NHL Season Preview and Predictions: An in-Depth Look at the Northeast Division
The Northeast division is home to three Original 6 teams, but it's the only division with one Stanley Cup champion since the 1994-95 NHL lockout.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, Buffalo Sabres, Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators make up this division, and there is never a shortage of storylines involving these teams before, during and after each season.
The Bruins won the division last year for the third time in the last four seasons, and go into this season as the favorites to win it again. The Ottawa Senators went from last place to second place in just one season, which helped them earn the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference in 2011-12.
Will the Sabres, Leafs and Canadiens have bounce-back seasons, or will the Bruins and Senators continue to be the class of the division?
Let's look at an in-depth preview of the Northeast division heading into the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.
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Projected Order of Finish for 2012-13
- Boston Bruins
- Montreal Canadiens
- Ottawa Senators
- Buffalo Sabres
- Toronto Maple Leafs
The Bruins' Stanley Cup title defense ended earlier than expected last season when they lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Washington Capitals in overtime of Game 7.
The only notable departure from last year's team was veteran goaltender Tim Thomas, who is still in Colorado with his family enjoying retirement.
Boston finished second in scoring last season and it's unlikely that will change since many of their young forwards such as Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand are only going to get better.
The strength of the team is its defense, and head coach Claude Julien has a ton of depth at his disposal. Top prospect Dougie Hamilton will be an important part of that depth and brings a lot of size and skill to the blue line.
The success of the Bruins following the lockout will be impacted the most by their goaltending, and if Tuukka Rask is able to shine as the starting goaltender like he did in the 2009-10 season, winning the Stanley Cup will be an attainable goal in 2013.
Player to Watch: Dougie Hamilton
The Bruins and their fans have high expectations for the 19-year-old defenseman, and he has looked pretty good in training camp thus far.
Hamilton gives Boston another physical presence (6'5", 199 lbs) on the blue line who has impressive offensive skills. He's a tremendous passer, he moves the puck well, his skating is polished, and he has a booming slap shot that's also accurate.
Most rookie defensemen don't get a lot of ice time at the beginning of the season, but expect Julien to use Hamilton quite a bit, especially on the power-play.
Player Under the Most Pressure: Tuukka Rask
As the player whose successes and failures will impact the Bruins more than anyone else, starting goaltender Tuukka Rask will be under the most pressure to perform at a high level this season.
Rask will likely play anywhere from 20-25 games in the 48-game season, and the team will be expecting him to keep developing as a star goaltender.
Unlike a lot of young goalies who take over the starting job on a championship contender, Rask already knows what its like to play in a starter's role with the Bruins, and he has played against many top teams over the last two years.
Boston won't win the Stanley Cup if Rask doesn't play well consistently, so he will be under the most pressure to perform this year.
Biggest Weakness: Power-play
The Bruins ranked 22nd in power-play goals and 15th in power-play percentage last year. Boston's power-play has been very inconsistent since the 2010-11 season, including the team's last two playoff runs.
One of the reasons why the Bruins couldn't score enough goals to beat the Capitals in the playoffs last season was their inability to take advantage of power-play opportunities.
Boston was 2-23 with the man advantage versus Washington, and if the power-play struggles continue into this season, the Bruins might have to make a trade for a goal scorer before the April 3 trade deadline.
Expectation: Win the Stanley Cup
The Bruins have a high-powered offense (second in goals in 2011-12), a great group of defenseman and strong goaltending (sixth in GAA in 2011-12).
Fans will expect another Stanley Cup triumph this season, and when you look at the playoff experience, talent and depth on the Bruins roster, this expectation is certainly a fair one.
If Rask plays well, and the Bruins don't have any star players injured in the playoffs, they should be representing the Eastern Conference in the 2013 Stanley Cup Final.
The Montreal Canadiens went from being the sixth seed in the 2010-11 Eastern Conference playoffs to the last-place team in the Northeast division last year.
However, with Andrei Markov returning to a blue line that should also include P.K. Subban (currently an RFA) and Josh Gorges, the Canadiens should once again be a difficult team to score on.
Montreal's offense should also be better with captain Brian Gionta returning from injury, Max Pacioretty continuing to develop into a star player, and the arrival of Alex Galchenyuk, who was the third overall pick in the 2012 draft.
The Canadiens should be a much-improved team in 2013.
Player to Watch: Alex Galchenyuk
The Canadiens didn't have enough center depth or top-tier offensive skill last season, but the addition of top prospect Alex Galchenyuk should give new head coach Michel Therrien the strength up the middle that he needs.
Galchenyuk's vision, passing skills and goal scoring ability may earn him a top-six role in the early part of the season.
After scoring 61 points (27 goals and 34 assists) in 33 games for the OHL's Sarnia Sting during the lockout, it's clear that the 18-year-old forward is ready to make his NHL debut.
Player Under the Most Pressure: Rene Bourque
Rene Bourque did not play well for the Canadiens after he was acquired from the Calgary Flames in exchange for Mike Cammalleri.
He played 38 games for both the Flames and Canadiens last season, and wasn't able to give Montreal much scoring in the final half of the year.
Bourque is the fourth-highest paid forward on the Canadiens, and he must perform at a higher level this season if he is to play a top-six role. If he struggles to start the season, there will be a lot of pressure on him to improve quickly.
Biggest Weakness: Power-play
The Canadiens had the third-worst power-play last season with just a 14.3 percent success rate.
However, drawing penalties wasn't a problem for Montreal since the team ranked third in the league with 301 power-play opportunities.
Gionta's return and the addition of Galchenyuk should help the Canadiens power-play in a major way because both players are playmakers and can score goals. Subban is also one of the best power-play defenseman in the NHL.
If the Canadiens stay healthy this season, their biggest weakness from last year will be a real strength in 2013.
Expectation: Make the Playoffs
Will Montreal Make the playoffs?
If the Canadiens didn't lose so many key players to injuries last season, they probably would have earned a playoff spot. Making the postseason is the goal this year, especially since Montreal has one of the league's top goaltenders in Carey Price.
The Canadiens had the second best penalty kill and ranked 11th in GAA average last year, and if they defend just as well this season and the offense improves, expect Montreal to return to the playoffs.
Very few people expected the Ottawa Senators to make the playoffs last season just one year after they finished at the bottom of the division standings.
Not only did the Senators earn a playoff spot in 2011-12, they nearly beat the No. 1 seed New York Rangers in the first round, but lost in Game 7 at Madison Square Garden.
There's no reason why Ottawa should fail to make the playoffs this season since they have returned the same group of forwards that finished fourth in scoring last year, and have tremendous goaltending depth with Ben Bishop, Robin Lehner and Craig Anderson.
Player to Watch: Erik Karlsson
Erik Karlsson won the Norris Trophy last season and led the league in scoring among defensemen with 78 points.
Winning this award has raised expectations of the 22-year-old star going into his fourth full NHL season. He also has a new seven-year, $45.5 million contract to live up to.
It will be interesting to see how Karlsson follows up his impressive 2011-12 season, but it would be unfair to expect him to perform close to a point-per-game pace again.
The one aspect of Karlsson's game that must improve is his defense, especially in his own end. The biggest impact that he can make on the Senators' success this year is to play well defensively, especially with Jared Cowen hurt and not returning to the lineup for a while.
Player Under the Most Pressure: Craig Anderson
Who should start in net for Ottawa?
Craig Anderson had an impressive 2011-12 season, but he will be on a short leash to start 2013 because head coach Paul MacLean has two talented young goaltenders to play in Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop.
If Anderson struggles in the early part of the season, MacLean may have no choice to replace him, and Lehner will probably be the first backup who gets to start if that happens.
Anderson will start the season as the No. 1 goalie, but he must play like one on a consistent basis to avoid being benched, especially when there are two other netminders fully capable of performing at a high level if given the opportunity to play.
Biggest Weakness: Defensive Depth/Lack of Toughness
Cowen's injury and the departure of veteran defenseman Matt Carkner has given MacLean some issues on defense.
He doesn't have enough depth or toughness on this blue line, and unless the team makes a trade, this weakness probably won't be addressed this season.
Expectation: Win a Playoff Round
Ottawa nearly upset the Eastern Conference's top seed last season, and since the team did not lose any major players from last year's roster, the Senators will be expected to take the next step and win a playoff round in 2013.
If the team's goaltending and offense are as good as they were last year, the Senators will make the playoffs and be a tough team to defeat in a seven-game series.
The Buffalo Sabres have made the playoffs just twice in the last five years, and were knocked out in the first round each time. They also have finished better than third place in the Northeast division just once in the last five years.
It's safe to say that this is a very important year for the Sabres, who have too much talent to miss the playoffs for the second straight year.
The offseason acquisitions of Steve Ott and John Scott will give head coach Lindy Ruff a little more toughness at forward, but the success of the team will be determined by the performances of the defensemen and star goaltender Ryan Miller.
Player to Watch: Cody Hodgson
This is a big year for Cody Hodgson as he attempts to earn a permanent place in the top-six forward group, with the most likely spot for him being second line center.
Hodgson can provide the Sabres with consistent goal scoring and tremendous speed. He should also help the Sabres power-play, which finished 16th in the league last season.
Expect the 22-year-old forward to have a breakout year in 2013.
Player Under the Most Pressure: Christian Ehrhoff
Christian Ehrhoff was the Sabres' most expensive free agent signing in the summer of 2011, and in his first season in Buffalo, he was a disappointment offensively.
The German defenseman had improved his scoring production for three straight years until last season, when he scored 32 points (five goals and 27 assists), which was an 18-point decline from 2010-11.
He is too talented to score just 32 points in 65 games, and if Ehrhoff doesn't play at a high level consistently this season, the Sabres offense won't improve that much.
Ehrhoff's huge contract and struggles from last year will put a lot of pressure on him to play like the No. 1 defenseman he's capable of being this season.
Biggest Weakness: Left Wing
Star forward Thomas Vanek is the only left winger currently on the Sabres depth chart who scored more than 25 points last season.
Buffalo needs Ville Leino to have a much-improved sophomore season with the team and provide some scoring depth to the left wing position or he could be bought out in the summer.
The two other left wingers on the roster are Marcus Foligno and Nathan Gerbe. Foligno is a good goal scorer and was only able to play in 14 games last season. He's a wild card this season, and if he plays well, the Sabres will get some much-needed scoring from the left wing.
Expectation: Make the Playoffs
Will Buffalo make the playoffs?
Sabres ownership has spent a lot of money over the last two years to build a strong roster, and now it's time for this team to end the disappointment and make the playoffs.
Miller's performance between the pipes and the team's ability to score goals consistently will determine the Sabres' fate this season.
The Sabres were 17th in goals scored and 19th in penalty killing during 2011-12, and if they improve in both areas, it's likely that Buffalo will return to the playoffs. Anything less than a postseason berth in 2013 would be a massive failure.
Toronto Maple Leafs
The Maple Leafs started off last season with a record of 9-3-1, but they were unable to win games consistently late in the year, which prevented them from making the playoffs.
Following a February 6 win against the Edmonton Oilers, the Leafs finished the year 7-18-4, which plummeted them from playoff contention to the fourth place in the division standings.
The key for the Leafs in 2013 is goaltending, and if this area of the team doesn't improve, Toronto's seven-year playoff drought will not end.
Player to Watch: Joffrey Lupul
A great season in 2011-12 has raised expectations of Joffrey Lupul this year. Not only is the 29-year-old playing for a new contract, he will play a major role in the team's offense as a part of the first line and top power-play unit.
Lupul hasn't scored 45 or more points or played in 50 or more games in back-to-back seasons since he did both from 2007-08 through 2008-09.
For the Leafs to score enough goals (which they will have to do because of their lack of defensive depth), they need Lupul to have another fantastic season.
Player Under the Most Pressure: James Reimer
James Reimer is the starting goaltender of the Leafs at the moment, but if he fails to play well in January, fans will call in to sports radio stations across Canada asking new general manager Dave Nonis to make a trade for Vancouver Canucks star Roberto Luongo.
This could be Reimer's final opportunity to prove that he can play at a high level consistently, play a lot of games without getting injured and show that he's the right goalie to help the Leafs contend for years to come.
There's a lot of Leafs players facing high expectations this season, but no one is under more pressure than Reimer.
Biggest Weakness: Defense
Only the Tampa Bay Lightning had a worse GAA than the Leafs last season, and only the Lightning and the New York Islanders had a worse goal differential among Eastern Conference teams.
If the Leafs don't defend better in their own end this season, it will be impossible for them to make the playoffs. No team ranked 25th or worse in GAA made the playoffs in 2011-12.
Part of any defensive improvement has to come from the Leafs' penalty kill, a unit that ranked 28th last year with a 77.3 percent success rate.
The Leafs are the only team in the division without a top-tier goaltender, so if they don't defend properly, it's going to be hard for them to finish better than last place in the Northeast.
Expectation: Make the Playoffs
Making the playoffs with their current roster may be an unfair expectation of the Leafs, but when you miss the playoffs seven straight seasons in a hockey market like Toronto, losing is not going to be tolerated.
Toronto will have to make a decision to use some young players and/or draft picks to acquire a veteran for a playoff push, or stay the course and keep building a contending roster.
With Rogers and Bell entering their first season as majority owners of the franchise, I would expect the Leafs to try and earn a playoff spot this season, even if prospects have to be part of a trade for a player like Luongo.
However, the most important goal for the Leafs is to make sure that young players such as Jake Gardiner, Phil Kessel and Morgan Rielly keep improving.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Columnist at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.
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