Screen Shots: A look at the Northwest

We're into the home stretch with my division-by-division previews of how each group of teams will finish at the end of the regular season. The Pacific and Southeast will be done over the next two weeks.

As for the Northwest Division, let me say this division is by far the toughest to call. In my mind, four of the five teams could finish anywhere from atop the division to out of the playoffs. Still, The Hockey News pays me to have an opinion, so here goes nuthin'.

Northwest Division (in predicted order of finish)

Calgary Flames: Why No. 1? Because this is precisely the type of veteran team new coach Mike Keenan can succeed with. With the exception of multiple-Norris-Trophy-winner-in-the-making Dion Phaneuf, the top six members of their reconstituted and improved defense corps all have at least seven NHL seasons under their belt. And although their forward unit has only four players coming off of 70-point campaigns, many believed more than a few of them underachieved.

Undoubtedly, much of the Flames success will depend on Miikka Kiprusoff; but even in the so-called "off year" he had last season, the Finn had 40 wins, a 2.46 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage. I know a lot of netminders who'd cut off the left portion of their protective cup for those numbers.

Vancouver Canucks: Why No. 2? Because, for as outstanding as Roberto Luongo was in carrying Vancouver to the division title last season, other Northwest teams have improved (at least, on paper) at a greater rate than the Canucks did this summer.

That doesn't mean I don't think the addition of Aaron Miller wasn't one of the more underappreciated moves of the offseason. But, as everyone who saw them push out 2-1 win after 3-2 win last season, this team needs more offense if it hopes to contend for a Stanley Cup. And I'm sorry, Canucks fans, but you and I both know Brad Isbister, Byron Ritchie and Ryan Shannon are not the second coming of Alfredsson, Spezza and Heatley.

Colorado Avalanche: Why No. 3? Because the additions of Ryan Smyth and Scott Hannan represent a significant, performance-enhancing needle in the arm for a franchise transitioning toward younger players such as Paul Stastny, Wojtek Wolski and John-Michael Liles.

The Avs certainly have their share of trouble spots -- a defense corps that appears to be decidedly average and a salary-cap-eating backup goaltender whose confidence can only be found on the back of milk cartons in convenience stores across the continent.

Those factors used to mean a lot in my ranking of Colorado as a non-playoff team. With Hannan and Smyth amping up the franchise's heart-and-soul quotient, as well as its pitiful penalty kill in 2006-07, those factors don't seem nearly so worrisome anymore. If goalie Peter Budaj can match his play over the final five weeks of last season, the Avs will be playoff-bound once again.

Minnesota Wild: Why No. 4? Well, to be honest, I had a tough time ranking an above-par team like the Wild second-to-last in their division.

There really is a lot to like here – most notably, the superior on-ice talent that is Marian Gaborik and brimming-with-promise youngsters such as forwards Pierre-Marc Bouchard, defenseman Brent Burns and goalie Josh Harding. If Gaborik stays healthy and newly anointed No. 1 netminder Niklas Backstrom plays to the level he did last season, the Wild could very well win the Northwest.

What nags at me most about GM Doug Risebrough's plan is this: he's brought back the same group of players that got steamrolled by Anaheim in the first round of the playoffs last spring. If there's any residual psychological hangover from that humiliation, the Wild could dig themselves an early-season hole that most NHL teams have found impossible to dig out of thanks to the division-heavy schedule.

I'm not saying that's definitely going to happen, but the potential for a step backward is definitely there. And when you consider how tough Minnesota's divisional opponents are, even the slightest slip could mean the difference between enjoying a return to the playoffs and a premature golf season.

Edmonton Oilers: Why No. 5? Because let's face it -- everyone who is hired to work at The Hockey News has to swear an oath that they despise the Oilers and will do everything in their power to bash them. (Just kidding, people. Put your angry e-mail trigger finger away and lighten up a little.)

The truth is, I've developed a newfound respect for GM Kevin Lowe over the last half-year or so. Sure, he blew his chance to re-sign Ryan Smyth when he could've in the summer of 2006; but he had no reservations about dealing Smyth when it became clear he couldn't re-sign him. Despite the late-season freefall that followed Smyth's departure, it was absolutely the right move for the franchise.

Lowe got even bolder this summer, morphing into the Jack Sparrow of the NHL's GM community with his attempts at raiding the rosters of the competition. He failed to land Buffalo's Thomas Vanek, but still came away with a nice building block in former Duck Dustin Penner.

Unfortunately, Lowe still requires a few more components before this team can honestly talk about a playoff berth. Other than Penner, Geoff Sanderson is the only new forward among a group that finished dead-last in offense last season. And while Sheldon Souray's leadership will help ensure another two-wins-in-20-games tailspin never happens again, his presence alone won't ensure their wussified 2006-07 power play suddenly improves.

With the exceptions of Phoenix and Columbus, no team has fallen as hard and as far as the Oilers have in the last year. They're moving in the right direction now, but the recovery period will likely take at least a season to complete.

Adam Proteau's Screen Shots appears every Thursday only on thehockeynews.com. Want to take a shot at Adam Proteau? You can reach him at aproteau@thehockeynews.com or through out Ask Adam feature. And be sure to check out Proteau's Blog for daily insight on the world of hockey.

Can't get enough Adam? Subscribe to The Hockey News at http://www.thehockeynews.com to get the column Proteau Type delivered to you every issue.