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Northwest: Sundin the difference?

Friday, 09.01.2009 / 11:31 AM / Features
By Roger Phillips
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Northwest: Sundin the difference?
What does the future hold for the injured Marian Gaborik? Who is benefiting from Ales Hemsky\'s injury?
The somewhat strained relations between star forward Marian Gaborik and the Wild took a new and unfortunate turn last week.

It was revealed that the groin injury that has sidelined Gaborik most of the season would require surgery that will keep him out most of the rest of this season, not to mention past the March 4 trading deadline.

The 26-year-old Gaborik's status in Minnesota has been the dominant off-ice topic in the Northwest Division this season. He is heading into unrestricted free agency this summer, and one would think his tenuous health would scare off most suitors.

Certainly, it's hard to imagine Gaborik receiving something approaching the $8-million-a-year offer he rejected from the Wild before he was hurt. About the only way to see this turning out well for Gaborik would be if he was able to return this season and was a major contributor to a playoff run for the Wild. Otherwise, his free-agent marketability will have dipped precipitously.

For the Wild, this situation could be advantageous. They avoided getting locked into a big deal with Gaborik, and now it seems likely if he gets offers from other teams, they will be significantly smaller than they would have been if he had enjoyed a big year.

On the other hand, Gaborik has been Minnesota's best asset. And right now, he would seem to have absolutely no trade value in the next month-plus. If he was healthy, even if the Wild had been unable to sign Gaborik, they could have dealt him at the deadline and gotten a pretty nice return. Now, it seems likely Gaborik could leave this summer, and the Wild will get nothing in return.

The Northwest Division has seen a series of free-agent conundrums in recent years. The Oilers were forced to unload Ryan Smyth a couple years ago when they couldn't reach a deal with him. It ruined the Oilers' 2006-07 season.

The Flames reached contract terms last season with Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff, keeping those stars off the free-agent market.

Now it's the Wild's turn to try to figure out how to deal with a star free agent.

And Gaborik isn't alone in Minnesota. Starting goalie Niklas Backstrom also could become a free agent this summer.

Elsewhere in the division...

Oilers -- Forward Erik Cole and goalies Dwayne Roloson and Mathieu Garon will be free agents this summer.

Flames -- Forwards Michael Cammalleri and Todd Bertuzzi head the list in Calgary.

Avalanche -- Once again, Joe Sakic will enter the summer with people wondering whether he'll keep playing or hang up the skates.

Canucks -- There could be a Swedish exodus. The contracts of the Sedin twins, Mattias Ohlund and Mats Sundin will be up.

Sundin the difference? -- So now that Mats Sundin has signed with the Canucks, the question becomes whether or not he is the player who can lift Vancouver to its first Stanley Cup.

Certainly, at 6-foot-5, 231 pounds, he will add great strength down the middle for the Canucks. And Sundin will be joining another former Maple Leaf, Kyle Wellwood, who is the Canucks' second-leading goal scorer.

But Vancouver doesn't have a ton of snipers. As the week began, Daniel Sedin, Wellwood and Pavol Demitra were the only players on the Canucks in double figures in goals this season. The top four teams in the Western Conference -- the Sharks, Red Wings, Flames and Blackhawks -- all have more than three players in double figures in goals.

In addition, Luongo's absence due to a groin injury continues to be a concern. He's a goalie who could steal a playoff series almost by himself, but until he comes back and shows he's healthy, he's a question mark.

Additionally, at least from the vantage point of January, the Sharks and Red Wings (who are, after all, the defending champs) appear to be the class of the Western Conference.

Turning on the Red(dox) light -- A recent concussion suffered by forward Ales Hemsky has meant more ice time for Oilers rookie Liam Reddox.

The 22-year-old left wing from East York, Ontario, has come a long way in a short time. Three years ago, he was wrapping up his junior career with the Peterborough Petes of the OHL. Drafted by the Oilers in the fourth round in 2004, Reddox began his pro career with Stockton (Calif.) in the ECHL. He spent last year with Springfield in the AHL and began this season there, as well.

After being recalled to Edmonton early in the season, Reddox was spending a lot of time in the press box until last week, when Hemsky was sidelined. Reddox went from the press box to the first line with Shawn Horcoff and Dustin Penner and scored a goal in a 3-2 loss to the Senators.

"He did real well there," Horcoff told the Edmonton Sun. "He played simple and I tried to help him out as much as I could, letting him know what was expected. He played a simple game, but I always knew where he was going to be."

Not surprisingly, Reddox greatly enjoyed the chance to play on the top line.

"I just tried to relish in the role and try to take everything out of it and learn from Horc and Pens," he told the Sun. "Being in Hemsky's position, I know I'm not expected to play like him. It was my job to be defensive and always be the third guy, making sure that we didn't get caught. I couldn't really change my game, it's the only game I know."

Hemsky had yet to return to the lineup through Monday's 3-2 win against the Islanders, meaning that Reddox is continuing to get the opportunity to show what he can do.

Part of what he's doing is telling himself he has to relax.

"There were a few times where I got the puck and it was like a grenade, I was just trying to get it off my stick as quick as possible," he said. "(Horcoff) was telling me to breathe, relax and slow the game down in my head and it would slow down for me on the ice."

Avalanche of injuries -- For a while after losing Joe Sakic and Paul Stastny to injuries, Colorado seemed to be hanging tough. But the injuries keep coming and even with Tuesday's 2-1 win at Nashville, the Avalanche's holes are starting to show up in the results on the ice.

Defenseman Adam Foote and right wing Ian
did not play Tuesday night due to injuries. Sunday's 2-0 loss to visiting Minnesota was the third straight for the Avalanche. The Avalanche scored two goals in the three defeats. Wojtek Wolski scored the two goals against the Predators Tuesday.

Coach Tony Granato is scrambling in his search for productive line combinations. Players seem somewhat mystified, too. After all, even with all the injuries, the Avalanche has plenty of talent. But guys like Ryan Smyth and Milan Hejduk are not finding the back of the net.

"We have guys who can score goals, but it's just not happening right now," Hejduk told the Denver Post. "It's frustrating. It's not like we don't work hard, but maybe sometimes we just squeeze the sticks too hard."

It also didn't help that the Avalanche fell behind early by two goals in the Minnesota games. Trying to rally against the stingy Wild is a losing formula.

"I thought we played hard, but they capitalized on their first power play," Granato told the Post. "The way that team plays when they get a lead, they're pretty tough to penetrate. They're one of the better defensive teams in the NHL, and they have been for a long time."

All of this said, the Avalanche continue to hang around the fringes of the playoff race, which is probably all they can hope for until some of the injured players get healthy.

Shark hunting -- On the other hand, the Flames looked pretty darn good in a win against the Sharks Tuesday night.

San Jose lost only four games in regulation in the first three months of the season. This month, Northwest Division teams get numerous chances to show they can play with arguably the best team in the NHL.

The Flames, who lost 6-1 at San Jose in November, hosted the Sharks Tuesday night and they turned in a dominant performance, winning 5-2. In the first period, the Flames grabbed a 3-0 lead and took the first 15 shots of the game. Since the loss at San Jose two months ago, the Flames are 15-4-3.

From Calgary, the Sharks traveled up the road to Edmonton for a game there Friday, followed by a game 24 hours later in Vancouver. The Flames and Canucks also have games in San Jose later this month, and the Sharks visit Colorado at month's end.

The Northwest Division has fared reasonably well so far against San Jose. In the one previous meeting between the Sharks and Oilers, Edmonton came away with a 3-2 overtime win in San Jose. Minnesota lost 3-1 to the Sharks early in the season but scored a 3-2 overtime win over the Sharks on New Year's Eve.

The Sharks beat the Avalanche, 5-3, in November in the first meeting between those teams. San Jose routed the Canucks, 5-0, last month.

As for the Red Wings, the other top team in the West, Calgary is 0-1-1, Colorado is 2-0, Edmonton is 0-2, Vancouver was 2-2 and Minnesota is 0-0-1. All told against the Sharks and Wings, the division is 7-9-2.