Northeast Division Preview

Derek HarmsworthSenior Writer ISeptember 10, 2008

Boston Bruins

The Big Story: The Bruins surprised most of the hockey world last season by sneaking into the post season in the eighth and final playoff spot.  They followed that up by giving number one ranked Montreal a run for their money, pushing the cup favourite to a seventh and deciding game.  

Despite coming up short in their opening round series against the Canadiens, Boston is excited to move forward and use the experience to build on it's success.  In a time when the Patriots, Celtics, and Red Sox are dominating the Boston sports scene, the Bruins would do themselves a world of good to make another playoff run.

Five Players To Watch:

Zdeno Chara:
The big towering blueliner has been a steadying force, both on and off the ice, for the Bruins since coming over via free agency.  He scored 17 goals and totaled 51 points last year, but most impressive was his team leading +/- Plus 14, and his 26:50 of ice time nightly.

Marc Savard:
A long underrated pivot, Savard stepped his game up last season to fill the void left when Patrice Bergeron went down with a season ending injury.  Savard led the team with 78 points and also led all Bruins forwards in ice time with 20:31 per game.  

Milan Lucic: A young, bruising forward, Lucic quickly became a fan favourite in Beantown last season with his physical play and willingness to stand up for himself, and teammates.  The "Legend of Lucic" was cemented last season when after crashing hard into the boards and breaking his orbital bone in the first period of a game, Lucic strapped on a visor and came back to play the rest of the game.  He also chipped in a respectable 27 points.

Patrice Bergeron:
With Bergeron in the lineup the Bruins have two top centres, and two scoring lines.  Limited to just ten games last season due to a nasty hit from behind, Bergeron spent the entire regular season rehabbing a concussion.  Still, in ten games last season Bergeron was able to net 7 points, and 24 shots.  The Bruins will benefit from a healthy season from their second round draft choice in 2003.

Tim Thomas/Manny Fernandez/Tuukka Rask:
With a low scoring, defense first system employed by head coach Claude Julien, the onus will be on the men in between the pipes to carry the Bruins as far as they can go this season.  Tim Thomas, the man who the Bruins simply refuse to name the starter, had another solid season last year for the B's.  Thomas took the reigns from Manny Fernandez who suffered a season ending injury.  Thomas and Fernandez will battle in camp to be named the team's starter, while young top prospect Tuukka Rask will likely hone his skills in the minors, waiting for a chance to play with the big club.

Poised For A Breakout:

Phil Kessel: 
The 5th overall draft choice in 2005, Kessel has experienced an up and down ride during his time in the NHL, both on, and off the ice.  In 82 games last season, Kessel scored a career high 37 points.  In 2006-2007, his rookie year, he managed 29 points in 70 games while missing 12 games battling testicular cancer.  His miraculous return was recognized by the NHL as they awarded Kessel the Masterton Award, given for perseverance.  Kessel struggled down the stretch last season and was benched for the first three games of the playoffs.  When he was re-inserted into the lineup, it was clear the message was received.  Kessel scored 3 goals and added 1 assists for four points in as many games.  

Wild Card:

Michael Ryder: With a coaching clash and limited ice time, Ryder struggled last season in Montreal.  In his first two seasons with the Canadiens, Ryder scored back-to-back 30 goal seasons and amassed point totals of 55 and 58 respectively.  Last season saw a major drop for Ryder, as he only netted 14 goals, and totaled 31 points.  Many are banking on a reunion with coach Claude Julien to propel Ryder back to his thirty goal status.  A rebound to form would inject some extra life into Boston's offensive game, and would go a long way to justifying his 3.5 million dollar contract.  One thing not going Ryder's way is his plus/minus.  Even under Claude Julien in Montreal, Ryder never had a plus season in the NHL, and was -25 in 2006-2007.

Buffalo Sabres

The Big Story: After back-to-back conference final appearances, the Sabres virtually fell off the map last season after losing Chris Drury and Daniel Briere to free agency.  They also shipped out defenseman Brian Campbell to San Jose mid season, leaving the team with a young, mostly inexperienced core.  The result was a finish out of the playoffs for the Sabres, at a time when their fan base was reaching it's peak.  The Sabres didn't add much to their team this year, but will still look to their youngsters to lean on their past experiences and lead them back into the playoffs.

Five Players To Watch:

Derek Roy:
  Many people questioned whether or not Derek Roy could rise to the occasion and become a legitimate number one centre in Buffalo, or whether or not he was the go to guy by circumstance of losing Briere and Drury.  Roy answered those questions last season by scoring 81 points, including 32 goals.  He also scored 6 powerplay goals, while adding 3 shorthanded markers.  

Jason Pominville: The speedy winger played in all 82 games for the Sabres last year, one of only four players on the Sabres to do so.  Following closely behind Roy with 80 points, Pominville had a team leading 53 assists.  Pominville was also plus 16 and only registered 20 penalty minutes.  

Paul Gaustad:
A heart and soul type guy, Gaustad injects energy and secondary scoring into the Buffalo lineup.  Gaustad chipped in 36 points last season, and added five powerplay goals, while eating up minutes for the Sabres.  Gaustad averages 17:10 a night.

Ryan Miller:
The last remaining of the core that once led Buffalo, Miller signed a long term extension with the Sabres earlier this summer, that will assure he is the teams starting goaltender through the 2014 season.  Miller did what he could last season and if it weren't for the East Lansing native, the Sabres could have been much further down in the standings.  He amassed a record of 36-27-10, while appearing in 76 games.  He had a .906 save percentage while collecting an average 2.64 Goals Against Average.  Miller will be a key cog for years to come in Buffalo, and as Miller goes, so to will the Sabres.

Craig Rivet: Although it may not seem like an obvious choice on the surface, Craig Rivet is definitely a player to watch this year in Buffalo, despite the fact that what he brings may not be visible to the eye.  A young team, stripped of it's leaders over the past calendar year, the Sabres brought in Rivet to act as a mentor to the young kids as well as a calming force on the back end.  Rivet brings leadership and grit to a team who lacked a lot of both last season.  His 35 points and 21:12 of ice time are nothing to sneeze at either.

Poised For A Breakout:

Drew Stafford: The Milwaukee native will enter his third NHL campaign with more responsibility and weight on his shoulders than ever before.  Stafford is slated for a promotion to the Sabres top six, and his stats should go up accordingly.  In his first two seasons with Buffalo Stafford recorded point totals of 27 and 38 respectively.  After flirting with a regular spot for most of his first two seasons, Stafford has arrived and will be a key contributor to the Sabres offensive attack.  Of all his stats, the five game winning goals he recorded last season may be the most impressive.

Wild Card:

Thomas Vanek: 36 goals.  64 points.  And I am calling Vanek a wild card?  Before you have me committed hear me out.  Vanek had a breakout season in 2006-2007, notching 84 points, including 43 goals.  This surprising point total led to Vanek being signed to a seven year, fifty million dollar offer sheet from the Oilers, which the Sabres quickly matched.  Vanek was good last year, but by his breakout season's standard was quiet.  Still, if Vanek can continue at the clip he scored at last season, and even improve on it, he will continue to be one of the Sabres biggest threats.  On a team that desperately needs scoring, Vanek has shown he can record 80 point seasons, and needs to get back there.  His 19 powerplay goals last season were team leading.


The Big Story:  The Canadiens were predicted by many prognosticators to finish near the very bottom of the Eastern Conference.  Instead they cruised to the top of the Eastern Conference, claimed first place on the last weekend of the regular season, and were a favourite to win it all before being stopped by the Flyers in round two.  Despite the early playoff exit, the Habs will still be favoured to win the East this year, and will build on last season's success and try to capture the Stanley Cup in the franchise's 100th season.

Five Players To Watch:

Carey Price:  Though he wasn't even nominated for the Calder Trophy for the leagues top rookie, you would be hard pressed to find someone who would argue against Price being named the best young gun in the league last season.  Price, the heir apparent, took the reigns and flashed the bulletin to the world that the future in Montreal was now.  Price began the season splitting time with veteran Cristobal Huet, before being named the starter midway through the season.  In 41 games Price compiled a 24-12-3 record.  He also added a .920 save percentage and managed three shutouts.  The crafty Price also notched two assists last season.

Alex Kovalev:  In terms of reinvention, Alex Kovalev was a complete revelation last season.  After sulking through the previous season and feuding with head coach Guy Carbonneau, Kovalev decided to stop talking and let his actions speak louder than his words.  Playing in all 82 games, Kovalev scored 84 points, including 35 goals.  He was also plus 18 and tallied 17 powerplay goals.

Andrei/Sergei Kostitsyn:  Joining Price in leading the young guns charge in Montreal, the Kostitsyn brothers were key contributors last year in Montreal, both in the regular season as well as the post season.  Andrei managed 53 points in 78 games, including 26 goals.  He was also dynamite on the man advantage, scoring 12 goals.  He also had five game winners.  

Brother Sergei joined the Canadiens mid season, dressing for 52 games.  Still, in his limited time with the club, the younger Kostitsyn became a fan favourite with his scoring touch and playmaking sense.  Kostitsyn netted 27 points, including 9 goals.  A very solid two-way player, he was also plus 9.

Chris Higgins:  Hidden somewhere in the Canadiens landscape is Christopher Higgins, who largely due to his spectacular play, isn't such an unknown commodity anymore.  Higgins played in all 82 games for Montreal last season, and scored 27 goals.  He topped out at 52 points.  12 of his 27 tallies came on the powerplay, and the well behaved Higgins was only assessed 22 penalty minutes.

Alex Tanguay: Long rumoured to be headed to Montreal, the Quebec native was finally moved from Calgary, and traded to Montreal, his hometown team.  Tanguay played in 78 games last season and scored 58 points including 40 helpers.  Still, by Tanguay's standard, it was a bit of an off year for a player who never found his way in Western Canada.  The Habs are hoping playing at home will help Tanguay return to form.

Poised For A Breakout:

Tomas Plekanec:
Plekanec is going to be counted on in Montreal as either the first or second line centre this season, and if past stats are any indication, his numbers should respond accordingly.  Plekanec notched 69 points last season, including 29 goals.  A defensive conscious player, the Czech centre was also plus 15 last season.  In thee seasons with the Canadiens, he scored point totals of 29,47, and 69, so look for a big year for the young centre.  

Wild Card:

Saku Koivu: The pressure could be on Koivu big time this year, especially is Kovalev has another spectacular season.  The Canadiens captain, much criticized by fans and members of the media, seemed lost in the shuffle last year.  His 56 points last season were his lowest total since the 2003-2004 season.  

Ottawa Senators:

The Big Story:  After starting the season on a tear, the Ottawa Senators suffered a monumental collapse down the stretch and crawled into the playoffs, where they were ousted in most unspectacular fashion: a four game sweep at the hands of Pittsburgh.  Still, the Sens will be out to prove they belong among the Eastern Conference's elite, and they have some things going for them.  Number one is the fact that some teams may underestimate them now, believing their time at the top of the Conference has come and gone.  Number two is the fact that after Montreal and possibly Pittsburgh, the East is wide open and up for grabs.

Five Players To Watch:

Jason Spezza:
  In 76 games, Spezza notched 92 points, including 34 goals, last season with the Senators.  He also had a team leading 58 assists, and had 11 powerplay goals.  Spezza battled back and groin injuries last season, but was one of the Sens most dependable pivots when healthy.  

Dany Heatley:
Heatley was always good, but a trade that brought him to Ottawa also brought out the best in him.  Since coming to Senators, Heatley has scored back-to-back 50 goal seasons, and was on pace last season for the same, before an injury sidelined him.  Still in 71 games Heatley managed 41 goals and 41 assists for the club, eight of those goals were game winners.  He was also a team leading plus 33.  

Daniel Alfredsson:
The Senators captain has only gotten better since the NHL ended the lockout in 2006.  Another top Senator who missed time last season, the Swedish born forward took the team on his back last season when he was healthy.  In 70 games he scored 89 points, including 40 goals.  Alfredsson led the Senators with 7 shorthanded goals.  

Anton Volchenkov: Maybe not the most obvious choice, but Volchenkov plays a robust game, and brings a ton of grit to a team that more often than not, sorely lacks it.  Though he wont put up a lot of points (15 last season) Volchenkov threw 13 hits, and laid down to block 209 blocked shots.  Volchenkov proved hit mettle in the playoffs when after blocking a shot with his face, he returned to the series, with the bruises to prove it.

Jason Smith: Another guy who was not brought in to put up points, the fact that the Senators signed rugged defenseman Jason Smith proves they were looking for more leadership.  They will get it from Smith, who has captained the Oilers, and the Flyers.  He is wearing down with age, but in 77 games last season with the Flyers he did put up 10 points and logged 17:56 in ice time.  Smith's role in the locker room will likely be far greater than his role on.

Poised For Breakout:

Antoine Vermette: In three full seasons with the Senators, Vermette has scored season of 33,39, and 53 points respectively.  He will likely be the clubs second line left winger, behind Dany Heatley.  Vermette is a slick skilled, fast skating youngster who is going to get more points by using his quick feet, and his inflated ice time.  Vermette scored a very quiet 24 goals last season, including four on the powerplay.

Wild Card:

Martin Gerber/Alex Auld:
The goaltending in Ottawa last season was shaky, and may have even led to their downfall.  Of the moves the Senators made over the summer, shoring up this position wasn't one of them.  At least not to the point where it needs to be.  Martin Gerber will start the season as the incumbent number one.  In 57 games he managed a record of 30-18-4, but his 2.72 goals against average may prove his record comes from playing on a high scoring team who could bail him out when he battled inconsistency at times last year.  Alex Auld is a capable goalie, but isn't a game stealer either.  Once again, the Senators goalie situation is murky heading into the regular season.


The Big Story:  The big story in Toronto is the rebuild fans have longed for is finally under way in earnest.  The team has brought in a new coach in Ron Wilson, and has also shipped out many of it's core including Bryan McCabe, Kyle Wellwood, Darcy Tucker, Andrew Raycroft, and possibly Mats Sundin.  The Leafs will go with youth this year and hope to take their lumps while saving cap space to transform this once proud franchise into respectability once again.

Five Players To Watch:

Vesa Toskala: Much like Ryan Miller in Buffalo, as Vesa Toskala goes, so to, will the Toronto Maple Leafs.  The Finnish netminder who was acquired by trade from San Jose started slowly for the Maple Leafs, but found a groove about a month into the season and didn't look back.  He did have one or two blowouts, and also let in one of the longest goals in NHL history, but still his 33-25-6 record, along with his .904 save percentage are proof that he kept the Leafs in more games than they deserved to be in.

Nik Antropov:
After waiting nearly ten years to watch their 10th overall pick in 1998 blossom, the Maple Leafs patience was finally rewarded last season as Nik Antropov broke out to have a career year.  The lanky Kazakh centre scored 26 goals and added 30 assists for 56 points, good for second on the team.  He had five game winners, and 12 of his 26 goals came on the powerplay.  He also improved his defensive game, ending the season plus 10.

Pavel Kubina:  Going from the scapegoat, to trade bait, to possibly the next captain.  Life in Toronto is never dull.  Pavel Kubina struggled early on, but turned it on down the stretch and was arguably the Maple Leafs best player from the All Star Game to the final day of the regular season.  Injuries forced him to miss ten games, but he still managed 40 points, including 11 goals.  Of those 11 goals, six were on the powerplay, while 4 were game winners.  He also had 2 overtime goals.

Matt Stajan/Alex Steen: Since practically breaking into the league together, and usually being on the same line, their names are synonymous.  This year they will have to work together on a Maple Leafs squad where they will be looked at to lead.  Though both young, Stajan and Steen show maturity beyond their years on and off the ice, and will be leaned on in the locker room going forward.  Steen looks poised for top six minutes and will look to build on his 42 point season last year.  Stajan meanwhile is more likely headed for third line duty, where he will use his strong two-way play to anchor the third line, and likely see penalty kill time.  Playing in all 82 games last year, Stajan recorded a career high 33 points.  

Tomas Kaberle:
Another popular choice for the Maple Leafs next captain, Kaberle is a quiet type who chooses to lead by example.  One of the NHL's top defenders, Kaberle had 53 points, including 45 assists.  He added six powerplay goals, and also played an average of 24:52 a night.

Poised For A Breakout:

Anton Stralman/Jiri Tlusty:
  The two young imports will be given every opportunity to become top contributors for the Maple Leafs this season.  Stralman will be given a spot in the Leafs top four defenseman, while Tlusty will be given the chance to reach his potential and crack the top six forwards.  In 58 games last year, Tlusty scored 16 points including 10 goals, while being used primarily in a checking role.  Stralman's ice time and responsibility increased as the season went along and showed flashes of the offensive flair the Maple Leafs will expect out of the young Swedish blueliner.  Stralman had 9 points last year in 50 games, including his first three NHL goals.

Wild Card:

Jason Blake/ Jeff Finger:
There may not be two players more under the microscope in Toronto this season as Jason Blake and Jeff Finger.  After signing a big contract last summer, Blake struggled to maintain his 40 goal status and managed only 15 goals as a follow up.  Still, there is a chance Blake can rebound.  His season last year was somewhat derailed by the devastating news that he was suffering from Leukemia.  He had a team leading 332 shots on goal.  Finger meanwhile, signed a big contract this offseason.  The relatively unknown blueliner is a Michigan native who said he grew up watching the Maple Leafs and cheering for them as a kid.  Finger will not put up a lot of points, but is expected to bring a tough, grinding physical style to a team that was pushed around far too much last year.

Final Northeast Notes:

There was a time when the Northeast division was argued to be the toughest in the league.  While that may not still be the case, it figures to be an interesting year that could be full of storylines and surprises this upcoming NHL season.

Montreal is a favourite to win the East, while the Senators will look to reclaim their spot near the top of the conference.  The Bruins are excited and chomping at the bit to build on their recent playoff success.  Buffalo and Toronto will be in tough to keep a float this season, but with recent draft moves and changes on and off the ice, it wont be too long before they are on the cusp of the post season again, making the Northeast one of the divisions to watch in the National Hockey League for a long time.