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Wednesday, September 24, 2008
NHL PREVIEW

By E.J. Hradek

EDMONTON OILERS Last Season: 41–35–6 Coach: Craig MacTavish "THE CANUCKS AND OUR TEAM HAVE MADE SIGNIFICANT CHANGES. CAN WE ADJUST TO THOSE CHANGES? THAT'S A BIG QUESTION."

In a division in which every other team fell backward, the Oilers have surged ahead. Over the summer, top suit Kevin Lowe snagged power forward Erik Cole, underrated D Lubomir Visnovsky and homeboy Gilbert Brule. That's one productive off-season. Hard-shooting D Sheldon Souray, C Shawn Horcoff and F Ethan Moreau will rejoin the fight after missing a combined 142 games, and recent draftees (Sam Gagner, 49 points, and Andrew Cogliano, 45) are hitting their stride. In goal, Mathieu Garon (.913 SP) and Dwayne Roloson (.901) offer no bad option. The Oilers sat out the playoffs the past two years. That trend is done.

KEY PROSPECT: Taylor Chorney, 21, D The 2005 second-round pick passed up his senior year at North Dakota to offer his on-ice leadership to the Oilers.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS Last Season: 39–33–10 Coach: Alain Vigneault

New GM Mike Gillis promised big changes when he took the job in April. Unless you think an awful lot of new F's Pavol Demitra and Steve Bernier, Gillis underachieved. Lucky for him, he still has G Roberto Luongo (.917 SP) and a strong group of D-men, led by Mattias Ohlund and Willie Mitchell. Up front, twins Daniel (29 goals) and Henrik (61 assists) Sedin anchor the top line. To be fair, Demitra (54 points) will provide some second-line scoring for the 23rd-ranked O, and it may be just enough to help the Canucks steal a playoff spot. That will make the boss look like he was telling the truth after all.

KEY PROSPECT: Cory Schneider, 22, G Schneider signed as a junior out of BC in 2007 then posted 21 W's in 36 AHL games. Even with Luongo ensconced in net, he is a valuable asset.

CALGARY FLAMES Last Season: 42–30–10 Coach: Mike Keenan

Despite a roster that boasts heavyweights such as RW Jarome Iginla (50 goals), D Dion Phaneuf (60 points) and G Miikka Kiprusoff (.906 SP), as well as some able support from D Robyn Regehr and C Daymond Langkow (30 goals), the Flames are less than the sum of those parts. What exactly is the rest of the group doing? The team ranked in the top 10 in only one category. Ex-King sniper Mike Cammalleri (19 goals) and fading Todd Bertuzzi (14 goals) may lift Calgary into the post-season. But all that dead weight will keep them from getting very far.

KEY PROSPECT: Mikael Backlund, 19, C A first-round pick (24th overall) in 2007, the 6'0'', 194-pound Swede will be a top offensive threat. He's a long shot to make the club this year, but his speed and improvisation make him a long-term sure thing.

MINNESOTA WILD Last Season: 44–28–10 Coach: Jacques Lemaire

First, F Brian Rolston left via free agency; now RW Marian Gaborik (42 goals) is eyeing the exit. He'll be gone if Minny doesn't sign him to a long-term extension before opening night. Either way, the team needs young F's Mikko Koivu (42 points), Pierre-Marc Bouchard (63 points) and James Sheppard (19 points) to step up and boost an 18th-rated attack. The Brent Burns-led D will be quicker with the addition of ex-Pred Marek Zidlicky. And superstopper Niklas Backstrom (.920) makes a solid final stand. None of it matters, though, if Gabby goes.

KEY PROSPECT: Benoit Pouliot, 22, LW/C The fourth pick overall in 2005 hasn't been able to stick in prior camps. Needing help up the middle, GM Doug Risebrough says he'll give Pouliot every chance to get noticed as a centerman once again.

COLORADO AVALANCHE Last Season: 44–31–7 Coach: Tony Granato

Club icon Joe Sakic missed 38 games after hernia surgery. At least the 39-year-old had lots of company on the IR. Lengthy downtime for F's Ryan Smyth, Paul Stastny and Marek Svatos and D's Brett Clark and Jordan Leopold added up to 402 games lost, fifth-most in the NHL. Retread coach Granato needs them all healthy to stand a chance of reviving a 28th-ranked PP. What he needs even more is a No. 1 between the pipes. Neither Peter Budaj (.903 SP) nor Andrew Raycroft (.876) fits the description. Despite all the nicks, the Avs made the playoffs last season. With those guys in the crease, they won't get lucky twice.

KEY PROSPECT: T.J. Hensick, 22, C The four-year star at Michigan scored six goals in a 31-game trial last season. The 5'10'', 185-pounder is sneaky and quick.