The Vancouver Canucks have owned the Northwest Division for four years in a row now. In most of those years Vancouver has barely been pushed and has wrapped up the division around new year’s day and has been able to coast their way to the playoffs.
The closest push they’ve had in the Northwest was the 2008-2009 season when they edged out the Calgary Flames by two points for the division title. Since then it has not been close. On paper, right now, before the season has started they are the favorites to win their fifth straight Northwest Division title.
Winning the division has meant the Canucks have not had to start a playoff series on the road, which is a definite advantage. Many critics have pointed to the relatively ‘easy’ division record as a main reason for Vancouver’s success.
How much longer will they have the luxury of beating up on the Northwest Division?
Vancouver has made it a point to try and get younger players this off season. Their core of the Sedins, Kesler, Burrows and Bieksa are still in their prime and will still contend but they are drawing closer to the start of the downhill portion of their careers.
Clearly they are looking to keep up with their younger division rivals and contend while infusing the roster with youth.
General Manager Mike Gillis has made some moves to get younger, including getting Zack Kassian last year and making the move to have Cory Schneider take over as the number one goalie. The general consensus is that he is looking for young players in any deal involving Roberto Luongo.
Just how close are their competiors?
When the Minnesota Wild broke the bank and signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter this off-season it would be understandable to over-react and say they are now the favorites in the Northwest.
Those signings were huge for Minnesota but does it put them ahead of Vancouver?
Last year the Wild burst out of the gate, well maybe ‘burst’ is too strong of a word as they won games despite being out-shot, out-chanced and lost the puck possession game each night. That disparity finally caught up with the Wild and they quickly sunk in the standings, ending up fourth in the Northwest.
Parise and Suter will help the Wild but Parise benefited last year from spending most of his ice time with Ilya Kovalchuk and the Wild do not have a player of that caliber on their roster to play with him. Until the Wild can build the team around their two new pieces they will still be a border-line playoff team.
The Wild do have a stacked set of prospects in their system but are still a couple of years away from laying claim to the Northwest Division. Vancouver will have to start to develop some younger players if they want to stay ahead of the Wild in the next two to three years.
The Edmonton Oilers have been stock piling young players. Having the top pick in the NHL Draft three years in a row has certainly helped them in that regard. They are building up a fast, young and exciting core of Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and last year’s top pick Nail Yakupov. Could they catch fire and overtake Vancouver?
The Oilers are headed in the right direction but they are still too young and still lack a consistent back end. Their defense was so suspect that there was rampant speculation that they would pass on Yakupov and select defenseman Ryan Murray with the top pick of the draft.
They went with Yakupov anyway and bolstered their back end by winning the stiff competition for Wisconsin defenseman Justin Schultz. Schultz should be a good one but he has yet to skate in an NHL game and hardly can be counted on to solve the Oilers back end issues. So while the Oilers will be fun to watch this year, they to are several years away from pushing the Canucks.
The Oilers Alberta brothers, the Calgary Flames, are an interesting team. With a somewhat aging core, they continue to resist a rebuild and keep spending money as if they are contenders. This off season they opened the bank and gave defenseman Dennis Wideman a five-year $26.25 million deal. That’s a lot for an above average defenseman and certainly is not a move that will scare Vancouver.
The Flames are closer to bottoming out then they are taking over the Northwest Division and with Jarome Ignila getting a year older and relying on an aging Miikka Kiprusoff the Flames could be in for a long year.
The team that is the closest to pushing Vancouver in the division is the Colorado Avalanche. Colorado has a core that is young, experienced and despite being dominated by Vancouver head-to-head last year, are a team on the come. Last year’s rookie sensation
was recently named captain and could become the best player in the division very quickly.
Landeskog is not alone however. The Avalanche have him surrounded with other young players like Matt Duchene, Paul Stastny and Ryan O’Reilly. They have a solid blue line and are back-stopped by Semyon Varlamov. The hockey community snickered when Colorado gave up the farm to bring Varlamov in from Washington but the goalie was excellent last year posting a 2.48 goals against average and a .915 save percentage.
The Avalanche are the closest division rival to the Canucks. They will be smarting from their struggles against Vancouver last year and will want to make a statement. Of all the Northwest teams, Colorado has the best chance to take the division title away from Vancouver in the next year or two.
Vancouver and Colorado used to have an intense rivalry before the Todd Bertuzzi incident. It will be fun to see if some of that, minus the cheap shots, can be rekindled with a stronger Avalanche club. The competition might even be good for Vancouver who seemed disinterested going down the stretch last year and were quickly bounced from the playoffs.