That was proven in 2011-12 when, for the second consecutive season, the Canucks were the only team out of the Northwest to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs -- and they didn't just get there, they dominated along the way, grabbing the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference as well as the Presidents' Trophy for the second year in a row. They finished 21 points clear of the second-place team in the division, the Calgary Flames.
But with free agency set to begin July 1, the Flames, Colorado Avalanche, Minnesota Wild and Edmonton Oilers have an opportunity to address some of their needs and add a few pieces that might help them close the gap -- if not catching the Canucks, at least jumping over the line that separates the top eight in the conference from the bottom seven at season's end.
Don't expect Vancouver to stand pat, especially after taking a step back from Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2011 to getting stunned in five games by this year's champion, the Los Angeles Kings, in the first round. There could be a changing of the guard in goal, and the Canucks need to add some depth down the middle.
Here is a roster-building cheat sheet for the Northwest Division teams. The salary cap figures come from Capgeek.com and are based on the $70.2 million salary cap teams will be operating under come July 1:
Means: $10,521,667 in cap space with 19 players already signed
Targets: The Canucks scored 249 goals this past season, the most of any Western team and tied for fourth in the NHL, but a concussion that sidelined Daniel Sedin for the end of the regular season and start of the playoffs hammered home the point you can never have enough options on offense.
Henrik Sedin is an elite No. 1 center, but the depth at that position thins greatly with shoulder surgery likely to cost Ryan Kesler a good chunk of the early part of the season. Samuel Pahlsson, not a scorer but a solid checker, won't be back.
It also seems likely the Canucks will have a new goaltending tandem -- incumbent Roberto Luongo has said he'd waive his no-trade clause and No. 1-in-waiting Cory Schneider is a restricted free agent. The chances of both coming back appear slim, so the team could look to free agency to sign a new backup.
CALGARY FLAMES (90 points, 2nd in Northwest Division, 9th in Western Conference)
Needs: More grit on offense, depth on defense
Wants: A forward or two to fill out the bottom six, a second- or third-pair defenseman
Means: $11,406,668 in cap space with 19 players already signed
The acquisition and signing of Dennis Wideman to a five-year contract gave the Flames an early boost via Free Agency. (Photo: Getty)
Targets: The Flames, who have barely missed the playoffs in each of the past three seasons, did a lot of the tweaking to their roster prior to free agency. Key moves included the signing of Czech forward Roman Cervenka, who could end up filling Olli Jokinen's spot in the middle, and the acquisition and signing of defenseman Dennis Wideman to a five-year contract.
With veterans Miikka Kiprusoff and Jarome Iginla still in the fold, new coach Bob Hartley has the building blocks for a postseason contender, but Calgary will continue to search for the final pieces that might help secure the extra two or three victories that make the difference come early April.
In addition to Jokinen, forwards David Moss and Lee Stempniak are unrestricted free agents the Flames may look to replace. Wideman gives them the top-pair defenseman they sought, but they still have an interest in free-agent prospect Justin Schultz.
Wants: A second- or third-pair defenseman, a checking-line forward
Means: $29,591,667 in cap space with 16 players already signed
Targets: Despite having missed the playoffs in three of the past four seasons, there's plenty to like about the makeup of the Avalanche, which is why they spent the time leading up to July 1 concentrating on re-signing several of their own free agents and probably won't need to make a huge splash on the open market. However, they have the most cap space of any team other than Nashville to go after Zach Parise or Ryan Suter if they so desire.
Even with Hunwick and O'Brien re-upping, that leaves only six defensemen under contract on the current NHL roster. The Avalanche could make a pitch for Schultz, or perhaps veteran blueliner Matt Carle, who played collegiately at the University of Denver.
MINNESOTA WILD (81 points, 4th in Northwest Division, 12th in Western Conference)
Needs: Goals, depth on defense
Wants: A first-line forward, a puck-moving defenseman
Means: $18,494,723 in cap space with 20 players already signed
Zach Parise was born in Minnesota, but it remains to be seen if he will give the Wild any sort of advantage as his potential suitor this offseason. (Photo: Getty)
Targets: Parise was born in Minnesota. He's probably the only one who really knows if that will give the Wild any sort of advantage when it comes to landing the top forward -- by far -- in this year's free agency class. Parise has stated his desire to stay in New Jersey, but he'll see some mega-contracts thrown his way. Several figure to come from teams built to win now -- the Red Wings, Penguins and Rangers -- so it's hard to say how a rebuilding team like the Wild stacks up.
Whether it lands Parise or has to look elsewhere, one thing is for certain: Minnesota needs to get captain Mikko Koivu a winger or two who can put the puck in the net with some consistency. The Wild finished 30th in the League last season with 177 goals, falling from the West lead in the first half to another spring without playoff hockey.
Minnesota also dealt its top offensive defenseman, Marek Zidlicky, at the trade deadline. Kurtis Foster, one of the players the Wild got back, wasn't the answer, so a blueliner who could help in the transition game could be on their radar.
EDMONTON OILERS (74 points, 5th in Northwest Division, 14th in Western Conference)
Needs: Veteran depth on offense, defense
Wants: A power forward, a top-pairing defenseman
Means: $26,525,001 in cap space with 17 players already signed
Targets: Fans have been patient in Edmonton as the team has undergone almost a complete overhaul the past several years, but after making a third straight No. 1 selection in the NHL Draft and bringing in new head coach Ralph Krueger, they're going to want to see further progress from a group that is very young but loaded with potential.
If Nail Yakupov, this year's top selection, makes the opening-night roster, he'll join fellow No. 1s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall, plus Jordan Eberle and Sam Gagner as Oilers forwards 23 or younger (Gagner turns 23 on Aug. 10). Should the Oilers let popular and still productive Ryan Smyth walk, they'll need not only to replace his 19 goals and 46 points from this past season, but the veteran leadership he provided on the ice and in the locker room.
The Oilers have plenty of bodies on defense, but with injuries derailing Ryan Whitney's career, they could use an impact player on the blue line. The money is there to make a big offer to Suter; failing that, Schultz and Jason Garrison are intriguing alternatives.