Old myths take a while to die off. In hockey, one of the most well-worn cliches has been about the Southeast Division and its runt-of-the-litter status, despite the presence of stars such as Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos and Eric Staal. But crunch the numbers and you’ll find the group actually dragging down the NHL with its suckitude is the Northwest – and it’s been that way for years.
With the exception of the Vancouver Canucks, the Northwest has been a riptide of rebuilds and refuse-to-rebuilds, where the sanity of GMs has constantly been called into question by their own fan bases. Since the lockout, consider the following factual, undeniable low points:
– It’s the only division yet to win a Stanley Cup. Sure, Vancouver and Edmonton came close, but c’mon people: horseshoes and hand grenades. Plus, that miracle Oilers team of 2005-06 was the only incarnation of the Copper and Blue to even make the post-season.
– It’s the only division to send a lone representative to the playoffs in two consecutive seasons, a current streak that has seen only Vancouver dance lately. Even when the Southeast was at its bashiest, that division didn’t suffer such a fate.
– The Northwest has sent two teams or less to the post-season every year since 2007-08.
Does the future hold better tidings for the Northwest? Well, it would have to, wouldn’t it? But glib semantics aside, yes. Not that the folks out west can start doing cartwheels about it.
Once again, the Canucks will be one of the best teams in the NHL, even though Ryan Kesler will miss the beginning of the season recovering from shoulder surgery. If GM Mike Gillis trades star netminder Roberto Luongo, he’ll get some sort of tangible asset in return, which is basically gravy since the Nucks have a very good goalie in Cory Schneider waiting in the wings – the same player that ignited the ‘Bobby Lou’ trade talk thanks to his burgeoning talents.
After that, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Minnesota as the second-best team of the five. Obviously adding Ryan Suter and Zach Parise is a big part of that, but also the addition of Finnish mega-rookie Mikael Granlund will bolster the offense. The Wild are also flush in net with Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding.
As exciting as the Edmonton Oilers will be to watch, I don’t see enough wins coming out of the current group. Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov are all exciting, ultra-skilled forwards, but riddle me this: if the puck goes into the corner, which one of them is going to muscle it off of Corey Perry, Jarome Iginla, Pavel Datsyuk, Anze Kopitar or any of the other man-strong talents up front in the West? A lost faceoff puts the teen titans at a distinct disadvantage until they start hitting Pizza 73 a little more often (important note to the young Oilers: do not listen to me for nutritional advice).
Grabbing Justin Schultz on the open market was a big coup for Edmonton, but is the young defenseman Jake Gardiner or Matt Gilroy? It’s an unknown right now. Either way, the blueline still needs another solid contributor on top of Schultz to make a real top six.
The Colorado Avalanche are intriguing thanks to young talents such as Ryan O’Reilly and Gabriel Landeskog, but the Avs also need a big bounce-back from Matt Duchene and continued growth from Erik Johnson.
Meanwhile, the Calgary Flames are that tweener team that’s not young, not great, but not awful. They’re just kinda there, wondering how long Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff will keep them in the playoff hunt, but not quite reaching eighth place in the West. It’s three seasons and counting for the Flames – or as they’re known around here, the Jay Bouwmeester years. Will ‘J-Bo’ help break his own curse in 2012-13? If he can, the Flames will be that vaunted third Northwest team in the post-season. If the circuit isn’t striving for overall glory, it can at least strive for averageness for once.
Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN’s associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.