Ah, the northeast division. Filled with some old friends and some we hardly know. One things for certain: right now, they're teams we hardly see. This should be a fairly competitive division this year due to plenty of off season moves. Let's take a look:
Last year: Second in Division, sixth in East. 96 points. Lost in 7 games to Boston in playoffs.
Last year vs. Hawks: Habs won 2-1 in Overtime in Montreal.
Key Additions: Peter Budaj , Erik Cole, Jeff Woywitka
Key Subtractions: James Wisniewski, Brent Sopel
After most Habs fans thought the world was ending when Halak was traded to some ECHL (or something like that) team in Missouri, the Canadiens managed to make a return to the playoffs thanks to a big rebound of a regular season from Carey Price (2.35 gaa) in net. However, playing 71 games in the regular season and habitually smoking 3 cigs at once caught up with Price, as he was a non-factor in the first round 7 game series loss to Boston. Regardless, most in Quebec seemed satisfied with Price's play, even if he does tend to allow some softies. Expect him to build on a strong season last year, mainly cause his backup this year could actually be competent.
Up front, the team was led by Tomas Plekanec (22g, 35A), Brian Gionta (29g, 17a) and Mike Cammellari (19 g, 17a). Gionta was the only person on the team to score more than 25 goals, though it should be noted that Cammellari missed 15 games. However, these three players were the only on the team to score more than 20 goals. The Habs ranked 21st in the NHL with 2.6 goals per game. Luckily, they were able to overcome that thanks to Price. The addition of Erik Cole will give Montreal some needed punch up front.
One thing Montreal does have going for it (except no longer being the most recent Canadian city to riot) is the exciting, polarizing P.K. Subban (14,g. 21a). Subban was known to get under the skin of opponents, most notably Mike Richards. One thing Subban will need to cut down on are his penalty minutes (124 last year) and accept a bigger role on the blue line at even strength and on the power play. With the devastating loss of James Wisniewski, Subban will have to increase his productivity on the power play or the Habs will find out the hard way: NO WIZ, NO WINS.
Player to watch: P.K. Subban. Like I said, expect his role to incrase. He has demonsrated he has the talent to be a star in this league.
Worth seeing?: For the nostalgia factor, yes. It's always fun seeing the Original 6 play against each other, and rarely do we get to see Habs come to the UC.
Personal thoughts: Always had a soft spot for the Habs since my Dad went to school there and all.
Standing: 3rd in division.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Last Year: Fourth in division, 10th in Conference. 85 points points.
Last Year vs Hawks: Hawks won 5-3 in Toronto
Additions: Tim Connolley, Cody Fronson, Matthew Lombardi, John-Michael Liles
Subtractions: Not really a subtraction, but Brett Lebda is no longer around, J.S. Giguere
Last season was streaky for the Leafs that ended in another year of playoff free hockey. This would be awesome if the Leafs and the Hawks were still in the same conference, but they aren't. Regardless, it's still pretty cool.
Anyway, the team was led in both goals and scoring by Phil "I'm the Least Popular Person in Madison," Kessel (32G, 32A) but his play can best be described as streaky. He started the season hot with 9 points in his first 8 games, but cooled off significantly in November and December. Kessel got hot again at the end of the year, but by that point the Leafs were too far out.
Offensively, the Leafs were pretty good up top. Clarke MacArthur, Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski all had over 50 points but there was a huge drop off after that. In only 53 games, Kris Versteeg still managed to be fifth on the team in scoring. Then somebody played with his car, forcing him to get mad, and he was eventually traded to the strongest locker room in the in the East, Philadelphia. Connolley and Lombardi (If he's healthy) give Toronto some pad at center, something they haven't had in a while.
Defensively, the Leafs were a train wreck. Judging by his hairstyle and arrogance, nobody has told Dion Phaneuf that it's no longer 2006 and that he can't get by on name alone. On paper, it looks like the Leafs will be better on their defensive corps, with the emerging Franson joining a core of Beauchemin, Aullie and if all goes to plan, Luke Schenn. The highly-rated defenseman still hasn't signed a new deal as I write this, but Canadian Media says he will be in camp, which is a good thing. Then there's John-Michael Liles. He was acquired from Colorado this summer and gives the Leafs yet another puck moving defenseman. He should help plug gaps, but he does get caught out position every now and then too.
The biggest bright spot for the Leafs last year was the emergence of James Reimer. The goalie emerged from pretty much nowhere to give Leafs nation another reason to watch the World Championships every spring. It remains to be seen if he can keep up the strong play and backstop the Leafs to a spot in the playoffs for the first time since the lockout ended (Other teams not to make the playoffs since 2006: Florida. But hey, at least they won as many games as Columbus and Atlanta!). But will he keep the strong pace, or have a Steve Mason esque Sophomore slump?
Player to watch: Joffery Lupul. It seems like Lupul has all the tools to become a scoring threat in the NHL, but the guy has been traded several times and injuries slowed him down last year. If he stays healthy, he can provide the Leafs with needed depth. Also, a bit of a gamer in the playoffs, with a 4 goal game and series clinching goal on the road on his resume.
Games against hawks/worth going to?: February 29 at the United Center. Worth going to simply to make 1967 jokes.
Personal thoughts: Used to hate the Leafs. Now don't really care anymore.
Last year: 5th in Division, 13th in East, 74 points.
Last year vs Hawks: Hawks won 3-2 in the shootout after the worst game ever
Additions: Lee Sweatt
Subtractions: Lee Sweatt
Last year was a step back for Ottawa. After making the playoffs in 2010 it wasn't unrealistic to expect a return to the playoffs in 2011. That didn't happen and as a result, Cory Clouston was fired and replaced by Paul MacClean.
The Senators showed a resistance to scoring similar to A.C. Green. They had two (!) players eclipse the 40 point plateau last year: Jason Spezza (21g, 36a) and young defense man Erik Karlsson (13g, 32a). The Senators also struggled without Captain/the only person who seems to enjoy playing in Ottawa, Daniel Alfredsson. Playing in only 54 games last year, he had career low of 31 points and failed to reach the 20 goal mark for the first time since 1999-2000. However, it does seem like he has a little left in the tank. Except there's no, you know, talent around him.
Karlsson's emergence offensively was nice, but he was also a hilarious -30 on the year. Former Hawk Craig Anderson committed to the goalie graveyard for some unexplained reason so maybe the consistency in net will help Karlsson sharpen up his defensive game. Karlsson is joined on the line by big game Chris Phillips who looks to improve on his 10 point, -35 season last year (but won't) as he seems to be around to provide veteran leadership to Ottawa's other high draft picks. Yes, Chris Philips was the #1 overall pick in 1996 and yes, that draft sucked.
Player to Watch: Uhhh...hmmm.....Uhhh.... Mika Zibanejad I guess. The sixth overall pick in last years draft looks to be a solid all-around player with a bright future. With Ottawa going nowhere fast, he should get an opportunity this year at some point.
Games against Hawks: March 2 in Ottawa (Or that arena in the middle of nowhere "near" Ottawa). Not worth going to.
Personal Thoughts: Ottawa is obviously a good hockey market (filled with Leafs fans), but it seems everything there is a bit forced. Sens Mile is a complete ripoff of similar ideas from Edmonton and Calgary and the team feels a need to change jerseys (seemingly) every year. Also, in 2003 I attended a playoff game in their building. We bought tickets for face value off Tickermaster a couple days before the game at face value. The seats were on the glass at the blue line. That team was pretty loaded too.
Standing: 5th in division, last in league, last in NHL and would legitimately struggle to beat several AHL teams.
Last year: First in division, third in east. Beat Montreal in 7, beat Philadelphia in 4, beat Tampa Bay in 7. Stanley Cup Champions beating Vancouver in 7 games, 4 of which were hilarious.
Last year vs Hawks: Boston won 3-0.
Ins: Joe Corvo, Benoit Poliout.
Outs: Mark Recchi, Marc Savard (Basically), Michael Ryder.
Last year was a year to remember for the Bruins ("no shit,"- everybody). A solid regular season led to the great playoff run where they beat their arch-rival, overcame demons from the 2010 playoffs, beat a team who went on a fluke run and who's fans will now say "WERE IN THE TOP TEIR OF TEAMS IN THE NHL," and then finally teased the Canucks to the point where they could almost touch the cup (Most underrated moment of that series? When Boston went on that game 6 blitz, leading to hilarious photos, like this one).
Anyway, Boston's biggest storyline of last season was the bounce back year form Tim Thomas. The Flint, Michigan native struggled in 2010 and was eventually benched for Tuukka Rask. But Thomas was handed the keys in 2011 and responded strongly, posting a goals against average of 2 and picking up 35 wins in 57 games. It will be interesting to see if coach Claude Julien continues to give Rask a solid workload. Sure paid off for Thomas come playoffs.
On defense, Zendo Chara provides the same usually-outstanding, sometimes getting-caught-way-out-of-position play that has made him one of the best defensemen in the league. Him and Seidenberg were nothing short of outstanding together last season and look to continuethat trend. Joe Corvo is a nice addition to the defense corps and should be a solid add to a team that needed a power play QB, especially in the playoffs (Yes, I am completely ignoring the presence of Thomas Kaberle, because even if he wasn't on the ice, Boston's PP would have been better).
Boston's forwards really won't blow anybody away but again, with their patient system they get results. Except I see problems. Will they recover form Mark Recchi retiring? Probably, but still could be a hole to fill that would cause them problems. Will Nathan Horton be ok post-concussion/seperated shoulder? With head injures, who really knows. And on that note, can they have a consistent year without Marc Savard? Lots of questions around these guys. On a positive note, Milan Lucic and David Krejci could still carry a large load on offense to keep their forwards productive and make Boston a threat.
Player Watch: Brad Marchmandt. Big playoffs, but will he comeback? And if he does will he carry over his momenteum?
Games against hawks/worth going to? October 15 at the UC and absolutey worth going to. Original 6 and the last two teams to win a Cup. Really shouldn't need more explanation.
Prediction: Second. I feel there are a lot of questions around this team. Still worthy of a playoff run though.
Personal feelings towards team (if any): Seemed like a gritty group of guys and refused to quit. And Tim Thomas hates the Canucks too, so they're fine in my eyes.
Last year: 96 points, third in division, seventh in east. Lost to Flyers (4-3) in playoffs.
Last year vs Hawks: Hawks won 4-3 in Buffalo AND won 4-3 at the UC
Ins: Ville Leino, Christian Erhoff, Robyn Regher
Outs: Tim Connoly
You could really say Buffalo was a disappointment last season. Many tipped them to upset the reeling Flyers in the first round. They came home up 3-2, lost in overtime and got blown out in game 7. It seemed to irk new owner and basically founder of Penn State hockey (and ruining college hockey but that's neither here nor there), Terry Pegula. He decided that the Sabres needed some new toys.
Problem was that there weren't a lot of top of the line toys out there. The Sabres overpaid for Ville Leino and Christain Erhoff, with the latter getting $10 million this year as part of a front loaded 10 year, $40 million deal. Leino will be a much welcome addition to a lineup that struggled to get points. Thomas Vanek led the team in goals and points (32g, 73p) but after that there was a major drop off. Jason Pommenville was closest to him with at 52 points (22g, 30a). Drew Stafford had 31 goals in just 62 games. If he can stay healthy the Sabres will have solid scoring threats that they seemingly haven't ever had.
The defense will be helped by the additions of Erhoff and everybody's favorite Brazilian born hockey player, Robyn Rheger. Miller will appreciate the physical play of Rheger while seemingly everybody in Buffalo will appreciate the kind of points that Erhoff can put up from the blueline. They join the always solid Jordan Leopold and the young, talent, giant, Tyler Myers. Miller will have the best defense in front of him that he's seen. Looks like Buffalo could be not as reliant on Miller as they had been in past years. It could be a major help if he plays in under 60 games as maybe he could be saved for a long playoff run.
(Editor's Note: This was written before the Sabres signed Tyler Myers to Duncan Keith type money. Now they're even further over the cap.) It should be noted that as CapGeek points out, the Sabres are $3,595,357 over the cap, a number they obviously need to get down before the season starts. So who could be subjuct to go? I'd say Brad Boyes. He was brought over from St. Louis at the deadline and only managed 1 goal in the loss to the Flyers. He makes $4 million and is in the last year of his contract. Safe to say he won't return to the heights he experienced with the Blues a few seasons back.
Player To Watch: Erhoff. That contract is going to put a lot of pressure on a guy.
Games against hawks/worth going to: January 18 at the United Center. I'd like to see this team and also I'd like to see Miller play in person.
Personal feelings towards team: Don't mind seeing them do well. As a Cubs fan, I sympathize with Buffalo sports.