NHL Preview: The Northeast Division

[audio:http://www.torontoobserver.ca/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/tyler_nhlpreview_podcast.mp3|titles=tyler_nhlpreview_podcast]Last season, four teams from the Northeast Division made it to the playoffs, leaving only the Maple Leafs on the outside looking in.  This year there are two front-runners to make it back (in Boston and Buffalo), and three bubble teams (in Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa).

BUFFALO SABRES

Last Season: (45-27-10. 100 points, 1st in Northeast)

Key Additions: F Rob Niedermayer, D Jordan Leopold, D Shaone Morrisonn

Key Departures: F Tim Kennedy, D Toni Lydman, D Henrik Tallinder

On the rise: F Drew Stafford, F Tyler Ennis, D Tyler Myers, D Andrej Sekera

On the hot seat: F Thomas Vanek, F Tim Connolly, G Patrick Lalime

Big Question? Can Ryan Miller repeat last season and carry his team?

Ryan Miller (8468011)

Outlook: Buffalo will rely on their Vezina winning goaltender Ryan Miller again this season.

Miller posted career highs in wins (41), goals-against average (2.22) and save-percentage (.929) last season.

He will be counted upon to backstop the Sabres in many close games, as they lack depth when it comes to their forwards.  The team will need similar numbers out of Derek Roy (26 goals), Thomas Vanek (28), Jochen Hecht (21), and Jason Pominville (24).

However, more importantly they would like to see breakout totals from players like Tyler Ennis, Drew Stafford, and veteran Tim Connolly.

Stafford, 25, was a 20-goal man in 2009, but fell to 14 last season.

Ennis, 21, a small, speedy forward will hope to surprise many and contend for the Calder Trophy (rookie of the year).  He joined the Sabres down the stretch and into the playoffs netting 13 points in just 16 games.

Cononlly, 29, also needs to be healthy. After playing just 98 games in three seasons from 2006-2009, he retured to form last year, and scored 17 goals.  Connolly played in 73 games, and finished second in team-scoring with 65 points.

On defence, rookie of the year Tyler Myers will look to avoid the “sophomore slump” after the 20-year-old led his team in ice-time last season averaging 23:44 a game.

Leopold and Morrisonn are definetly a down-grade from Lydman and Tallinder, so the pressure will be on other young blueliners like Chris Butler and Sekera to step up.

Finally, Thomas Vanek needs to be better. The two-time 40-goal scorer has decreased in scoring totals for four straight seasons, after recording 84 points as a sophomore. Vanek needs to live up to his potential to take the Sabres to the next level.

Sabres Prediction: 95-100 points, 2nd in the division

BOSTON BRUINS

Last Season: (39-30-13; 91 points. 3rd in Northeast)

Key Additions: F Nathan Horton, F Gregory Cambell, F Tyler Seguin

Key Departures: D Dennis Wideman

On the rise: F Tyler Seguin, F Milan Lucic, F David Krejci, F Blake Wheeler, G Tuukaa Rask

On the hot seat: F Marc Savard, G Tim Thomas/ G Tuukka Rask, Coach Claude Julien

Big Question? Will Marc Savard be healthy enough to play at all, and how well will Seguin do?

Marc Savard (826)

Outlook: Injuries played a big role in the roller-coaster ride that was the Bruins`season last year. After a good first half, Boston struggled to make the playoffs, at one point going 2-10-4 in February and March.

Marc Sarvard suffered a concussion, and Milan Lucic and several defenceman went down with injuries in the final two months..

If healthy, they are a disciplined team with a powerful offensive upside.  Injuries will be the key this year.

Lucic, Bergeron, Wheeler, and Krejci all could score 25-30 goals, as could new winger Nathan Horton.

Mark Rechhi, Michael Ryder, and Marco Sturm add veteran depth.

Then there is Tyler Seguin. The second overall pick is on the second line, and his potential is unlimited.

Zdeno Chara enters a contract year and the top four defencemen (without Denis Wideman) still look pretty good. Dennis Seidenberg and Andrew Ference are quality veterans, while Johhny Boychuk and Mark Stuart have both matured quickly.

Goaltender Tim Thomas signed a long-term deal after his 2009 Vezina season, but saw his job stolen by Tuukka Rask last year, and he may push for it back.

Rask posted a 1.97 GAA and a 931. save percentage,  so either way it’s a good tandem.  If Boston is healthy, Marc Savard can return, and the goaltending stays strong, look for them to be cup contenders.  Claude Julien took a lot of heat after the Flyers stormed back from a 3-0 deficit to beat the Bruins inthe second round, so if Boston does struggle look for his job to be in jeopardy early.

The Bruins has the team to beat in the Northeast division, as long as the injury bug doesn’t dwindle away their depth.

Bruins Prediction: 99-104 points, 1st in the division.

MONTREAL CANADIENS

Last Season: (39-33-10, 88 points; fourth in the Northeast)

New Additions: G Alex Auld, F Lars Eller, F Ian Shultz, F Jeff Halpern, F Dustin Boyd, D Alexandre Picard

Key Departures: G Jaroslav Halak, F George Laraque, F Sergei Kostitsyn, F Glen Metropolit, D Paul Mara, D Marc-Andre Bergeron

On the rise: F Benoit Pouliot, F Maxim Lapierre, D Josh Georges, D PK Subban,

On the hot seat: G Carey Price, F Tomas Plekanec, F Andrei Kostitsyn

Big Question? Will goaltender Carey Price fill the shoes left by Jaroslav Halak?

Carey Price (8471679)

Outlook: The pressure will be on Carey Price’s shoulders in Montreal. The 23-year-old will attempt to make fans forget about Jaroslav Halak, and the Canadiens unlikely march to the conference finals last year.

Scoring should not be a huge problem for the Habs though. Mike Cammalleri and new captain Brian Gionta can both score 30-plus goals, while Scott Gomez is still a skilled playmaker.

Meanwhile, youth in the form of Eller, and Pouliot can add speed and energy.

Tomas Plekanec will also be expected to play a big role, as will Andrei Kostitsyn, but for different reasons.

Plekanec had a career year, scoring 70 points last season. In the off-season he signed a six-year contract extension, and can’t let up.

Kostitsyn only played 59 games due to injury, and struggled recording only 33 points. He needs to rebound.

On defence, the Canadiens will have questions. Bergeron Mara are gone, and Ryan O’Byrne has been streaky.

Hall Gill, Josh Georges, Jaroslav Spacek, and Roman Hamrlik represent a decent core, but Andrei Markov and P.K Subban will have to prove themselves.

Markov injured his knee twice last season. He is not expected to be back until December.

Subban looked brilliant in the playoffs, but the 21-year-old may not be ready to play 82 games.

In the end, Price will determine the fait of the Canadiens. The young tender started 39 games under intense pressure last season, and only won 13, with a 2.77 GAA. If he can handle the job, Montreal might just squeak back into the post season.

Canadiens Prediction: 85-89 points, 3rd in the division.

OTTAWA SENATORS

Last Season: (44-32-6, 94 points; 2nd in Northeast)

Key Additions: D Sergei Gonchar

Key Departures: D Anton Volchenkov, F Matt Cullen, F Shean Donovan

On the rise: F Nick Foligno, F Mike Fisher, F Milan Michalek, F Peter Regin

On the hot seat: F Jason Spezza, F Alexei Kovalev, G Pascal Leclaire

Big Question? Do the Senators have enough depth to support unproven goaltending?

Jason Spezza (1183)

Outlook: The Senators surprised many critics last season. At the Olympic break, Ottawa sat in first place in the Northeast division, but the team stumbled down the stretch.

Pascal Leclaire, Jason Spezza, and defenseman Filip Kuba all went down with injury.

It was the second tier scores that kept Ottawa in the playoffs. The top players had off years; Alexei Kovalev (18 goals, 49 points), Jason Spezza (23 goals, 57 points) and Daniel Alfredsson (20 goals, 71 points).

Mike Fisher (25 goals), Milan Michalek (22 goals), and up-and-comer Peter Regin (13 goals), are expected to carry the load these days. Ottawa will also need 15-20 goals from Nick Foligno, and Chris Kelly.

Spezza can definitely return to the level he was once at, but Alfredsson (38), and Kovalev (37), are fading fast.

There could also be trouble on the blue line, as veterans such as Chris Phillips and Sergei Gonchar that have slowed in recent years.

Gonchar brings a great offensive upside, but the Senators have lost the shot-blocking shut-down defenceman they had in Anton Volchenkov. Filip Kuba is also out to start the season with a broken leg.

Goaltending could also be an issue. Brian Elliot had a breakout year for the Senators in 2009-10, winning 29 of 55 games played, but he looked average in the playoffs, and needed, Pascal Leclaire to take over.

Leclaire is an oft-injured goalie, who has shown glimpses of potential, but had a horrible season last year. However, he’s looking for a new contract, and could be highly motivated.

He could definetly push Elliot for the starter’s job, but if both falter, and Spezza does not bounce back, Ottawa could be in big trouble.

Senators Prediction: 80-85 points, 5th in the division

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

Last Season: (30-38-14, 74 points; fifth in the Northeast)

New Additions: F Kris Versteeg, F Colby Armstrong, F Clarke MacArthur, F Mike Brown, D Bret Lebda

Key Departures: F Viktor Stalberg, F Wayne Primeau, D Mike Van Ryn, D Garnet Exelby

On the rise: F Phil Kessel, F Tyler Bozak, F Nikolai Kulemin, F Kris Versteeg

On the hot seat: GM Brian Burke, Coach Ron Wilson, D Tomas Kaberle, G Jean-Sebastian Giguere, D Luke Schenn.

Big Question? Do the Leafs have enough firepower to contend?

Dion Phaneuf (2282)

Outlook: Although the Leafs were out of the playoffs last year, they became one of the league’s better team’s once aquiring new captain Dion Phaneuf.

The Stanley Cup drought will probably continue in Toronto, but there is a chance this team could slip into eighth place in the Eastern conference.

To do so, the Leafs will rely on their youngsters. Tyler Bozak has become the team’s top line centre, and he showed great chemistry with new sniper Phil Kessel in his rookie season. Bozak, netted 27 points in 37 games, and with a full season he could put up 60-points.

Kessel is a 30-goal scorer, while Nikolai Kulemin has started to come into his own. Toronto will need 20 out of the young Russian.

The same could be said about Mikhail Grabovski. He broke he wrist in March and it cost him a second straight 20 goal season.

Meanwhile, new addition Kris Vertseeg could add a second quality scoring-threat in Toronto, and should score 25 playing with Kessel.

Clarke MacArthur and Colby Armstrong could also supply 15-20 goals on the third line.

First-round pick Nazem Kadri did not make the team, but other unproven youngsters will need to step up into bigger roles to keep the team a float.

A big issue will be special teams, as Toronto’s power play and penalty kill were both dead last in 2010. The pressure will be on Ron Wilson to bring his troops together.

The blue line is stacked. Dion Phaneuf and Tomas Kaberle should be a great first pair, but the pressure will be on both to deliver.  Kaberle needs to prove he was worth keeping around, while Phaneuf  must show he’s a worthy captain. Luke Schenn suffered from the sophomore slump last year, but can return to his old self playing with Francois Beauchemin, or Mike Komisarek.

The goaltending situation is solid as J.S Giguere will be pushed by 25-year-old Jonas Gustavsson. Gustavsson played in 42 games as a rookie and went 16-15-9 with a 2.87 GAA and .902 save percentage.

General Manger Brian Burke has built his team from the net out, but only time will tell if he’s added enough offence to get the franchise back on track. If not they may be looking for a new Head coach.

Ron Wilson he has yet to deliver, with his overall record being 64-73-27 with the Leafs. He and GM Burke have a similar physical intimidating style, but Leafs Nation is waiting for a saviour,  and if the team doesn’t come together soon, patience will run out.

Maple Leafs Predicton: 82-87 points, 4th in the division.