Northwest Notes: Surprises aplenty in early going

Friday, 23.10.2009 / 5:52 PM / Features
By Roger Phillips
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Northwest Notes: Surprises aplenty in early going
The strong play of the Colorado Avalanche leads a steady sting of surprises in the Northwest Division so far in 2009-10.
Following an offseason of change, perhaps it should be no surprise that the Northwest Division is full of surprises.

After all, four of the five teams have new coaches, future Hall-of-Famer Joe Sakic retired as the Avalanche allegedly entered a full-fledged rebuilding mode, and big-time talents like Jay Bouwmeester (Calgary) and Nikolai Khabibulin (Edmonton) led a migration of new talent to teams around the Northwest.

But no one could have predicted how the standings would look nearly one month in.

The Avalanche -- last in the Western Conference last season -- are vying for conference supremacy early this season. In fact, the Avalanche have the most points of any team in the West thus far.

Meanwhile, the defending division champion Canucks have stumbled out of the gate, and the Wild -- who narrowly missed the playoffs -- are off to an even worse start.

Battered by injuries and limping home from an 0-5 road trip, the Wild have made a couple of moves to try to point things in the right direction. They added winger Chuck Kobasew in a trade with Boston for a couple prospects, and just as notably, the Wild now officially has a full-time captain for the first time in franchise history.

During the Jacques Lemaire era, the captaincy was rotated through the course of the season. But this week, new General Manager Chuck Fletcher and first-year coach Todd Richards announced that 26-year-old center Mikko Koivu has earned the position permanently.

"We gave him the 'C' because of the kind of player he is, and what he represents as a person," Richards told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Koivu told the newspaper he accepted the role upon learning that older players on the team supported the move.

"That was the biggest thing for me," he said, "knowing they would back me and support me."

Only time will tell whether the additions of Kobasew and the ascension of Koivu will help turn around the Wild.

"It's frustrating," Richards told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "It's disappointing. You feel all those emotions, but there's only one way you can get out -- and that's through hard work. When you're winning, it's easy to come to the rink. But I learn a lot when things aren't going well; it gets me to look at myself, the job I'm doing, what I can be better at. Hopefully, the players are doing the same thing."

Koivu proved himself worthy in his debut as full-time captain Wednesday. He had a goal and an assist during regulation, then scored the only goal of the shootout in a 3-2 victory against the visiting Avalanche.

Early Road Woes -- The Canucks finally won a road game Wednesday night, improving to 1-4 away from GM Place with a 3-2 comeback victory at Chicago. It's imperative that the Canucks learn to win regularly on the road. They face a 14-game road trip later in the season because the Winter Olympics will be taking over Vancouver in early 2010.

The Canucks' early road woes were epitomized by the ending in a recent loss at Edmonton. They had 40 shots on goal in the 2-1 defeat. The game ended with Kyle Wellwood netting what would have been the tying goal if only he had scored it a split second earlier, before the final buzzer sounded.

Injuries to Daniel Sedin and Pavol Demitra have been part of the Canucks' problem, but in reality, they got what they deserved against Edmonton. Teams have to work for their wins in the NHL, especially on the road, and the Canucks' effort has been inconsistent.           

"I don't think that team worked that hard tonight," Ryan Kesler told the Vancouver Province, referring to loss to the Oilers. "And we got out-worked. ... We need to start out-working teams. There was just way too much of that game where we got out-worked.

"We still have scoring, even though we are missing some key guys. We have to get more than one goal a game. We have to find the back of the net."

Just when it seemed the Canucks were headed to another road loss Wednesday in Chicago, the offense awoke. Austrian rookie winger Michael Grabner scored his first NHL goal, tying the score on a power play with 7:44 remaining.

Offseason addition Mikael Samuelsson then scored his fifth goal, with 4:42 left, to give the Canucks an important victory.

Slick Oilers -- The biggest story of the summer in the NHL was the Dany Heatley saga. The talented winger asked Ottawa to trade him, then rejected a deal to the Oilers for Dustin Penner, Andrew Cogliano and Ladislav Smid.

The Senators ultimately traded Heatley to the Sharks. It will be an interesting night when San Jose visits Edmonton next month. But the Oilers are doing just fine without Heatley, and the three players who remained when he rejected the trade to Edmonton have been contributing.

Penner, in particular, has been thriving, which is great news for the Oilers given his struggles in his first two seasons in Edmonton after the Oilers paid him a boatload of money to pry him away from Anaheim. Last season, Penner was the target of frequent criticism by former coach Craig MacTavish, much of it relating to alleged inadequate conditioning. This season, Penner had 5 goals in the first eight games and admits he has improved this year.

"It's my fourth year in the league," Penner, 27, told reporters recently. "So it's maybe time to start improving."

It was just last season that, according to the Edmonton Journal, MacTavish said of Penner, "He's never been fit enough to help us. I can't watch it."

Penner says he's feeling more confident this year, and also said he has grown up.

"I think maybe experience, overall maturity," he told the Journal when asked to explain his progress this season. "When you want the puck on our stick and you're not afraid to make mistakes, it's a fun game."

Clearly, Penner wearied of MacTavish's criticisms. He's feeling much more relaxed playing for new coach Pat Quinn.

"You make a mistake, but the way (Quinn) coaches here is, 'I'll give you the leeway to make those mistakes, but you've got to be the guy who comes back and makes up for it,' " Penner told the Journal. "Maybe (it's) the coaching, maybe my overall maturity. Just a better understanding of the game. Sometimes the learning curve takes a little longer, depending on the situation."

Sticking around -- The Avalanche have been the most positive surprise in the NHL in the early weeks of the season. Part of the reason has been the play of 18-year-old rookie centers Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly.

This week, the Avalanche made it official: The two kids will be with the team through the season's 10th game and that means they no longer will be eligible to be returned to junior hockey.

Duchene scored the first goal of his NHL career in a shootout win last weekend in Detroit. It was the Avalanche's fourth consecutive win, all on the road, all against members of the Original Six.

"It's nice to get the monkey off my back there," Duchene told the Denver Post after scoring the goal. "The most important thing was we won that game. It wouldn't have felt nearly as good if we lost."

After learning he and O'Reilly would be sticking around, Duchene said, "Accomplishing your dream is just unbelievable. Ryan and I were talking, saying, 'Everything we set out to do, we've accomplished.' "

Duchene has moved in with veteran defenseman Adam Foote, who is keeping a watchful eye on the youngster.

"Footer has two little guys, 8 and 10, and they're a lot of fun," Duchene told the Post. "We played mini-sticks all night (Monday). Had some pretty intense games. I was sweating buckets."

Re-ignited Flame -- Enforcer Brandon Prust spent part of last season with the Flames, but it was a tough year physically and logistically. He suffered a broken jaw from an elbow by the Blues' Cam Janssen, causing him to miss 30 games, and he later was traded to the Coyotes.

But on draft day, Prust was traded back to the Flames, and he's been a regular combatant in the early weeks of the season.

"I'm not surprised at all," teammate Eric Nystrom told the Calgary Herald. "I played with him in the minors, and he gets in 35 to 40 fights a year. That's an insane amount of fights."

On top of the fighting, the 25-year-old Prust has been contributing on the score sheet, even though his ice time has been very limited.

"We know we're not going to be given 15 to 20 minutes of ice a night," Prust told the Herald. "Anytime that we do get it, we have a lot of responsibility out there. So we just make sure we do our jobs."

The 6-foot, 190-pound Prust is not the most physically imposing enforcer in the League. But he has endeared himself to first-year coach Brent Sutter not only with his willingness to drop the gloves but with his physical play.

"He's done a great job," Sutter told the Herald. "His biggest thing is keeping his focus where it needs it to be and bringing it to the rink every day in a workmanlike fashion. He's been very good at that. And he's been rewarded in game situations because of that."

If Prust can stay healthy this year -- and if he can avoid being traded yet again -- he could provide a physical element that was lacking in the playoffs last year.

Veteran Craig Conroy told the Herald, "He brings so much toughness to the team that maybe we didn't have in the playoffs in the first round."