I believe this is going to be close. The Oilers remain incredibly dedicated to playing shorthanded on the blue–a tradition now, it began in 2006–but the club’s young Jacks and Kings stand at the ready, and there may be just enough experience to navigate the rapids and find the second season.
- CALGARY FLAMES (5TH IN DIVISION, 14TH IN CONFERENCE): I think this is the year Kipper and Jarome and JayBo get lost in the flood. Jay Feaster is dancing as fast as he can, but at some point it won’t matter–and I think this is the year. On the other hand, the Flames drafting has improved mightily (their 2011 is trending, baby) and if they’re willing to deal some of those young prospects maybe Calgary can extend the string of top 3 (in the division) finishes–the last time they were in the basement was 02-03. That was the season Greg Gilbert was fired, replaced for a short time by the legendary Al MacNeil and then by the man who changed the division for a decade–Darryl Sutter.
- COLORADO AVALANCHE (4TH IN DIVISION, 12TH IN CONFERENCE): The Avalanche–along with Minnesota and Edmonton–have stockpiled an impressive group of young players. Gabriel Landeskog looks like a future giant in the Northwest division, I’m not sure he won’t be the best of the young bunch when all is said and done. Add Ryan O’Reilly, Matt Duchene and that’s a terrific young cluster we’re going to hear about for a long, long time. The Avs had a ‘porridge’ summer, adding and retaining mid-level replacement level options. It’s the kind of summer that tells me they are unlikely to push for a playoff spot–but beware–there’s a lot of young talent here and if they explode the Avs could surprise.
- EDMONTON OILERS (3RD IN DIVISION, 8TH IN CONFERENCE): I think the Oilers (as the RE suggests) are extremely close to being good enough for the second season. Additions like Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz, and the maturation of Hall, Eberle and the Nuge gives Edmonton a tremendous young cluster. They are fast and furious, and as we witnessed last season can already lambaste even good opponents like Chicago . The defense is the major problem–and it can be fixed to improve their standing–and the goaltending is badly in need of a stronger backup option (although I didn’t nick that area much since Danis is available at a moment’s notice). I believe the Oilers will make the playoffs, and maybe more if a quality defender is added. Taylor Hall, super nova.
- MINNESOTA WILD (2ND IN DIVISION, 7TH IN CONFERENCE): 2011-2012 was the fourth straight season that the Wild finished outside the playoffs, and the organization took drastic action. The addition of free agents Ryan Suter and Zach Parise–while also mantaining an enormous group of outstanding prospects–gives Minnesota tremendous hope for the immediate and long term future. Minnesota has some outstanding talent–Oiler fans are well familiar with men like Mikko Koivu, PM Bouchard and Niklas Backstrom. The problem for Minnesota has been injuries, and it is very difficult to project them because of it. I’m also wondering about their blueline–quality at the top but not terribly deep or proven–and would guess they’ll be one of the teams looking for defensive help as the season wears on. The Wild’s enormous deficit in GF-GA last season is also a concern, but signing the two golden free agents and better health gets them here.
- VANCOUVER CANUCKS (1ST IN DIVISION, 2ND IN CONFERENCE): This is my pick to win the Stanley Cup in 2013. Sorry. The Canucks have terrific depth, and although there are cracks forming (injuries will be the thing that kills them if it happens) they also have the assets to go out and get what is required even if they have to pay in full. The travel schedule would love a first round matchup with the Oilers, and I think they would do well to mimic Los Angeles last spring and make quick work of their early round opponents.