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Predict the Northwest? OK, anything can happen

by Roger Phillips

Darryl Sutter's decision to hire Mike Keenan as the team's new head coach is the latest in a long line of unpredictable events that have occurred in the Northwest Division in recent years.
If there is one thing you can say about the Northwest Division in recent years, it’s that it has been predictably unpredictable.

Who, for example, would have guessed back in 2004 that the Flames would make their long run to the brink of the Stanley Cup? Or that the Oilers would duplicate the Flames’ near-heroic efforts two years later, then quickly fall into disrepair the following season? Or that the Canucks would shake off a mediocre start a year ago and win the division title? Or that Mike Keenan would resurface in tandem with hardboiled Darryl Sutter in Calgary?

Well, training camp is here, and the new season is likely to be as unpredictable as ever. Injuries and the failure of players to match their performances of the past have a way of rendering moot even the most well-reasoned analysis.

The Canucks should be tough to score against once again, but what happens if goalie Roberto Luongo gets hurt? The Avalanche were the best non-playoff team in the NHL last season, and seem a postseason cinch and a major Cup threat with the additions of Ryan Smyth and Scott Hannan. But if Peter Budaj doesn’t repeat last season’s goaltending heroics, can Colorado count on a resuscitated Jose Theodore?

The fact of the matter is that every team in the Northwest enters the new season with questions. The Canucks and Wild appear to need more offense. The Flames and Avalanche need a little more defense. The Oilers need a little bit of everything. All the teams in the division are between $4 million and $6 million below the NHL’s $50.3-million salary cap, so they all have some wiggle room if they need to tweak their rosters. And at some point this season, right up until the trading deadline, it’s safe to say that every team will make one or more adjustments.

In fact, according to various reports, teams in the Northwest Division were eyeing various moves right up until the first puck hit the ice at training camp:

* According to The Edmonton Journal, the Oilers were looking for a scoring winger to play on one of their top two lines, and that was before Fernando Pisani was lost indefinitely with ulcerative colitis, a bowel disorder. The Journal reported that the Oilers were not interested in unrestricted free agent Mike Johnson.

*The Denver Post reported that the Avalanche still have eyes for center Peter Forsberg. But the Post suggested Colorado is a distant second to the Stanley Cup champion Ducks in the sweepstakes for the former Avalanche star.

TSN reported that all three Canadian teams in the Northwest Division are also interested in Forsberg, with the Flames salivating at the thought of Forsberg joining Jarome Iginla in the lineup. As of this moment, the Wild is the only Northwest team not reported to have designs on Forsberg, who will begin the season continuing his recovery from injury woes.

*In sizing up moves teams might make during the season, the Canadian Press suggested Colorado is hoping for strong play from Budaj or a renaissance by Theodore, but wouldn’t rule out a trade if the goaltending is sub-par. The CP also predicted the Canucks will be in the market for a front-line offensive addition.

*Flames defenseman Mark Giordano signed to play in Russia, leaving The Calgary Herald to speculate that GM Darryl Sutter might like to add a free agent such as Danny Markov.

Around the Northwest -- The big issue this season for the Flames is the fact that goalie Miikka Kiprusoff will be an unrestricted free agent next summer if not signed to a contract extension. The Ottawa Sun reported that Sutter is working on it with Kiprusoff’s agent.

In other Flames goaltending news, former Calgary goalie Jamie McLennan was to have played in Russia, but his team reportedly changed its mind when he did not play well during the preseason. There is speculation the Flames might consider McLennan as a backup to Kiprusoff if the current candidates -- Brent Krahn and Curtis McElhinney -- don’t pan out. … Speaking of ex-Flames, forward Jeff Friesen reportedly will play this season in Sweden, joining the same team that recently signed goalie Ed Belfour. … The Avalanche are known for their flash and skill, but the team ensured the continuing presence of some valuable grit when it signed forward Ian Laperriere to a one-year extension that keeps him with the team for the next two seasons.

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