As the Vancouver Canucks approach the 2012 NHL Draft, they are in a far different position than their Northwest Division rivals.
The Canucks were the only Northwest team to qualify for the playoffs this season. They won the Presidents' Trophy as the top regular-season team for the second straight year before being upset in the opening round by Los Angeles. Vancouver is solid at both ends of the ice and has almost all of its key players under contract and in their prime.
The Edmonton Oilers, Minnesota Wild, Calgary Flames and Colorado Avalanche are playing catch-up. And in the case of everyone but the Avs, they're hoping to get some quick help when the selection process begins June 22 at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
The Oilers will pick first, the Wild are seventh, and the Flames have the 14th choice. Colorado traded its first-rounder last year and won't pick until well into the second round.
Here's a look at the five Northwest Division teams as they prepare for the draft:
(No. 1 overall)
For the third year in a row, the Oilers own the first pick. They earned the first two by finishing last in the overall standings then winning the lottery; this year, they moved up one spot by winning it again.
It's been a long, slow rebuild for the Oilers, who haven't made the playoffs since coming within one victory of winning the Stanley Cup in 2006. They've been adding young talent up front, but there are still huge question marks on defense and in goal, as well as a vacancy behind the bench that was created when coach Tom Renney was let go.
Strengths: The previous two drafts brought in a pair of premier offensive talents: forwards Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Each stepped right into the lineup after being selected with the No. 1 pick. Jordan Eberle (a 2008 first-rounder) turned into a 34-goal, 76-point scorer this past season and is just 22 years old. There's plenty of youth and speed up front.
Weaknesses: The Oilers have struggled on the blue line for the past few years; they're hoping Swedish rookie Oscar Klefbom, the 19th player taken in last year's draft, will help after signing an entry-level deal. The Oilers also have to decide if goalie Devan Dubnyk (20-20-3, 2.67 GAA, .914 save percentage), a restricted free agent, is the real deal.
Biggest need: Edmonton has lacked an elite-level puck mover on the blue line for several years; there are several good defensemen available in the draft, but they're not regarded by most as the kind of players worthy of being picked No. 1. If the Oilers really want a defenseman, they could trade down and pick up additional assets. Goaltending is also a question; the Oilers are owe another year to veteran Nikolai Khabibulin, who turns 40 in January.
(No. 7 overall)
The Wild were the NHL's best team through the first third of the season before finishing 12th in the West and missing the playoffs for the fourth straight year. Even finishing that high took a lot of work: Minnesota went to a shootout in 20 of its 82 games (winning 11), matching the highest single-season total in League history. The problem was offense: With 166 non-shootout goals, the Wild were easily the lowest-scoring team in the NHL.
Strengths: Niklas Backstrom is still a solid starter in goal, and rookie Matt Hackett looks like he's ready for an NHL job. Captain Mikko Koivu and veteran Matt Cullen are solid in the middle, and the addition of rookie Mikael Granlund could provide the game-breaker the Wild desperately need. Cal Clutterbuck is among the NHL's leading hitters and has developed an offensive game.
Weaknesses: The trades that brought in two-time 50-goal scorer Dany Heatley and sniper Devin Setoguchi from San Jose last summer didn't work out as planned; each struggled in his first season in Minnesota. Injuries also were a problem up and down the roster, exposing a lack of depth. There's no sign of an elite puck-mover on the blue line, and as a group, the defense is neither exceptionally big nor skilled.
Biggest need: Besides better health, the Wild need at least one top-six forward, a checking forward who can contribute offensively, and a couple of solid defensemen who can move the puck. They also need to decide if Hackett is ready for a full-time NHL role; if not, general manager Chuck Fletcher will have to decide whether to try to keep Josh Harding or find a replacement on the free-agent market.
(No. 14 overall)
The Flames have followed the same script for the past three seasons: They're always just good enough to miss the playoffs but not bad enough to get a really high draft pick. Calgary's 90 points were merely good enough to be the best non-playoff team in the League. The Flames have been 10th, 10th and ninth in the West since their last trip to the postseason in 2009; they haven't won a playoff series since 2004. GM Jay Feaster didn't renew the contract of coach Brent Sutter and hired Bob Hartley to replace him.
Strengths: The two players who carried the Flames within one win of the Stanley Cup eight years ago -- captain Jarome Iginla and goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff -- are still Calgary's best players and among the NHL's better players at their positions. Iginla has scored 30 or more goals for 11 straight seasons, but his 67 points in 2011-12 were the fewest he's had in one season since 1999-2000. Kiprusoff has played 70 or more games in seven straight seasons; his .921 save percentage was his best since '05-06.
Weaknesses: There's not a lot of young talent here. Since 2005, no first-round pick has been an impact player. They hope 2011 first-rounder Sven Baertschi, who impressed in a call-up last season, will break that streak. There's not a lot of secondary scoring, the defense is pedestrian, and the lack of a competent backup goaltender means Kiprusoff carries one of the biggest workloads in the NHL.
Biggest need: In the long term, the Flames must start looking for replacements for Iginla and Kiprusoff; each will start the season as a 35-year-old. Calgary needs an injection of young talent; they took a hit when 2009 first-rounder Tim Erixon wouldn't sign and was traded to the Rangers last summer and are still looking for a top-four defenseman. Finding immediate help with the 14th pick in the first round won't be easy.
(No. 26 overall)
2012 NHL DRAFT
The best-ever draft picks, from 1 to 30By John Kreiser - NHL.com Columnist
Who was the best-ever No. 1 draft pick? What about the best fourth pick? Or the 18th? NHL.com weighs in with our opinion of the best ever, No. 1 to No. 30. READ MORE ›
The Canucks entered the playoffs as the top seed after winning their second straight Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's regular-season champions. But after coming within one win of the Stanley Cup last spring, they didn't make it out of the first round this spring, falling to Los Angeles in five games. The core of the 2011 Cup finalists is largely intact, but the Canucks will have to make some changes to keep the championship window from closing.
Strengths: The Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, are still among the most dangerous scorers in the NHL; a late-season concussion that kept Daniel out for most of the playoffs was a factor in the playoff loss to the Kings. There's good depth up front; a solid, mobile defense; and perhaps the best goaltending tandem in the NHL with Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider, who's a restricted free agent. If one is dealt, the other is more than capable of carrying the load -- and would bring back a nice haul in talent, draft picks or salary-cap space (if Luongo is the one who goes).
Weaknesses: No. 2 center Ryan Kesler is coming off his second major surgery in as many years, a shoulder operation that's expected to keep him out for the start of the season. Kesler slumped from 41 goals in '10-11 to 22 last season. The Canucks also have to figure out who their starting goaltender will be. Luongo has a long-term contract; Schneider, a restricted free agent, has shown he's ready to be a starter after going 20-8-1 as the backup and allowing four goals in three playoff starts.
Biggest need: The Canucks need another top-four defenseman who can move the puck. They also need some depth up front and more scoring in the middle if Kesler isn't ready to go. If GM Mike Gillis deals away one of his goaltenders, he'll need a backup.
(No. 41 overall; traded first-round pick to Washington in 2011)
The bad news is that Avs have missed the playoffs in three of the past four seasons. The good news is that GM Greg Sherman has stockpiled an excellent core of young talent. Calder Trophy finalist Gabriel Landeskog, the second player chosen in last year's draft, leads a group of eight talented players under the age of 25 (though several are restricted free agents). With no first-round pick, Sherman will have to be creative as he looks to turn that young talent into a contender.
Strengths: Landeskog stepped into the lineup as an 18-year-old and looked right at home in the NHL. He and team scoring leader Ryan O'Reilly meshed right away. Matt Duchene struggled with injuries in his third NHL season but has shown he was worthy of being the third player chosen in the 2009 draft. Getting Varlamov filled a major hole, as he showed signs of being the No. 1 goalie the Avs had lacked.
Weaknesses: Colorado has only three defensemen under contract for next season, and no one on the roster in 2011-12 was a difference-maker. Eric Johnson, the first player chosen in the 2006 draft by St. Louis, is a restricted free agent who still hasn't become the kind of player the Avs need him to be. Up front, the Avs are much stronger in the middle than on the wings.
Biggest need: The biggest need is a top-four defenseman who can generate some offense, something they are unlikely to find without a first-round pick. With just 11 players under contract, Sherman will have to deal with a host of restricted free agents while he tries to fill in the gaps with some veterans to help his young talent blend into a winning team.