NHL Northeast Division 2009/2010: Review and Preview

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NHL Northeast Division 2009/2010: Review and Preview
(Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

he Northeast division had the second best winning percentage in the league last year at .561. Like the Northwest, they’re catering to some of the more rabid fan bases in hockey and so tend to spend and at times overspend every year. When Montreal, Toronto, or Ottawa don’t have a big new free agent signing by July there’s some screaming going on.

Boston has gotten into the same boat and has found itself in huge cap trouble this year. I’d expect Ottawa and Toronto to improve marginally and Boston to slip back a bit this year. Montreal and the only inactive northeastern team, Buffalo, should mill around just where they were last year.

 

Boston Bruins

Boston was the best team in the regular season in the east last year. They swept the Canadians in the first round. They then took too long to get going again against Carolina. They lost in seven to the Hurricanes.

Boston was running one of the better goaltending tandems in hockey last year with Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez teaming up. Thomas played two thirds of the team’s minutes. Among goalies that played at least a third of their teams minutes Thomas lead the league with a .933 save percentage and 2.10 GAA. This was on a Boston team that was offense oriented and gave up 30.8 shots per game.

This was the tenth highest total in the league and yet Boston had the best team goals against average in the league. They gave up a league fewest 196 goals. Manny Fernandez was left unsigned and 22-year-old prospect Tuukka Rask will be asked to assume the backup role. Thomas can be expected to play more games with a youngster as his backup and it will be interesting to see how those added minutes affect his Vezina trophy winning numbers.

Boston will be hoping to tighten up their defense this year. Gargantuan Zdeno Chara will lead the way with his physical presence and huge shot. Dennis Wideman gives them a second offensively skilled defenseman. Andrew Ference is a smaller guy but a good puck mover and skater. He’s pretty precise in his own zone and rarely makes mistakes.

Youngster Matt Hunwick was resigned for two years at $1.45 million a year. That gives them more puck moving youth on the blue line at a bargain price. Mark Stuart is another young defenseman though with more limited skills. He provides a more physical presence. Gritty veterans Hnidy and Ward were left to sign elsewhere because the Bruins didn’t have the cap space to bring back everyone.

Boston signed enigmatic defenseman Derek Morris for a year at 3.3 million dollars. Morris is an in-betweener. He’s not a shut down defensive defenseman and he’s not an offensive threat.

That tends to get him underestimated because he’s hard to categorize. The former first round pick is still a good skater and puck mover. He doesn’t have the finishing skills of a first class power play quarterback. He’s also more physical then you’d think. He can fight most of the leagues middleweights as well. Morris keeps the defense a collection of fast moving defensemen. He represents an upgrade from Hnidy and Ward and should be able to fit in nicely on the second defensive pairing. I think the defense will be better this year with him.

The forwards were Boston’s strength last year and their greatest strength was right down center. Savard is probably the second or third best playmaker in the league and fast and tricky to boot. They resigned David Krejci, perhaps the best second line center in the league for $3.75 million a year. That’s nice considering the year before that they paid Ryder four million a year.

Patrice Bergeron was one of the great young players in the league before his concussion. He hasn’t completely regained that form yet but perhaps this year he’ll manage to improve over last year which will allow Boston to grow the offense internally.

The big problem this year will be finishing. Boston chose to re-sign David Krejci and Matt Hunwick. They had no money left for last year’s goal scoring leader Phil Kessel. His 36 goals went to Toronto. Next on the depth chart was Michael Ryder but he’s historically topped out at 30. There has to be a hope that Marco Sturm back from injury, big fast Blake Wheeler, and the finely aged Mark Recchi can provide the scoring they’ll need. It is a little troubling. Lucic, Thornton, and Begin give them sandpaper and perhaps Lucic will chip in with 20 goals this year.

The Bruins look to be cash strapped all year which may get them into cap trouble by year's end. A deal to dump salary would help. I think they’ve improved the defense. Any offensive improvement is going to have to be internal with players having better years. Tim Thomas’s league leading numbers may decline a bit with work load this year. I look for Boston to win the Northeast handily again but finish behind Pittsburgh in the East. 

 

Montreal Canadiens

Montreal had a disappointing year. After finishing first in the Eastern Conference in 2007-08 they managed to sneak into eighth last year by virtue of having beaten the Florida Panthers in their season series. They were swept in the first round by the Bruins. A rebound season might have been anticipated with this line-up but instead Montreal blew it up and is starting over again almost from scratch.

The goaltending is being handled by two talented youngsters, Jaroslav Halak and Carey Price. Montreal gave up a lot of shots last year and while Halak seemed to thrive under that pressure, Price wilted. He was Gainey’s choice to carry them through the playoffs and he was weak.

They’ve hung their hopes on Price again this year and if he fails, they will miss the playoffs. Price has excelled at every other level of hockey. The problem in the NHL has seemed to be an inability to deal with the pressure and scrutiny in Montreal. The Habs will live and die with their two young goalies. If Price doesn’t pan out expect Gainey to be gone after this season.

Montreal’s defense last year had a lot of trouble in their own end. The 31.7 shots per game they gave up were seventh most in the league. They also missed the power play quarterbacks they’ve lost the last two years, Souray and Streit. The defense showed a lack of depth that became painful whenever one of their quality defensemen like Komisarek was hurt. They had no one to plug in the hole. Komisarek signed with Toronto. Bouillon signed with Nashville. Schneider is in Vancouver. Brisebois retired. Mathieu Dandenault has been left to seek employment elsewhere.

Who’s left? Andrei Markov is a first class puck moving defenseman with offensive skills. Roman Hamrlik is a 35-year-old defenseman who looked to be near the end when he was signed away from Calgary. He’s another in-between defenseman. He has some offensive skill. He’s a big-bodied player who sometimes provides a physical element. He’s old and slow however and grossly overpaid at $5.5 million a year for another two years.

Jaroslav Spacek was another 35-year-old brought in, I’m guessing, to help out on the power play. He doesn’t have Schneider’s shot and he’s also on the downward end of his talent curve. Stanley Cup winner and big bodied defenseman Hal Gill has also been brought in to provide a physical element and winning attitude. He’s got that, but this 35-year-old can’t skate and in any NHL that’s always been a problem.

Paul Mara is a reasonably priced physical defenseman. He’s a good pick-up. Josh Gorges a throw-in from the Craig Rivet deal has developed into a good physical cost-effective defenseman. He probably gives Montreal the best value per dollar spent on the roster. Ryan O’Byrne had a miserable year trying to make the club last year. He’s a good skater, young and physical. Montreal has to hope the experience of last year will pay off.

The defense is deeper then last year and with the three 35-plus players on it, it will have to be. Guys are going to get injured. Still, this stop-gap defense will be better then last year's and hopefully youngsters will begin feeding into the big club over the next couple of years. I still think the Habs need more of an offensive specialist on the power play. Marc Andre Bergeron is still out there looking for work.  

The offense that carried them in 2007-08 abandoned them last year. In the end only Kovalev seemed to show any inclination or ability to score. Other teams figured it out pretty quickly and they were all over him. I expect the talented Kovalev to have a very good year in Ottawa where they’ll probably be running two veteran scoring lines. Saku Koivu was allowed to go off and sign with Anaheim. The Habs traded defensive prospect Ryan McDonagh and Chris Higgins to the Rangers and took on Scott Gomez’ milestone of a contract which still has five years to run at over $7 million dollars a season.

He’s the most expensive second-line center in hockey. That said the playmaker should mesh nicely with the two speedster/snipers the habs signed: Cammalleri and Gionta. If Plekanec and Kostitsyn can recapture some of the offense they showed in 2007-08, Montreal could be scoring more then the not inconsiderable 249 they managed last year. Checking from veterans Travis Moen, Glen Metropolit, and Lapierre may prove to be more physical then last years and again might help the defense and goaltending out.

Montreal’s season is dependant on Price being able to handle the goaltending load.  I’ve yet to see evidence that he can do that. I think the offense and defense will get sorted out and be marginally better then last year but if the goaltending fails it has and will demoralize the rest of the team. I think the Habs will slip a little back in the East into 11th place and get passed by Buffalo and Ottawa in the Northeast. They don’t really have the cap room to add an impact player unless they can dump one of the big contracts, like Hamrlik's.

 

Buffalo Sabres

Buffalo missed the playoffs last year by two points in the East and then spent their offseason doing nothing. They’re the only Northeast division team with even a modicum of cap room left and it has to be worrying that they’ve done nothing with it. They are however able to make a move during the season if they are so inclined.

 

The Sabres have a top ten goalie in Ryan Miller leading them. Unfortunately when he got hurt in the stretch run Buffalo put in Patrick Lalime and he was useless. The first offseason move they should have made was to pick up a real backup goalie. Instead they’re going to run with Lalime again and perhaps Jonas Enroth from the farm. They must know that Ryan Miller won’t get injured this year. It’s unfortunate because a Josh Harding or Manny Fernandez probably could have helped this team out immeasurably and certainly have provided insurance in nets.

Craig Rivet is an aging, hard edged defenseman. Having him and Tallinder in the lineup leaves them more open to injury then some teams. Ex-Flames Montador and Lydman give them a couple of competent journeymen. Youngster Tyler Myers should get a chance to show whether he’s going to be a big gangly Larry Robinson kind of defenseman or more of a Moe Robinson. Either way Buffalo needs a youngster to play some defensive minutes. The loss of Spacek leaves them looking for an offensive defenseman. Marc Andre Bergeron would be a cheap option.   

The offense managed 250 goals last year. The first line of Roy, Pominville, and Vanek is proven and comfortable with each other. Connolly needs to stay healthy and together with Stafford, Macarthur, and/or Paille provide some secondary offense. A Jochen Hecht who managed twenty goals and fifty points would be a bonus for Buffalo. They let Afinogenov leave with few regrets. Maybe he’ll restart his career in Atlanta with Kovalchuk and Antropov but he’d certainly played out the string in Buffalo. He’d devolved into more of a Sergei Samsonov after looking like a Mogilny at the start of his career.

The Buffalo Sabres did little to fill the gaps they had or replace the free agents they lost. Even the most basic expedient of picking up an experienced backup goalie to avoid the problem that kept them out of the playoffs last year was not tried. They have a little money to spend and I think they may still address some needs before the trade deadline. The fact that their lineup has been maintained from last year will I believe allow Buffalo to sneak in to the playoffs in the East. They’ll be the best of those bad teams that will go nowhere in the playoffs. I see Buffalo finishing sixth in the East and second in the Northeast.        

 

Ottawa Senators

Ottawa made the transition from perennial playoff performers to also-rans in the blink of an eye. They finished 11th last year ten points out of the playoffs. It was looking like it was going to be a long climb out back to respectability.

At the trade deadline last year Ottawa moved speedy checker Antoine Vermette to Columbus for their old starting goalie Pascal Leclaire. Leclaire was coming off an ankle injury last year but looks to be healthy at the start of this season. The year before in Columbus it was Leclaire who lead the league in shut-outs with nine. Ottawa (28.5) and Columbus (27.8) both gave up low numbers of shots per game last year. I can certainly believe Leclaire, if healthy, could reproduce the numbers he managed in Columbus. Combined with youngster Brian Elliot he could perhaps produce some of the best goaltending this iteration of the Ottawa Senators has ever seen.

The Ottawa defense was relatively steady last year while giving up the sixth fewest shots on goal in the league. Jason Smith has retired from this group and Brian Lee and Chris Schubert have both been demoted to the AHL. Chris Phillips a nasty shut-down defenseman leads the way for Ottawa along with Russian shot blocker Anton Volchenkov. Filip Kuba and Chris Campoli played the point on last years power play and are back again.

Last years first round pick Eric Karlsson has made the team out of training camp and will get a shot on the power play. Career AHLer Matt Carkner is going to get a chance on the blueline in Ottawa. He’ll bring some veteran professional defense to Ottawa and should help Phillips and Volchenkov bring a physical game to Ottawa’s opponents. Alex Picard will round out the defense.

Offense has been the strength of this team historically. Last year the offense was in the dumper. Then a disgruntled Heatley demanded and refused a trade in the off-season. Ottawa finally managed to deal the reluctant sniper to San Jose for speedy forward Milan Michalek, waning sniper Jonathon Cheechoo, and a second round pick. Anticipating the departure of Heatley Ottawa signed manic-depressive talent Alexei Kovalev. If Cheechoo and Michalek pan out Ottawa for the first time in years will have six offensively talented forwards in their lineup.

Spezza, Alfredsson, Kovalev, Fisher, Michalek and Cheechoo could revitalize an Ottawa offense that scored a fourth-worst in the conference 217 goals last year. I think Cheechoo is on his way out of the league. His progression from 56 to 37 to 23 to 12 goals in a season doesn’t bode well for the coming year. Michalek and Fisher are good medium talented forwards who hopefully will supply 20-25 goals and 50-60 points each. Spezza and Alfredsson should do well as always.

I’m anticipating that Kovalev, playing on the second line for the first time in years, will do very well in a situation where he isn’t the focus of the opposition defense. Their checking with Jarkko Ruutu, Neil, and Kelly should certainly have an edge.

Ottawa is another of these Northeast teams that’s spent all the money they have. They’re also committed to spending $47 million “next” year (2010-11) on fourteen roster spots. It may get worse before it gets better. Still, I see Ottawa getting good goaltending out of Leclaire and better scoring from a lineup that’s dropped one of the best snipers in the game. I see Ottawa sneaking into the playoffs in seventh behind Buffalo and just ahead of Montreal.

 

Toronto Maple Leafs

Toronto managed to be just good enough last year, 24th in the league, to finish out of the John Tavares sweepstakes. That was not optimal positioning. Nazim Kadri was their booby prize and he looks to be a pretty decent player in Toronto in a couple years.

The Leafs dealt for Vesa Toskala from San Jose to solve their goaltending worries. So far he’s failed and he’ll be on a short leash in Toronto this year. If he falters, expect new flavour of the month Jonas Gustavsson to get a chance at starting in the NHL. Personally I’m worried when any NHL player starts his season by having a heart procedure done before training camp.

Toronto has acted to solidify their defense. Power play quarterback Pavel Kubina moving to Atlanta opened up some cap room. Toronto picked up the best offensive defenseman available in Francois Beauchemin and the hardest hitter available in Mike Komisarek. Beachemin also brings a physical element to any team he joins.

They have the offensively skilled and reasonably priced Tomas Kaberle still under contract. Steady defender Jeff Finger is still playing responsible minutes. Sophomore Luke Schenn may see some of his responsibilities reduced as his supporting cast has improved.

Ian White is a young, very inexpensive puck mover who should also get plenty of chances to prove he can help the Leafs. Garnet Exelby provides more feisty minutes from the back-end. The defense should improve considerably from the outfit that gave up a middle-of-the-road 30.3 shots per game last year.

The offense is the team's weakness and the lack of a real first string center will kill their offense in the end. Matt Stajan is a converted checker and Toronto’s first line center. Blake, Stempniak, Grabovski, Hagman, and Ponikarovsky are reasonably talented offensive players. Phil Kessel is a great pick-up. He's a young sniper with a world of potential. He’ll miss the start of the season though he’s expected back in November. Toronto will struggle to score all year, especially while Kessel is out. I look for them to score fewer then last year.

Toronto has made some strides forward personnel-wise. They still have some big gaps to fill, at center and probably in nets. I expect an improved defense and goaltending next year but I think this line-up will be hard pressed to equal last years 250 goals. I see Toronto finishing last in the Northeast and fourteenth in the east. They’ve currently spent all their money. I think next year they’ll have $36 million dedicated to ten roster spots so they’ll be able to address their needs in nets and on the front end. I wonder if Burke will try to make a deal for Giguere from Anaheim. 

 

 

2009-10 NE Prediction                                     2008-09 NE Final Standings

1/Boston(2)            110                                        1/Boston(1)             116

2/Buffalo(6)             93                                        2/Montreal(8)            93

3/Ottawa (7)             92                                       3/Buffalo (10)            91

4/Montreal(11)         85                                       4/Ottawa(11)              83

5/Toronto (14)          70                                       5/Toronto(12)             81

 

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