Friday, 24 August 2012

Northeast Division Preview

Hello hockey world, with the Western Conference divisions examined in full, it's time to see what the East has in store. This week I will start with the Northeast. Once the previews are over and done with, hockey should (hopefully) be right around the corner. Stay tuned to my top 5 breakout players, top 5 bounce back and if there is indeed a lockout I will be discussing more of the business side of the game regarding the CBA.

With three Original Six teams in the division, including hockey meccas in Toronto and Montreal, the Northeast  is always in the focus of the hockey world. This year will be no different, especially with big changes for the Canadiens. Here's how I see things playing out:

Boston Bruins

2011/2012 Rank: 2

Offseason Moves:

In - Jordan Caron, Anton Khudobin, Dougie Hamilton

Out - Tim Thomas, Benoit Pouliot, Joe Corvo, Greg Zanon

After entering last year's playoffs as the defending Stanley Cup Champions, the Bruins looked poised for another deep run in the playoffs. However, they ran into a Dale Hunter coached Capitals team that played a stingy defensive game and limited their chances. The series went to game 7 and in overtime a controversial goal from Joel Ward ended the Bruins season. While there was disappointment in Beantown, Bruins fans still have a lot to look forward to next year. Young star Tyler Seguin led the team last season with 67 points and looks to continue to live up to his billing of  2nd overall in 2010. On D the team has one of the best in the league in Zdeno Chara, though it is possible he only has a few more good years left in him. Lucky for the Bruins, they will likely have top prospect Dougie Hamilton joining the fray this year and he should pick up some helpful tips from the 2009 Norris Trophy winner. In fact, the only players Boston will be adding to their lineup this season have all been home grown - a testament to the impressive organizational depth which few teams can match.

For almost any other team in the league, losing the Vezina and Conn Smythe winner from two seasons ago would be a disaster. Yet for the Bruins the change should go almost unnoticed; and may in fact lead to a better dressing room environment. Despite his strong play on the ice, Tim Thomas has given the team headaches in the public eye the last few seasons and him taking the year off could mean one less distraction for his teammates - and could even help improve the team if a trade comes around. It helps when you have someone with the talent and experience like Tuuka Rask has to step in and replace him. Even in his limited time in the NHL, backup Anton Khudobin has put up nothing less than a 0.942sv%. The Bruins will remain the class of the Northeast, taking the division quite handily.

Why they'll make it - Impressive depth and talent throughout their lineup, few weak spots

Why they'll miss - Long term injury to Tuuka Rask and/or Zdeno Chara

Buffalo Sabres

2011/2012 Rank: 9 (3 points out)

Offseason Moves:

In - Steve Ott, Kevin Porter, Adam Pardy, John Scott

Out - Derek Roy, Jochen Hecht

The Sabres made some noise this offseason when they traded center Derek Roy to the Stars in exchange for Steve Ott and Adam Pardy. While I think the team sold Roy a little short and could have gotten another piece, the addition of Steve Ott will be felt - mostly by opponents. As a fan of a Western Conference team, I am glad to see this guy go East. He is another player the Sabres have that you love to have on your team but hate playing against. This makes them somewhat unique in the Eastern Conference and can now compete with the Bruins when it comes to overall toughness. However, the move leaves the team very young and inexperienced up the middle. The Cody Hodgson deal at the deadline allowed the Sabres to move Roy, and he will now take on the task of the team's #1 C. This is a lot of pressure, but with a great group of wingers like Pominville and Vanek to play between Hodgson, he won't have to do it alone. Their other top 9 centers will likely be Tyler Ennis and one of Luke Adam or their recent draft picks Grigorenko or Girgensons - I told you they are young up the middle, but have a lot of promise.

On the back end the team will hope to remain healthy this year, and will be counting on Tyler Myers to return to Calder form. For me, the real key to success for the Sabres will be the play of Ryan Miller. As it has been since he took over the starting job in Buffalo, the team goes as he does. After the high expectations that come with a new owner and a high priced team, the Sabres stumbled in the first half of the season mainly because of Miller's play. He got things together in the second half of the season and led the Sabres to a late season run for the playoffs, but they fell just short. If he can play more consistently next year (and he has the ability of stealing the show), then I see the Sabres getting over that hump and into a playoff position.

Why they'll make it - Strong overall depth and toughness, Myers and Miller's play rebounds

Why they'll miss - Inexperience and lack of depth up the middle

Montreal Canadiens

2011/2012 Rank: 15 (14 points out)

Offseason Moves:

In - Brandon Prust, Colby Armstrong, Francis Bouillon

Out - Chris Campoli

After a dreadful season that saw them finish 3rd last in the league, the Canadiens made big changes to their front office bringing in first time GM Marc Bergevin (formerly Chicago's assistant GM). In his first major move to change the philosophy of the team, he reinstated former Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien. In a media frenzy city like Montreal, this move has been criticized and supported, but only time will tell to see if he was the right choice. To his credit, this is a very different Montreal team with much more reasonable expectations. The Canadiens are at the beginning of a much needed rebuild, but are still trying to ice a competitive team, as seen from the signings of Prust, Armstrong and Bouillon. They still have some issues to sort out though. Scott Gomez continues to be the teams biggest liability with a 7.35 mil cap hit for 11 points in 38 games last season. In fact, after Max Pacioretty and Tomas Plekanec, there are very few forwards that can chip in offensively. David Desharnais had a very nice year, but I question his staying power as a top six centerman with a height of only 5'7. I am a huge fan of Lars Eller, but it is unrealistic to expect any huge offensive numbers from the youngster yet - if ever. The rest of the forward crop is full of 3rd line guys who are known more for using their hands to fight than to score. I know they still have Cole and Bourque, but they are inconsistent and cannot be counted on to contribute night after night.

The biggest question mark surrounding this team will be the health of Andrei Markov. His impact is so important that his health could mean a 2-3 place swing in the standings for Montreal. I am not counting on him playing a full season because he is 34 and hasn't played over 45 games since the 2009 season. However, with Kaberle, Subban, Gorges and the newly added Bouillon they should be okay even without Markov. Carey Price will do his thing in net, and continue to be the team's best and most counted on player. Because of the lack of an offensive star and Markov's questionable health, I have the Canadiens near the bottom of the conference for a second straight year.

Why they'll make it - Markov plays the entire season, Subban steps up, players click under Therrien's system

Why they'll miss - Lack of offensive strength, inexperience on the blue line, players have trouble adapting to new system

Ottawa Senators

2011/2012 Rank: 8

Offseason Moves:

In - Guillaume Latendresse,  Jakob Silfverberg, Marc Methot

Out - Nick Foligno, Filip Kuba, Bobby Butler, Matt Carkner

The Sens were the surprise team in the East last season, and their strong play earned them a spot in the playoffs. They  gave the 1st seeded Rangers a run for their money and even had them on the brink of elimination, but their inexperience showed when they lost two straight games to end their season. A lot of things went right for the Sens last year, including young star Erik Karlsson winning the Norris Trophy for best defenseman. I think it should have gone to Shea Weber (as he actually plays on the PK), but that's neither here nor there. Bottom line, Ottawa fans have a young and exciting team to cheer for. Because the team was such a surprise, I think they will fall back down to Earth this year and experience some of the growing pains that come with a young team. If healthy, Latendresse is a nice pick up for the team and should add some grit and skill on the wing. Silfverberg is a highly touted rookie, and playing with Spezza will give him all the opportunity to succeed but it is always difficult to predict how a player will adjust to the unfamiliar North American ice. Turris should continue to develop and chip in some secondary offense, but I wouldn't expect a full season from Alfy or a duplicate of what Milan Michalek did last year.

Karlsson leads a very well rounded defence, and Methot is a dependable addition. But beyond Methot there are very few players in the prime of their careers. Karlsson and Cowen, while very skilled and promising, are still young and prone to mistakes and inconsistency. On the other end of the spectrum, Phillips and Gonchar are well passed their primes and on the downswing of their careers. I'm not saying that everything will go wrong on D, just that there is a potential weak spot on the team if the youngsters struggle and experienced guys decline. In net, the Sens have a solid, but unspectacular group led by enigmatic Craig Anderson. We have seen Anderson steal the show in both Ottawa and Colorado, but we have also seen him become unravelled in his second year with the Avalanche. Being still relatively new to a number 1 role in the NHL, we will see which Anderson decides to show up. I see the Sens experiencing some growing pains this year resulting with them on the outside looking in, but still an exciting team to watch out for in the future.

Why they'll make it - Youngsters continue strong play and don't falter, Spezza stays healthy and Anderson stays solid

Why they'll miss - Anderson& young guys show flashes of brilliance, but not on a regular basis

Toronto Maple Leafs

2011/2012 Rank: 13 (12 points out)

Offseason Moves:

In - Jay McClement, James Van Riemsdyk

Out - Luke Schenn, Joey Crabb, Jonas Gustavsson

The Maple Leafs boast the title of being the only team in the league not to make the playoffs since the lockout. This is unacceptable from the most profitable team with the largest fan base in the league. Their reign of mediocrity has been well documented, and the God send Brian Burke has not yet been able to turn this team around in his four years as general manager. Last season, the Leafs seemed to be well on their way to breaking the streak with star winger Phil Kessel having a breakout season and Joffrey Lupul having a career year. They were riding high until James Reimer sustained a long term injury and they could not prevent more goals than they were scoring. I was extremely surprised that Burke did not get a goaltender at the deadline when the team was still very much in the playoff hunt. It was their clear weakness and might have saved the year. I say this, and to this day the goaltending issue has not been resolved. I am a fan of James Reimer and think his ice veins are amazing for the most pressure filled position in the most pressure filled city, but he still hasn't proven much as a #1 goalie and you need a plan B in case he falters.

Other than goaltending, their only other clear weakness is at the center position. Mikail Grabovski should only be counted on as a #2 center, and Bozak, McClement and Steckel are all bottom 6 players. This is why many believe newly acquired James Van Riemsdyk will be used at center - a mistake in my eyes as he has never played the position at the NHL level. The team is strongest on the wing and at defence, even with the loss of Luke Schenn. Gardiner, Phaneuf, Liles and Gunnarsson should be able to shoulder most of the load, and they have some impressive young guns in Reilly, Holzer and Blacker waiting in the wings. It will be hard for Lupul to duplicate his year, but with JVR, Kessel, and a bounce back year from Kulemin the team shouldn't have any problems scoring. Hopefully for Leaf fans a fresh start with Randy Carlyle can have them play a tight defensive game to shelter their goaltenders, and Jay McClement will also help in that regard. I have the Leafs battling for the playoffs, but finishing just outside of a playoff spot.

Why they'll make it - Reimer posts above .900sv%, Carlyle gets players to buy in, Kulemin bounce back

Why they'll miss - Duo of young goalies, still no #1C

Final Predictions
Here are my final standings for the Northeast Division:


With only Boston and Buffalo making the playoffs, and Toronto and Ottawa fighting until the end of the season.