last year in L.A., recording 80 points off 34 goals and 46 assists. Alexander Frolov had the second-best offensive output, posting 71 points and a team-high 35 goals in 82 games. Teenage sensation Anze Kopitar was not only the third-leading scorer on the Kings last year, the then-19-year-old center also finished the 2006-07 season with the third-most points by a rookie, posting 61 points in 72 games. Winger Dustin Brown was the Kings' fourth-highest scoring frontliner, recording career highs in points (46), goals (17), assists (29) and power play tallies (13).

The question here is whether or not the Kings can expect the four players, who are all 25-years-old or younger, to improve upon last year's numbers. In order to improve upon its 20th-ranked offense from last season, Los Angeles will also need consistent production from veteran newcomers Ladislav Nagy, Kyle Calder and Michal Handzus.

The Kings will also need a better overall performance from Rob Blake. The hulking defenseman had an off year on both sides of the puck last season, failing to score 40 or more points for the first time in six seasons, while also finishing a minus-26, which is the second-worst output of his all-star career.

On the bright side on defense, Lubomir Visnovsky finished fourth on the team in scoring, netting a career-high 18 goals in 69 games and ending up on the plus side of things on a team that gave up the fourth-most goals in the league. L.A. should be better in their own end this coming season, as the team not only brought in a pair of young and talented free agent defensemen in Brad Stuart and Tom Preissing, it will also have 20-year-old Jack Johnson in their lineup. The Kings expect big things out of the third overall pick of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. They also will be looking for Blake to return to form.

L.A. will also need its goaltenders to be standout performers this coming year. Otherwise it will be another long, dark season under the bright lights of Hollywood. Before camp started, it looked like veteran Dan Cloutier, who was coming off an injury-riddled disappointing season, was going to battle Jason LaBarbera, who had 39 wins and the best GAA in the AHL last season. But before the end of training camp, the Kings assigned Cloutier to Manchester of the AHL, hoping the 31-year-old would find his game in the minors.

All signs point to LaBarbera opening up as the team's No. 1 backstop with Jean-Sebastien Aubin serving as his backup. The 30-year-old appeared in 20 games last year for the Toronto Maple Leafs, going 3-5-2 with a 3.43 GAA and a .876 save percentage.

Prediction: fourth place

Phoenix Coyotes

While the Phoenix Coyotes didn't make many moves in the offseason, one signing that will go a long way toward rebuilding the franchise was the hiring of Don Maloney as the team's new general manager. Before coming to the desert, Maloney made a name for himself serving as the vice president of player personnel and assistant general manager of the New York Rangers. Maloney played a key role in helping New York stockpile its organization with young talent, helping put an end to New York's free-spending ways and putting more emphasis on building through the draft. The hope in Phoenix is that Maloney can do the same thing with the floundering franchise.

"We're very excited to have Don Maloney assume this critical role with the Coyotes and working with us to create a winning tradition for Coyotes hockey," Phoenix Coyotes CEO Jeff Shumway said at a May press conference introducing Maloney as the team's new GM. "He has a great track record of building and developing young talent in organizations and his reputation is impeccable. We are looking forward to a bright future for the Phoenix Coyotes with Don Maloney as our general manager."

One of the first moves Maloney made was selecting Kyle Turris in the first round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft in Columbus, Ohio.

"We are elated to select Kyle Turris with the third overall pick," Maloney said at the draft. "He is a solid building block in the foundation of this franchise and we look forward to a great future for Kyle with the Coyotes."

While Maloney is going to try and make the future bright in Phoenix by adding young players like Turris to the franchise, the present isn't going to be fun to watch. The Coyotes are heading into the 2007-08 season knowing that the year is going to be a rebuilding one — meaning that the team is going to lose more than it wins. While Maloney and his head coach Wayne Gretzky don't like losing, the two are committed to turning the team over to their young players, which may look ugly at times this season, but should pay off nicely in the near future.

Fat-cat veterans like Jeremy Roenick, Curtis Joseph, Dave Scatchard and Owen Nolan were shown the door so the club could give more time to youngsters like Fredrik Sjostrom, Peter Mueller and Martin Hanzal. All three forwards are players that the organization used first-round draft picks on. Another youngster who will be given more room to improve is Bill Thomas. The 24-year-old played in 24 games last season, registering 14 points off eight goals and six assists. The offensive leader of this club should once again be Shane Doan. The 30-year-old was the top-point getter last season foe the Coyotes, netting 55 points off 27 goals and 28 assists. Phoenix is also hoping that Niko Kapanen, Steven Reinprecht and free-agent pickup Mike York have bounce-back seasons this year, which would take some pressure off the kids in the lineup.

Two other players who will be under a lot of pressure night-in and night-out in '07-08 will be the Coyotes' goaltenders Mikael Tellqvist and David Aebischer. Tellqvist got a taste last season of what to expect on a nightly basis in Phoenix after coming over from the Maple Leafs last November. Aebischer was signed in the offseason by Maloney, in hopes that the 29-year-old would re-find the form that saw him go 32-19-9 in 2003-04 with a 2.09 GAA, and .924 save percentage in 62 games with Colorado. Last season, Abby registered a 13-12-3 record in 32 appearances to go along with his 3.17 GAA, and .900 save percentage for Montreal. The Coyotes also signed Alex Auld to a one-year contract in August. Last year for Florida, the 26-year-old recorded a 7-13-5 record for the Panthers with a 3.34 GAA and a .888 save percentage in 27 appearances.

Believe it or not, even though the Phoenix defense gave up 282 goals last season and finished the year ranked 28th in that category, the backline isn't that bad. The blue line will be anchored by three veterans in Ed Jovanovski, Derek Morris and Nick Boynton. Youngsters like Keith Ballard, Zbynek Michalek, Brendan Bell, Keith Yandle and Matt Jones are the future of the club and should all get their minutes this coming season.

Prediction: fifth place

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2007-08 NHL Previews: Northwest Division
FOXSports.com 

Vancouver Canucks

With the Sedin twins up front, Roberto Luongo between the pipes and a solid defense, the Vancouver Canucks should have no problem repeating as the Northwest champs. But this team needs to get some more scoring from up and down the lineup if it wants to be taken seriously as a Cup contender.

Last year, Vancouver was adept at keeping the opposition off the board, finishing sixth in the league goals-against, but struggled mightily when it came to scoring goals. Most of their scoring came from the Sedins, with Daniel leading the way with 84 points off 36 goals and 48 assists, and Henrik right behind him with 81 points off 10 goals and 71 assists. The two spent most of the year playing on a line with Taylor Pyatt, who chipped in 23 goals and 14 assists in 76 games.

This season the Sedins should have a new linemate, as they prefer to skate with a right shot on their wing. In training camp, three youngsters — Jozef Balej, Ryan Shannon and Jannik Hansen — were being given a long look on the top line. In the early going, Hansen seemed to have the upper hand, but he broke his thumb in a preseason win over the Flames, taking him temporarily out of the mix. If neither Balej nor Shannon work out, Pyatt could slide back onto the top unit.

Two players who may very well determine how far the Canucks go this year are Markus Naslund and Brendan Morrison. The veterans seemed lost at times on the second line and wound up with subpar numbers at the end of the season. Naslund failed to score 30 or more goals for the first time in five seasons with his point total down 19 from the previous season, while Morrison's production was also down from the previous season with his plus/minus taking an even greater hit. The Canucks need that duo to return to form, which will take some pressure off the top line, while also giving the team another weapon on offense.

Getting some offensive production out of the defense will also go a long, long way. Two-way defensemen Kevin Bieksa and Sami Salo were Vancouver's top producers from the blue line last year. Bieksa registered 42 points off 12 goals and 30 assists, while Salo contributed 14 goals and 23 assists. The two were also solid in their own end, with Salo finishing the regular season a team-leading plus-21 and Bieksa netting a plus-1. Mattias Ohlund also chipped in on both ends of the ice, posting 11 goals and 20 assists in 77 games. Hulking defenders Willie Mitchell and Aaron Miller will provide snarl, space and solid D in Vancouver's end, keeping Luongo's crease clear, the opposition off-balance and rebounds under control.

No matter the situation or score, Luongo always seem under control. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound goaltender was everything the Canucks envisioned and more when they stole him away from the Florida Panthers last off-season. Luongo finished second in the league with 47 wins, fourth in save percentage with a .921 mark and sixth with a 2.29 GAA. In 76 games last year, Luongo faced at least 30 shots in 37 of those contests. In his first postseason, the netminder also stood on his head, advancing his team to the second round, and recording a superb 1.77 GAA and .941 save percentage in 12 games.

If the second line becomes the offensive threat it once was and players such as Matt Cooke (10G, 20A), Jan Bulis (12G, 11A), Ryan Kesler (6G, 10A) and whoever is flanking the Sedins clicks and contributes, the Canucks can be playing hockey in June this coming season.

Prediction: first place

Calgary Flames

The Calgary Flames were a team that had loads of talent last year, but no direction. Too many times last season the club failed to live up to its potential. So GM Darryl Sutter decided to make a bold move behind the bench, replacing last year's head coach Larry Playfair, who guided the Flames to a 43-win, 96-point season, with Mike Keenan. "Iron Mike" has been a consistent winner behind the bench wherever he's gone, ranking sixth all time in NHL wins (584 wins) behind only Scotty Bowman, Al Arbour, Dick Irvin, Pat Quinn, and Bryan Murray.

While the tumultuous coach has a history of rubbing players and management the wrong way, Keenan has also been known to get the best out of his players. As coach of the Rangers, Keenan got the best out of goaltender Mike Richter and defenseman Brian Leetch, two players who played huge roles in bringing the Cup to Broadway for the first time since 1940. During his coaching career, Keenan has also been responsible for getting players such as Ron Hextall, Ed Belfour, Jeremy Roenick, Chris Pronger, Ed Jovanovski, Roberto Luongo, Jay Bouwmeester and Olli Jokinen to perform on higher levels. Sutter is hoping that Keenan can work his magic and get the best seasons out of Calgary super stars such as Jarome Iginla, Alex Tanguay, Miikka Kiprusoff and Dion Phaneuf.

Calgary grossly underachieved last season after finishing the 2005-06 season as the top dog in the Northwest and the third seed in the West. In the 2006-07 campaign, the Flames finished in third in their division, barley qualifying for the postseason as the eighth seed. But it was almost a waste for Calgary to be in the playoffs, as the team got bounced for the second year in a row in the opening round. This is another reason Sutter wanted to make the change to Keenan. While working alongside him in Chicago, Sutter got to witness first-hand how Keenan operated during the playoffs. He remembered how the Blackhawks' bench boss rode his players all the way to the Cup Finals during the '91-92 season. Sutter is hoping Keenan can get the best out this underachieving bunch and lead Calgary back to the Finals for the first time since the 2003-04 season. In his stored coaching career, Keenan has coached his teams to the Stanley Cup Finals on four separate occasions, winning a title with the Rangers in the 1993-94 season. The former Jack Adams Trophy winner has a 160-91-69 (.569) record in the postseason.

Loaded with tons of offensive talent up front, a franchise goalie in Kiprusoff and a solid backline that sports the likes of Phaneuf, Robyn Reghr, Rhett Warrener, Adrian Aucoin, Cory Sarich, David Hale and Mark Giordano, the Flames should have no problem getting into the playoffs. It's what they do once they get there that Keenan has to fix. Stay tuned as more than one Flame will feel the heat from Keenan before the 2007-08 season is over. But no one will say boo if he leads the team down the Red Mile hoisting a Cup for all of hockey-mad Calgary to see. But if the Flames fizzle out just like they did under Playfair, then there may be some rumblings in the Saddledome. But what else is new in the hockey world under "Mad" Mike?

Prediction: second place:

Minnesota Wild

The Minnesota Wild had their best regular season ever last year, finishing with 48 wins and 104 points, which was one point off the pace in the highly competitive Northwest. But, believe it or not, the team didn't do it on defense alone.

Sure, in years past the Wild have had success playing head coach Jacques Lemaire's suffocating style of hockey, which stressed defense first at all costs. But last year, Minnesota added a new weapon to their arsenal — goal-scoring. And the team did it without abandoning their defensive responsibilities, which is the only way Lemaire would have it, anyway.

The Wild finished the 2006-07 season with eight players who scored 10 or more goals and five who potted 20 or more. The team also had seven players with 35 or more points and five with 50 or more points. Veteran Brian Rolston led the way on offense, scoring 64 points and a team-high 31 goals in 78 games. Explosive winger Pavol Demitra equaled Rolston's point total in only 71 games, notching a team-high 39 assists and 25 goals. If Marian Gaborik would have stayed healthy last year, he would have challenged Rolston and Demitra for the team scoring title. In only 48 games, Gaborik registered 30 goals and 57 points. Keeping him on the ice for the entire season is paramount for this club, as it will mean more goals and more wins for the franchise.

On the defensive side, Minny gave up the fewest goals in the league last season, only allowing the opposition to light the lamp 184 times. Goaltender Niklas Backstrom was one of the main reasons opponents couldn't find the back of Minnesota's net. The Finnish import finished the year 23-8-6 with a league-leading 1.97 GAA and a .929 save percentage. The 29-year-old rookie also recorded five shutouts in 41 appearances last season.

The club was also adept at limiting the opposition's chances, only allowing an average of 28.8 shots per game. Lemaire could mostly thank his steady group of defensemen for that. With veterans such as Keith Carney, Martin Skoula, Kim Johnsson and Sean Hill, who was added for over the summer, paired with youngsters such as Brent Burns, Kurtis Foster and Nick Schultz, the Wild have a defensive unit that can stand up to any offense in the league. The two-way corps also can kick in some offense to the Minnesota cause in a moment's notice, as evidenced by their 135 points and 22 goals as a unit last year.

What bodes well for this club is that most of their players from the '06-07 team are back for another crack at the Northwest title, and more importantly, a shot at winning a championship. The two biggest names lost from last season were goaltender Manny Fernandez, who the club dealt away to Boston and forward Todd White, who inked a free-agent deal with the Atlanta Thrashers.

By not winning their division last year, the Wild had unfortunate luck of meeting up with the Anaheim Ducks in the first round. Anaheim easily dispatched Minnesota in five games, only allowing nine goals against the entire series and man-handling the club every chance it got. So in order to address the need for more toughness Minnesota brought in Hill, but the team will have to wait a while before the rugged blueliner can have an impact, as Hill still has 19 games remaining on the 20-game suspension he received last year for violating the league's drug policy as a member of the New York Islanders. Hill tested positive for the anabolic steroid boldenone, which is a banned substance in the NHL. Once his suspension is over, Hill should have a tremendous impact on the Minnesota lineup, as he is a fearless hitter and noted shot-blocker. Last year, Hill ranked third in the NHL in hits and sixth in blocked shots.

The Wild also got pushed around in the faceoff circle all season long last year, so the club addressed that need in the off-season by bringing in Eric Belanger. The free agent center should be a great addition to the Minnesota lineup, as he not only won 53.1 percent of his faceoffs last year, he also netted 35 points off 17 goals and 18 assists while playing for Carolina and Atlanta.

Prediction: third place

Colorado Avalanche

Last year the Colorado Avalanche may have been denied entry into the postseason for the first tine since the 1995-96 season, but the club wasn't going to be denied the chance of bringing the missing pieces of their puzzle to Denver during the off-season. GM Francois Giguere surprised everyone around the league when he won the free-agent bidding war for gritty forward Ryan Smyth on the first day of free agency. Giguere also had division rivals shaking in their skates on July 1 when he plucked bruising backliner, Scott Hannan, off the free-agent market.

After seeing his team amass 95 points and not make the playoffs, Giguere knew something was missing from his club. He determined that his team needed more sandpaper players, who had the ability to play with an edge, but who also had the skills to keep up in the highly-competitive Northwest. So when the time came to sign free agents, Giguere zeroed in on Smyth and Hannan and got his men.

The fact that Smyth landed back in the Northwest wasn't a surprise, as everyone anticipated Smyth was going to go back to Edmonton, the team that made him the sixth overall selection at the 1994 Entry Draft. But Colorado shocked everyone by luring the highly-coveted forward away from the Oilers and the New York Islanders. The 6-1, 190-pound winger registered 36 goals and 68 points last season split between Edmonton and Long Island. Besides being a leader and tough-as-nails competitor, another reason Smyth was on everyone's wish list over the summer was because of his offensive skills. In his career, Smyth has netted 20 or more goals on eight occasions, including 30 or more four times and 36 in each of his last two seasons.

"Ryan is a proven, top-tier athlete in the NHL who will be an outstanding fit with our club's continued philosophy and goal of providing our fans with a dynamic and exciting product," Giguere said. "He's a player that exemplifies grit, determination and courage and will be among the future leaders of this franchise."

Hannan will also be expected to lead the Avs. The durable 28-year-old has the ability to pound the opposition into oblivion, while also chipping in on offense. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound defender, who has only missed only four games in his last three seasons, tied a career-high in points (24) last season, posting four goals and 20 assists in 79 games with the San Jose Sharks. Last year, Hannan also led the Sharks in ice-time (22:49) and blocked shots (140).

"We're excited about the addition of Scott to our defensive group," Giguere said. "He gives us an element of size and strength on our blueline as well as the flexibility to play him against the opposition's top players. He's a warrior-type athlete who plays the game with an edge that is unique."

But truth be told, the Avs already had an impressive array of talent up front before Smyth came along. Led by ageless wonder Joe Sakic, Colorado scored the most goals in the Western Conference last season. At 38, Sakic led the team in scoring with 100 points off 36 goals and 64 assists. With veterans like Milan Hejduk, Andrew Brunette, Tyler Arnason in the fold, combined with young guns like Paul Stastny, Wojtek Wolski and Marek Svatos, the Avs proved last season that they can score with anyone.

While the addition of Hannan definitely helps the defense, the backline is still a little too skill-heavy, with John-Michael Liles, Jordan Leopold, Jeff Jillson and Brett Clark usually thinking offense first. The hope there is that Hannan's play rubs off on his teammates.

The one key area the acquisitions of Smyth and Hannan won't help in is in goal. The play of the Colorado goaltenders may very well tell the story of whether or not the Avs qualify for the postseason — especially in a division that sports two of the game's best in Vancouver's Roberto Luongo and Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff. The Avalanche have two question marks between the pipes in Peter Budaj and Jose Theodore. At 25, Budaj is still an unproven commodity. He had a solid season in goal for the Avs last year, going 31-16-6 with a 2.68 GAA and a .905 save percentage, forcing the high-priced Theodore to be a spectator on most nights. On the evenings that Theodore did step between the iron, he was mostly unimpressive, going 13-15-1 in 33 games with a 3.26 GAA and a .891 save percentage. The hope there is that Budaj is for real and Theodore finds his A-game. If either one is the case, Colorado could be knock, knock, knocking on Vancouver's door.

Prediction: fourth place

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Edmonton Oilers

The Edmonton Oilers had a forgettable year both on and off the ice last season. One year after losing in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Finals, the Oilers found themselves struggling to compete, as the club was hit hard by the injury bug the entire season. The team lost 279 man-games due to injury or illness in 2006-07, forcing the club to debut 14 rookies during the year. At one sorry point, Edmonton had 11 regulars out of the lineup with some kind of health-related issue.

The injuries and inexperienced players were major contributors to Edmonton losing 43 games and finishing in dead last in the Northwest Division, 25 points shy of a playoff berth. Another reason the Oilers couldn't compete last season was because the team couldn't find the back of the net. Edmonton finished last in the league in goals scored, recording only 195 red-lighters in its 82 games. The 195 goals scored is the team's lowest total since the strike-shortened 1994-95 season. As a matter of fact, the Oilers had never scored fewer than 200 goals since entering the NHL in 1979-80.

GM Kevin Lowe tried to address his team's scoring needs at the draft and on the open market, but he had a hard go of it on both fronts. Lowe had three first-round draft picks in his pocket in June, but he couldn't pull off a deal for immediate scoring help that made sense, so he used all three picks on players — two forwards and a defenseman — who could help his team in the future.

On the free-agent front, Lowe had money to spend, but for a while no one to spend it on. According to the Oilers' website, one deal that Lowe had with free-agent Michael Nylander fell through when the center reneged on the deal and signed with Washington. Desperate to upgrade his club, Lowe made two offers for restricted free agents — an action that's risky business. When a team makes an offer to a restricted free agent, his former team has the right to match, as they still own his rights, or they can accept draft pick compensation based on the value of the offer sheet to the player.

Lowe's first offer sheet was to Buffalo's Thomas Vanek, the Sabres 23-year-old winger who potted 43 goals 41 assists last season. But Buffalo denied Lowe the opportunity to steal Vanek away from them by matching Edmonton's seven-year, $50 million contract. Lowe's next offer went out to Anaheim's Dustin Penner, and Edmonton — or should we say Penner — hit the jackpot when the Ducks refused to match the five-year, $21.25 million offer sheet.

In Penner, the Oilers got a hulking forward who notched a career-high 45 points off 29 goals and 16 assists in 82 games. The rookie ranked second on the Ducks last year in goals, eighth in points and fourth in power-play tallies (9). The 6-foot-4, 245-pound winger also set the franchise record for most points in one season by an Anaheim rookie and was amongst the NHL rookie leaders in points, goals, power-play goals, game-winning goals and shots. In the Ducks' Cup run, Penner contributed eight points off three goals and five assists in 21 games.

The Oilers also addressed some of their scoring needs by bringing in three offensively-gifted defensemen and one aging forward. Edmonton dealt forward Joffrey Lupul and defenseman Jason Smith to the Philadelphia Flyers for Joni Pitkanen, Geoff Sanderson and a 3rd round selection in 2009. In Pitkanen, Edmonton got a two-way defender who has ranked among the NHL's top 25 defensemen in scoring in each of the last two seasons. Last year for the Flyers the 24-year-old had 43 points in 77 games. In Sanderson, the Oilers get a grizzled veteran who knows how to put the puck in the net. Last year in Philly, the 35-year-old potted 11 goals and 18 assists in 58 games. In his 16-year career, Sanderson has recorded 687 points with 352 of those being goals.

Sheldon Souray, who was inked to a deal in late July, should bring Edmonton plenty of offense from his blue line post. The 6-foot-4, 227-pounder had 26 goals and 38 assists in 81 games with Montreal last season, leading the Canadiens in power-play goals with 19, while ranking second in goals and points (64). His 26 red-lighters and six game-winning goals were tops among all NHL defensemen last season.

Dick Tarnstrom returns to the Edmonton for another run after playing a season in Europe for HC Lugano of the Swiss Nationalliga. The 32-year-old defenseman first joined the Oilers during the 2005-06 season, when he was obtained from the Pittsburgh Penguins on January 26, 2006 in exchange for Cory Cross and Jani Rita. He was the first defenseman ever to lead the Pens in scoring, posting 52 points (16-36) in 80 games during the 2003-04 season. In 258 career NHL games over four seasons, the native of Sundbyberg, Sweden has 32 goals and 94 assists to his credit.

While Penner, Pitkanen, Sanderson, Souray and Tarnstrom should help the team score more goals than last season, it won't be enough for the Oilers to make any kind of run at a playoff post this coming year. The team will be able to keep the games close with the added scoring and the fact that they will have Dwayne Roloson (27-34-6, 2.75 GAA, .909 SV%) in net for another campaign, but when all is said and done, Edmonton will once again wind up at the bottom of the pile in the Northwest.

Prediction: fifth place

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NHL Season Previews: Central Division
FOXSports.com

Detroit Red Wings

For a half dozen seasons now, the Detroit Red Wings have been counted out of the Central Division race by the so-called experts before one game is even played, and all the club does every year is go out and finish in first place.

But who can blame the previewers? When you look at the Wings' lineup it looks more like a senior league roster than an NHL roster. Heading into the 2007-08 season, Detroit has nine players who are 34 or older, five who are 36 or older and two in their 40s. But year in and year out, the team finds the fountain of youth and manages to put up 100 points and qualify for the playoffs without fail.

A lot of the Red Wings' success can be attributed to the their captain Nicklas Lidstrom. The 37-year-old logs tons of minutes each year and chips in on both sides of the puck. Last year, Lidstrom scored 62 points in 80 games off 13 goals and 49 assists and was an astounding plus-40. The Swedish sensation also won his fifth Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman, becoming the first five-time winner since Ray Bourque.

Dominik Hasek was also another reason the Red Wings finished in first in the Central last season. The 42-year-old puck-stopper showed he still had the goods to be one of the game's best, finishing 38-11-6 with a 2.05 GAA, eight shutouts and a .913 save percentage in 56 games. His 34-year-old backup, Chris Osgood, also had a solid season, going 11-3-6 with a 2.38 GAA and a .907 save percentage. The duo should be among the league's best again in 2007-08.

At 45, Chris Chelios is an anomaly. Year-after-year he shows up and competes at a high level. While he's not the offensive player he once was in his younger days, he is still a force on the defensive side of the puck. Last year, he averaged a little over 18 minutes a game for Detroit in 71 games, finishing the year with 11 points and a plus-11 rating. In the postseason, he was also a force, finishing a plus-7 in 18 games while contributing one goal and six assists.

Age hasn't slowed down Tomas Holmstrom (34), Kris Draper (36) or Kirk Maltby (34) either. Holmstrom was Detroit's second-leading goal-scorer (30) last year and fourth-leading point-producer (52). Draper chipped in 14 goals and 15 assists, while Maltby contributed 11 points off six goals and five assists. Look for key contributions from free-agent acquisitions, Dallas Drake and Brian Rafalski also. At 38, Drake proved last year that he still has something left in the tank, posting 12 points in 60 games for the St. Louis Blues. At 34, Rafalski will be a force for years to come in Detroit, as he has the skills to thwart an offensive attack, while also having the ability to light up the opposition in a moment's notice. Last year for the defensive-minded Devils, Rafalski put up a career-best 55 points in 82 games.

But the Red Wings aren't all old and crusty. The team also has a lot of young talent — especially up front, where Pavel Datsyuk (29) and Henrik Zetterberg (26) earn their living. Datsyuk led the club in scoring last year with 87 points in 79 games, while Zetterberg led the team in goals with 33 in only 63 games. The team is expecting good things out of youngsters Valtteri Filppula, Igor Grigorenko, Tomas Kopecky and Jiri Hudler. On defense, the future is now for 26-year-old Niklas Kronwall, who really made his presence and value known last season when posted 22 points in 68 games in just over 20 minutes of icetime per game.

Prediction: first place

Nashville Predators

Last year was a dream season in Nashville, as the Predators did everything right except win in the playoffs. But this year has all the makings of a nightmare. Not only is the future of the franchise staying put in the Music City up in the air, but the club is also a very different one from the one that won a team-record 51 games last year and put up 110 points.

The Preds had more hurtful losses off the ice this summer than the team had on the ice all last year, losing impact players such as Paul Kariya, Peter Forsberg, Tomas Vokoun, Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen. Kariya took his 24 goals and 76 points to St. Louis, where he inked a free-agent deal with the Blues. The club couldn't afford to make Forsberg an offer with the sale of the team up-in-the air, even though it's highly unlikely Forsberg will play in the NHL this season. Vokoun, Hartnell and Timonen were all salary dumps. Vokoun was traded to the Florida Panthers for three draft picks, including a first-round pick in 2008, while Hartnell and Timonen were unloaded to the Philadelphia Flyers for the first-round draft pick Philly acquired from the Preds in the trade-deadline deal last season involving Forsberg.

Losing those players is definitely going to hurt Nashville this coming season, as the club will have to find a way to make up 61 goals and 183 points. The Preds signed Martin Gelinas and Radek Bonk to free-agent deals over the summer, hoping the veteran scorers could help the team make up some of the offense it lost. Gelinas had 44 points with the Florida Panthers last season, netting 14 goals and 30 assists in 82 games, while Bonk had 13 goals and 10 assists last year for the Montreal Canadiens.

The franchise will also be holding its breath that Chris Mason is the real deal in goal. Mason was 24-11-4 in 40 games last year with five shutouts, a 2.38 GAA and a .925 save percentage, but the 31-year-old has never had the pressure of being an NHL's team's No, 1 goalie for an entire season. Only time will tell if this squad is going to miss Vokoun and his veteran presence — never mind his 134 career wins — between the pipes. If Mason falters it will be disastrous, as the Preds have no proven backstop behind him.

While the Predators may not come close to the club record 272 goals the team scored last season, it still has some firepower on its roster in Steve Sullivan, Jason Arnott, Martin Erat, J.P. Dumont, David Legwand and Alexander Radulov. Dumont was second on the club last year in scoring behind Kariya, recording 66 points off 21 goals and 45 assists. Arnott and Legwand finished last season tied for the club lead in goals with 27, while Sullivan chipped in with 60 points and Erat 57. The Preds won't get any production from Sullivan for the first few months of the season, as the forward underwent back surgery in August and was expected to miss three months. Radulov picked up 18 goals and 19 assists last year as a rookie. He needs to avoid a sophomore slump, especially early in the year with Sullivan out of the lineup.

The one area the Preds don't have to worry about is their defense. With youngsters like Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, and Dan Hamhuis patrolling the backline, the Preds are going to be hard to score against for years to come. The trio also has the ability to chip in on offense, which will go a long way this season in Nashville. Throw Greg de Vries, Marek Zidlicky, Greg Zanon and Ville Koistinen into that mix, and you have the makings of one of the NHL's top backlines.

Prediction: second place

St. Louis Blues

The St. Louis Blues have a lot of questions that will be answered during the 2007-08 season. If they get good news during the year, then the team should contend for one of the eight playoff spots in the West. If they don't, hockey fans in St. Louis will undoubtedly be singing the blues once again.

One of the biggest question marks going in is whether or not the team has bought into Andy Murray's system. The arrival of the new head coach turned the team's season around last year, as St. Louis went 28-17-9 under the former L.A. Kings bench boss. The team can't come out of the gate like it did last season and lose seven of its first 10 games. The Blues need to start off strong and keep up that pace if they are serious about making some noise in the Central. Getting into an early hole will only spell trouble for this club in the up-and-coming division.

High-priced veterans like Paul Kariya, Keith Tkachuk, Doug Weight, Martin Rucinsky, Dan Hinote, Jay McKee and Manny Legace must all get off to fast starts. Kariya sent a buzz through the city that hasn't been there in quite some time when he inked a free-agent deal over the summer. He'll keep that buzz going as long as he lives up to his contract and provides the same offense he brought to the Nashville Predators last season, when he led the team in scoring with 76 points in 82 games.

Tkachuk also opened some eyes when he returned to the team that dealt him away to the first-place Atlanta Thrashers last season. The veteran center, who recorded 27 goals and 31 assists last season, needs create space out there for his linemates, as well as put the puck in the net when he has the opportunity. Like he's done his entire career, Weight must use his skills and veteran know-how to jumpstart an offense that was ranked 26th in the league last season. The Michigan native led the team in scoring with 59 points in 82 games. Weight also finished the season a plus-10, which is very impressive with St. Louis ending in the bottom half of goals-against last season.

Rucinsky must prove he wasn't a bust signing last year. The four-time 20-goal scorer only appeared in 52 games for St. Louis last year, registering a disappointing 12 goals and 21 assists. Rucinsky must stay healthy this year and contribute on a nightly basis. Hinote is another player the Blues need healthy. The tenacious forward, who provides grit and energy to the lineup, missed the last 38 games of the season with a shoulder injury that required surgery.

In the defensive zone, the presence of McKee and Legace are huge. McKee only appeared in 23 games last year for the Blues after inking a four-year, $16 million contract. McKee is a hard-nosed defender, who is one of the best shot-blockers in the game. Having him in the lineup on a nightly basis will be important for the club in terms of wins and losses and also in terms of the development of one of the Blues' top prospects, Erik Johnson. The No. 1 overall pick of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft will be on the St. Louis roster this coming season. It will be up to McKee and Co. to show him the ropes and make him feel comfortable.

Unfortunately, Johnson will have to wait on getting in-game advice from McKee will be out four to six weeks after fracturing his right foot in a preseason game against Minnesota. But Johnson won't have any trouble finding veteran help, as St. Louis has assembled one of the most-talented blue lines in the business with Barret Jackman, Christian Backman, Eric Brewer, Bryce Salvador, Matt Walker and Jeff Woywitka in the fold.

The Blues have one of the most talented backstops in Legace. Before under-going season-ending knee surgery last February, Legace was on a roll, riding a 12-3-1 streak in his previous 16 games. He finished the year 23-15-5 record with five shutouts, a 2.59 GAA and a .907 save percentage. Over the past two seasons with Detroit and St. Louis, Legace is a combined 60-23-8 with 12 shutouts.

The Blues have some youngsters — like Lee Stempniak, Brad Boyes, David Backes, and Jay McClement — in their lineup who are going to play very important roles this season. Stempniak had an impressive sophomore campaign last year, scoring a team-leading 27 goals, while also picking up 25 assists. Boyes, on the other hand, slipped in his production, only scoring 17 goals and 29 assists in 81 games split between Boston and St. Louis. He needs to regain the form that saw him score 29 goals and 43 assists for the Bruins in the 2005-06 season.

McClement, who was the 57th overall pick of the 2001 Entry Draft, needs step up his play this coming season. As far as production goes, he's on the right track, as he finished last season nine points better than his rookie season. In his first season in St. Louis, Backes impressed. The 6-foot-3 center scored 10 goals and 13 assists in 49 games, including two power play tallies and two game-winners.

If the kids progress to the next level, and the Blues' high-priced veterans stay healthy and live up to their lucrative contracts, the Blues could battle for their first postseason berth since 2004.

Prediction: third place

Chicago Blackhawks

The Chicago Blackhawks just may come back to life in the Central this season. After finishing last in their division two of the last three seasons — including last year — GM Dale Tallon and head coach Denis Savard have the club moving in the right direction.

Tallon is sticking to his plan to rebuild this club from within, and so far he's done a great job. When the season opens up Oct. 4 in Minnesota, the 'Hawks should have six of their latest first-round draft picks — Patrick Kane (2007), Jonathan Toews (2006), Jack Skille (2005), Cam Barker (2004), Brent Seabrook (2003) and Tuomo Ruutu (2001) — in the lineup. Add to that Keith Duncan who was taken with the 54th pick overall in 2002 and David Bolland, who went 32nd overall in 2004 and you can see why the future looks so bright in Chicago.

Savard is another reason why this franchise is back on the rise. The Hall of Fame player-turned-coach made an immediate impact on the club last year after taking over for Trent Yawney, guiding the team to wins in his first three games behind the bench. Savard finished with a 24-30-7 record in 61 games last season. This year, he should drastically improve on those numbers and get Chicago out of the Central's basement, as he has way more talent on this club as compared to last year.

Aside from the kids, the Blackhawks also have several veterans on their roster who can make a difference. A healthy Martin Havlat will go a long, long way in 2007-08. Despite only playing in 56 games, the 26-year-old still led the 'Hawks in scoring, recording 57 points off 25 goals and 32 assists. Martin Lapointe's touch, especially on the power play will be welcomed back. The 34-year-old had 13 goals last year, five of which came with the extra man. Tallon added experienced frontliners Yanic Perreault, Robert Lang, Sergei Samsonov and Kevyn Adams over the summer, hoping the vets would help ease the youngsters' transition, while also helping the club get back on track in the West.

One of the quickest ways for this team to get back on track is to cut down on its goals against. Chicago ranked 23rd in that department last year, giving up over three goals a game. The inexperience of the backline and injuries to Jim Vandermeer and James Wisniewski played a role in the 'Hawks giving up so many goals.

The average play of Nikolai Khabibulin and Patrick Lalime in goal was another reason teams toasted Chicago in its own end last season. Khabibulin finished the year 25-26-5 in 60 games with one shutout, a 2.86 goals-against average and a 902 save percentage, while Lalime went 4-6-1 in 12 games with a 3.07 GAA and a .896 save percentage.

In order to get back on track, the Blackhawks will need solid play from their veteran netminders and defense, consistent scoring from their veteran forwards and nightly contributions from their youngsters. It will be interesting to see how Kane, Toews and Skille respond to their opportunities. If the kids blend in right away there's no reason why this club can't put up 80-85 points, which would be nice improvement on last year's 71.

Prediction: fourth place

Columbus Blue Jackets

With a new regime in place, there is renewed optimism in Columbus that the Blue Jackets are finally going in the right direction. It all started last season when the team hired Ken Hitchcock as its head coach. The taskmaster took his new and mostly-young squad to task right away, steering the club to a 28-29-5 record in 62 games. While that may not seem like anything to get excited about, take into consideration that Columbus had only won five of its first 20 games before Hitchcock came onto the scene.

The other significant move the Blue Jackets made was bringing in Scott Howson as their new GM. Howson made a name for himself with the Edmonton Oilers, where as the team's assistant general manager for six years he helped rebuild the club through the draft and savvy transactions. During his time as Kevin Lowe's understudy, Edmonton had five straight winning seasons, averaging 37 wins and 89 points per campaign, and topping 90 points four times. Howson also had a hand in helping Edmonton advance to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006.

Howson will be looking to do some of the same things with Columbus, where he already has a good base of young players at his disposal. It all starts up front for the Jackets, where Rick Nash earns his paycheck. The 23-year-old led the team in goals last year for the third consecutive season, posting 27 red-lighters in 75 games. But more importantly, under Hitchcock's tutelage, Nash became a better-rounded player by the end of the 2006-07 season, which should go a long way in helping turn this franchise around.

Another player who can almost single-handedly help turn the team around is defenseman Rostislav Klesla. The fourth overall pick from the 2000 draft has shown flashes of brilliance in his six years in the league, but he hasn't taken his game to the next level yet. He needs to contribute some more on offense and get his plus/minus down. Last year, Klesla chipped in 22 points and was a minus-13 in 75 games.

Columbus also needs another first-rounder, Pascal Leclaire, to come into his own. So far the No. 8 pick from the 2001 Entry Draft has been a huge disappointment, only winning 17 games in 59 career appearances. Last season, Leclaire only posted six wins in 24 games, registering a 2.97 GAA and a .897 save percentage. While an injury cut his season short last year, he may have very well sat on the bench on most nights anyway, as 33-year-old Fredrik Norrena had a solid season between the pipes for the Blue Jackets, going 24-23-3 in 55 games with three shutouts, a 2.78 GAA and a .904 save percentage. If Leclaire wants the No. 1 job this year, he'll have to wrestle it from Norrena.

While Nash, Klesla and Leclaire will all have a say in how fast this franchise becomes a contender in the West, they aren't alone in their mission. Up front the Jackets also have youngsters like Nikolai Zherdev, Gilbert Brule, Dan Fritsche, Kris Beech and Derek MacKenzie who have to pull their weight. Alexander Svitov would have also been in that group, but the 24-year-old forward decided to play for Avangard Omsk of the Russian Super League this season, so Columbus suspended the center.

On the backline, the Jackets have Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, Sheldon Brookbank, Ron Hainsey, Marc Methot and Kris Russell who will all be given their chances to grow and shine. On the nights that the inexperienced defenders make mistakes, team captain Adam Foote will be there to pick them up.

The Jackets will also look to veterans like Sergei Fedorov, Michael Peca, David Vyborny, Fredrik Modin, Manny Malhotra, and Jason Chimera to do their part if the club is to make up any ground in the Central this coming season. The guess here is that the Jackets will improve on their point total from last year, but will finish the year in the division's basement.

Prediction: fifth place

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