With Montreal and Toronto, we know this division is always going to get its fair share of attention. But what kind of attention will they be getting this season? They had four teams end up in the playoffs, yet none of them were really that “dominant” Stanley Cup contender. Will the Bruins be able to bounce back to the form that had them atop of the Eastern Conference two years ago? Are the Buffalo Sabres going to be able to handle the departures of Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman? Then we have the Senators who—despite the relative lack of attention—were the best team in Eastern Canada last season. Who knew? Will the Canadiens and Leafs be able to improve on their regular seasons and make their rabid fans happy?
To help answer those questions and give us an idea of what to expect, we have some of the best writers the Northeast has to offer. Our roundtable panel is consists of Sarah Connors from Somethings Bruin (Bruins), Zach Zielonka from Die By The Blade (Sabres), the knowledgeable Kyle Roussel from Cowhide and Rubber (Habs), the incomparable Kevin Burgundy from StayClassy.net (Sens) and the notorious PPP from the Toronto Sun Pension Plan Puppets (Leafs). Hope you enjoy their insights!
1. Tell us why your team will be better this season than they were last.
Sarah (Bruins): It’s easy to be better than terrible. Although the Bruins did make the playoffs, no Bruins fan will forget that record-breaking ten game losing streak anytime soon. The key to this offseason couldn’t have been made any clearer. The Bruins finished the season with the second-best goals allowed against, and the absolute worst offense in the league. We had one player – ONE, that’s ONE, singular – who scored more than twenty goals, and he will be sitting out the first half of this season with a busted knee. We needed goalscoring this summer, and we needed it desperately.
There are a lot of little tweaks this offseason that have flown under the radar. Or perhaps everyone is underrating the Bruins’ acquisitions. We’ve shed Wideman, who was often a liability. Seidenberg is back – he led the league in blocked shots last year, which is a fun card to have in your hand. Nathan Horton, had he been a Bruin last year, would have nearly tied for the team scoring lead. I’m not even going to talk about Seguin, because he could be a Tavares or he could be a Stamkos – there’s no point in speculating about an untested rookie. (That being said, both scored more goals in their rookie seasons than anyone on the Bruins had last year, so….okay, yeah, Seguin will help, too.)
We will score more goals this year, and if our defense can hold fast and our goaltending remains the same, the Bruins are going to be a contender in the east.
Zach (Sabres): This team has added a few things to their roster even though most Sabres fans will tell you that they should have done more to make themselves better. The addition of Rob Niedermayer will give the team more veteran leadership which is something that they still need and addressed. The additions of Leopold and Morrisonn will be sufficient replacements for Lydman and Tallinder and Ryan Miller is still on the team so it will be competitive.
Kyle (Canadiens): Do I have to believe they’ll be better? Because I’m not so sure they will be better. But if they are to better, the reasons for it are simple: the “lack of chemistry” excuse from last year is dead. Gone. Kaput. Many Habs fans trotted that convenient one out there as a reason why the Habs struggled. No chance that flies this year, not after their playoff run that saw them come together as a group. If Carey Price can get something resembling consistent goal support and post a save percentage better than .915, then the Canadiens will certainly be better off. Finally, the injuries. I hate using that as an excuse because everyone gets them, but the reality is so many Canadiens were felled by the injury bug last year. If they’re healthier this year, it should translate to more wins.
Burgundy (Senators): If we’re being honest — and Matt, I think we are… you and I don’t normally lie to each other… do we? I’m so confused. This is getting out of control — I’m not sure the Senators will be better than last season. Ottawa finished the 2009-2010 season as the 5th seed in the Eastern Conference with 94 points. That’s pretty damn good when you look at their roster and the key injuries they sustained. That 11-game winning streak helped, too. I can’t see their 2010-2011 roster running a similar streak this season. I suppose crazier things have happened, like a recently released ICQ 7! But back to my point, I don’t see the Senators finishing 5th in the East or better. The Senators will be in a battle with five or six other teams for the last few playoff spots in the East. To make matters worse, a few of those ‘battle’ teams will likely be other Northeast teams too.
PPP (Maple Leafs): Because Vesa Toskala is gone. I feel safe (dun dun dun) in saying that there is no way that the Leafs’ goaltending will come close to the fecal-like performance that Toskala gave last season. I’ll also bank on Francois Beauchemin and Mike Komisarek playing more like the defencemen we expected and a full season of Dion Phaneuf helping to address the Leafs’ biggest weakness since the lockout: goals against.
2. What part of your team are you concerned about this season?
Sarah (Bruins): I’m still a little concerned about the depth at wing. We’ve got centers up the wazoo here in Boston – and even in Providence, we’ve got guys who are natural centers moving to wing in order to increase playing time (see: Sauve, Max and/or Colborne, Joe). In addition to that, as much as I get mocked for being upset that Trent Whitfield is out for the season, what happens if someone gets injured early on? Our team in Providence is the youngest I can remember. For veteran depth we now have Jeremy Reich. That is IT. The next oldest guy is Jeff Lovecchio at 24, who has seen all of one NHL game. Brad Marchand has played a bunch but he’s young, 21, hardly a veteran. I’m definitely worried about our depth at wing.
Zach (Sabres): Backup goaltending as always been a contentious issue with Patrick Lalime. Whether Lalime’s play has lacked or the team in front of him doesn’t play well, the team suffers when Ryan Miller isn’t in net. The organization must have faith in Lalime though because they have brought him back this season. If there continue to be issues with Lalime’s performance, the Sabres have the choice of bringing up Jhonas Enroth who got his NHL debut last season against the Bruins.
Kyle (Canadiens): My biggest concerns with the team aren’t so much about the Canadiens, but with the rest of the conference, and how they’ll be treated by fans and media. The instant Carey Price gives up a weak goal, or has a tough night at home, the fans will excoriate him. Unfairly, I might add. The trouble is so many fans are still bitter about the Halak trade that they’d prefer to have their tears justified than see the team do well. Madness sells very well in Montreal. Also, I’m still concerned about the coach. By November of last season, I was fed up of Jacques Martin. He’s not the right man for the group of players he has in his locker room. He’s adept at deflecting media pressure in both languages, but otherwise he’s a coach who was effective prior to the lockout. Other points of concern would be the inevitable drama caused by Markov’s pending free agency, and ensuring that Andrei Kostitsyn and Benoit Pouliot pull their weight for a full season. I also see the rest of the Eastern Conference getting better at a faster pace than the Canadiens. Boston, Atlanta, Tampa and Carolina will all be better this year, while the top teams will all be where they usually are. With the line between post-season and golf course so razor thin, we may not notice how other teams who were once below the Canadiens nibble away at their point totals.
Burgundy (Senators): Can I list several things? At the risk of having Matt beat me up for going against his single concern request, I’m going to list both offence and goaltending as primary concerns of the Ottawa Senators. Actually, Ottawa’s D is rather questionable too. OK I’ll stick to the forwards and goaltending for today.
Up front, the Senators have plenty of reasons for concern. Daniel Alfredsson is getting older (one has to wonder if this will be the year he slows down a bit) and both Alex Kovalev and Milan Michalek are coming off significant injuries from last season. The Senators didn’t replace Matt Cullen either. Cullen — who was a nice fit in Ottawa’s top six forwards group during the final regular season games and playoffs — signed with the Wild earlier this summer as a free agent. The Senators are hoping young forwards like Nick Foligno and Peter Regin can continue to elevate their games and fill some of Cullen’s void. I’m not sold Foligno is ready for top six minutes but the Senators believe Regin is. We’ll see if Regin can continue playing at the level he did in the playoffs and World Championships.
Ottawa’s Pascal Leclaire and Brian Elliott duo don’t do much to scare opposition. In fact, they scare their own fans more than anyone else. Lot’s of obvious question marks here. This is a career make-or-break season for Leclaire and Elliott will be pushing him all season for the coveted number one spot. Both goalies were consistently inconsistent last season. For the sake of the Senators, and the nerves of their fans, hopefully history doesn’t repeat itself.
PPP (Maple Leafs): How they will score goals. I wasn’t this worried last year because the team had, in every year since the lockout, found a way to score. Unfortunately, their powerplay sunk to second worst in the league and that crippled them. If they end up 25th in goals for again they won’t make the playoffs because the requisite decrease in goals against would be too large in my mind.
3. Each year there are players who break onto the scene as all-stars or even superstars. Sometimes it’s a rookie who is already expected to be great, sometimes it’s a rookie who shocks the world, and sometimes it’s a younger player who simply comes into their own. Which player on your team should we expect to have a breakout season?
Sarah (Bruins): For a breakout season on defense, look for the little-known Adam McQuaid to have a pretty good breakout. He’s a big young defenseman who’s had two very solid years in Providence; he’s not afraid to throw his weight around. He’s a stay-at-home defenseman, not a puck-mover, BUT he already has his first NHL goal under his belt (he played in 19 games when Boston was…very broken on D last year, with Ference, Boychuk, and Stuart all missing time.) Although a bit too hesitant in his first season, with a little more confidence he’ll be a force to be reckoned with.
I don’t need to mention Mr. #2 Pick Overall Tyler Seguin, but I will. The expectations are unreasonably high; imagine if he met them all? He certainly was impressive in the controlled environment that is development camp, and I am highly cautiously optimistic about how he’ll do this season.
Zach (Sabres): Tyler Ennis impressed during his short stint with the Sabres last year and is expected to make the roster full time this season. During the 10 games that he played last year, Ennis had 3 goals and 9 points and added another four points in the playoffs. Ennis should make an impact on the roster this year and make headway as a top 6 forward .
Kyle (Canadiens): It’s too soon to expect P.K. Subban to break out, so let’s get him out of the way first. He’ll be a star, but not yet. He impressed in the playoffs against some very stiff competition, but he’s still a raw rookie and his style of play dictates that he will be exposed from time to time in an 82 game schedule. His expectations will need to be kept in check. As I mentioned in the previous question, Andrei Kostitsyn and Benoit Pouliot need to live up to their top-10 pick potential. Both have amazing skill, but have been wildly inconsistent, disinterested or misused. If Kostitsyn can break 30 goals, he’ll be in line for a nice pay day, even as a pending RFA. If Pouliot can hit 25 goals, he’ll do a lot to hush the media who still long for Guillaume Latendresse.
Burgundy (Senators): Erik Karlsson was last year’s obvious pick. This year’s obvious pick is Peter Regin. However, I’m going to go in a different direction. I’m looking to Jason Spezza to have a great bounce-back season. Last season’s 57 points in 60 games was an off year for Spezza, which fuelled all kinds of ridiculous E5-type rumours from our favourite sports-tabloid blogger. Spezza has something to prove this season, to fans and more importantly himself, and I think he’ll use that small chip on his shoulder to get back to the 90-100 point platform he’s capable of hitting.
PPP (Maple Leafs): Sometimes it’s a rookie who is already expected to be great, sometimes it’s a rookie who shocks the world, and sometimes it’s a younger player who simply comes into their own. Which player on your team should we expect to have a breakout season?
I don’t know if it qualifies as having a breakout season since they both had great half seasons but I think the pair of Nikolai Kulemin and Tyler Bozak, if they continue to be partnered with Phil Kessel, could really turn some heads. Kulemin’s addition to Bozak and Kessel gave the Leafs a line that was a legitimate scoring threat every time it was on the ice. Kulie was able to marry his size, skating, and physicality with a nascent ability to find open space to create scoring chances.
Meanwhile, Bozak’s 27 points in 37 games was the best points per game rate among rookies. If he had kept that pace up all year he would have, at the very least, been discussed for the Calder Trophy. As it stands, he’ll have a full healthy off-season (last year he was coming off of major knee surgery) as well as a healthy start (he lost 20 pounds when he caught H1N1 early in the year).
4. We all know that watching a team for 82 games allows us to appreciate things casual fans won’t necessarily recognize. Which guy on your bench doesn’t get nearly the respect he deserves?
Sarah (Bruins): I honestly don’t think people recognize the potential that David Krejci has, because he’s constantly paired with Blake “What Is This Offsides You Speak Of?” Wheeler and Michael “Invisible Until It’s Least Convenient” Ryder. Everyone always louts them for clicking together as a line, but between 08-09 and 09-10 their combined production dropped from 70 to 53 goals. That line needs to be re-thought, I think.
Two years ago, Krejci even lead the league in +/-, a stat that’s always seemingly overshadowed by goals/assists/points. His performance in the Olympics was huge, and he came back from that on fire; his powerplay “quarterbacking” skills are astounding to watch, especially when he controls the PP from the half-wall; if his wrist recovers entirely, I expect great things out of our lone Czech this year.
Zach (Sabres): With the way the roster is setup currently, there aren’t going to be many bench players. Matt Ellis is a good veteran player that was just resigned by the Sabres as a depth player in Portland that could fill in as an injury replacement. Ellis was picked up by the Sabres in 2008 and has been a fourth line/scratched player ever since. He has a good work ethic that rubs off on the other players on his line and on the team as a whole.
Kyle (Canadiens): With everyone so new last season, the entire team was under the microscope, so nobody really flew under the radar. If I had choose one guy who doesn’t get enough respect, it would be Josh Gorges, although that is very, very rapidly changing. He’s a leader in the room, and Habs fans saw him play with pure heart in the playoffs. Considering his role as a 5th or 6th d-man, his lowly point totals and his style, it would probably open some eyes in other fan bases to know that he’s a top-3 contender to fill the captaincy void on the Canadiens. I also think Hal Gill deserves mention; through 82 games we wondered what Bob Gainey was thinking when signing him. The moment the puck dropped in the playoffs, however, we saw exactly what Gainey was thinking. He was a completely different player in that his body was going to be used as a speed bag for flying pucks. He was a beast on the blue line and a steadying influence on some of the younger guys. His ways especially helped Gorges.
Burgundy (Senators): I don’t think Chris Phillips gets enough credit for what he brings to the Senators. Granted, he’s played the majority of the last few seasons with Anton Volchenkov but I think Phillips brings a stable and reliable presence to the Senators. This will be even more important for the Senators this year as their 2010-2011 roster boasts some offence and very little defence. It’s also worth noting this season is a contract year for Phillips. I’m told the Senators have already begun discussing extensions with “Big Rig.”
PPP (Maple Leafs): Mikhail Grabovski without a shadow of a doubt. Habs fans will never admit that they gave up a player with 10 times the heart combined of the two Kostitsyn clowns they kept and Leafs fans are, on the whole, incredibly eager to trade him. A short trip to Behind The Net shows that Grabovski is the Leafs best forward at getting the puck from the Leafs’ end of the ice to the opponents and at creating shots on goal.
He never takes a shift off, pursues the puck doggedly, and is extremely hard to knock off the puck. If he gets the right linemates, which he had in his first year in Toronto in Nikolai Kulemin and Niklas Hagman, then he will be in the neighbourhood of 50 points.
5. The Moment of Truth: I understand that everyone is an expert BEFORE the season starts; so as bloggers, it’s important to throw up your pre-season predictions so everyone can mock you later. If your credibility was on the line, how would you rank the final standings of the Northeast Division? More importantly, which teams do you think will make the playoffs from the Northeast?
Sarah (Bruins): Haha this is only difficult past number 1. Honestly I don’t see the northeast being too strong this year.
I think the Bruins will make the playoffs around the 3-4-5 area in the East; the Senators might squeak in at 7, and maaaaybe the Sabres at 8.
The Leafs will probably just barely miss at 9 or 10, and the Habs won’t even come close.
I’m a homer, what can I say.
Buffalo, Boston, and Toronto will make the playoffs.
1 – Boston (playoffs)
2- Buffalo (playoffs)
3- Montreal (playoffs)
Burgundy (Senators): Urggh. I’m going to be crucified by Sens fans, Habs fans and Leaf fans for this… I can’t win. Here’s my “well thought out, completely off the mark” Northeast Division predictions:
PPP (Maple Leafs): Uggh, last year’s rankings had the Leafs in the middle of the pack and we all know how that turned out so in an attempt to curry favour with the hockey gods:
The next division up in our Blogger Roundtable Preview series will be the Atlantic on Wednesday, Sept 8. If you want to take a look at the entire schedule, you can check it out here—or if you want to make sure you don’t miss anything, you can subscribe to VFMS (via email or RSS) for the next couple of weeks. If there are any writers you found interesting here, I urge you to go check out their sites. Each and every writer who participated has an extremely good site and pump out great content year-round!