NHL season preview – Northeast division
With 3 of the 6 original six teams in the league this is a pretty high profile division, but it definitely wasn’t one of the strongest last season. Having said that, it’s not soft either. The Bruins just won the cup 20 months ago, the Senators are building something pretty great and took the Rangers to 7 games last spring, the Sabres have been prone to bad starts the last few seasons but they have the talent to be a playoff team, and while the Leafs and Habs don’t look great going into the season they both have quality enough teams to make life tough on the rest of the division.
1. Boston Bruins – They lose one of the best goaltenders in the game. Devestating for most franchises. This team however falls back on 2010 Vezina candidate Tuukka Rask who by the way is still only 25 years old. Not too many teams can lose a Conn Smythe winner and possibly upgrade in net, but this might be that team.
Rask was unreal in that 2010 season. Thomas went down with an injury and Rask stole the job and never looked back. I would be really worried about the backup situation if I were a Bruins fan. Anton Khudobin really hasn’t been anything great in the AHL so if Rask goes down they could be in serious trouble. Maybe they see something in Khudobin that gives them confidence (Peter Chiarelli would know better than me), but I would be looking hard for a more proven backup.
I don’t know if anyone has noticed, but Zdeno Chara is tall and he’s good. That tall good player is pretty valuable to this team. Make no mistake, Dennis Sidenberg on his own is still just a run of the mill 5th d-man. But Chara makes him look like a dominant shutdown man. I like the Edmonton boys Ference and Boychuk. I don’t know that either guy is a number 3 d-man but when you have a guy like Chara back there who does so much it makes slotting guys much easier. Ference can move the puck, has experience, is a good skater and plays with an edge despite being small. Boychuk is a stay at home guy but he can bring a bit of offense in the form of his bomb from the point.
The wildcard here will be rookie Dougie Hamilton. It still remains to be seen if he will in fact make the team, but I don’t see how they don’t keep him. They need him, and he’s had more than enough time in the OHL. I believe he can step right into a top 4 role and will be very effective this season. He is such a smart kid and has so much natural ability that all he has to do is keep it very simple and he’ll be fine. I really like his chances of one day turning into that number 1 guy and possibly win a Norris.
It will be huge for them to get a healthy Nathan Horton back in the fold. He was having a good season before the concussion issues came up again. When he’s in the lineup with Lucic on their top line they are very tough to handle. They won’t be among the top offensive lines as far as production, but they wear down bluelines throughout the game. It doesn’t seem to matter who centres this line weather its Krejci or Bergeron, the big guys will kill opposing teams.
Some would say they don’t have a legit 1st line centre, but Patrice Bergeron isn’t far off what Jonathan Toews is. He has such a great all around game, there really is no flaw in his game. David Krejci is a great 2nd line centre to have. Over 60 points, over 50% in the dot, good defensively, he is a lot like Bergeron. They also have the choice of moving Seguin to the middle. I’m sure they eventually will, but with 2 RH shot centres already there really is no rush to do it. Brad Marchand brings that Pat Verbeek esq dirt bag/skilled game to the table that may piss a lot of fans off by any fan would love this guy on their team. It’s a great top 6, and then Chris Kelly has turned into one of the league’s top 3rd line centres which is such a vital hole to have filled.
Had they been able to get past Washington last season who knows what they could have done again. But this team has a perfect blend of youth and experience. They won’t have the drama that Tim Thomas brought to the table last season, and they’re well rested. It’s not an overwhelming division and one that they should win.
2. Ottawa Senators – Just when things looked pretty bleek for Sens fans, they stunned everyone last season. Sneaking into the playoffs and then taking the Rangers to 7 games was definitely a success for a team that most believed would be in the lottery. But fans in Ottawa seen the same thing happen in 2010, only to fall off with a horrific season in 2011. So the question is if they can do it in back to back years?
Paul McLean was the coach that was finally able to get through to Jason Spezza. For years coaches have been trying to get him to quit being a perimeter player and a defensive liability. Last year he became a player that could play in any situation and looked like he wanted to lead the team in big spots. Spezza is only turning 30 next month, and remember it took Scotty Bowman a while to get through to Steve Yzerman on being a compelte player. If Spezza keeps this up he could end up leading the Sens to a cup in the next few seasons.
I really liked the move last year to trade for Kyle Turris. Most think he’s been a bust, but when he was picked 3rd overall it was a weak draft and the book was that he would need time to develop. Then he got stuck in Dave Tippett’s system in Phoenix which of course really restricts offensive minded guys. Starting the season with the Sens and no drama going on I’m expecting a breakout season out of the kid. He’s not the ideal centre to play behind Spezza, but weather it’s this year or next they’ll have a great 3rd line centre playing behind the 2 of them in Mika Zibanejad who will compliment them both extremely well.
They’re OK on the wings, not great. Daniel Alfredsson I believe is one of the best captain’s in the game, and when he’s healthy he is still a great player. I don’t believe Milan Michalek repeats what he did last season. Really his 35 goals was just a product of an amazing start, his play really fell off in about mid December. They’re taking a shot on Guillaume Latendresse staying healthy, but I don’t see it working out. He’s a big body and has good hands, but he’s a poor skater and even when healthy its not as if he has set the world on fire.
While I’m not in love with what they have on the wings, I love what’s coming. Jakob Silfverberg and Mark Stone both gave Sens fans reason for big time optimism last season. If just one of the 2 pan out it will be huge for a team that will need to find a winger to be paired up with Turris. Further down the road they have Matt Puempel and Stefan Noesen on the way so it isn’t vital for Silfverberg and Stone to develop.
Erik Karlsson was the breakout star of the year in the NHL. It was used quite a bit last season but he really does remind you of Brian Leetch. So smooth offensively and a great stick defensively. But don’t be confused, while he has a great stick and isn’t dreadful in his own zone, he is never going to be a shutdown guy as he’s just much too small. Nothing wrong with that, but just don’t expect him to ever get much love defensively because of that.
Jared Cowan being out for the season will hurt, as it kind of got lost on people last season that Cowen started to establish himself as a very good shutdown d-man. So that hurts, but they are apparently aggressively working to find a veteran defenseman to bring in. I suggested it on twitter the other day that bringing back Wade Redden might be a great fit for both. Redden isn’t a shutdown guy, but on the 3rd pairing I believe he can still be very effective and he won’t cost much (maybe 1 year/1.25). He is of course familiar with the city and organization, still has friends on the team like Alfredsson and Phillips, and has something to prove.
Since the days of Damian Rhodes and Ron Tuggnutt this team has lacked good goaltending. But last season Craig Anderson proved to be a great pickup. He is sort of a new version of Curtis Joseph in that he needs to get peppered to get the most out of his game. Battling it out for the backup gig are Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner who have been the tandem in Binghamton this season. Different goaltenders. Bishop has that incredible size, and Lehner is very quick and athletic. That’s a good problem for the Sens to have, I believe Bishop wins out. It won’t hurt Lehner to get more time in the AHL, although maybe they use him to upgrade elsewhere via trade.
I don’t think this team will make a jump in the standings, but they’ll maintain what they’ve had going. I love the job Paul McLean did last season, especially in the playoffs. I’ve never seen a coach who coached his team into a series like McLean did against the Rangers last year. Eugene Melnyk is a bit of a wack job and their depth isn’t the envy of every team in the league. BUT…they’re probably the envy of half the teams in the league. They’ve drafted so well and they’ve always had great success developing their guys. They’ve got a good thing going here and while I don’t believe this will be the year they make a big jump from playoff contender to cup contender, I don’t think its far away.
3. Buffalo Sabres – 3 original 6 teams, 3 Canadian teams always seem to leave the Sabres overlooked. Bad starts to the season don’t help. They’ve had high expectations the last 2 seasons and started off horrible. They were able to overcome that in 2011 as they got into the 7th spot. Last year they couldn’t recover. Now they come back with some minor tweaks to the lineup. They have what it takes to be a playoff team, but they’re a tough team to trust.
Ryan Miller is the backbone of this team. He is still one of the best goaltenders in hockey and has the ability to steal not only games, but playoff series. And now Jonas Enroth is there to take some heat off Miller. This kid could be a starter for a lot of other teams in the league so Lindy Ruff has to utilize that and not ride Miller into the ground. If I were Ruff I would give Enroth 15 starts this season so if they do make the playoffs Miller is fresh.
I like what they have on defense but Tyler Myers desperately needs to bounce back with a big season. If he can get back to being that legitimate number 1 guy their blueline looks really good. If not, it’s still solid but not anything like what it could be. Robyn Regehr isn’t what he was but having him around to help out kids like Myers and Brayden McNabb. Christian Erhoff like Myers needs to step up this season. He was brought into be a beast on the PP and while he had a respectable 39 points, the PP was only ranked 16th. He wasn’t a bust but he needs to be better.
The thing Darcy Regier is doing that I’m a big fan of is he’s making a concentrated effort to make them a force down the middle. I’m one of the few that liked the Hodgson/Kassian deal for both teams, but obviously the Sabres have got the better of it thus far He has potential to be a 70 point guy who has an excellent all around game, sort of a poor man’s Jonathan Toews down the line. Steve Ott will add a lot of bite and they can use him either in the middle or on the wing, Tyler Ennis is tiny but has a ton of skill, Luke Adam had a good rookie season and at worst will be a solid 3rd line centre, and then they drafted both Mikhail Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons in the 1st round of last year’s draft. Future looks great down the middle in Buffalo!
I also really like the guys they have on the wings. Drew Stafford is inconsistent but I’m still a big fan of his game. He has a lot of skill and he does everything well out there. Jason Pomminville is more consistent and is one of the most underrated players in the game. Great shot, great playmaker and seems to be a great leader as well. Thomas Vanek has all the talent in the world, but you never know when he’s going to put it all together. The offer sheet seemed to kill some of his drive, but he’s always a threat bust out.
I got this team making the playoffs, but as you can see this team has a lot of wildcard type of guys. I love Lindy Ruff as a coach, but I do worry much like Andy Reid in the NFL it might be getting to the point where he just needs a change. But as long as they get off to a decent start I think they’ll be fine because the last few seasons they’ve been among the best teams in the NHL in the 2nd half.
4. Toronto Maple Leafs – They sure didn’t waste anytime making news coming out of the lockout now did they? I already wrote about it but I’ll say it one more time, it was the right decision. I have been shocked at how bad Burke was as GM of the Leafs, and I’m a Burke fan. But the timing was dreadful. Now Dave Nonis has a great oppurtunity to start fresh and right some of Burke’s wrongs. But it remains to be seen if he’ll take that approach or have more of a “go for it” attitude.
I know for me if I were Nonis with a 3 year deal I would tell ownership “we are using this season to right some of the wrongs and get this ship back on course, it will only take this 1 shortened season”. I would deal Phil Kessel because the return on him would still be very good (a 1st, a high end prospect and a roster player). I’ve heard rumblings before that Kessel isn’t a very good teammate. Might be the perfect time to get him out of there. Then you don’t deal for Luongo and if the Leafs aren’t dealing for Luongo the Canucks might be forced to buy him out after this season because no other team is as desperate for a goaltender as the Leafs have been. Then finally with average goaltending and no Kessel this team likely would finish near the bottom of the standings and get that high pick they need. It’s a great draft to get a franchise centre, so if they had that pick and got one of McKinnon, Barkov, or Monahan they would be set both at centre and on the blueline moving forward.
I really don’t like the team that Burke built. They do have a ton of speed, but they have a lot of 1 dimensional guys. Lupul, Kessel, Grabovski, Connolly, Kadri, these are all guys that mostly play on the perimeter and don’t do the little things a team needs to win. You can have a few of those guys on the team, but not that many. And while I wouldn’t say James van Riemsdyk is 1 dimensional because he has that size to dominat down low, he doesn’t really offer a multi dimensional game. The kid I really like up front is Tyler Bozak. But I like Bozak to be a 3rd line centre who maybe develops into a 2nd line centre sometime down the road kind of like Mike Underwood did. I know Ron McLean raved all season about how much he likes Matt Frattin. He has nice size, nice wheels and he should get his chance this season.
The one area I love on this team is the blueline. Dion Phaneuf gets a lot of flack, but they still crushed the Flames in that trade and he can still be used in all situations. One of these seasons I expect him to put it all together, and Randy Carlyle is just the kind of coach who could get that kind of game out of him. They also crushed Anaheim in the deal that got them Jake Gardiner. Gardiner exceeded expectations last season. But there is big reason to expect him to take a step back next season. He will be given more responsibilities and he is coming off a concussion. That isn’t a good recipe to overcome the dreaded sophmore slump.
It remains to be seen if Morgan Rielly sticks with the big club, but they definitely hit it out of the park with that pick. It was risky with him coming off the knee injury, but the early returns have been tremendous. I could argue it either way weather they keep him or send him back to Moose Jaw, but I would probably send him back. Another half season in the WHL won’t hurt him at all and as I said off the top I believe the Leafs should take this chance to fix up Burke’s mistakes and start fresh next season with more cornerstones in the fold.
Nobody is giving James Reimer a shot to bounce back and that has to have him highly motivated this season. If he isn’t dealt I believe he can give the Leafs solid goaltending. A concussion can ruin a guys season, we’ve seen it so many times. The last time we saw him at 100% he was taking the league by storm as a rookie. Also now that they know what to expect from Randy Carlyle and will be in his system from day 1 I expect this team to be better defensively which of course will really help both Reimer and Scrivens….if they’re still the goaltenders.
I’ve said what I think this team should do. If they go for the playoffs I don’t think they’ll get there. The timing of the Burke firing was yet another distraction that this team didn’t need. I do think very highly of Randy Carlyle and this team does have enough talent for him to raise up there level of play to a 7th or 8th place finish. But a LOT of things would need to go right. Take this season and fix things up, start fresh in the fall.
5. Montreal Canadiens – Last season was a nightmare for the Habs, no other way to look at it. 2 firings of coaches on game days was a PR disaster. A lot of the fans and media refused to even give Randy Cunnyworth a chance as the interim coach. Scott Gomez went from overpaid to maybe the biggest underachiever in NHL history. It just wasn’t pretty, especially when you consider most expected them to be a playoff team last season. But they’ve cleaned house, Marc Bergevin is the new GM and he brought back Michel Therrien for his second tenure as head coach of the Habs. Things look up for the Habs but it just might not happen this season.
In my mind this was a blessing in disguise what happened last season. This franchise wasn’t going anywhere under Pierre Gauthier. They have one of the best goaltenders in the world who is still only 25, they have stockpiled d-men in the last few drafts, and they have a lot of good young wingers. This team hasn’t had a franchise centre for a very long time and more than any other spot in hockey if you don’t have a top 5 pick its not impossible to find that guy, but its improbable. They got the 3rd pick and Bergevin made not mistake in taking Alex Galchenyuk.
Now I personally wouldn’t keep Gally on the big club. Training camp is fine, giving him a few games is fine, but he can only make this team as a winger and I don’t know if he improves their top 6 that much. But even if he does, I don’t think this is the season the Habs want their top 6 improved quite frankly. Let him develop back in Sarnia for the rest of this season, roll with what you have and take that high pick that I believe they’ll have and make sure you have all your cornerstones in place. Then next season you look to get back in the playoffs.
Like I said though, the Habs don’t really suck in their top 6. The top line of Pacioretty, Desharnais and Cole was great last season. I’m not the biggest Tomas Plekanec fan, but he is an effective 2nd line centre. He is solid in his own zone, and can net you 50 points a season. I also really like what Bergevin did in upgrading the grit on this team. Brandon Prust is overpaid, but they have been desperate for a guy like him. I expect Colby Armstrong to bounce back with a good year. There isn’t nearly as much pressure on Armstrong going into Montreal as there was going into Toronto.
The defense is solid, although the PK Subban situation is starting to get troubling as of typing this (Wednesday). If they do get him locked down and it doesn’t get messy, while he’s erratic he is a guy that can log 25 minutes a night. Andrei Markov is finally healthy and while I don’t expect him to be the d-man he was a few years ago, he will improve the blueline and the lockout should have helped him ease into things playing in the KHL to start this season. Josh Gorges won’t grab your attention, but he is just a solid, dependable guy back there. He kind of sums up the blueline as a group, they won’t grab you attention but they’re solid.
I’m a huge Carey Price fan. I have him as the starter for Team Canada for the 2014 Olympics. He really is right there with guys like Quick, Lundqvist, Miller, Kiprusoff and Rinne as the premiere goaltenders in the league. He is effortless between the pipes and is so cool under pressure. And I believe the struggles in 2009 and 2010 that he had to endure in such a tough market like Montreal only hardend him even more so mentally.
I really like the direction this team appears to be heading. 1 more down year will be perfect for this team. As always you must explain that I’m not suggesting the coaches and players tank the season, no team would ever do that. But I’m saying a down season this year is likely better for the franchise then finishing 8th or 9th. They need 1 more stud player at the top of the draft to go with Galchenyuk, Price, Subban (if he gets signed) and others that would make them a cup contender down the road.
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