August 16, 2006
It's hard not to wonder how last season would have wound up had the Northwest Division not cannibalized itself with each team playing 32 inter-divisional games.
It's no secret it was the toughest division in hockey. They posted a combined 29-15-6 versus the East, and all five franchises had winning records within the West, save for the Canucks who were 8-10-2 against the Pacific Division.
Now, consider how it's changed - especially between the posts.
The Avalanche won last year with David Aebischer and Peter Budaj in goal. Yes, they lost Rob Blake to the Kings, but added defender Andrew Ference and a former Vezina winner in Jose Theodore.
The Oilers scratched through the year with a surreal merry-go-round approach to goaltending that saw Craig MacTavish deploy the Jussi Markkanen/Ty Conklin tandem - often in the same period. Kevin Lowe fixed that by re-upping Dwayne Roloson, the guy who carried a mediocre regular season team to game seven of the Stanley Cup finals.
The Flames allowed the fewest goal of any team in the entire NHL, but lacked offensive support - it turns out Iginla's shoulders aren't quite broad enough to carry the entire Stampede City by himself.
Calgary went out and stacked All-Star Alex Tanguay on top of an already impressive roster that's backed by reigning Vezina winner Mikka Kiprusoff. A lighter load for 'The Kipper' in the form of an extra goal or two certainly won't hinder his stats.
The Wild weren't far behind the Flames in terms of defence with Manny Fernandez and Dwayne Roloson doing the time share thing, though Minnesota were crippled up front with sniper Marian Gaborik out or ailing most of the year. A few have suggested Wild GM Doug Risebrough was the 'sultan of the summer' picking up offensive weapons Pavol Demitra, Kim Johnsson, and Mark Parrish. And shuffling Roloson out the door can only bolster Manny's confidence. Problem solved - at least on paper.
As for the Canucks, they plucked the best young Canadian goaltender in the league out of Florida in Roberto Luongo, and signed one of the top shut-down defenders in Wille Mitchell. Paired with Mattias Ohlund and Sami Salo, Vancouver's fortifications appear as tight as they ever have. Add Jan Bulis, Marc Chouinard, and Taylor Pyatt , and the Canucks a more rounded, more disciplined and more tenacious squad overall.
Bottom line: The division is tougher than ever. And with the league carrying the inter-divisional heavy schedule over for another season, it'll be war by attrition in the Northwest once again.