It’s time for the second of six editions of Premature NHL Prognostication, and we’ll pick up with the division that sports the defending Stanley Cup champions. The Northeast Division looks to be a three-team race this year with Ottawa and Toronto still rebuilding, but by no means should this division be ignored.
The talking points are there for every team contending for the top spot. Boston comes into the season as the defending champions for the first time in nearly 40 years, and brings with it nearly the same roster. Buffalo enjoyed its first offseason while under the passionate ownership of former natural gas drilling mogul Terry Pegula, who has turned his attention to hockey by funding Penn State’s startup program and buying the Sabres, as well as making some lower profile sports acquisitions. And Montreal is Montreal. They’ll always have their fan base, but they bring a squad into 2011-12 that has earned a reputation as playing tough and being better than the sum of its parts after advancing to the eastern conference finals in 2010 and pushing the Bruins to the brink in 2011. Let’s get to the unnecessarily early projections.
1st: Boston Bruins 2010-11: 103 points, 1st in division
The Bruins looked like an upper-echelon team early last season, but really at no point were they “supposed to win” the Stanley Cup. Even coming into Game 7 at Vancouver, the Bruins were a betting underdog, as almost any road team would be. The usual questions that follow a championship season exist:
- Can the Bruins repeat in 2011-12?
- Will the hunger be there during the regular season?
- Will the makeup of the team be the same?
The last question can be answered in the affirmative. Boston has only lost Michael Ryder (to Dallas) and Tomas Kaberle (to Carolina) from its group that played most of the 25 playoff games this past spring. The money wasn’t right for either of them, and so the Bruins did the logical thing: let them walk. Most assume that 43 year-old Mark Recchi is done playing NHL hockey, and the team still has to get third-line winger Brad Marchand back under contract. Perhaps part of the holdup on Marchand’s new deal is due to the fact that team captain Zdeno Chara essentially deported Marchand back to Canada for “partying too hard” in Boston in the weeks that followed the Stanley Cup win. While I think young people drinking too much can be a serious problem, Marchand certainly sounds and plays like a character guy that most hockey teams would appreciate having, and I don’t think there’s any question that he’ll be back in the fold for the Bruins this fall.
Boston’s only free agent acquisition of note is left wing Benoit Pouliot from Montreal, who can be loosely seen as filling the positional hole left by the retiring Recchi.
The goaltending situation in Boston doesn’t really need to be examined too deeply. Tim Thomas is coming off his second Vezina Trophy in three years and the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP. Also on the roster is 24 year-old Tuukka Rask, who started 45 regular season games in 2009-10, along with all 13 playoff games that year. Rask figured to be the Bruins starter coming into last season, but Tim Thomas pretty much led the league in peripheral stats from wire to wire, giving the Bruins no choice but to roll the guy enjoying a season for all-time. Rask still managed to make 29 appearances last year, but regressed with a record of 11-14-2 to go with a 2.67 GAA. His .918 save percentage was solid, but didn’t measure up to his own .931 from the previous season, nor to Thomas’ .938 last year. All in all, there’s no reason to expect the Bruins goaltending to be anything shy of top ten in the league this season, and that’s almost a worst-case scenario.
The thing I love about the Bruins is their ability to do it all. They play a physical style, but also have guys with great skill. David Krejci revealed himself as a sharp shooter in the playoffs, and Nathan Horton came up with huge goal after huge goal before meeting his season’s untimely end early in Game 3 of the finals. Everyone knows about Patrice Bergeron’s two-way game, and Rich Peverley adds some B-Table offense to the team. Nobody is quite sure what to expect from sophomore center Tyler Seguin this year, but he certainly made good of his few opportunities in last year’s playoffs. Seguin has the potential to be the best forward on the team, but it will probably take some time for him to get his grip on the little things that make a guy like Bergeron so effective.
Defensively, the Bruins blue liners sum up the team as a whole. They are big, bruising guys who can jump in offensively and contribute. The back end is obviously led by the big customs agent, 2008-09 Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara. But beyond Chara, the Bruins have minute chewer Dennis Seidenberg, who is defensively sound and a good enough skater and puck handler to factor big offensively as well. The rest of Boston’s defenders are less polished, but they all play a role. Johnny Boychuk can lay a big hit, and Andrew Ference makes sure not to get beat. Ference was plus-22 last season, and tallied two-thirds the number of points in the playoffs as he did in the regular season while playing only one-third the number of games. Then he, er, didn’t flip off the Montreal crowd in the first round of the playoffs. Joe Corvo’s best asset is his belief that he can shoot the puck 120 mph, but if the Bruins are smart Corvo won’t be called upon to do too much this season.
Considering that the Bruins won the division by seven points last season before going on to win the league’s ultimate prize, I see no reason not to peg them as favorites in the Northeast this season.
2nd: Buffalo Sabres 2010-11: 96 points, 3rd in division
Buffalo and Montreal ended up tied behind the Bruins last year, and both teams ended up losing Game 7s on the road in the first round. But unlike Montreal, the Sabres went ape shit trying to land new players under the still new ownership of Pegula. The state of the franchise is a far cry from a few years ago when contraction or relocation seemed like a real possibility.
The reason I like Buffalo to finish ahead of Montreal this season is based on the idea that if two teams start out as equals (both had 96 points and lost in Game 7 of the first round last year), then the team that improves the most should be better in the near future. We’ll get to the breakdown of Montreal next, but the Sabres scored a couple of players in the offseason that signaled their ascent to free agent relevance, in case some people still hadn’t gotten the Pegula memo.
The biggest of the offseason grabs was German-born defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, who had spent the previous two seasons with the contending Vancouver Canucks. Ehrhoff’s new 10-year, $40 million contract has been much debated, but the fact is he’s a Sabre now, and that can’t be anything but good for Buffalo on both sides of the puck. Ehrhoff’s fluid skating and puck movement should increase the Sabres’ time of possession and create scoring chances that previously were given to the Sedins and company in Vancouver. Ehrhoff tallied 94 points and played at a plus-55 in his two seasons with the Canucks (159 games played).
The Sabres also scored free agent winger Ville Leino, who came onto the scene in the 2009 playoffs with Detroit. The Red Wings were suffering from their typical injuries, and Leino held down the fort well enough to get the Wings through to the finals, where they eventually lost in seven games to Pittsburgh. Leino was traded the following season to Philadelphia, where he put together his first legitimate NHL season last year. The Finnish forward contributed 53 points in 81 games for the Flyers in 2010-11, and played in all of the team’s 11 playoff games. Leino appears to have solid offensive potential, as he skates well while also using his solid frame to compete for position around the circles. Leino amassed 77 points in 55 games in his final season in Finland with Jokerit Helsinki in 2007-08. He will be 28 years old throughout the upcoming season.
But the best new addition to this squad might be an old edition in the form of returning top-line center Derek Roy. The 32nd overall pick from ten years ago was rolling with 35 points in as many games before he tore a quadriceps just before Christmas. Roy returned to play only in the team’s final game in which they were brutally eliminated by Philadelphia. Roy may not quite be Brad Richards, but he is a huge boost to a Buffalo team that had to figure out how to score without him for the final 47 games of the regular season and the first six games against the then-defending eastern conference champ Flyers. Roy is shifty, quick and an excellent passer. I would expect nothing shy of 55 assists assuming Roy is able to play close to 80 games this season.
The Sabres recently resigned backup goaltender Jhonas Enroth, but I wouldn’t expect him to see a whole lot of time this year. Ryan Miller just turned 31 years old and could be entering the final stages of his prime. Most of the Sabres’ acquisitions have to do with owner Pegula’s seriousness about winning, but some of them also have to do with the fact that Buffalo knows that the window for having an all-world goaltender might be closing, albeit slowly. Between the success of elderly chaps like Tim Thomas and Marty Brodeur, and Miller’s own lack of having to carry a lot of weight around (6’2” but only 175 lbs.), I wouldn’t expect to see much decline in Miller’s play for at least four years. But that doesn’t change the fact that goalies are hugely important to winning championships, and Buffalo currently has one of the best. It’s not now-or-never, but it’s somewhat-soon-or-maybe-not-for-a-long-while.
The Sabres still have to figure out how to get into compliance with the salary cap, as they are rostering over $3.5 million too much with their current 23-man squad. But that will get figured out somehow, and I don’t expect it to include any huge losses. The resignings of defensemen Andrej Sekera and Mike Weber help fill out the blue line. Sekera played over 21 minutes a game last year, adding 26 assists. Weber brought the thunder with 158 hits in just 58 games. Bringing back winger Drew Stafford was also a priority in the offseason, and the Sabres did what they probably will do for a while now: they got their man. Stafford scored a four-year deal worth $4 million per season, and he will be expected to bring more consistent scoring than in seasons past. Stafford scored 31 goals in 62 games last season, and will only turn 26 years old in late October.
Two Sabres to Watch
Brad Boyes was brought in at the trading deadline from St. Louis, and the catchphrase that everyone wanted to use to describe Boyes was “sharpshooter.” Well, the gun misfired, because Boyes did not bring the Sabres that offense they desperately needed. He went for 5 goals in 21 regular season games with Buffalo before marking only one up on the board in the Sabres’ seven-game loss to the Flyers. Boyes has one more year left on his contract at a $4 million cap hit, and one has to wonder if he will be around at the end of the season, and maybe even at the beginning.
On defense, Tyler Myers enters his third NHL season. The 6’8” Texas-born Canadian was the rookie of the year in 2009-10, but took a long time to get off the ground last season. Myers was playing better by the end of the season, and contributed five assists and a goal in the seven-game loss to the Flyers. If Myers can emerge as a big-time NHL defenseman this year, then the Sabres have a very formidable group of blue liners. If he cannot, then a lot will be asked of guys like Ehrhoff, Sekera, the offensively-minded Jordan Leopold, and rock-solid Robyn Regehr, who had 180 hits and 142 blocked shots while skating 21:29 per game last year. Leopold is a career minus-28 in eight NHL seasons, despite playing for playoff qualifiers in six of those years. I know that plus/minus is sometimes a misleading or unfair stat, but in this case, I think the numbers fairly represent what I’ve seen on the ice. Leopold did manage 13 goals and 22 assists in 71 games last season, however. In short, the progress of Myers should help determine whether the Sabres are stuck between 6th and 8th in the east or if they can put it together and separate from Montreal while challenging Boston for the division title this season.
3rd: Montreal Canadiens 2010-11: 96 points, 2nd in division
The Canadiens have made a living lately by stuffing their detractors’ words right back where they came from. I doubted that Montreal would even make the playoffs last year, and then wrote that they probably couldn’t handle Boston’s size in round one. Well, they acquitted themselves just fine, again, and I’m done doubting them as a playoff team that can contend with anyone. On paper I don’t think the Canadiens should finish any higher than 8th in the east, but they seem to have a toughness that can’t be quantified.
Toughness means nothing without a good goaltender, and last season Carey Price established himself as one of the better ones in the league. We kept waiting for the immature Price to rear his ugly head, but that never did happen. From the first game of the season all the way to allowing Nathan Horton’s overtime eliminator in Game 7, Price was outstanding. He stood out. I’ve questioned his mental makeup in the past, but after last season, I’m convinced. Price looks like an uber-talented guy who finally grew up and figured out how to get out of his own head and just play hockey hard every night. I actually think a .920 save percentage can be expected this season, and it might need to be achieved. Price’s backup situation went from bad to bad when the Habs replaced Alex Auld with former Avalanche left-hander Peter Budaj. Price played 72 of 82 games last year, and he’ll need to play close to 70 again this year if Montreal wants to make the playoffs. The last time Price had to battle a Slovakian backup, he lost his job to Jaroslav Halak. Don’t expect history to repeat itself with Halak’s international backup, Budaj.
In front of Price will be a group of defensemen with different playing styles. Smooth-skating and hard-shooting Andrei Markov is back from injury and ready to go. The Habs resigned his polar opposite, Hal Gill, to a new one-year deal in the offseason. Gill is a towering man who uses his length and strength to keep defenders from Price’s crease. Youngster P.K. Subban is something of a combination of aforementioned two, possessing neither the size of Gill nor the polished offensive game of Markov, at least not yet. But Subban is just 22, and was able to come up with 14 goals and 24 assists in his rookie campagin last year. He also produced when it counted, as he was the one to notch the power play goal with under two minutes remaining in Game 7 to force overtime in Boston. Although Horton eventually knocked Montreal out, that doesn’t erase Subban’s biggest clutch moment of his young career. Subban had over 100 hits and blocks last year, an indicator that he gets involved often. Much like Tyler Myers in Buffalo, the Canadiens’ back end largely depends upon the progression of its bright youngster, P.K. Subban.
Montreal’s forwards appear to be less threatening on the whole than your typical contender, which is why I can’t project them higher than third in the Northeast. Outside of the short-but-dynamic center Tomas Plekanec, the Habs don’t seem to have a lot of firepower. There’s Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta and the newly-signed Erik Cole, who score but can’t create the way Plekanec can. Gionta quietly scored 29 goals last year, while Cammalleri added 19 with 28 assists while missing 15 games due to injury. Cole was Montreal’s big offseason signing, and he is coming off a 26 goal, 26 assist season with Carolina. The Habs need Cole to at least match that output if they are to have a chance to go higher than Buffalo or Boston in this division, but realistically his contract should demand 30+ goals for a team that needs them to come from some consistent sources.
Scott Gomez and his $7.3 million cap hit continue to be talking points, but salary aside, he is the one forward besides Plekanec who has the speed and touch to create for others. Frankly, Gomez was not good enough last season. He limped in with 38 points (only 7 goals) and was minus-15 in 2010-11. But if Gomez can channel previous seasons, then the Habs can have their second centerman that they desperately need offensively. Since the lockout, Gomez had assist totals of 51, 47, 54, 42 and 47 before last year’s disappointing output of 31. The Alaskan is only 31 years old, so it’s not as if he’s over the hill and has no chance to physically recapture the magic, although it seems like Gomez should be older by now. He broke into the NHL in 1999 and played all 82 games in his Stanley Cup winning rookie season with the Devils. Since then Gomez won another Cup in 2003 before playing two seasons each for the Rangers and Canadiens, which brings us to the present. A two-time Cup winner with 508 career assists at the age of 31 shouldn’t be written off, but the Habs need a bounce back season by Gomez in a bad way.
Given their goaltending, talent at the very top, and fighting spirit, I think the Habs have the chance to compete with anyone. But considering what I think is a lack of depth up against a big spender and a defending champion, I think third place is what Montreal should expect this season, which should be good enough to get them back into the playoffs for the fifth straight year.
4th: Toronto Maple Leafs 2010-11: 85 points, 4th in division
Based on my love for Craig Anderson, I really wanted to put Ottawa here. But I just couldn’t. The Leafs have done what they could do lately to improve the squad while also focusing on the long-term health of the organization. They dealt away players that they knew were either leaving or demanding big paydays, as well as wingers who couldn’t live up to top-six responsibilities without all-star Cup winners around them.
The Leafs got a passionate effort out of no-name goaltender James Reimer, and rewarded him with a new three-year contract that more than tripled his pay grade. Reimer is expected to be the Leafs’ starter in net, but the previously anointed one, Jonas “The Monster” Gustavsson, is still hanging around and certainly doesn’t want his NHL career to go down in flames. A little healthy competition could turn out to be beneficial for the Leafs, if not this season, then later on down the line after one of them had to actually win a competition.
I’m almost done talking about winger Phil Kessel. The guy’s a great shooter, he’s got potential as well as past performance, but he hasn’t totally lived up to the trade that brought him to Toronto yet. In fairness, we all give Rick Nash and Marian Gaborik the asterisk of not having played with a great center, and yet Kessel’s situation hasn’t been any different in Toronto. The Leafs brought in Tim Connolly from Buffalo, so we’ll see if he’s the answer to Kessel’s goal scoring consistency questions.
The team also scored forward Matthew Lombardi and defenseman Cody Franson from Nashville in exchange for Robert Slaney and former Red Wing bust Brett Lebda. At the very least, the Leafs upgraded at each position this season with that trade. At most, they robbed the Preds. We’ll see how it turns out, as Lombardi is coming off a concussion that basically erased his entire season (he played two games). Franson notched a surprising 21 assists from the blue line last season, despite only playing 15:10 a night.
Toronto had a couple of forwards who “came up” last season, including center Clarke MacArthur and his linemate Nikolai Kulemin. Those guys played out of their minds from the second line last year, and we’ll see if either of them was a one-hit wonder or if the Leafs found a couple gems.
There were also some forwards who didn’t quite live up, starting with center Tyler Bozak. I think some of the Leafs’ youngsters suffered a little bit from being under the microscope. Bozak and Nazem Kadri should have better seasons this year, and one never knows if winger Joffrey Lupul is ready to return to being a sniper like he was with Anaheim once upon a time (and I mean “once;” Lupul only really overachieved during the 2006 playoffs). The Leafs hope so, as Lupul is the third-highest paid forward on the team. Anyone willing to bet that he scores in the top three? I didn’t think so.
Toronto has a few winners on defense. Besides the newly-acquired Franson, the Leafs boast one of the better overall defensemen in Dion Phaneuf. The big guy leads the team in salary, and rightfully so. Phaneuf must continue to bring it at a high level while also bringing along Toronto’s young defensemen, Keith Aulie, 22, and Luke Schenn, 21. Schenn is an RFA right now, but is really just waiting on a new contract. I can’t see any way the Leafs don’t come to terms with the promising blue liner who has the gifts to become one of the league’s best.
The Maple Leafs look like a team in rebuilding mode, and they seem to have a fan base that is ready to stay the course. Playoff appearances are always desired, but there’s almost no chance of the ultimate success this year, and I expect the team to keep building toward that ultimate goal somewhere down the line through consistent improvement. Fourth place is the status quo this year for Toronto. Finishing fifth would be underachieving, while beating out Montreal, Buffalo or Boston would be pleasantly unexpected. I don’t expect it, and the Leafs should finish around 10th or 11th in the eastern conference in 2011-12.
5th: Ottawa Senators 2010-11: 74 points, 5th in division
I really want to believe in the Sens. They have a goalie in Craig Anderson who rocked a 2.05 GAA in 18 games with the team last year, following a dreadful 3.28 behind a group of skaters who seemingly couldn’t care less in Colorado. One reason I wanted to pick Ottawa ahead of Toronto this year was based on Anderson’s first game with the Senators on February 19. He had one of his patented “give a damn” games and stopped all 47 shots in a 1-0 road shootout win over the Leafs. I expect Craig to enjoy a fresh season in Ottawa playing behind a group of players who seemed to love playing for the vocal goalie.
But then I looked at the rosters and realized the two problems with taking Ottawa over anyone this year. First, they just aren’t deep enough at NHL positions. They have plenty of solid young talent that contributed big time in bringing the AHL affiliate Binghamton Senators its first Calder Cup championship. But those guys aren’t ready to be day-in, day-out performers at the level needed to succeed in the NHL. And that would be fine, if the Senators had big time top-line players who took care of business.
Enter Jason Spezza, one of the few players I’m more tired of talking about than Phil Kessel. The Sens top center is still rolling at almost a point-a-game clip, and still rolling at a miss 20 games a season clip. And honestly, a team that is as young as the Sens needs its big time offensive talent to deliver at least a point a game. Fifteen players of consequence scored at that pace last season, and a team like the Sens need a guy like Spezza to be in that top 15 if they’re going to be able to overachieve. But despite Spezza’s talent, I doubt he’ll top 70 points this year, for inexplicable reasons. I mean it shouldn’t even be plausible to go back and relive the Alexei Yashin trade in 2001, but Spezza at least makes you wonder. Ok, you’re right, no he doesn’t. But still.
|Is that styrofoam cup biodegradable, Jason?|
Spezza reminds me of one of the many memorable quotes from the movie The Big Lebowski, where Jackie Treehorn sends a couple of collectors to The Dude’s apartment to collect sums of money that didn’t exist in The Dude’s household. After dunking The Dude’s head in the toilet and peeing on his rug, the thugs start to figure out that they got the wrong Jeffrey Lebowski. One intruder looks to the other and asks, “Woo, isn’t this guy supposed to be a millionaire?” Woo takes about a second before concluding that The Dude “looks like a fucking loser.”
|“No, like I said, Woo peed on my rug.”|
Perhaps these words are a bit harsh and untrue, as Spezza is a multi-millionaire and has enjoyed periods of winning, most notably during the three-year stretch immediately following the lockout that saw the Sens make the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007. Spezza did manage 90, 87 and 92 points in those seasons, respectively. Yet the Lebowski summary remains. You watch him play, and you realize why he was the #2 pick in the draft in 2001. He shows control with the puck, speed and precision passing that can get any fan base excited. But then you keep watching and you notice that he can’t stay on the ice. You notice that his assist totals went south around the same time that fellow #2 overall pick (from the 2000 draft) Dany Heatley wore out his welcome in Ottawa and was subsequently traded to San Jose for Milan Michalek, who isn’t a top-six NHL forward, and Jonathan Cheechoo, who inexplicably led the NHL with 56 goals in 2005-06 before he forgot how to score and was waived, sent to Binghamton, and bought out of his contract before quietly rejoining the Sharks minor league team.
And so now, outside of aging captain Daniel Alfredsson, Spezza has almost nobody to turn to for support. Spezza’s individual talent leads one to compare him with the other Jeffrey Lebowski, the millionaire. But he’s quietly letting a promising career slide into irrelevance, albeit with the help of the organization dealing away talented players in exchange for very little. It’s too early to write Jason Spezza off, but from a team game standpoint, per Woo in Lebowski, he’s starting to look like a bleeping loser.
Aside from Spezza, the rest of the Senator veterans didn’t do enough last season, and from top to bottom don’t really have the ability to score enough goals to contend. Ottawa outscored only New Jersey in the entire NHL last year, so simple improvement may not be enough to get into the playoffs this year, or even to beat out Toronto in the division. I love Anderson, and I like the Sens talent on defense in the forms of Sergei Gonchar, Filip Kuba, Chris Phillips and Erik Karlsson, but I just don’t see enough offensive depth for Ottawa to contend for the playoffs in 2011-12. Former Red Wings assistant Paul MacLean will take over head coaching duties for the Senators this year. It’s a rebuilding process, and one that the B-Sens showed has real promise. The time just hasn’t come yet.
Next up, we’ll round out the eastern conference with our premature picks for the order of finish in the Southeast Division.