Can the Leafs Break the Streak (Northeast Division Preview)

The Northeastern Division has been one of the most successful divisions in the NHL with three of the original six teams. With the Leafs, Canadiens, and Bruins in the division the Northeastern division is one of the most watched in the NHL with the biggest pool of fans. Not only do they have the most loyal fans but they are also the teams with the most focus in terms of media. This means that the Senators and the Sabres tend to fall below the talk even though they have performed better than other teams in the division. Last year one of the original six teams broke out from a funk and won the Stanley Cup. The Boston Bruins snapped a long Cup drought last year as they won the division and moved on to win the Stanley Cup. Meanwhile the other cup drought is still intact as the Toronto Maple Leafs continued their 43 year Stanley Cup drought and their 6 year playoff drought. The Leafs will be looking to snap that drought while they compete against the defending champions and the Canadiens to get back while the Sabres and Senators look to continue their rival’s drought. Of course there is more than the Leafs in the Northeast as the Sabres and Canadiens also made the playoffs last year as the division continues to be tough to get through.

Boston Bruins

The Boston Bruins broke a long drought last year as they won the Stanley Cup for the first time in 39 years. This was the second longest streak in the NHL and the Bruins were able to break through and win the Stanley Cup making Boston very happy. The Bruins had a great season last year as they won the division and rode their success to the finals where they beat the Canucks in seven games. The Bruins rode the play of their defence as Zdeno Chara dominated throughout the season and the playoffs. Along with Chara and the rest of their defence the Bruins have Vezina Winning goalie Tim Thomas who was lights out for the Bruins all year as he bounced back from a bad 2009-10 season. The Bruins were not without some issues as they saw one of their top offensive players in Marc Savard end his season with his second concussion in under a year. They got through this loss and will now have a target on their back as the defending champions. This year the Bruins hope to repeat with much the same team as last year but will have a tough time overcoming the hangover.

The biggest plus for the Bruins this year is that unlike their predecessors, the Blackhawks, the Bruins were able to keep their corps.  One of the biggest issues with Stanley Cup champions is that they cannot afford new contracts for their players who ask for more after winning the Championship. This is what happened to the Blackhawks as they lost a large part of their team to free agency and were unable to repeat. The Bruins do not have this problem as they lost very few people to free agency. On offence the Bruins lost Michael Ryder to free agency and Mark Recchi to retirement but that is all of the damage they suffered. The Bruins seem to have more than enough firepower to continue their offensive production from last year. With Rich Peverley and Tyler Seguin to replace the lost wingers the Bruins will not miss a step. The top line of Milan Lucic, David Krejci, and Nathan Horton will be a good blend of toughness and skill that can keep the Bruins scoring. Meanwhile the depth of the Bruins remains with Brad Marchand, Danny Paille , Patrice Bergeron, and the addition of Benoit Pouliot. If Tyler Seguin can improve on his rookie season he could be a big contributor to the team like he was in his first few games in the playoffs. Their offence is four lines deep with scoring talent and does not seem to be slowing down this year. Defensively the Bruins have been one of the best for years with Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg heading up a strong defensive corps that has been ranked top two in the last three seasons. The addition of Joe Corvo gives them a bit of an offensive presence at the blue line as well. The three defensive pairings are also helped greatly by their offensive players that love to come back and cover the defence. Again the Bruins defence lost very little as Tomas Kaberle was the only player to leave the Stanley Cup winning defensive team. The defence also has backups if the starters go down with Andy McQuaid likely to crack the final pairing and Dougie Hamilton waiting in the wings for his chance to play. For a defence that has been ranked as high as the Bruins the lack of changes means that they will be strong again and that is better news for their goalie. Last year Tim Thomas stopped almost anything that came his way and won the Vezina Trophy. Thomas will return as the top goalie but the question will be if he can stay consistent. After a great performance in 2008-09 Thomas then struggled through 2009-10 leading to the promotion of Tuukka Rask. If Thomas can repeat his performance from last year he will become a very big reason for the hopes to repeat being high in Boston. The Bruins have made very little changes to their champion team which has made them an early favorite. With almost no major losses and the return of some injured players the Bruins will be in the mix for the Stanley Cup this year.

Buffalo Sabres

The Buffalo Sabres had a good season in 2010-11 as they finished in third place and made the playoffs. The majority of their success came with the play of their goalie Ryan Miller and their defence. The Sabres were locked in a late battle for the 8th spot but got hot late in the season as they took a playoff spot. A major reason for the Sabres turnaround has been the introduction of their new majority owner Terry Pegula. He is fully committed to making the Sabres a winning team and proved it a last year’s trade deadline when he got Brad Boyes. The new commitment to the Sabres has given them new life and gave them the opportunity to make a run at the playoffs. Their run fell short in the playoffs as the Sabres lost to the Flyers bu made it close going 7 games. This year the Pegula era is continuing as he has shown his commitment by renovating the Sabres dressing room to make it state of the art and purchasing the Rochester Americans (AHL) reuniting the two teams and he looks to continue this commitment in 2011-12.

The Sabres did not make a large amount of moves but they did use the new funds from Terry Pegula to add some key pieces. On offence the Sabres added the gritty Villi Leino who will add some toughness and scoring ability to their second line. With the loss of Tim Connelly to the Leafs Leino will be a decent replacement alongside Derek Roy who will return form a season ending injury last year. Along with these two centres the offence will be led by Thomas Vanek, Drew Stafford, and Jason Pominville. The Sabres will also look to two young speedy sophomores in Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe to continue their development and provide some scoring in the back lines. They will also be looking towards some defensive help as the Sabres are known for have defenders contribute on offence. This includes Tyler Myers, Christian Ehrhoff, and Jordan Leopold as they will hope that these three defenders can provide some offence. If the Sabres are lacking in some toughness on the bottom lines they may look at rookie Zach Kassian to provide some presence on the offence. On defence the Sabres also opened up their wallet signing Robert Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff. Ehrhoff will provide some offence while Regehr will be able to balance the first pairing with the offensive minded Tyler Myers. Along with this impact Regehr and Ehrhoff will provide some veteran presence to a very young defensive corps that showed their inexperience at times. With two additions to the defence the Sabres have created what could be a shut down pair in Regehr, who can also punish the other team, and Myers and added some defensive scoring with Ehrhoff. The defence will be one more year experienced and have that veteran leadership they have wanted which is good for their netminder. In a division full of great goalies, and some not so great, the Sabres are near the top of the heap. Ryan Miller is one of the best goalies in the league and has been the main reason to why the Sabres are still relevant. As the rest of the team catches up to Miller the Sabres are feeling more confident especially in the defensive side. Miller will be solid again as one of the best goalies in the league and with the added defensive presence he will probably only get better. The Sabres have a newly committed owner that is more than willing to spend money to make the team successful. When you get the type of support that the Sabres are now getting it boosts the whole team whether or not the spending skyrockets or not. With the renewed commitment I would expect the Sabres to make a good run at the playoffs and finish near the top of the division.

Montreal Canadiens

The Montreal Canadiens are in a long Stanley Cup drought, or at least so thinks their fan base who are not very forgiving. The Canadiens last won the Cup in 1993 which seems like almost nothing compared to some of their division rivals but the proud franchise expects more from their teams. Montreal finished in second place in the division losing out to the Boston Bruins for the division crown. They then moved on to the playoffs where they would face their longtime division rival the Bruins. The Canadiens took the series to 7 games against the Bruins but came up short losing the series 4 game to 3. This of course did not sit well with the fans but the Canadiens were out of the playoffs again and continued their cup drought. The issue with many Canadiens’ teams has never been their skill but instead the lack of grit on the team that can get them the garbage goals that are needed to win in the playoffs. This year the Canadiens have attempted to add this grit and hope to make a real run in the playoffs.

The Canadiens have had issues with scoring on even strength and a big part of this is that they do not have a lot of grit on their lines. They do have a number of very skilled players that seem to shy away when their opponents begin to hit. The major change for the Canadiens will address this problem as they have added Eric Cole in the offseason. With Tomas Plekanec and Scott Gomez as the top centres the Canadiens will hope that both can have a good season. This is especially true for Gomez who was brought in to provide more offence but did not do this last year and he has vowed to be better this year. Cole will be joined by the return of Max Pacioretty who suffered a major concussion last year and Michael Cammalleri who will all need to pick up their offensive production if Montreal hopes to make a run at the Stanley Cup Finals. The defence will hope to be bolstered by the return of their best defender in Andrei Markov who missed almost the entire season last year with a torn ACL. The Canadiens are hoping that Markov can stay healthy this year and provide the presence that he was supposed to provide last year. Markov will team up with PK Subban on the first pairing that will provide a big offensive push from the blue line. Meanwhile the second pairing will be the opposite as Hal Gill returns with Josh Gorges to act as a goo shut down pair and a physical presence on the even strength situations. The Canadiens will be looking to their young rookie in Alexei Yemelin who will most likely fill a sixth defenceman spot and provide a big presence. After finally convincing Yemelin to come to Montreal after spending time in the KHL he will provide a big body much like Hal Gill but a much younger version. In the net the Canadiens are solid with Carey Price coming into his own last year and breaking a franchise record for most starts. Montreal has always been rough on their goaltenders as Price is still booed from time to time if he has a bad performance. Although he was one of the best goalies last year Price was still left out of the Vezina top three and this may give him a little motivation this year. The Canadiens have added some grit and kept their skill players as well. The one weak spot could be that their top pair may see two offensive guys pinching too much but if they can make up for that with goal the Canadiens should be into the playoffs again this year.

Ottawa Senators

The Sens struggled last year pretty much out of the gate as the Senators had a number of problems in their team. The team was full of veterans that were not performing up to par and a number of issues continued to rise. The Sens finished last in the division and were way out of the playoffs. With the bad season the Sens saw yet another coach bit the dust and rumours of the demise of Bryan Murray. Along with these potential changes the Sens also traded a lot of veterans away at the end of the season in order to start again. Mike Fisher and Chris Kelly were the biggest losses as they had been lifetime Senators. They also got rid of Jarkko Ruutu and Alexei Kovalev providing more room in the salary cap. They also canned their goalie, Brian Elliott, in exchange for Craig Anderson. All of these changes were meant for the future of the franchise. These moves give hope to the Sens organization that wants the changes to make a difference this year and if they don’t Bryan Murray might actually lose his job.

The Sens are moving on from a bad season but the hope for many Sens fans is that the young talent that Ottawa has in their lineup. On offence the Sens brought in a highly touted Russian star in Nikita Filatov who has the ability to be an impact player in the NHL. The problem with Filatov is like many other Russians in the league and that he may not have the commitment or the drive to be great. Filatov is much like the former Sen Alexei Kovalev who had more than enough talent to be one of the best players in the league but did not have the work ethic to become that superstar player. Along with Filatov the conversation around many of the other offensive stars is whether or not they can live up to the great potential. One of these players is Jason Spezza who will lead the team on the first line along with Danny Alfredsson as they attempt to get the offence working. With the skill and the young team the Sens are hoping that they will not get pushed around easily and to ensure this they have signed Zenon Konopka and will still have Chris Neil to play the enforcer when their skilled players are targeted. The Sens are hoping that the addition of some muscle will help the skilled players but the Sens are still not looking to be an offensive powerhouse. On defence the Sens made little change with a concentration on the promotion of some young talent. Eric Karlsson and Sergei Gonchar will lead the defence and will provide some key offence from the blue line. Meanwhile a young rookie could be promoted to fill in the end of the pairings like Daivd Rundblad. The Sens defence is not overpowering by any means but they do have some young guys that may turn out to be surprises if they get their opportunity. In net the Sens will have Craig Anderson who they got from a trade with the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for Brian Elliott. Anderson performed well in his new team but history is not on his side. When Anderson went to the Avalanche his first season with them was great but he failed to meet the expectations in his second year. Anderson could have a repeat in Ottawa where he is not as good as he needs to be in his second year. At backup the Snes have Alex Auld who was signed in the offseason but he is strictly a backup goalie that will not be able to take over if Anderson does not play well. The Sens have a lot of questions this year and a team with a lot of questions is usually not very successful. Their biggest issue will be whether or not their young team can handle the NHL or if they will falter against the biggest competition they have ever faced. This is probably not the Senators’ year to enter the playoffs but with a load of young talented prospects the Sens are looking to build for the future.

Toronto Maple Leafs

The Leafs are an interesting team as they are the most loved and yet most hated team in the NHL depending on who you ask. Toronto fans are loyal to a fault but will never abandon their team and consider their team a Stanley Cup favorite almost every year. Every other NHL fan hates the Leafs because of that attitude of their fans and revel in the continued failure for the Leafs to be true competitors in the NHL. Last year the Leafs entered another rebuilding year under Brian Burke as they made a number of moves. They brought in players that were not known by many until they began to play and slowly fell behind the pack for the playoffs. Then the Leafs made a big push that put them very close to breaking a six year playoff appearance drought. The push came up just short but they found some good in the run. The Leafs will again be the most hated and loved team in the NHL and will again try to break the second longest playoff drought.

The Leafs have finished their roster shake up and are beginning now to rebuild the roster with some key additions. The offence has been in dire need of a top-tier centre and the Leafs went to the free agent pool to get one. After losing out on the Brad Richards sweepstakes the Leafs went to their second choice as they signed Tim Connolly to lead their top line. Connolly is no Brad Richards but he is one of the top centres in the league and will go a long way to improving the Leafs’ offence, if he can stay healthy for them. Along with Connolly the Leafs also signed Matthew Lombardi to fill in another centre spot. With Connolly, Grabovski, and Lombardi at the top three lines the Leafs are hoping that they finally have some top centres to pass to their skilled wingers. With Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, Clarke MacArthur, and Nikolai Kulemin on the wings the Leafs are hoping that they can get their offence going after a team that struggled in previous years. There is no question that the offence has improved from last year but the question is whether or not they will crumble under the weight of the Toronto media and if they can stay healthy. The defence is a sense of pride for any Brian Burke team and the Leafs are not different with captain Dion Phaneuf and Luke Schenn leading the defence as a great shutdown pair the defence will be strong. The big addition on defence was John Michael Liles who was signed in the offseason and will give the Leafs a great offensive weapon on the defence. Liles may not score a tremendous amount of goals but his passing ability in the opposition zone is something that the Leafs will enjoy having. Along with these players the Leafs will still have Mike Komisarek, Keith Aulie, and Carl Gunnarsson who will need to step up a little more to provide a solid defensive corps. The defence looks solid but again the pressure in Toronto tends to make players underperform and they will need everyone to play at or above their potential if they hope to bring the team to the playoffs. In net the Leafs have had multiple issues trying to sign new big names to play for them and all have had their struggles. Last year the Leafs were able to make a big playoff run in front of James Reimer who stood on his head for them. Reimer is back and this time is the #1 goaltender to start the year and behind him will be a very talented, yet oft injured, Jonas Gustavsson. The plate performance last year has given the Leafs hope that they have found their goalie of the future but can he repeat this performance in his first year as the true starter. The Leafs look much improved this year on paper but that has never really been their challenge. If the Leafs can prevent long losing streaks and play consistently all year they may have the ability to break the streak. It will not be the Stanley Cup drought but they will definitely fight for that last playoff spot this year and have a good chance at making it for the first time in 6 years.

Predictions:

1. Boston Bruins

2. Montreal Canadiens

3. Buffalo Sabres

4. Toronto Maple Leafs

5. Ottawa Senators

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