Over the next two weeks up to the start of the NHL season, we’ll be bringing you a division by division preview of the upcoming year in hockey. Can you believe it? Hockey’s right around the corner.
Today, we’ll start with the Northeast Division, ranking where I think the teams will finish from lowest to highest.
I don’t see the Senators doing much better than last season’s 74 point campaign, if they even match that point total. They do have some upside with their defensemen with standout Erik Karlsson hoping to build on his successful 13 goal, 45 point season. David Rundblad will begin his NHL career with the Sens this year, who along with Karlsson, should provide two talented stalwarts on the back end for Ottawa for quite a few years. I expect Sergei Gonchar to recover from his tough year last season and produce more like the Gonchar we’ve been used to. He’s at the tail end of his career, but 27 points just isn’t enough for a player like him, especially considering the money he’s making.
Ottawa looks like they’ve finally found a goalie in Craig Anderson and put up some great numbers last season after being acquired from a struggling Colorado Avalanche. Along with the defense in front of him, he should be able to provide enough to be able to keep the Senators in games relatively well.
The problem for the Senators is up front with the forwards. We know about Spezza and Alfredsson, but there’s not much to brag about outside of them. And Alfredsson’s really not getting any younger and struggled last season, missing a big chunk of the season, and only scoring 31 points. But really, the bigger issue is Spezza. Yes, Alfredsson’s old and is coming off back surgery, but he’s consistently been at least a point per game player throughout his career. Spezza, on the other hand, has been on the decline since he scored 92 points in 2008. In this 3rd through 5th season, he averaged 1.27 PPG. Since then, he’s been very pedestrian for a player who’s supposed to the elite talent of the team.
Looking at the rest of the top six forwards, Bobby Butler is the lone bright spot. He’s got plenty of upside and starting showing that last season. Nikita Filatov has another crack at making it after being producing nothing but disappointment for the Blue Jackets. He’s still young, but even his numbers in the AHL last year weren’t impressive for a 6th overall draft pick from 2008. Like many highly touted Russian players before him, he’s an enigma. And finally, Milan Michalek went from promising goal scorer with the Sharks to about average. In his past two seasons with the Sens, he scored 34 and 33 points. In his previous three seasons with the Sharks, he scored 66, 55, and 57 points. That’s just not good enough for a player who’s supposed to be in the top six mix.
The Senators have some young players that will get plenty of opportunity this year to showcase what they can do. Unfortunately, they just don’t have enough polished talent to do much more than be mediocre as a team.
Toronto Maple Leafs
The parade route has already been mapped out.
For the rest of the world that has some sense of what we like to call reality, it’s tough seeing the Leafs in the playoffs at the end of the year. They’ll be competitive, and like reach a point total in the high 80s, but they’ll face too much competition to make a strong enough push for a playoff berth. They are on the right road, though, and should be a playoff team in a year or two if everything goes as planned.
The Leafs have a solid group of wingers, led by Phil Kessel. Nikolai Kulemin put up very strong numbers last season and the Leafs hope he can build off that for this season. As long as last season’s 30 goals weren’t an anomaly, he should perform as a nice balance on opposite wing of Phil Kessel. Clarke MacArthur broke out last year with 62 points and is looking to make that more of a norm. Rookie Nazem Kadri has loads of talent, and a roster spot may be his to lose.
The problem for the Leafs in terms of forwards is the center position. Their targets were set on Brad Richards, but when the Rangers took him, Toronto wound up with Tim Connolly. Connolly’s got talent, but after all of his many injuries, is he the wrong guy to look to anchor the top line and be there to feed Kessel the puck? For me, I don’t think so. They tried Tyler Bozak last year as the top center, but it was too much to ask of him. Mikhail Grabovski had a good year, but he’s much better suited centering the second line.
If the Leafs want to exceed expectations at all, they’re going to need Dion Phaneuf play like the Phaneuf from Calgary. He looked like he was well on his way to becoming one of the hands down premier defensemen of the league, but over the past two years, we’ve seen a marked decline in his play.
For the rest of the defense, Cody Franson is a welcome addition to the group. He’ll be a good piece of what makes up a nice Toronto defense on paper. Or are they? Mike Komisarek signed a wealthy deal to play for the Leafs, but was he worth the money? And while Luke Schenn is a good player, I feel that we’re led to believe that he’s a bit better than he actually is at this point in his career. Between all of the players they’ve got, it’s not a bad group, and what’s good for Toronto is that it’s a young group with room for improvement. They’re just not good enough yet.
Speaking of young, James Reimer has to make sure that he wasn’t just a flash in the pan as a rookie. If he goes into the sophomore slump, it could spell trouble for Toronto. His backup, Jonas Gustavsson is by no means a Dan Cloutier, but he’s not a guy you can necessarily transfer the load onto if your younger guy falters and still expect big results. Reimer hasn’t given anyone reason to put bets on his downfall, but we’ve seen rookie goalies start out spectacularly only to wind up fizzling out.
The biggest addition to the Canadiens this season didn’t come from a free agent signing, nor did it come from a trade. Andrei Markov is slated to return to the lineup this season after spending nearly all of last season on the shelf with an injury. Unfortunately for the Habs, he’s had some trouble as of late, so whether or not he can actually start the season opener is in question. Still, if he can return where he left off, there’s a lot to be excited about with him as he’s one of the better offensive producers from the blue line in the league. The cause for concern, though, is that he’s only played in a combined 52 games in the past two years.
If Markov falters, P.K. Subban will have to pick up most of the slack offensively. He’s the most offensively apt defenseman behind Markov now that the Habs chose not to resign James Wisniewski. With a full season under his belt, will Subban be a year wiser or ready for another year to be a punk? He’s got a ton of talent, but also a propensity to make some real boneheaded players to the point that you have to wonder whether or not he’s helping or hurting his team overall. For the sake of Montreal fans, you have to think that those mental errors are part of the growing pains.
The biggest actual acquisition this offseason was the signing of Erik Cole to a four year contract. He’ll bring some nice scoring pop to what I’m assuming will be the second line. Can he jumpstart Scott Gomez, who had a measly 38 points last season despite a cap hit of $7.357 million? Gomez has got to start getting it going. He’s making way too much money to not be putting up twice as many points as he did last season.
Tomas Plekanec, Mike Cammalleri, and Brian Gionta are a solid trio of forwards who should be able to put up good numbers, especially if Markov is healthy and productive. There’s no reason why their powerplay shouldn’t be able to be reasonably productive with those players at or near the top of their games (they were 7th in the league on the powerplay last season).
The secondary scoring of the Habs is what I think will put them over the top of the Maples Leafs and into the playoffs. After a terrible neck injury last season, Max Pacioretty will look to build off his good start to the first half of that season. Andrei Kostitsyn is usually good for 20 goals or so, but I’m sure that Montreal is looking for him to do more. Finally, guys like Lars Eller and David Desharnais will have to pop in the odd goals here and there.
Like I mentioned in the previous paragraph, I do think that Habs will make the playoffs this year. That said, it’s by no means inconceivable that they might end up on the outside looking in or even that the Leafs overtake them in the division. I also think that the Habs will have to work very hard to earn that spot in the playoffs. Remember, this team isn’t much different than the one that was dressed last year.
Well, Sabres fans should be excited going into the season. The team was finally able to spend money, and boy, did they spend it. They fought hard in their opening round loss to the Flyers last season, but they were only going to go as far as goalie Ryan Miller was going to take them. And unfortunately, relying on your goalie to do everything (including scoring goals, it seemed), isn’t going to get your too far.
In my opinion, Ryan Miller is the best goalie in the league. If there were any doubt, I think his performance against the Flyers in the playoffs was enough proof. But now, there’s actually something around him. The Sabres made huge waves this summer when they signed defenseman Christian Ehrhoff to his megadeal. Along with Tyler Myers, who’s got another year under his belt (which is pretty high up there), and veteran Robyn Regehr, Miller will have much more help with taking care of the opposing forwards in front of him. He won’t have to do it all by his lonesome, which is huge.
Much like Markov for the Canadiens, maybe the biggest addition to Buffalo is the return of Derek Roy from injury. He’s undeniably the top center on the team and makes the offense around him go. Thomas Vanek will benefit greatly from playing on his wing. Ville Leino signed for six years this summer as their big addition at forward. He’s loaded with skill and can surprise you with his two way play once in awhile (well, he’s at least adept at picking pockets).
If you look at the rest of the forward group, there are some sneakily productive players. Brad Boyes, while not making much noise last season as a Sabre, can pot some goals. Drew Stafford scored 31 goals last season. He’s not a guy you would necessarily associate with “30 goal scorer.” Jason Pominville is always good for at least 20 goals. And the diminutive Tyler Ennis will enter his third full NHL season and could be in line for a nice season.
Teams usually don’t live up to their hype from the offseason and signing a bunch of big name free agents doesn’t equal output on the ice. That said, I do think the Sabres will be pretty good this year and may even make a run at the division crown.
It’s tough not to predict the Bruins to win the Northeast Division. They are the defending Stanley Cup champions and they essentially have the same team they did last season. They’re good at both ends of the ice. They’ve got skill, but they’ve also got the ability to pound you into submission as well.
When you talk about the Bruins, everyone loves to talk about Tim Thomas. He’s good, no doubt, but if the team, and especially the defense, does its job in front of him, he doesn’t need to stand on his head. He just has to make the saves he has to and that’s that. What’s good about Thomas is that when he is called upon to stand on his head, he’s capable of doing so. And if it ever came to be, Tuukka Rask is a capable young goalie who has the ability to play at a high enough level to keep the Bruins a great team.
Marc Savard is out for the year. Unfortunately, his career is probably over. It’s a real shame that one of the most underrated players in the league would have his career cut short by a cheapshot artist in Matt Cooke. But when a player goes down, that opens a spot for someone to shine in his place. David Krejci has turned himself into a vital cog in the offense of the Bruins. He should see an increase in production if he stays with his linemates of Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic. Lucic finally put together the type of season he was expected to last year and should be expected to do something similar this season.
Patrice Bergeron appears to have wiped away all of the effects of his major concussion and should be poised to put up solid numbers this season, likely flanked by last year’s surprisingly productive Brad Marchand. If he picks up where he left off in the playoffs, the Bruins won’t have to worry too much about second line offense.
Second overall pick from 2010 Tyler Seguin didn’t have a season to write home about last year. Despite some pretty goals, he only ended up with 11 goals and 22 points for the season. And really, that’s fine considering that he wasn’t asked to play a huge role in the offense. He gained plenty of valuable experience and was able to take the time to grow as an overall player. The offense will come with the increase in playing time and responsibility. The Bruins will know when “it’s time” for him.
Speaking of high picks, the Bruins grabbed 2005 4th overall pick Benoit Pouliot this offseason. To date, he hasn’t done much of anything in his career yet, moving to Montreal after the Minnesota Wild were finished with him. But if it’s any consolation to him, that draft class feature other first round winners such as Marek Zagrapan, Sasha Pokulok, Alex Bourret, Kenndal McArdle, etc. Alex Bourret actually signed in the ALH. Don’t worry, I didn’t know what that was either. It’s the Asia League Ice Hockey.
Zdeno Chara will do what Zdeno Chara does and that’s choke off the offense of the opposition. Routinely flanked at his side is Dennis Seidenberg, who’s turned himself into a nice player since being a so-so player for most of the start of his career. I do think that Johnny Boychuk is an underrated player who should be about hitting his peak at age 27.
The Bruins traded a draft pick to the Hurricanes to acquire defenseman Joe Corvo. He’s got a nice shot from the point and is solid enough defensively. And with the group of players around him, he won’t have the brunt of the load to carry, so hopefully he’ll fit nicely and re-blossom as a player. He’s just got to make sure he behaves himself when he goes out to eat.
Barring any major injuries, the Bruins should once again be a top team in the Eastern Conference. Will they repeat as Stanley Cup Champions? Well, that’s tough to do in any sport, so that remains to be seen.
Stay tuned for previews for each of the rest of the divisions.