Burning Northwest Division questions

JEFF FRANK, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 12:54 PM ET

PHILADELPHIA -- The Vancouver Canucks plowed through the Northwest Division with a 15-7-2 mark en route to the third best record in the Western Conference last season. However, their regular season success did not translate to the playoffs, as they fell in the conference semifinals for the second time in the last three years.

Putting the puck in the net was the least of the Canucks' worries, as the team finished with a second-place finish to the Washington Capitals in goals scored. The problem was a defence that allowed three goals or more in 15 of the final 21 regular season games.

Since Vancouver did not employ a shutdown defenceman after Willie Mitchell was lost in mid-January, the likes of Shane O'Brien and Andrew Alberts, and even Kevin Bieksa, averaged just as much ice time as the trio of Christian Ehrhoff, Alex Edler and Sami Salo.

The main question coming into the new season is how much the new additions on defence - Dan Hamhuis (Nashville) and Keith Ballard (Florida) - will help solidify the unit, especially in the playoffs?

Hamhuis (arguably the top free agent defensive defencemen) and Ballard, (third in the league in blocked shots), will play important roles with Vancouver, especially on the penalty kill - an area of weakness all season long, as well as in the playoffs when the Canucks allowed 17 power-play goals on only 54 chances.

With the pressure of an Olympic year on home ice off of goaltender Roberto Luongo, look for the gold medalist netminder to regain his past form and lead Vancouver into the Western Conference finals for the first time since 1994.

CAN COLORADO'S CRAIG ANDERSON REPEAT LAST YEAR'S SUCCESS?

Most prognosticators predicted the Avalanche would finish last in the Northwest Division last season after compiling just 69 points the year before. That was not to be the case, as Colorado stunned the experts with 95 points and a spot in the postseason.

Leading the charge was Craig Anderson, who came into 2009-10 with a grand total of 88 career starts in six career NHL seasons. Tomas Vokoun's former backup in Florida set the city of Denver on fire in his first two games, with wins over San Jose and Vancouver on his way to a 10-2-2 October and an outstanding .939 save percentage.

However, his post-Olympic numbers were pedestrian, with Anderson winning only seven times in 18 games with a 3.28 goals-against average and an .895 save percentage. Some folks pointed to his sizeable workload (71 total starts) as the reason for the late-season demise but how would that account for his tremendous postseason play against San Jose, a series in which he literally stood on his head?

Look for backup Peter Budaj to ease Anderson's load this season, especially since the organization acted quickly in re-signing the five-year veteran well before the July 1 free agency deadline. To that end, Anderson should continue his outstanding play leading the Avalanche to the playoffs for a second straight season.

WILL THE RETURN OF JOKINEN AND TANGUAY PAY DIVIDENDS?

The Flames were rolling along at the midway point of last year with a 24-12-5 mark, but a second-half slide (16-20-5) prevented the club from reaching the postseason for the first time since 2003.

Scoring was a huge problem as the club ranked last in the league with 204 goals. Only two players tallied more than 15, with Jarome Iginla potting 32 and Rene Bourque netting 27 - a far cry from 2008-09 when five forwards hit for 16 or more.

Olli Jokinen never meshed on the top line with Iginla, so last year's trade with the Rangers made sense. Nevertheless, Jokinen was brought back this off- season along with another former Flame, Alex Tanguay - a winger that has seen his goal totals drop each season since the lockout.

Will both forwards help Calgary move up the ladder in goals scored when they failed the first time around? The final answer will not come until the season starts but the prognosis is not a positive one.

CAN MINNESOTA ENJOY A FAST START IN 2010-11?

In college football, it usually takes a full season for a team to adjust to a new coach and his system. If one applies that logic to the NHL, look for the Wild to have a much-improved campaign.

Minnesota got out of the gate slowly last year with a 3-10 record in its first 13 games. In fact, the Wild did not win a game by more than one goal until its 17th contest.

What should be taken from last season was a solid 35-26-8 mark over the final 69 games. More importantly, the team played exceptionally well inside its own division, tying Vancouver with a 15-7-2 record in those contests.

The Wild was also tough to beat at home. Only seven of the other 29 squads won more games in their own building last year, and as luck would have it, eight of this season's first 10 games (after the two matchups with Carolina in Finland) will be played at the Xcel Energy Center.

WILL THE KIDS BE ALRIGHT?

Not much is expected from Edmonton this season except the steady progression of a pair of teenagers and the reigning Canadian Junior player of the year.

Taylor Hall, the 2010 first overall draft choice, and Magnus Paajarvi are the teens, while Jordan Eberle is the elder statesman at 20 years of age.

Only Calgary and Florida scored fewer goals last season than Edmonton, so look for the three youngsters to get ample opportunities to shine. If they can inject some quickness and passion into the team, the Oilers have a chance to climb out of the NHL cellar, especially with Ales Hemsky healthy for the first time since last November.


Videos

Photos