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Northwest: Avs embrace new season with optimism

by Roger Phillips /
Ryan Smyth adds his 36 goals from last season to an already formidable lineup in Colorado.
Training camp is a time for teams to dream of championships. For most teams, however, reality intervenes as soon as the season begins and the games start to count. But for the Colorado Avalanche, there is every reason for optimism that come June they could be skating around the ice with the Stanley Cup.

The fact that the Avalanche missed the playoffs last season is irrelevant; Colorado finished with 95 points and went 15-2-2 in its final 19 games, falling one point short of the eighth and final playoff berth in the Western Conference.

But the Avs wasted little time working to remedy the situation, adding 36-goal scorer Ryan Smyth to an already-talented group of forwards and Scott Hannan to the defense corps. No wonder even the usually reserved Joe Sakic was positively gushing while preparing to step onto the ice for his 19th NHL season.

”We love our lineup,” Sakic told the Denver Post. “There’s definitely a different mindset this year than last year. We’re very confident. We think we have a chance to compete for the Cup.”

The improvements go beyond the additions of Smyth and Hannan. Last season’s key new acquisition, defenseman Jordan Leopold, missed all but 15 games due to injuries. The Avalanche is counting on him being healthy this season; if he is, it will mean that the team essentially will have two new top-notch defensemen among its top six.

“You add (Hannan) and Jordan Leopold, a guy who didn’t play much last year, and it’s like we got two great defensemen added to our lineup,” forward Andrew Brunette told the Post. “I think there’s a little bit more excitement this year than the past, from the years I’ve been here.”

Brunette has a right to be excited. Though Colorado’s lines are not set at this early date, the speculation is that Brunette will skate on a line with Sakic and Smyth, which would obviously be a daunting trio for opposing defenses to contend with. But opponents will also have to contend with another high-scoring unit featuring veteran Milan Hejduk and second-year players Paul Stastny (78 points as a rookie) and Wojtek Wolski.

“It’s early, but we’re setting the bar high around here,” Smyth told the Post. “We’re going to have a real good team.”

Coach Joel Quenneville is optimistic, too — and he’s pressing his team to get off to a quicker start. Colorado was only 4-4-2 after 10 games last season, and when you consider the Avalanche missed the postseason by a single point, you can see why Quenneville has a sense of urgency.

“One of the things I said was that games 1 to 10 will be just as important as games 72 to 82,” Quenneville told the Post.

Flames paying attentions -- Mike Keenan’s taskmaster reputation preceded him to Calgary.

Jarome Iginla organized a pre-camp golf and fishing outing to help with team bonding.
Captain Jarome Iginla told the Canadian Press the specter of Keenan as the team’s new coach resulted in the Flames showing up for camp in better shape than a year ago.

“A lot of us saw some comments a while back when (Keenan) said if you weren't in shape you were going to be on the bike a lot,” Iginla said. “Most of us probably look a little thinner than usual.”

Iginla, recognizing that the Flames’ roster is roughly one-third new, organized a pre-camp golf and fishing outing to the mountains before camp began.

“They recognize that they have to come together quickly, and it shows that they care for their team and that they have some responsibility in determining how this is all going to get started,” Keenan said.

Wild may have a spot -- Defenseman Sean Hill will miss the Minnesota Wild’s first 19 games while serving a suspension for violating the NHL’s drug policy. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Wild has 22 players under one-way contracts, meaning there’s one vacant job on the 23-man roster. But the newspaper reported that Hill might not count against the roster spot while under suspension, which would create another opening for the youngsters to battle for during training camp.

General Manager Doug Risebrough said if a youngster earns a spot, congestion on the roster won’t be an obstacle blocking that player from making the team.

“If I felt somebody deserved to be on the team, I’d find a way to get him on the team,” Risebrough told the Star Tribune.

“You’re not looking at a general manager that’s going to worry about what happens if I trade a guy and don’t get full value back. I’m more worried about the reward of being on the team. So I’ll put somebody on waivers that I know will be claimed to get somebody on the team that deserves it.”

Canucks have game faces on -- The Vancouver Canucks won the Northwest Division last season, but they’re taking nothing for granted this season. The Canucks are strong defensively and in goal, but not deep in offensive firepower and they know they are in for a long struggle.

Roberto Luongo will play an important role in determining how far the Canucks will go in 2007-08.
General Manager Dave Nonis acknowledged that in a Western Conference loaded with powerhouse teams, simply making the playoffs is the first order of business for the Canucks.

“I don’t think you can look past that,” he told the Canadian Press. “It’s going to be very difficult to do. I think we have a very competitive, not just division, but conference. And as (coach) Alain (Vigneault) puts it, you have to respect the process of getting there and understand it’s going to be difficult. There’s a lot of hard work ahead to make the postseason, but that’ll be our first objective.”

Veteran defenseman Aaron Miller, a key off-season addition, was expected to undergo abdominal surgery last week. The team says it’s minor and that he will only miss a couple of weeks.

According to the Vancouver Province, it’s possible this is forward Markus Naslund’s final season with the Canucks. Naslund, 34, is in the final year of his contract and reportedly is giving consideration to playing in his native Sweden.

No fun in the sun -- A number of Edmonton Oilers did some California dreaming this summer. According to the Edmonton Journal, about 15 of them spent a part of the off-season training in Redondo Beach, getting whipped into shape by trainer Chip Moreau, brother of Oilers forward Ethan Moreau. The results were evident in the distinct absence of body fat when the players reported to training camp in Edmonton.

“Everybody’s worked extremely hard. So far so good,” Ethan Moreau, who missed most of last season with a shoulder injury, told the paper. “We had a lot of time and the guys used the time wisely.”

The Oilers invited veteran forward Anson Carter for a tryout. Carter, 33, played for the Oilers from 2000-03. He ended last season with the Carolina Hurricanes.

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