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Northwest: Assessing how veteran newcomers are faring

by Roger Phillips /

Last week, we used this space to do a rundown of the rookies in the Northwest Division. This week, it’s time to do a team-by-team look at the veteran newcomers dotting the rosters of the Northwest teams, and to get early returns on how they’re performing thus far:

Colorado Avalanche

Ryan Smyth, left wing -- He had been quiet until Tuesday night, when he scored twice in a comeback shootout victory over Calgary. But Smyth has gotten more ice time than any Avalanche forward this side of Joe Sakic and that probably tells you all you need to know about how he’s fitting in.

Scott Hannan, defensemen -- The Avalanche needed a player to solidify their blue-line play and plucked Hannan away from the Sharks. Hannan is Colorado’s ice-time leader, both at even strength and when the Avalanche is killing penalties.

Vancouver Canucks

Brad Isbister, left wing -- After a strong start to his career, Isbister has bounced up and down between the minors and the NHL in recent years. He’s hoping to stay in the NHL all season this year, but has been in and out of the Canucks’ lineup so far. Likely a depth player in Vancouver.


Aaron Miller, defenseman -- Oft-injured stopper adds to the Canucks’ impressive defense corps. He should fit right in on a team that focuses on defense and the goaltending of Roberto Luongo.

Mike Weaver, defenseman -- The No. 6 defenseman for Vancouver, he’s never played more than 53 games in a season but has appeared in every game thus far while Sami Salo recovers from a fractured left wrist.

Calgary Flames

Owen Nolan, right wing -- Reunited with GM Darryl Sutter, with whom he enjoyed the best years of his career in San Jose. He’s off to a slow start statistically, despite plenty of ice time. Was slowed by a preseason groin strain. Look for him to gain momentum as time goes on, though he was minus-2 on Tuesday at Colorado.

Adrian Aucoin, defenseman -- Aucoin is coming off some lean years in Chicago. His last good season was pre-lockout, when he had 13 goals and was plus-29 with the Islanders in 2003-04. In Chicago, he was minus-35 in two seasons. The Flames are counting on their winning environment rejuvenating the 34-year-old veteran, who is playing more than 20 minutes a night.

Anders Eriksson, defenseman -- He didn’t score a goal last season in Columbus and hasn’t scored any so far this year, either. But the Flames believed he could provide a steady 15 minutes a night, given that he was plus-12 last year for a Columbus team that allowed 48 more goals than it scored.

Mark Smith, center -- Another former Shark, he’s a grinder for the third or fourth line. He’s the kind of depth player good teams can always use and should fit in well with Sutter and coach Mike Keenan.

Mike Keenan, coach -- The Flames were winless in their first three games and he didn’t self-immolate, so that’s a good sign.

Edmonton Oilers

Geoff Sanderson, left wing -- The Oilers are Sanderson’s eighth team. He brings them a proven goal scorer, as shown by the two goals he scored in the second game of the season. He’s played on only one team that reached the playoffs in the last eight NHL seasons. He will turn 36 this season and will bring experience to an Oilers team loaded with youth.

Dustin Penner, right wing -- The most controversial signing of the summer, the Oilers made the restricted free agent an offer the angry Ducks refused to match. Penner has a Stanley Cup to his name. His job this season is to prove he was worth his five-year, $21.5-million deal.

Sheldon Souray, defenseman -- He may have made his biggest contribution to the Oilers this summer when he proved that for enough money, a premier player would sign to play in Edmonton, a city many fellow NHLers reputedly view as the league’s version of Siberia. He had a huge year last season in Montreal, scoring 26 goals. He also was minus-28. The Oilers need him to provide leadership, as well as some punch to their power play.

Joni Pitkanen, defenseman -- The Oilers savored his youth and talent while overlooking the whispers about his attitude. His best game thus far this season was against his former team, the Flyers. He is on a one-year contract. If the Oilers fall out of the playoff hunt, he might be an attractive rental trade-deadline rental for somebody.

Minnesota Wild

Eric Belanger, center -- The Wild’s roster is so close to last season’s, you’d think they won the Stanley Cup and decided to stand pat. Actually, they lost in the first round of the playoffs. The one veteran addition is Belanger, a skilled player who has never had more than 17 goals or 37 points in a season. Early on, though, he’s fitting right in with the disciplined Wild, and is among their scoring leaders thus far.

Who’s hot --The Avalanche lost 4-1 at St. Louis, but rising star Paul Stastny continued his sizzling start, scoring Colorado’s lone goal. … Joe Sakic and Milan Hejduk got the Avalanche back on track, picking up three and two goals, respectively, in a rout of Columbus. … After a slow start, Calgary got its first win for new coach Mike Keenan, taking an overtime victory at Dallas. The hero was Matthew Lombardi, who tied the score at 2-2 when he scored his first goal of the season with 9:14 remaining in the third period. Lombardi then scored the game-winner 3:20 into the extra session. … Pulled after having allowed four goals on 13 shots in an 8-2 home-ice pasting at the hands of the Flyers, goalie Roberto Luongo rebounded with a 5-2 victory at Edmonton, stopping 28 of 30 Oilers shots and earning No. 1 star honors. In the same game, 23-year-old center Rick Rypien – making his first appearance of the season and only the eighth of his career – scored a goal and added an assist. The Canucks had recalled Rypien, signed by the team as an undrafted free agent several years ago, from their Manitoba AHL affiliate earlier in the day. Daniel Sedin scored twice in the rematch 24 hours later, a 4-1 home-ice win for the Canucks. … The Flames shared the wealth in their 7-4 win at Nashville, getting their goals from six different players. … Looks like concerns that Niklas Backstrom might backslide in his second full season as Wild goalie were unfounded. In his first four appearances, he allowed a total of four goals, and posted two shutouts. When backup Josh Harding finally got to play, he posted a shutout, too, with a 37-save blanking of the defending-champion Ducks in Anaheim.

Shootout summary -- The game of the week in the Northwest Division – and probably the entire league – came down to a shootout Tuesday night, with Colorado skating away with an unlikely 5-4 victory over Calgary.

The Avalanche appeared to capitalize on some of the recent magic by baseball’s World Series-bound Colorado Rockies. Colorado was down 4-0 early in the second period and came all the way back, tying the score before the second period was over on two goals by Ryan Smyth and one apiece by Andrew Brunette and Kurt Sauer.

There the score remained through the third period and overtime. In the shootout, Colorado’s Wojtek Wolski opened the proceedings by beating Miikka Kiprusoff. After Calgary’s Dion Phaneuf was stopped by Jose Theodore – remember him? – Smyth gave Colorado a 2-0 lead.

Calgary tried to battle back, drawing to within one when Jarome Iginla scored and Joe Sakic missed the net against Kiprusoff. With a chance to extend the shootout, however, former Avalanche Alex Tanguay was stopped by Theodore, and Colorado had the victory.

Rumor mill -- According to the Edmonton Journal, center Mike Fisher’s contract with Ottawa sets the bar for Oilers center Jarret Stoll. The Journal suggested that the Oilers will have to sign Stoll for $4 million a year or he will hit the restricted free agent market next summer and probably receive an offer sheet. … Last week, the Ottawa Sun reported that Pavol Demitra doesn’t like playing for Wild coach Jacques Lemaire. This week, the Minneapolis Star Tribune refuted to the report. According to the newspaper, the report is “100 percent false.” … According to the Denver Post, the Avalanche maintains some interest should free agent Peter Forsberg decide to return to the NHL. That said, the Post also reported that “the development of Paul Stastny into a top-flight player already means that Forsberg might be a luxury they don’t really need.” The fact is that if Forsberg opts to return to the NHL and is seen to be in peak fitness, half the league may be interested. … One drag on the Avalanche payroll is now-backup goalie Jose Theodore and his $6 million salary. His contract is the only reason he’s still with Colorado, because no one else wants to pay that much for him. Tuesday’s perfect 17-save effort and shootout win in relief of Peter Budaj was a sign that maybe Theodore has something left to offer, after all. … Left wing Roman Voloshenko, the Wild’s second-round draft choice in 2004, left the team’s minor-league affiliate and signed with a Russian team, according to both papers in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

The week ahead -- After opening the season with four of six on the road, the Flames open a seven-game home stand Thursday against Los Angeles. Every Northwest rival aside from Vancouver visits during the home stand.

On the other hand, the Avalanche is hitting the road. Colorado starts a four-game trip Friday at Chicago, and will also visit Minnesota, Edmonton and Calgary.

The Wild know all about life on the road. Minnesota finishes a four-game trip Saturday in St. Louis, hosts Colorado on Sunday, then embarks on a three-game trip Wednesday in Calgary.

The Canucks are yet another group of road warriors. They host Los Angeles on Friday, then start a four-game trip with games in Columbus and Carolina on Sunday and Monday, respectively.

The Oilers will be getting a steady diet of divisional play. Saturday’s game at Calgary begins a stretch of three straight games against Northwest opponents. Colorado and Minnesota visit on Tuesday and next Thursday, respectively.

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