NORTHEAST DIVISION PREVIEW: Team and Players To Watch

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NORTHEAST DIVISION PREVIEW: Team and Players To Watch

A.J. Bloomquist - contributor to "Pucking Awesome"

Continuing the whirlwind tour, we head East for our next preview. The Boston Bruins are the class of the division, but it's anybody guess after that. Ottawa and Toronto are in rebuilding programs, Montreal finished with its renovation, and Buffalo is standing pat as usual. All four of these teams could potentially make the playoffs, but all four could miss them for various reasons. Feel free to scroll down as I explain my pics for how the Northeast division will play out for 2009-10.

1. BOSTON BRUINS

Rear View Mirror:  Boston capped off one of the most successful regular season campaigns in club history, registering their highest point output in over 25 years. Unfortunately, a heartbreaking seven game defeat to the Carolina Hurricanes sent the B’s to the golf course a bit too early last year.

If you check in several parts of Boston, Scott Walker is considered a curse word much like Aaron Boone back in 2003. Regardless, this team saw offensive breakout seasons from David Krejci (82GP, 22G-51A-73PTS, +37) and Phil Kessel (70GP, 36G-24A-60PTS, +23). All-world play from Norris-trophy winning defenseman Zdeno Chara (80GP, 19G-31A-50PTS, 95PIM) and Vezina-trophy winning goaltender Tim Thomas (54GP, 36-11-7, .933 SV%, 2.10 GAA) led towards the impressive 53-19-10 record last season.

Offseason Ins:  Derek Morris (PHX/NYR: 75GP, 5G-15A-20PTS, 40PIM), Steve Begin (MTL: 482 PIM in 409 career games), Dany Sabourin (PIT: 2.85 GAA in 19GP ’08-‘09)

Offseason Outs:  Steve Montador (to BUF), Shane Hnidy (to MIN), Stephane Yelle (to CAR)

What Makes Them Tick: From top to bottom, this team is the most complete in the Eastern Conference. Thomas and Chara’s numbers and accolades back that up, but also consider that this team has balanced scoring depth.

aEight players scored at least 20 goals (only Kessell cracked the 30 plateau), and six players contributed at least 30 assists. Throw in a full season of Mark Recchi (80GP, 23G-38A-61PTS between TB & BOS) and a healthy Patrice Bergeron (303 Career Games, 228 PTS) and Marco Sturm (156 PTS in 226 Career Games w/ BOS) will only add to the offensive depth. On the blueline, Chara returns with fellow 50 pt. defenseman Dennis Wideman (79 GP, 13G-37A) and newly acquired Derek Morris still gives the B’s the size and grit that can destroy opposing forwards. Factor in the coaching style of Claude Julien, fresh off of winning the Jack Adams, and the Bruins have all the markings of a Stanley Cup contender.

What Could Make Them Go Boom:  The Bruins must avoid the injury bug during the regular season and for any player participating in the Vancouver Olympics. Bergeron has missed parts of the past two seasons with concussion-related issues. Sturm only played 19 games before going down for the season with a left knee injury, but still managed to net 13 points in ‘08. While the forward units stepped up to fill in those holes, the same can’t be said for the defense and goaltender positions.

Losing Chara not only would hurt the defensive corps, but the voice on the ice as team Captain. Losing Thomas would definitely hurt the B’s between the crease. Dany Sabourin has started at least 15 games the past two seasons with Pittsburgh, but last started full time in the AHL. Tuukka Rask has had great success in the AHL with Providence, but has limited exposure to the NHL (5 Career Games).

Player to Watch:  Blake Wheeler, who entered rookie camp with an added 15 lbs of muscle, continues to show why he was taken 5th overall in 2004. If the Phil Kessell holdout continues into the regular season, look for Wheeler to take some of his minutes on top two lines. Wheeler pocketed 45 points in his first full season in the NHL, and has the size and skill set to increase that number exponentially in the years to come.

Prediction:  Look for the Bruins to snatch up a 2nd straight Northeast Division crown and a top-three playoff seeding. There is no excuse for this team to underachieve on the ice for 82 games this season, especially after the moves made by GM Peter Chiarelli to improve the defense. The offensive balance is still there. The goaltending position has no controversies. Ownership and management has brought in the tools to get the job done. The postseason is another issue, but I like their chances to be one of four potential representatives from the East in the Stanley Cup finals next spring.

2. BUFFALO SABRES

Rear View Mirror:  Flash back to late January 2009 – Buffalo was 6th in the East until injuries derailed a potential postseason appearance. The first significant injury came on February 11th, when Thomas Vanek (40G-24A-64PTS, 20PPG) suffered a fractured jaw after taking a puck to the face. Ten days later, Ryan Miller (59GP, 31-18-6, .919 SV %, 5 SO) went down with an ankle injury on a controversial hit behind the net from Scott Gomez. In the games without their All-Star netminder, the Sabres went 4-7-2 and sealed their fate as becoming the first team to miss the playoffs 2 straight years after winning the President’s Trophy. Many credited the failure towards GM Darcy Regier for not adding some grit to a roster full of finesse players.

Others pointed the blame towards Lindy Ruff’s coaching style during the putrid stretch. The real issues were on the ice, specifically towards players who weren’t living up to their paycheck. Players such as Jochen Hecht and Maxim Afinogenov (combined statline: 18G-29A-47PTS), who made a combined $7.3 million last season. In comparison, Paul Gaustad and Clarke MacArthur made almost one-third the amount of money ($2.25 million), but had the better combined statistics (29G-31A-60PTS).

Offseason Ins:  Steve Montador (ANA/BOS: 78GP, 4G-17A-21PTS, 143PIM), Mike Grier (SJ: 345PTS in 914 career games; 2nd stint with BUF), Cody McCormick (COL: 250PIM in 190 career games)

Offseason Outs:  Teppo Numminen (retired), Jaroslav Spacek (to MTL), Maxim Afinogenov (UFA), Andrew Peters (UFA)

What Makes Them Tick:  Under the Regier/Ruff era, Buffalo’s success has been pinned on a balanced system of players scoring, exceptional goaltending, and special teams. These two haven’t survived 12 seasons as the longest GM/coach tandem for no reason. These men are some of the best at identifying, drafting, and grooming talented hockey players. More amazingly, they have been able to draft and develop that talent when the Sabres were in Chapter 11 bankruptcy back in 2002-03.

Here’s a statistic for you - out of the 33 players who suited up in the Blue and Gold last season, the Sabres drafted 22 of them; More than any other team in the league. As for the aforementioned Miller and Vanek, forwards Derek Roy (82GP, 28G-42A-70PTS, 9 GWG) and Lady Byng finalist Jason Pominville (82GP, 20G-46A-66PTS, 18PIM) along with defenseman Henrik Tallinder (88PTS in 386CG, all with BUF) and Chris Butler (43GP, 16:43 TOI/G) are prime examples of how Buffalo’s system works. With youngsters such as Nathan Gerbe, Tim Kennedy, Tyler Myers, and Jhonas Enroth waiting in the wings to play in the NHL, the talent pool keeps replenishing itself season after season.

What Could Make Them Go Boom:  Two underlying factors can make the Sabres go boom for the 3rd straight season. First, losing Spacek (4G-18A on PP) to free agency means the Sabres have no true point man on the power play. Captain Craig Rivet (1G-10A on PP) and Andrej Sekera (1G-4A on PP) now are ordained as being the two PP QB’s, but expect Ruff to utilize a forward with a blistering slapshot on the point with these men. Potential candidates include Pominville (6G-18A on PP) and Tim Connolly (5G-13A on PP).

The other factor is how the Sabres fared against the teams that finished 11th-15th in the East. Last year, they finished a combined 10-9-5 against the lower third, including 2-2 against Tampa Bay (14th) and the Islanders (15th). But the biggest blemishes were a 1-4-1 mark against 11th ranked Ottawa, and a putrid 0-4 record against 13th ranked Atlanta. The Sabres must not overlook these opponents at all next season.

Player to Watch:  Jochen Hecht (370PTS in 618 career games) is due for a rebound after posting some of the most disappointing numbers of his career last year. He has been known for being one of the better two-way forwards in the league who can contribute offensively with at least 40 points. A consummate professional on and off the ice, Hecht knows he needs to improve those numbers or else he’ll have nightly billing in Lindy Ruff’s doghouse. With the return of Mike Grier to Buffalo (55’s linemate from 2004-06), look for Hecht to return to at least 15 goals and 40 points playing on the third line this season.

Prediction:  “Status Quo” is a phrase Sabres fans have stomached over the past several seasons from upper management. If anybody notices how the Sabres operate during the Regier/Ruff era, there is a pattern. Before the lockout saw two seasons of making the Eastern Conference Finals (including a Stanley Cup final), then a few years of either early elimination or early tee times. Since the lockout, two more seasons of making the Eastern Conference Finals, then two seasons of early tee times. Expect the “Status Quo” to continue, but in a positive fashion. Just because Buffalo didn’t add acquire any marquee players doesn’t necessarily mean they are doomed to miss the playoffs again. The team addressed the issue of grittiness to supplement the current skill players, and it should clinch a lower playoff seeding this season.

3.  MONTREAL CANADIENS

Rear View Mirror:  The Centennial for Les Bleu-Blanc-Rouge was supposed to be a season-long celebration for the oldest team in the NHL. Endless promotions honoring the greatest players in club history. Patrick Roy buried the hatchet with the Habs and returned home to have his #33 raised to the rafters. The All Star Game and NHL Entry Draft were awarded to the franchise as part of the festivities. Even the club on the ice, assembled by GM Bob Gainey, had all the components of capping off the Canadiens’ 100th Anniversary with the Stanley Cup.

Instead, the season was more Le Noir-Bleu than anything. Goaltender Carey Price (52GP, 23-16-10, 2.83GAA) hit the dreaded sophomore slump. Players ignored then-head coach Guy Carbonneau until he was fired and replaced by Gainey himself near the playoffs. The most famous of all the craziness was the alleged involvement of brothers Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn and Roman Hamerlik with a crime syndicate. All these factors turned a year of celebration into a year of sorrow in which the Canadiens limped into the 8th and final playoff spot, and were promptly swept by their arch-nemesis Bruins.

Offseason Ins:  Head Coach Jacques Martin, Mike Cammalleri (CGY: 81GP, 39G-43A-82PTS, -2), Brian Gionta (NJ: 81GP, 20G-40A-60PTS, +12), Scott Gomez (NYR: 77GP, 16G-42A-58PTS, 60PIM), Paul Mara (NYR: 640PIM in 639 career games), Jaroslav Spacek (BUF: 80GP, 8G-37A-45PTS, 38PIM)

Offseason Outs:  Christopher Higgins (to NYR), Doug Janik (to NYR), Tom Kostopolous (to CAR), Alexei Kovalev (to OTT), Mike Komisarek (to TOR), Saku Koivu (to ANA), Alex Tanguay (to TB)

What Makes Them Tick:  New head coach Jacques Martin has a good history of grooming younger players into becoming fixtures in the NHL. He did it in Ottawa with Daniel Afredsson, Alexei Yashin, and Zdeno Chara. He did it in Florida with Nathan Horton and Jay Bouwmeester. Now, with a young stable of players led by Kyle Chipchura (14PTS in 49 career games), Matt D’Agostini (53GP, 12G-9A-21PTS, 16PIM), and Ben Maxwell (2006 Draft - 2/49), Martin will again have a chance to go for the hat trick.

It will take training camp for the team to develop chemistry with all the new acquisitions, but expect Gionta and Gomez to set some of the tone as they did during their playing days in New Jersey. MOn defense, bringing in Spacek will really help out Andrei Markov on the power play. Markov specializes on setting up left side defensemen with the man advantage, and Spacek led Buffalo defensemen in points last season. Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak (34GP, 18-14-1, 2.86GAA, .915 SV%) are expected to share the workload in net, but Price must bounce back this season in order to be the clear-cut #1.

What Could Make Them Go Boom:  Montreal is tight on cap space with all the overspending on long-term deals during the first few days of free agency. Not to mention acquiring Scott Gomez’s bloated contract he signed with the Rangers 2 years ago that sees him getting paid $8 million over the next two seasons. While the team has young talent ready to crack the lineup, this will leave little room for the Habs to make trades at or near the deadline in order to acquire depth. If Gainey does make moves, they have to be on a dollar-for-dollar value. Many other teams have this issue now, such as Chicago and Boston. However, both of those clubs are in better positions for Cup runs than Montreal.

Player to Watch:  There isn’t one player to single out for the Canadiens at the moment. Eventually, the player to watch will be the individual who will follow the long line of Habs greats who have worn the captain’s “C” on their left pectoral. Players such as Lalonde, Blake, Richard, Beliveau, Gainey, Carbonneau, and most recently, Koivu. My hunch would be defenseman Andrei Markov (78GP, 12G-52A-54PTS, 24:37 TOI/G) to take a step closer to get that “C”. He is one of the most tenured and respected players on the current roster.

Prediction:  The 101st edition of Les Bleu-Blanc-Rouge will have its share of growing pains. If they kept a couple players from last year’s team, the Habs could’ve been easily looking at another postseason berth. Now, that’s not the case. It is going to take a lot of hard work and a lot of team jelling just to even be considered as a bubble team, much like last season’s underachieving club. It wouldn’t shock me if they sneak in as the 8th and final playoff team. It wouldn’t shock me if they missed the postseason all together. Nonetheless, it should be in interesting season to watch at the foot of Rue de la Gauchetière in Montreal.

4. TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

Rear View Mirror:  The ice surface at Air Canada Centre has not seen postseason hockey since the NHL emerged from the lockout in 2005. Four straight seasons of sub-par hockey, including an embarrassing 81-point output last year. Hope finally emerged in November when Brian Burke became the 1st American GM in club history to take on the role of rebuilding Toronto. On the ice, head coach Ron Wilson got the most out of what he had, led by Jason Blake (78GP, 25G-38A-63PTS, 40PIM) and Alexei Ponakorovsky (82GP, 23G-38A-61PTS, 54.6 FO%) up front.

Twelve players scored double-digit goals this past season, while ten contributed at least 10 assists. However, only one defenseman registered in both categories – Pavel Kubina (14G-26A in 82G). Defensive mainstay Tomas Kaberle (433PTS in 738 career games) battled injury for most of last season, being limited to 57 contests. Vesa Toskala (53GP, 22-17-11, 3.26GAA, .891 SV%) took hold of the starting goaltending spot last year, but isn’t the same player he was in San Jose.

Offseason Ins:  Francois Beauchemin (ANA: 90PTS in 246 career games), Mike Komisarek (MTL: 66GP, 2G-9A-11PTS, 121PIM), Colton Orr (NYR: 82GP, 1G-4A-5PTS, 193PIM), Grant Exelby (ATL: 511PIM in 357 career games), Jonas Gustavsson (Sweden)

Offseason Outs:  Pavel Kubina (to ATL), Justin Pogge (to ANA), Jeremy Williams (to DET)

What Makes Them Tick:  Ron Wilson is a coach that is on the cutting edge of technology. Much like the late Roger Nielson’s usage of analyzing videotape of opposing teams for scouting purposes, Wilson has utilized personal computers and tablet PC’s to analyze his own team and the opposition on the fly during the course of a game. This season, Wilson might have to analyze how may ways his defensemen can pick apart an offensive attack with the signings of Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin. Both of these blueliners are known for their physical style of play, one that Brian Burke loves. Add Jeff Finger (66GP, 6G-17A-23PTS, 136 HITS) and 19-year old Luke Schenn (more on him later) to the mix, and you have the makings of what could be a very physical defensive corps that will set the tone this year.

Expect more of the same physicality up front with the addition of Orr and Exelby to ensure Blake, Ponakarovsky, and Matt Stajan (76GP, 15G-40A-55PTS, 54PIM) continue to provide solid offensive numbers.

What Could Make Them Go Boom:  If injuries start to mount for Toronto, they won’t have much in the AHL pipeline for depth. Former Leafs GM John Ferguson, Jr. was one to buy his team’s success instead of drafting and developing players. He would trade away draft picks and prospects in order to win now, but it never happened. The league doesn’t work that way anymore. Burke will take the next couple of drafts to start building his farm system to his liking, but in the short term, look for quick free-agent signings to fill in any holes for the Leafs.

Player to Watch:  Expect great things from defenseman Luke Schenn (70GP, 2G-12A-14PTS, 71PIM) this season. This kid, dubbed the “Human Eraser” for his physical presence during the 2008 World Juniors, should benefit by having Komisarek and Beauchemin on his blueline for the next few seasons. Don’t expect any sophomore slump from Schenn, unless he decks a 2nd year player so hard the opposition is keeled over on his knees. He should be good for at least another 200+ hits this season and 120+ blocked shots.

Prediction:  Burke must have a sign in his office that reads “Bigger is Better”. They are still a year or two away from being mentioned in the playoff hunt. However, they are starting to take the steps in the right direction by acquiring big, bruising players and shedding the passive, finesse ones. A 2010 lottery pick seems to be in the cards for Toronto this season, but fear not Leafs fans. Burke’s rebuilding efforts usually take at least 2 years, as shown for his success with Vancouver, and especially Anaheim. It will take another year in Toronto to acquire the right pieces, but don’t doubt for one second that the product on the ice won’t be entertaining. It should prove to be bone-jarring fun!

5.  OTTAWA SENATORS

Rear View Mirror:  Three years removed from playing for the Stanley Cup, the Ottawa Senators are now a shell of what they once were. Inconsistent play, constant bickering, injuries, inconsistent goaltending, and the team’s 3rd coaching change in two years lead the Sens to miss the playoffs for the first time in over a decade. Obviously, when you think of offensive scoring on this team, it’s always going to be the top line of Dany Heatley (82GP, 39G-33A-72PTS), Jason Spezza (82GP, 32G-41A-73PTS), and team captain Daniel Afredsson (79GP, 24G-50A-74PTS). The next closest player in terms of points was defenseman Filip Kuba (71GP, 3G-37A-40PTS, 23:16 TOI/G).

Ottawa has always been a one-dimensional team in regards to the big three on offense. Despite the depressing beginning of the season, new head coach Cory Clouston showed that the Sens still have signs of life. Coupled with the stellar play of 24-year old netminder Brian Elliott (31GP, 16-8-3, 2.77GAA), this allowed the Sens to finish one game above .500 for the year.

Offseason Ins: Alexei Kovalev (MTL: 78GP, 26G-39A-65PTS, 74PIM)

Offseason Outs: Alex Auld (to DAL), Brendan Bell (to STL)

What Makes Them Tick:  Nearing 40 years of age, Cory Clouston may be one of the youngest coaches in the NHL. Don’t let that fool you for one minute that he is inexperienced. He is a two-time WHL coach of the year, and CHL coach of the year in 2005 with the Kootenay Ice. After posting a respectable 19-11-4 record after taking over for Craig Hartsburg mid-season, his first full year behind the bench will bring a new style of hockey in Canada’s capital. Instead of the defensive-first scheme used in previous seasons, Clouston employs an attacking style in order to create turnovers. Don’t look for this team to rely on Alfredsson, Spezza, and Heatley to carry the load this season.

Alexei Kovalev was brought in from Montreal to add more offensive depth to Ottawa. Expect more secondary scoring to come from players like Chris Campoli (13PTS in 25G w/OTT), Brian Lee (53GP, 2G-11A-13PTS, 33PIM) and Nick Foligno (who I will touch on a bit later). Will the 2009 trade deadline acquisition of Pascal Leclare (45-55-10, 2.82GAA in 125 career games) from Columbus really be the answer for Ottawa’s goaltending woes for the past six years? He hasn’t played a game in 5 months since the trade, and he’s battling for the starting job with Elliott.

What Could Make Them Go Boom:  The one issue that can make Ottawa go boom already has, and his name is Dany Heatley. After four years and a Stanley Cup finals appearance in Canada’s capital, he wants out because he’s being utilized the wrong way. The trade to Edmonton was on the table, but he utilized his NTC because he wanted to see options from other teams. Various reports suggest Heatley has become a locker room cancer, and how he’s handled himself this off-season seems to back up those allegations. He didn’t even show up for linemate Jason Spezza’s wedding in Ottawa over the summer. What does that tell you about being a good teammate? It will become more interesting to see what happens if he is dealt or not before the opening of training camp. He says he will report if he is not moved, but will he really?

Player to Watch: Nick Foligno has the skills and the pedigree to become a perennial 20 goal scorer. His father, Mike, was known for his offensive numbers and subsequent leaping abilities back in the 1980’s for the Sabres. Although he leaped to pay tribute to his father after scoring his 1st NHL goal, the only way he leaps now is in his goal song - Van Halen’s “Jump”. Foligno scored 17 goals last season, the highest total from somebody not named Dany, Daniel, or Jason. As outlined earlier, Clouston is utilizing an attacking style system this season, so expect plenty of forechecking. This should benefit gritty players like Foligno. If Nick is anything like his father, the grit should translate into his first 20-goal season. Senators fans, get ready to ‘leap’ out of your seats for #71.

Prediction: At the end of the season, Daniel Alfredsson said “I don’t believe we are in a rebuilding mode. I think the whole organization (believes) we're not that far off.”. Somebody should tell “Alfie” that the Ottawa Senators are in a rebuilding mode for this season. A new coach in his first full season with a new system, an All-Star with a Napoleon Complex (granted, he’s a 6’4” Napoleon), and a goal crease that hasn’t seen a legitimate number 1 since Patrick Lalime are all the signals you need. Ottawa will miss the playoffs again this year, but will still have plenty of firepower to be reckoned with as a spoiler.

 

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