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August 25, 2012
Summer Skate
Northwest Division

by Robert Vollman and ESPN Insider

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Vancouver Canucks

Last season, a fourth consecutive 100-point and division-winning season for Vancouver came to an early end with the unlucky first-round draw of the highly underrated and red-hot Los Angeles Kings.

Still one of the league's best teams, Vancouver is backstopped by the elite tandem of Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider, with a host of defensive-minded forwards such as Manny Malhotra handling the tough minutes so players like the Sedin twins can win scoring races. Meanwhile, Jason Garrison was added to the Canucks' already impressive collection of quality two-way veteran defensemen.

Trending up: LW David Booth
Last season: 3.9 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 4.1 GVT

On the advice of longtime friend Ryan Kesler, the Canucks acquired the speedy Booth from the Florida Panthers early last season. Booth subsequently enjoyed the best puck possession numbers of anyone who didn't play on the top line with the Sedin twins.

But the Canucks scored on just 6.6 percent of their shots when Booth was on the ice and their goalies had a .912 save percentage -- bad luck that will improve his underlying statistics once they normalize.

Booth's tough 2011-12 season was further compounded by a nasty MCL injury sustained in a knee-on-knee hit from Kevin Porter. He also had a reduction in power-play opportunities, inevitable when going from Florida to talent-laden Vancouver.

Booth, who is turning 28 in November, is still within his prime and, with a little luck and a stronger knee, could be highly effective in Vancouver this season -- even without Kesler, who is out until at least mid-November due to shoulder surgery. By getting to focus his considerable talent in a secondary role while others handle the tough minutes and top-line pressures, Booth could flourish.

Trending down: RW Jannik Hansen
Last season: 11.3 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 6.7 GVT

Young winger Hansen was plus-18 on the checking line, which, in Vancouver, plays in really tough situations in order to maximize the opportunities for their top players.

A lot of Hansen's success on the score sheet was based on sky-high shooting and save percentages, factors that often dissipate over time. With Hansen on the ice, Vancouver's checking-line grinders scored on 9.9 percent of their shots, while their goalies had a .934 save percentage. It all added up to 39 points that would otherwise be unreachable for the great Dane.

The only way for Hansen to sustain his impressive production would be a promotion to a top line, something that would happen only with an injury to someone like Alex Burrows. While Hansen will remain a solid checking-line winger, he will also start to look like one, complete with lower scoring totals and more goals against.

Minnesota Wild

The offseason acquisition of two of the biggest unrestricted free agents, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, instantly elevates Minnesota from one of the league's worst teams to a legitimate playoff bubble team -- but likely not beyond.

A hot start driven by unsustainably high save percentages fooled a lot of fans into thinking that a team that was constantly playing in its own zone and without the puck wasn't among the league's worst, but a sudden volume of injuries exposed the Wild's lack of depth and sent them toward the basement and back to reality.

Though the depth problem still remains, the addition of Parise and rookie Mikael Granlund could finally replace Marian Gaborik's scoring, and veteran blue-line additions Suter and Tom Gilbert lead a re-tooled defense full of kids that have the potential to bring exciting hockey, and possibly a postseason appearance, back to Minnesota -- with a little luck in net.

Trending up: D Tom Gilbert
Last season: 4.5 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 4.1 GVT

Now that he's returned to his native Minnesota to a team with only one other veteran blueliner competing for the best opportunities, two-way defenseman Tom Gilbert could be in a position to beat all expectations, including VUKOTA's.

Acquired from Edmonton for longtime stay-at-home Wild defenseman Nick Schultz at least season's deadline, the 29-year-old Gilbert's knee was recovering from a vicious cheap shot from Dan Carcillo, leaving him with a career-low 22 points -- the third straight drop since his 45-point 2008-09 season.

Fortunately the lack of scoring competition in Minnesota should help Gilbert enjoy more than last season's 41.9 percent of available power-play opportunities, and more reliable goaltending from Nicklas Backstrom and Josh Harding will have a better save percentage behind him than last season's .910, leaving him with a strong bounce-back season.

Trending down: D Ryan Suter
Last season: 12.0 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 9.4 GVT

Olympic silver medalist Suter is a great defenseman and a fantastic addition to the Wild, just as he was absolutely brilliant in his seven seasons in Nashville.

In Minnesota, however, he won't be playing alongside Shea Weber, one of the league's best defensemen. Instead, Gilbert or one of Minnesota's young and unproven blueliners will skate in Suter's pairing. The former Pred also won't be playing in front of Pekka Rinne, one of the league's best goalies, who had an amazing save percentage of .928 when Suter was on the ice.

Add it all up and Ryan Suter will likely not match his career-high 46 points, and is unlikely to keep his GVT in double digits in 2012-13.

Colorado Avalanche

The Colorado Avalanche missed the postseason for the fifth time in the past seven seasons, which must feel strange for a franchise that previously qualified in 11 straight seasons -- including six appearances in the conference finals and two Stanley Cups. It was nevertheless a strong and promising 2011-12 season for Colorado, which generally controlled the play but simply couldn't convert shots and scoring chances into goals.

This offseason it added P.A. Parenteau and Steve Downie, which now gives them eight forwards who have had a recent 20-goal season -- with Ryan O'Reilly just missing after an 18-goal campaign in 2011-12. And all but one of those players is at some stage of his prime. If the Avs can find a little offense on their blue line from someone like Ryan Wilson or Stefan Elliott they could win the competitive scramble for the final postseason positions in the West.

Trending up: C Matt Duchene
Last season: 4.3 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 8.4 GVT

Plagued by knee and ankle injuries, Duchene missed 24 games and played many more hurt, scoring just four points in his last 21 games in an ultimately failed attempt to sneak Colorado into the postseason.

At full health and playing alongside Parenteau this season, the young Duchene -- who doesn't turn 22 until January -- hopefully will enjoy a team on-ice shooting percentage higher than last year's 5.8 percent. This boost in scoring will go nicely with the various other ways he contributes, like drawing penalties, blocking shots and scoring in the shootout, all of which could make him one of Colorado's most valuable players in 2012-13.

Trending down: RW P.A. Parenteau
Last season: 11.5 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 8.8 GVT

Playing without John Tavares, and now having to compete with Colorado's depth of strong young talent for the best offensive opportunities, you'll excuse 29-year-old Parenteau if he doesn't match his 67 points this season -- a total that would have led his new team by 12 points a season ago.

Last year with the Islanders, Parenteau had a high offensive-zone start percentage of 56.2 percent, and got to work 59.7 percent of available power-play opportunities. Even the minor declines he likely will experience in Colorado will be enough to explain VUKOTA's 2.7 drop in GVT.

At least with the Avs, Parenteau has an even chance of playing in the postseason this year, and hopefully for at least half of his four-year deal.

Edmonton Oilers

A historic third straight overall No. 1 and a key summer signing pick loaded up the Oilers with an incredible collection of young talent that includes Nail Yakupov, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Justin Schultz and Sam Gagner, not to mention a similar wealth of secondary prospects and young talent.

Even a team whose mistakes led it to such an incredible blessing in the first place couldn't possibly spoil legitimate Stanley Cup contention; the only question is how soon the Oilers will contend. New coach Ralph Krueger hopes to beat the odds and drive a lower-bubble team into the playoffs in his first season behind the bench, which could happen with some fast development and superb goaltending.

Trending up: LW Magnus Paajarvi
Last season: minus-0.3 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 3.3 GVT

Magnus Paajarvi scored 34 points in 80 games as a teenage rookie in 2010-11 but followed up with just eight points in 41 games last season, demoted to the AHL for much of the year. A new coach brings new opportunities, and few players are as well-positioned to benefit.

Part of Paajarvi's poor scoring was due to a laughably low team on-ice shooting percentage of just 3.6 percent. Even on a secondary line, the 21-year-old Swede could return to 34 points, especially if he earns more than the 19.2 percent of power play opportunities he saw last season.

While the Oilers' top six are basically sewn up with their blue-chip talent, there occasionally could be room for someone like Paajarvi due to injuries or a trade. Every game during that span simply would be a bonus for 2009's 10th overall selection.

Trending down: RW Jordan Eberle
Last season: 16.6 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 16.0 GVT

A 34-goal, 76-point season for a 21-year-old in his second season has a way of making people lose perspective. Though his natural development cancels out most of the expected statistical regression this season, collecting 65 points probably would disappoint Oilers fans. That's why we have him trending down.

Eberle enjoyed one of the team's most sheltered assignments at even strength last year, being carefully used against mostly secondary lines and enjoying a sky-high offensive zone start percentage of 60.7. The inevitable heavier share of the tough minutes will make his high level of scoring production more difficult to sustain.

Though Eberle likely will keep working around 56.8 percent of power play opportunities, the team likely won't continue to convert on 20 percent of them -- few teams do. The consequently lucky 12.8 percent shooting percentage the Oilers enjoyed while Eberle was on the ice was second in the league to Steven Stamkos, and when that regresses, along with Eberle's own 18.9 percent shooting percentage, so will his scoring.

Eberle will remain one of the team's top scorers and most valuable players, but last season's scoring totals were boosted by favorable playing conditions and more than a little luck.

Calgary Flames

The Flames' desire to safely sell out the Saddledome with a perenially competitive team rather than risk the rebuilding required to improve has left Calgary with a mediocre team that has been the best non-playoff team the past three seasons -- potentially soon to become four.

Despite a second straight finish as the Northwest's runner-up, the Flames snapped a six-season streak of 40-wins, but hope to be energized by new coach Bob Hartley, power-play quarterback Dennis Wideman, exciting rookies like Sven Baertschi and Roman Cervenka, and the replacement of Olli Jokinen with Jiri Hudler.

The key flaw that continues to haunt Calgary is the lack of players who can effectively play the tough minutes against top lines and in the defensive zone. That absence limits the potential productivity of even the Flames' best players.

Trending up: C Mikael Backlund
Last season: minus-1.1 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 2.6 GVT

Plagued by an early finger injury, then a serious injury to his left arm in February, Backlund played in a mere 41 games in which he managed just 11 points and a minus-13. That lack of production was due in part to facing the fourth-toughest competition (among Calgary forwards) whenever he went over the boards, while receiving the fourth-lowest offensive zone start percentage.

Despite the injuries and tough playing conditions, Calgary actually enjoyed its biggest shot-based advantage with its 2007 first-round draft choice on the ice. Backlund's numbers suffered primarily because the team scored on just 5.3 percent of its shots with him on the ice, while its goaltenders' save percentage was just .895.

Now entering his prime at age 23, with a new coach and plenty to prove, 2012-13 could be a breakout season for Backlund, giving Calgary the type of two-way forward it can trust in almost any situation. -- Vollman

Trending down: G Miikka Kiprusoff
Last season: 19.4 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 5.5 GVT

2011-12 was an amazing season for Kiprusoff, finishing in the top 10 in Quality Start percentage, and with a .921 save percentage that was his best since his 2005-06 Vezina-winning season. It was the type of season that makes it easy to forget that his save percentage was a lousy .906 or below in three of the past five seasons.

Although it's certainly true that Calgary's fate is disproportionally in the hands of their celebrated Finnish goalie, unfortunately Kiprusoff is turning 36 this October, and is likely going to finish closer to his career average of .914, especially if he's called upon to play 70 games for the eighth straight season -- a rate that places him second all-time to Martin Brodeur.

A version of this story originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Robert by clicking here or click here to see Robert's other articles.

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