This is Part Three of an eight-part series of questions about the Sabres that many people have been wondering about over the offseason.
The Northeast Division of the Eastern Conference in the NHL was quietly one of the strongest divisions in the league last year, sending four of its five teams to the playoffs.
Seeing as there are only eight slots for teams to make it, with half of them being from one division, that’s pretty good. The Buffalo Sabres won this division only to go down to division rival Boston in the first round of the playoffs.
The Sabres generally have the same team makeup as last year. While they lost Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman to free agency, the Sabres signed two serviceable defenseman who to replace them, and they should fill in quite fine this season. The Sabres also lost Tim Kennedy over a contract dispute. However, as a small third line center, that may not matter much. The Sabres are replacing Kennedy with veteran Rob Niedermayer.
On top of that, the Sabres are expected to have both Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe make the big club this year, following Sabres status quo that they can easily fill spots on the roster with young rookies.
With all the new additions and subtractions in the background, the Sabres core of Thomas Vanek, Ryan Miller, Derek Roy, and Jason Pominville all come back, ready for a new season with the Sabres.
Clearly, Ryan Miller is the heart and soul of this team. With Miller in the lineup, the Sabres have a chance to win every night, which makes winning the division that much easier. Without Miller, the Sabres are a team that could be on the outside of the bubble, as was proved two years ago when Scott Gomez of the New York Rangers ran into Miller behind the net and injured his ankle. If Miller stays healthy, the Sabres will be fine.
The Sabres’ competition in the division may just be a little bit tougher this season, though.
The Boston Bruins seem to be giving Buffalo the biggest threat for competition in the division, as the Bruins traded for Panthers forward Nathan Horton. Horton brings the Bruins a scoring touch that they lacked last season, as Horton is a consistent 60-point player who has the potential to score at least 25 goals if healthy for all 82 games.
The Bruins also drafted forward Tyler Seguin second overall. However, Seguin may be going back to juniors due to Boston’s salary cap situation.
Also working to Boston’s advantage is the fact defenseman Zdeno Chara and center Patrice Bergeron are both in contract years, so it’s likely that they’ll be giving their all, hoping for a lucrative extension in Boston, or taking their talents to the open market next July.
The Montreal Canadiens shocked the NHL last season by beating not only the President’s Trophy winning Washington Capitals, but also the defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Armed with small forwards, a big defense, and a hot goalie, the Canadiens beat both teams in long, seven-game series only to go down to the tough Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Canadiens have already lost a big factor in that winning formula by shipping off goalie Jaroslav Halak to the St. Louis Blues for some prospects. However, the Canadiens are taking a gamble on goalie Carey Price, the goalie they drafted 5th overall back in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. Apparently, they see more upside in a goalie that seemingly can’t get out of the 3rd period most nights.
Montreal spent last summer reshaping their roster, their biggest acquisition probably being Michael Cammalleri. Cammalleri had a mediocre regular season, but had a stellar playoffs, scoring 13 goals and 19 points in 19 games. Montreal also expects rookie P.K. Subban to make the NHL squad this season, as he was a revelation for the Canadiens when they called him up from Hamilton in the playoffs.
The Ottawa Senators made it back to the playoffs last season after missing them the year before. However, they bowed out in the first round after six games with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Senators also seemingly have a goalie controversy, as both Brain Elliot and Pascal LeClaire faced some troubles last season. Brian Elliot was a streaky goalie, and Pascal LeClaire seemingly cannot stop getting injured.
One thing that is always in favor for the Senators is that they seem to have their way with the Sabres year in and year out since the lockout. The Senators suffered their first loss to the Sabres in over a year when Thomas Vanek had a four goal night against them in April.
The Senators went out and made a big signing on July 1, grabbing Sergei Gonchar about 20 minutes after free agency started. Other than that, the Senators bring back their usuals in Danny Alfredsson and Jason Spezza. Mike Fischer had an awesome year in Ottawa last year and will be counted on to do it again this season.
While the Toronto Maple Leafs are still probably going to hold up the rear of the Northeast Division, they shouldn’t be taken too lightly anymore. Phil Kessel is back and fully healthy, so he should regain the scoring touch that Boston missed a lot last season after trading Kessel to the Leafs. The Leafs will also want defenseman Luke Schenn to rebound from his sophomore slump.
The Leafs also find themselves with two good goaltenders, one being veteran J.S. Giguere, and the other being up-and-coming Swedish phenom Jonas “The Monster” Gustavsson. The Leafs acquired Giguere late last season from the Anaheim Ducks to give Gustavsson somebody better to back up than Vesa Toskala, who was a huge bust in Toronto.
While proving to be an episode, the Leafs ultimately decided to keep defenseman Tomas Kaberle on their roster at least until the trade deadline. Kaberle was the hottest rumor on the trade market all offseason. However, his no-trade clause kicked in at midnight on August 15, with Kaberle staying put with the team that signed him to a five-year deal back in 2006. This will likely be his last season with Toronto, as he hits free agency at the end of this season.
The Leafs will also bring up some promising rookies next season, with their 2009 first-round selection Nazem Kadri being atop the list to make the team. Another promising youngster Tyler Bozak returns, hoping to build on his successful 37 games with the Leafs last season. Bozak is expected to be a good player for the Leafs in his first full season with the team.
With most of the Northeast’s teams returning with mostly the same cast, it’s not too early to assume that it might be one of the toughest divisions in the league again, and it’ll be tough for the same team to win this division two years in a row.