NHL preview: Northeast Division

BOSTON BRUINS
2011-12 Record: 49-29-4 (9th place). Lost to Washington (4-3) in conference quarterfinals.
Additions: D Garnet Exelby, Aaron Johnson D
Subtractions: D Joe Corvo, F Brian Rolston, G Marty Turco, G Tim Thomas (hiatus)
Where We Last Left Off:
Washington’s Joel Ward sent Tim Thomas out to pasture 2:57 into
overtime of Game 7 of the first round, ending a wildly oscillating
season for the defending champions. It was a disappointing conclusion
for a team that won 49 games and entered the playoffs on a 9-2-1 run.
2013 Outlook:
The biggest question in Boston this season is whether or not Tuukka
Rask is capable of taking over as a the No. 1 goaltender, but the
shortened season may actually be something that works in the advantage
of the netminder who hasn’t appeared in more than 45 games in any NHL
season. It is a good sign that in his most heavily used year, 2009-10,
he posted a career-low 1.97 goals against average. Still, goalies who
inherit vast minutes after serving in a platoon are vulnerable to
overexposure, even if they’ve posted a career .926 save percentage. His
numbers shouldn’t come down by much. Offensively, this is among the best
forward rotations in the league. Tyler Seguin led the team in scoring
and finished a plus-34 as a 19-year-old before dominating the Swiss
National League A to the tune of 40 points (25-15=40) in 29 games during
the lockout. If he stays healthy, he should easily finish atop one of
the league’s premier offensive teams in scoring. Patrice Bergeron won
the Selke Trophy a season ago – the 33rd time in 34 years the award was
presented to someone on a team in the Central or Eastern Time zones –
and as a 27-year-old entering his ninth NHL season is in the peak of his
prime. He should experience an explosive season skating with Brad
Marchand and Seguin on the Second Line That Is Actually A First Line.
Nathan Horton has recovered from a concussion suffered last January and
will likely slot back in alongside Milan Lucic and David Krecji after
being limited to 46 games a season ago. Zdeno Chara anchors the defense
as a perennial Norris Trophy candidate and should be counted upon to
maintain his decade of dominance as one of the league’s premier
defensemen. A model of health and consistency, Chara hasn’t appeared in
fewer than 71 games or finished outside the range of 39-52 points over
the last nine seasons. Dennis Seidenberg is among the most underrated
defensemen in the league and finished second in ice time to Chara last
season. Johnny Boychuk, Adam McQuaid and Andrew Ference round out a deep
blue line that could potentially break in uber-prospect Dougie
Hamilton, the reigning CHL defenseman of the year. The Bruins won a
league-best 54.5 percent of faceoffs last season. This is a team
positioned to be among the final two or four teams playing in June. If
Rask can help them gain an upper hand in the playoff crapshoot, Boston
may very well celebrate its second Cup in three years.

OTTAWA SENATORS
2011-12 Record: 41-31-10 (8th place). Lost to New York Rangers (4-3) in conference quarterfinals.
Additions: F Guillaume Latendresse, D Marc Methot, F Hugh Jessiman, D Tyler Eckford, D Mike Lundin
Subtractions: F Bobby Butler, D Filip Kuba, F Zenon Konopka, D Matt Carkner, F Nikita Filatov, F Nick Foligno, F Rob Klinkhammer
Where We Last Left Off:
The surprising Senators clicked in Paul MacLean’s first year as coach
as a vastly improved offense carried the team to Game 7 of a first-round
series against the top-seeded Rangers. Erik Karlsson turned in a
dazzling 78-point campaign while capturing the Norris Trophy. We all saw
that coming, didn’t we?
2013 Outlook:
There’s more optimism out of Ottawa’s camp after the Senators appeared
rejuvenated under MacLean a season ago. Offensively, there’s not much to
worry about. Jason Spezza found great chemistry when skating with Milan
Michalek (career-high 35 goals last year) and Daniel Alfredsson
(59-point, 39-year-old season), and is a prototypical first line NHL
center. Twenty-two-year-old Jakob Silfverberg was the regular season and
playoff MVP in Sweden’s Elitserien last year and will be given an
opportunity to make his mark alongside Michalek and Spezza, giving way
to a likely productive second line of Guillaume Latendresse, Kyle Turris
and Alfredsson. Heralded prospect Mika Zibanejad has dealt with
injuries over the past year and is not as much of a lock to crack the
top six – or even the team – as Silfverberg, who led the Binghamton
Senators in scoring at the time of his departure. There is an excess of
depth up front. From Colin Greening, Erik Condra and Zack Smith to Chris
Neil and Kaspars Daugavins, the third and fourth lines could even
improve upon the scoring depth that made Ottawa so dangerous a season
ago. And, of course, there’s Karlsson. The most dynamic offensive
defenseman now features Marc Methot instead of the departed Filip Kuba
as a defensive partner and should be expected to maintain his elite
level of skating, elusiveness and string-pulling as a budding superstar.
He’ll need to be every bit as good as last year because Ottawa will
take a major hit from the absence of Jared Cowen, who will miss the year
due to a hip injury. The 6-foot-5 well-balanced defenseman had
developed into a reliable top-four blueliner with enormous upside, and
the Sens can’t really match what he would have brought to the team.
There are questions in net, but there were questions in net a year ago.
He’s been serviceable, but Craig Anderson doesn’t have an enormous
ceiling, and could be quite suspect considering the Sens’ defensive
issues. He needs to be pushed by either Ben Bishop or Robin Lehner, with
Lehner the likely candidate to remain in Binghamton. Anderson has
proven to be an adequate NHL goaltender, but there’s the opportunity for
some upside if the 6-foot-7 Bishop capitalizes on what looks to be his
first extended stay in the NHL. The depth of the offense is the strength
of this exciting team that is likely to finish somewhere around sixth
or seventh in the Eastern Conference.

BUFFALO SABRES
2011-12 Record: 39-32-11 (9th place)
Additions: F Steve Ott, D Adam Pardy, D John Scott, D Mark Mancari, F Nick Tarnasky
Subtractions: F Derek Roy, F Jochen Hecht, F Brad Boyes, D Dennis Persson, F Michael Ryan, F Paul Szczechura
Where We Last Left Off:
Optimism was shattered early last year when expensive spending gave way
to a team that had a decent amassment of skill but was as soft as silk.
After clawing back from the dregs of the Eastern Conference, the Sabres
rallied late before missing the playoffs by three points. Goalie Ryan
Miller put together his second consecutive lukewarm season in net after
winning the Vezina Trophy in 2010.
2013 Outlook:
Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. For a team with 1,569
regulation wins and 1,219 regulation losses that has made the playoffs
in 29 of 41 seasons, Buffalo is 7-14 in all non-first round playoff
series and winless in two trips to the Final. Imagine that. A Buffalo
sports team having difficulty winning the big one. There really
shouldn’t be much variance in the Sabres’ projections this year. This is
a low-risk, low-reward team. If they are to put themselves in position
to advance in the playoffs, Miller must reverse the trend of the last
two years and re-establish himself as one of the best goaltenders in the
Eastern Conference. Cody Hodgson will also need to step up and become
the second-line center that Buffalo envisioned him as when they traded
for him. He had a combined 41 points in his rookie campaign a season
ago. Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek and Drew Stafford are skilled
forwards in their primes and should be counted upon to lead the team in
scoring, while Steve Ott will add the necessary grit (and then some) and
character as the third-line center. Defensively, Tyler Myers is an easy
pick for bounce-back player of the year. After seeing his point total
slip in each of the last two years, the 6-foot-8 gifted skater enters
the season without injury concerns and should be counted on to at least
equal his 48-point, plus-13 rookie season of 2009-10. Christian Ehrhoff
is certainly capable of returning to form in his second year in Buffalo
after bottoming out at five goals and 32 points; any improvement of his
will get a rise out of the Sabres’ middle-of-the-road power play. Robyn
Regehr never really got comfortable in his first season outside Calgary
and finished as a minus for the first time in nine seasons. Turning 33
this season, he is much less of a lock to bounce back than Myers. Rugged
6-foot-4 defenseman Adam Pardy is a quality hitter who doesn’t make
himself vulnerable and came over in the toughness-adding Ott trade. The
hot seats are beginning to warm at the First Niagara Center for general
manager Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff, who have together been at the
helm of the Sabres for the last 15 years. Failure to improve upon last
year’s ninth place finish may come at the expense of one or, perhaps,
both.

MONTREAL CANADIENS
2011-12 Record: 31-35-16 (15th place)
Additions: F Colby Armstrong, F Brandon Prust, D Francis Bouillon
Subtractions: F Mathieu Darche, D Brad Staubitz,C Andreas Engqvist
Where We Last Left Off:
French-Anglo relations between the Montreal press corps and hockey
operations reached a low point. Les Habitants were Les Misérables in
2011-12, finishing below average in virtually every category other than
penalty killing and suffering an 18-point drop from the previous season
to finish alone in the basement of the Eastern Conference.
2013 Outlook:
Michel Therrien was named head coach. Again! And he speaks French! Not
only that, but he’s from Montreal! That must be worth something! Now
let’s all put that horrible episode of 2011-12 behind us. This is still
not a very good hockey team. It’s strange to think that the Canadiens
finished as high as 19th in scoring, because there is a mostly barren
cupboard of premier offensive talent. Max Pacioretty was as steady as
they come for Montreal and ended up improving as the season progressed.
He will look to reclaim the excellent chemistry he found with Erik Cole,
who put up career numbers as a 33-year-old, and diminutive sparkplug
David Desharnais, a former ECHL Most Valuable Player. Unfortunately for
the Canadiens, they still have three more lines to fill. Tomas Plekanec
is a shifty, playmaking center who has also found time to pop in at
least 20 goals in six of the last seven seasons, but who will play
alongside him? The Habs were hoping Louis Leblanc would grow into an
offensive role, but he sprained his ankle playing for Hamilton in
October and has put up three points in 19 AHL games since returning.
Hamilton has struggled, and it doesn’t appear that there are many
offensive prospects capable of making a leap toward becoming a
productive NHL forward. Brendan Gallagher has been impressive, though
he’s generously listed as 5-foot-9 and would likely slot in a third line
role should he be given an NHL opportunity. Lars Eller is a 23-year-old
Dane who scored 16 goals last year and is likely to slot alongside
Plekanec, while Rene Bourque will look to shake off one of his most
disappointing seasons seasons as a pro. Sandpaper and grit were added
with the signing of Colby Armstrong, who should provide quality minutes
as a depth center if he can remain healthy. On defense, P.K. Subban is a
restricted free agent and a big question mark when camp opens. If he’s
signed quickly and can continue the trajectory of his all-around
dynamism, there’s little to worry about – the Habs were the 11th best
defensive team and featured the second-best penalty kill. Tomas Kaberle
is a quality veteran who played his best hockey after being traded from
Carolina, and Josh Gorges is among the most underrated stay-at-home
minute eaters on any team’s blue line. Andrei Markov, beset by two knee
surgeries, needs to stay healthy to stabilize what should be among the
league’s stronger defensive units. In net, Carey Price is already a
three-time All-Star at age 25 and could conceivably contend for the
Vezina Trophy. Let’s hope he wins it, because there’s not much hardware
this offensively-challenged club will be awarded this year.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
2011-12 Record: 35-37-10 (13th place)
Additions: F James van Riemsdyk, F Keith Aucoin, F Jay McClement
Subtractions: D Luke Schenn, RW Colby Armstrong, RW Joey Crabb, C Phillipe Dupuis, G Jonas Gustavsson
Where We Last Left Off:
The bottom fell off of an encouraging Leafs team that woke up on the
morning of Feb. 6 in sixth place in the Eastern Conference. They won
seven of 29 games after that point, falling to 13th place. Inconsistent
goaltending, as it has been for quite some time, was a major issue
during the seventh straight season the Leafs missed the playoffs.
2013 Outlook:
Toronto waited until after the end of the lockout to fire Brian Burke,
and incoming GM Dave Nonis will inherit a team that appeared to make a
lateral move in the offseason, netting James van Riemsdyk for Luke
Schenn. Van Riemsdyk, who had been buried in Philadelphia’s depth chart,
will not initially be moved to center to play alongside the productive
pair of Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, according to coach Rady Carlyle.
Tyler Bozak is a candidate to center the first line, while van Riemsdyk
is likely to slot as a second line wing opposite Clarke MacArthur,
centered by Mikhail Grabovski. Grabovski kept healthy by skating on a
line with Pavel Datsyuk at CSKA Moscow during the lockout. Nazem Kadri
shows promise and could eventually play his way into a second-line role,
though that might not be this season. This is not a particularly strong
team down the middle of the ice. There are also concerns defensively as
promising 22-year-old Jake Gardiner may miss the start of the season
due to a concussion suffered in the AHL. Gardiner was a bit sheltered
last year but offers tremendous offensive upside and began to tap into
his ability with 17 points in 22 AHL games. There’s defensive stalwart
and heavy hitter Dion Phaneuf, who led the team with 25:17 of ice time
and will continue to blast the puck away from the point. Elite skater
and playmaker Morgan Rielly, the fifth pick in the 2012 draft, could
earn a spot on the blue line with an impressive training camp. Toronto
ranked second to last in the league last year by averaging 3.16 goals
against per game. Burke apparently wasn’t alarmed, having traded the
physical Schenn and neglecting to improve the black hole in net. Those
decisions likely cost him his job. Twenty-four-year-old James Reimer is
both the presumed starter and the definition of inconsistency. There’s
upside there, but entering the season, his platoon with Ben Scrivens
would have to be considered amongst the worst goaltending rotations in
the league. There’s the ever-present Luongo-to-Toronto rumor, but the
Leafs don’t have enough blue line depth from which to deal, and this
isn’t a team in the position where giving up its young talent makes any
sense. It’s a trade that may happen, but we’re skeptical of it being the
end-all of the Leafs’ woes. Carlyle, a Cup winner with a direct and
occasionally heavy approach toward communicating with his players, needs
to engineer consistency on the blue line while cultivating depth
scoring. His job becomes easier should Reimer emerge as a capable
starter, though that’s an awful lot to ask for. At this point, Toronto
doesn’t appear any closer to the playoffs than it did at the end of last
season.