NHL Preview Week: Northeast Division
It is with great pleasure that I welcome you to my newest project here on Bleacher Report, which I call NHL Preview Week!
With the season growing ever closer, it's time to take a good in-depth look ahead and analyze each team and how it will contend in the upcoming year.
For the next six days, I will be previewing each of the NHL's six divisions, one each day. And what better way to start off than with one of the most historic and successful divisions in the NHL?
First and foremost, the Northeast boasts the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins. Despite the fact that the Bruins were the first team in the division to win the Stanley Cup since the most recent realignment, the division actually boasts a combined total of 43 championships (24 by the Montreal Canadiens, 13 by the Toronto Maple Leafs and six by the Bruins).
And yet, interestingly enough no team has ever won the Northeast Division title in back-to-back years.
Today's preview will include not only the Bruins, Canadiens and Maple Leafs, but also the Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators, each searching for their first Cup victory.
So without further ado, let's jump right in and take a close look at the Northeast Division for next season.
Division Preview Week Schedule:
Northeast Division: 8/24; Northwest Division: 8/25; Atlantic Division: 8/26, Central Division: 8/27, Southeast Division: 8/28, Pacific Division: 8/29
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
It's tough to win the Stanley Cup, but it's even tougher to win it twice in a row. The Bruins will attempting to become the first team in over a decade to accomplish this feat when they take to the ice next season. It's safe to say that like many teams before them, they'll be facing a pretty serious case of championship hangover to start the year.
However, working in their favor is the fact that they really are for the most part completely intact as a squad from last season, making them another big threat in both the Eastern Conference as well as the entire NHL.
Amidst the ruckuss of the Bruins all taking their turn to have a day with the Stanley Cup (or even party with a bar tab well in excess of $100,000), the Boston front office has quietly kept the team in pretty good condition for the upcoming year.
Losses from the summer? Mark Recchi finally decided to call it quits at the age of 43, and despite the fact that the B's will probably miss his leadership in the locker room, this won't be an irreplaceable loss.
Departures from free agency, however, include names like Tomas Kaberle, who signed with the Carolina Hurricanes, and Michael Ryder, who was lured to the Dallas Stars.
To replace their departed forwards the Bruins signed Benoit Pouliot from the arch-rival Canadiens, who, if he can mesh with the team, should provide some decent depth scoring. Boston also brought in defenseman Joe Corvo in a trade with Carolina to help fill in the void left by Kaberle's departure with a seasoned stay-at-home defenseman.
The team is also still yet to come to terms with Brad Marchand, who proved his value with a whale of a rookie year and accompanying postseason.
Once again, all signs point to the Bruins being so incredibly strong due to their ability to keep the puck out of their net.
On one hand they boast the goaltending tandem of Tim Thomas (the most recent Vezina Trophy winner) and Tukka Rask. Most teams would drool at the chance of having a combo like that.
But they also employ one of the stingiest defenses in the NHL, allowing a paltry 2.30 goals per game, second-fewest in the NHL. Led by their gigantic captain, Zdeno Chara, they're also one of the most punishing and hard-hitting groups in the league.
Boston proved last year that you can win it all without getting a significant contribution from your power play, and with the departure of power-play specialist Kaberle, the B's look like they haven't done much to finally improve on the unit that was for the most part pretty anemic last season, finishing 20th in the league at 16.2 percent.
In the playoffs that number plunged even further to 11.4 percent, finishing 14th out of all 16 teams to make the playoffs. So overall, I'd have to say this looks like it will probably once again be the big weak spot in their game.
Much of the Bruins' offensive weaponry is proven and solid with names like Nathan Horton, Milan Lucic, Rich Peverly and Marc Savard all filling out spots, but really the Bruins need to keep all the depth they can, and because of that, they really need to push hard to get RFA Brad Marchand back under contract. He's proven he can play the second or third line and contribute points, which is key for the B's, particularly if they get hit with an injury or two early on (which can be likely considering how prone Savard has proven he can be to concussions).
The Bruins still look to be stacked across the board and should tear through their division and the entire East again next season. Expect them to easily make the playoffs and possibly be the first team since the creation of the division to repeat as division champions.
Rick Stewart/Getty Images
After a playoff exit that many people felt was a little premature for the Sabres, owner Terry Pegula has opened up his wallet and given GM Darcy Regier the freedom to make a few pretty nice moves to strengthen the team.
Many people seem to forget that the Sabres, after losing their best offensive player in Derek Roy for much of the season to an injury, managed to scrap and claw their way back from being a midseason write-off to a playoff team, and a seventh seed at that, in what had to be one of the biggest shows of team strength in the face of adversity all last season (topped perhaps only by the Pittsburgh Penguins).
This year the Sabres look meaner, more skilled and ready to make a much more serious run to the playoffs and beyond.
The Sabres made some key moves that have significantly bolstered their roster, particularly along the blue line.
On the departures side, the Sabres chose to let veteran Tim Connolly walk away after a season which saw him score 42 points in 68 games.
But the imports list is packed with talent, led most notably by big signings Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff.
Leino, who scored 53 points for the Flyers next year, will likely find a place on either the first or second line, while Ehrhoff will become the new crown-jewel veteran along the Sabres blue line, and should prove to be a great mentor for young defensemen Tyler Meyers and Mike Weber.
To further boost their defense, the Sabres also acquired Robyn Regher in a trade with the Calgary Flames, bringing still more skill to the group.
Combine that with the fact that Derek Roy should likely be healthy for most of this season and you've got a Sabres team that is extremely solid in every position.
The Sabres special teams were solid last season in both man-up and man-down situations.
The power play clicked at a respectable 19.4 percent (ninth-best in the league) while the penalty kill moved along at 83 percent (13th-best).
With an improved defense and some valuable additions to the forwards, I would definitely not hesitate to expect the Sabres power-play numbers to rise as well as their penalty kill numbers most likely following suit.
Biggest Weakness: The biggest struggle the Sabres are going to face this year is going to nearly undoubtedly be their secondary scoring. While their first lines are jam-packed with talents like Leino, Roy, Jason Pominville and Tomas Vanek, their third and fourth lines will probably face more trouble when it comes to putting the puck in the net without a proven depth scorer.
In fact, the Sabres only had one other player besides any of the guys already listed to even get past the 15-goal barrier (center Nathan Gerbe, who had 16).
Thus, they're going to be heavily banking on these top two lines, meaning they have to stay healthy and produce or the Sabres will be run dry.
The biggest hinge of the upcoming season is going to easily be All-Star goaltender Ryan Miller. One season removed from winning a Vezina Trophy of his own, Miller found himself often times struggling to find consistency last season, which saw him become the subject of a lot of harsh criticism.
If the Sabres want to really push the Bruins for tops in the division, he's going to have to find the form that saw him become so dominant in the 2009-10 season as well as the 2010 Winter Olympics where he won tournament MVP honors.
The Sabres can easily push the Bruins for the division title if they can stay healthy and play as well as they're capable of.
However, that's a lot to ask of any team really, and because of that I think they'll fall just short of catching the Bruins for the division lead. However, they should expect to be playing spring hockey in the playoffs with likely what will be a top-five finish in the East.
Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images
After a crushing defeat to their biggest arch rival to end their season in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, the summer months haven't exactly been all that kind to the Montreal Canadiens either.
The Habs have been rather heavily gutted by free agency, losing a large portion of their talented core to other squads. Combine that with the fact that they are closing in quickly on the salary cap with some free agents still left to re-sign, and you've got a team that's looking like it might come crashing down this season.
As previously stated, summer was not all that kind to the Canadiens.
For starters, they were forced to say goodbye to proven veterans Jeff Halpern and Roman Hamrlik, who both left for the Washington Capitals. Both these losses alone will deeply hurt the Habs as they were key pieces of the team's veteran leadership as well as talent on the ice.
But the losses continued in the depth ranks, as defensemen Alexandre Picard and Matt Carle as well as forwards Tom Pyatt and Benoit Pouliot all left for different teams.
To compensate, the Canadiens brought in defenseman Jeff Woywitka from the Dallas Stars to help shore up the blue line, and most notably found a new backup for Carey Price in Peter Budaj, who could be a good pickup after never really finding a home with the Colorado Avalanche.
And to strengthen their forwards, the Canadiens acquired Erik Cole from the Carolina Hurricanes to attempt to replace the departed Halpern.
The Canadiens may have lost possibly their best defenseman in Hamrlik, and that could put this in jeopardy, but I believe the Habs are the strongest in goal with All-Star Carey Price manning the net.
After nearly carrying the Canadiens to the playoffs almost single-handedly, I found it an absolute shame he wasn't given the honor of being a finalist for the Vezina Trophy (even though he would have eventually lost it to Tim Thomas anyway).
And with a solid backup secured in Peter Budaj, the Habs can afford to give him a few more nights off next season, meaning he should be more fresh come the end-of-season stretch run and possible playoffs.
The biggest weakness for the Habs has got to be their depth, and particularly their depth on defense. While their first-choice players make a pretty strong squad, everybody knows an NHL team can't stay healthy for an entire season and that makes the Canadiens a little vulnerable.
Most importantly, however, is their depth on defense. It's safe to say Jeff Woywitka will probably see some time with the big club this season if any of their top six players go down injured, and that could signal trouble for the Habs, who really have a pretty empty closet when it comes to their defensemen waiting in the wings.
Easily the deal breaker for the Canadiens is going to be their special teams. The Habs finished seventh-best in the league in both power play and penalty kill last season, which was huge when it came to the team holding off opponents and securing their way into the playoffs.
If they want to continue that success they're going to have to maintain that excellence in both man-up and man-down situations, particularly because they were short-handed more times than any other team in the NHL last season (a whopping 327 times).
If Montreal wants to make a return to the playoffs, they're going to have to really fight for it as they've lost some of their key players.
As a result, I think they could fall short, particularly if they struggle with injuries early on.
They will likely be one of the bubble teams fighting for their playoff lives into the last couple weeks of the season, battling with teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Carolina Hurricanes for what might be one final spot. And if that's the case, their thin blue line might come to cost them unless Carey Price can have another stellar year and stand on his head night after night.
Ultimately I expect the Habs to struggle, and don't be shocked if they're sitting below eighth place when the season comes to a close.
Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images
Just four short seasons removed from their first-ever appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals, the Ottawa Senators find themselves reeling into free fall and struggling to find both an identity as a team and any form of real chemistry as well.
After finishing the season 26th overall with just 74 points, the Senators went into summer charged with the task of trying to find a way to improve on their team and become competitive in the East once again
The problem is...they really didn't succeed, or even appear to try for that matter.
I guess the best news for the Senators is that they really didn't lose anybody key to free agency. Their biggest departure came in bruiser Ryan Shannon, who left for Tampa Bay. But that being said, they really didn't have much to lose anyway.
With over $18 million in cap space still free, you have to wonder why they didn't actually go out and get someone to help strengthen their serious lack of talent. Instead, their biggest-import-of-the-summer title goes to both center Zenon Konopka (obviously demonstrating they felt the need to fill in the bruiser role) and right wing Nikita Filatov, acquired in a trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Despite all the talk that the Senators really don't have much to fill in any position on the ice, it's hard to call their first offensive line weak. Veterans Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza have a tendency to bring up the level of whoever their third linemate is to create a pretty deadly offensive force that can easily burn any team that takes them lightly for even a second.
Spezza led the team with 21 goals, which he scored in 62 games. Alfredsson scored 31 points despite only playing 54 games last season due to injuries.
If both are able to stay healthy and play at a level that they're capable of, the Senators will definitely see some good offensive production from their top unit.
The Senators have struggled to really find a good consistent goaltender since they parted ways with Ray Emery, and the fight looks like it will rage onward even further this year.
The Senators appear to be going with the tandem of Craig Anderson being backed up by Alex Auld.
Anderson has proved that when he's on his game, he can carry a team to surprising results, bringing the Avalanche to a surprising trip to the playoffs in 2010. However, Anderson struggled badly last year, and eventually found himself being shipped off to the Senators at the trade deadline.
Alex Auld has been a backup for most of his career and can step in when he needs to, but I wouldn't trust him to take over the reins should Anderson's game go south even further. Thus, I say the Senators really aren't all that secure with their netminding.
The Senators season will greatly depend on the play of their top line, but most specifically, Jason Spezza. Now 28 years old, Spezza should be in the prime of his career and scoring upwards of 30 goals a season when he's healthy. He has the capability to do it, but his inconsistent play over the last couple years has brought a heap of criticism on him. For the Sens to have a chance to be competitive in the league this year, he's going to have to find his game again.
They might be celebrating their 20th anniversary as a franchise this season, but that's going to be about all there is to be happy about as the Senators will almost undoubtedly miss the playoffs and could very likely be the worst team in the East this season.
With a lack of significant depth at any position, it looks as though the Sens could be the next team doomed to a full-blown rebuild. However, they do have some talented prospects in the storehouse, shortening this process considerably.
Toronto Maple Leafs
The Toronto Maple Leafs were predicted to be another non-contender last season, but shocked many when they finished the year with an impressive run that saw them just barely fall short of the eighth and final playoff spot in their final few games.
Thus, there's excitement buzzing around Toronto for the start of this year with the newfound hope that the team might be making a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
It's been a long and painful rebuild, but the initially dim light at the end of the tunnel is suddenly getting much brighter as the team buckles down for the upcoming year.
GM Brian Burke was pretty quiet this summer on the free-agent front, with the acquisition of Tim Connolly being his only major signing. The former Buffalo Sabre should be a great addition to their top two offensive units and will add some significant depth to their scoring, as well as bring a veteran presence to a team that's full of youth.
On the trade front, Burke made a little more noise when he sent a second-round pick to the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for defenseman John-Michael Liles, and then later when he swapped a package including failed defenseman Brett Lebda to Nashville in exchange for Cody Franson and forward Matthew Lombardi as well as a conditional pick.
The Leafs also made some smart moves by doing away with some of their big-salary guys who weren't producing, most notably goaltender Jean-Sebastian Giguere, who left for Colorado, as well as shutdown forward Tim Brent, who went to Carolina.
The Leafs appear to have finally locked down a legitimately solid defense with the sale of Brett Lebda to Nashville, making this their strong point of their season next year.
Between Franson, Liles, captain Dion Phaneuf and Mike Komaserik, the Leafs should be able to ice two solid defensive pairings every night and the combination of Luke Schenn and Jeff Finger should make an extremely respectable third pair. Plus, they will have some depth in the event of an injury with names like Matt Lashoff and Keith Aulie being ready to jump up to the big club at a moment's notice.
The Maple Leafs will need to seriously improve their special teams play if they want to put themselves over the top and back into the playoffs.
Last season they finished a paltry 16 percent on the power play (22nd in the NHL) and an even worse 77.4 percent on the penalty kill (28th in the NHL), numbers which many people point to as the biggest detractor from the team missing their chance to break into the top eight.
Their penalty killing should see a nice jump in proficiency with their summer defensive overhaul, however their power play will also need to start chipping in with a few more goals if they want to finally push themselves over the top.
Rookie netminder James Reimer proved last season that he is the man to go to, and quickly won the starting job, which it looks like he'll keep this year. With fellow goaltender Jonas Gustavsson having lingering health trouble, he'll likely be getting the starting nod most nights for the Leafs, and he's going to have to be able to answer the bell.
The team's moves during the offseason combined with their spark of brilliance late last season have the Leafs Nation excited and many are even starting to believe they could be a dark-horse contender for one of the final spots in the playoffs.
While they certainly could surprise me (and probably have the best shot I can think of to do so), between their tough division and their still-developing look, I think it's safer to bet on Toronto once again just barely missing out on the playoffs. But with that said, it certainly looks as though brighter days are ahead for this team and a return to spring hockey looks to finally be in the near future rather than a long way off.
If you like this slideshow, follow me on Twitter for news, updates, analysis and links to new articles as I post them!