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Questions that beg for answers in the Northwest

by Bill Meltzer

Can Brad Isbister give the Vancouver
Canucks a much-needed scoring boost?
With the start of training camps only one week away, it’s time to assess the five Northwest Division teams at the end of a long off-season for all of them.

The Avalanche and Oilers both missed the playoffs, though under very different circumstances, and haven’t played a game that counted in nearly a half-year. The Flames and Wild exited the playoffs in the opening round. The Canucks were ousted in the second.

Here’s a team-by-team look, in order of finish in the division last season, at the five Northwest squads as they prepare to take their initial steps onto the ice in 2007-08:

Canucks (49-26-7)

The skinny on last season -- It was the year of Roberto Luongo in Vancouver. Acquired the previous summer in a trade with Florida, the talented goalie was one of the NHL’s best players and the biggest single reason the Canucks won the Northwest. Wallowing in mediocrity before Christmas, the Canucks caught fire over the holidays and never cooled down.

Off-season recap -- The Canucks struggled to score last season, but spent a counterintuitive off-season adding even more defense. The best-known new player on the roster is former L.A. Kings defenseman Aaron Miller.

As for other newcomers, might a youngster such as 24-year-old right wing Ryan Shannon or a veteran such as 30-year-old left wing Brad Isbister provide a boost? Only time well tell.

The big question this year -- Will the Canucks find sufficient offense to complement Luongo’s brilliance and carry the team deeper in the postseason?

Wild (48-26-8)

The skinny on last season -- They weren’t much different from the Canucks. Just as the Canucks were all about Luongo, the Wild relied on the goaltending of Niklas Backstrom, who emerged as the starter and had a strong season. And just like the Canucks, the Wild struggled to put pucks in the net. The Wild’s secret weapon was the shootout; they were dominant, especially early in the season, and it was the difference between them making the playoffs fairly comfortably or having to scrape their way in.

Off-season recap -- The Wild, like the Canucks, did not add a lot of offensive firepower over the summer. The biggest move was parting ways with veteran goalie Manny Fernandez and handing the backup reins to youngster Josh Harding. The formula in Minnesota will be the same as always; disciplined adherence to a defensive style of play and timely scoring. It would also help if winger Marian Gaborik could shake the injury bug for an entire season.

The big question this year: Can the Wild find enough scoring, or will they have to rely again on picking up numerous points in the standings by winning shootouts?

Flames (43-29-10)

The skinny on last season -- Jim Playfair’s first -- and as it turned out, only -- season as coach was difficult throughout. The Flames were inconsistent all season despite a strong roster that seemed to get even better with a trade for defenseman Brad Stuart and forward Wayne Primeau. Despite that deal, the Flames came close to missing the playoffs and were ousted in the opening round of the postseason.

Off-season recap -- The team replaced Playfair with iron-fisted Mike Keenan, but in truth, that wasn’t the most important accomplishment of the summer. The biggest move was the re-signing of Jarome Iginla, the Flames’ best non-goalie, taking him off the 2008 free-agent market. As for newcomers, the most intriguing move was the addition of Owen Nolan. How much he has left at age 37 remains to be seen.

The big question this year -- Will Keenan resuscitate his coaching career by haranguing the Flames back to contender’s status? Just as important: Will the team re-sign goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, who can become an unrestricted free agent next summer?

Avalanche (44-31-7)

The Colorado Avalanche made a big splash by signing veteran Ryan Smyth to a five-year deal in the offseason.
The skinny on last season -- The Avalanche missed the playoffs for the first time since relocating from Quebec to Denver before the 1995-96 season. But they didn’t miss by much. In fact, they were the NHL’s hottest team in the season’s final weeks, but their mad late-season rush left them one point out of the postseason.

The biggest development last season was the emergence of goalie Peter Budaj, who took the starting job away from the erratic Jose Theodore. The Avalanche also had a pair of impressive rookie forwards, Paul Stastny and Wojtek Wolski.

Off-season recap -- Only the Rangers, with their signings of Scott Gomez and Chris Drury, made as big an off-season splash as the Avalanche, who signed free-agent right wing Ryan Smyth and defenseman Scott Hannan. Smyth will add grit up front and Hannan will stabilize the defensive corps.

The big question this year -- With its big signings this summer, are the Avalanche ready to make the leap from missing the playoffs to challenging for the Stanley Cup?

Oilers (32-43-7)

The skinny on last season -- The Oilers began last season with a hangover from the previous year’s jaunt to the Stanley Cup Final and never recovered.

The team entered the season minus the departed Chris Pronger and spent the first months of 2006-07 wondering if prospective free agent Ryan Smyth would be re-signed. He wasn’t, and after he was traded to the Islanders, the Oilers went into freefall. By season’s end, they were probably the NHL’s worst team.

Off-season recap -- Amid reports that NHL players regard Edmonton the way Soviets used to view Siberia, the team went on the offensive to transmit the message that the city Wayne Gretzky made famous is not hell frozen over.

The Chamber of Commerce-style hype -- and a lot of money -- helped rehabilitate the city of Edmonton’s image. The team signed unrestricted free agent offensive defenseman Sheldon Souray to a big contract and also shocked the NHL by signing restricted free agent forward Dustin Penner to an offer sheet that the Ducks declined to match. The Oilers also added talented young defenseman Joni Pitkanen in a trade with the Flyers.

The big question this year -- No one thinks the Oilers are likely to head straight back to the Final after their busy summer. But did they do enough to get themselves back to the playoffs?

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