The Boston Bruins should repeat as champs in the Northeast Division given the balance of talent the team boasts and the desire to overcome the disappointment of losing in the second round of the playoffs.
It begins in net where reigning Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas returns with his acrobatic and never-give-up attitude. Solid prospect Tuukka Rask will be given a chance to learn the ropes from Thomas. The depth on defense is led by Norris Trophy winner and captain Zdeno Chara, veterans Dennis Wideman and Andrew Ference, and young talents in Mark Stuart and Matt Hunwick.
The Bruins have three scoring lines, especially if Patrice Bergeron can regain his past form. The question during training camp is whether Phil Kessel will remain a Bruin because of the salary cap and he may be dealt elsewhere. But with Marc Savard, Marco Sturm, David Krejci, Michael Ryder, Blake Wheeler, Milan Lucic and veteran Mark Recchi, the team has a balance attack regardless.
Although an injury to Thomas and Chara could leave the Bruins vulnerable, it would take a lot for Boston not to clinch another division and make a run for the Cup again.
The rest of the Northeast Division features a close battle to see who of the remaining teams will make the playoffs. The Montreal Canadiens have made a lot of changes to their roster. GM Bob Gainey decided a makeover was in order and let a number of players go, including captain Saku Koivu. The top three forwards are all newcomers and can score in bunches: Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and Michael Cammalleri. But will there be enough beyond this potential first line? Andrei Kostitsyn and Thomas Plekanec will be among the forwards relied on to add more scoring up front. But there are question marks here, especially on the third and fourth lines.
The key to the Canadiens’ season will be in net where Carey Price needs to rebound after a poor sophomore season. The defense has a couple of newcomers: Hal Gill, fresh off the Cup champs Pittsburgh Penguins, and Jaroslav Spacek. They add some size and skills to standout Andrei Markov, veteran Roman Hamrlik and young Josh Gorges. The team will miss the departed Mike Komisarek though.
Not a big team to play against, Montreal will need to use its speed to score enough goals and hope Price lives up to expectations in a city that demands the world of its players. The Canadiens have enough key pieces to make the playoffs.
The Buffalo Sabres made few changes for a team that barely missed the playoffs. A full season from goaltender Ryan Miller could make the difference in seeing hockey into late April next year. The Sabres have high hopes in Tyler Myers to emerge as the puck-moving defenseman it lacks but the 19 year-old must make the team first. Captain Craig Rivet, Toni Lydman and newcomer Steve Montador provide stability and the hope is sophomore Chris Butler will continue his progress.
When one looks at Buffalo’s lineup up front, there are no big stars that stand out. Part of the problem is that many players have not lived up to expectations. Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Jason Pominville, Jochen Hecht and Tim Connolly must produce more consistently. A couple of young forwards, Tim Kennedy and Nathan Gerbe, could leave the AHL behind and make an impression in Buffalo.
The Sabres are one of those teams who will fight tooth and nail to get into the playoffs again. Whether they succeed or not will depend on Miller and how much the forward corps can score goals.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are finally going in the right direction. GM Brian Burke has vastly improved the team’s defense and goaltending situation. Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin are excellent additions to the back end and help rookie Luke Schenn continue his progress. Thomas Kaberle remains on the top unit until the often trade rumors finally come true. Vesa Toskala will now be pressed by Jonas Gustavsson to give the Leafs a good tandem in net.
The next step for Toronto will be to add much needed scoring punch. Unless the team makes a big trade (such as the rumor of Phil Kessel), the Leafs will have a hard time scoring goals. Jason Blake led the team in scoring and Mikhail Grabovski was a nice surprise but they will need to repeat their performances and get support from the likes of Alexei Ponikarovsky, Nikolai Kulemin and Lee Stempniak. The defense corps could also add pop to the offense.
The improvement on defense and in net will give Toronto a chance to win every night and the continuing progress of its young players, especially up front, will be the key to any hope this team has at making the playoffs for the first time in five years.
The Ottawa Senators can finally move on now that disgruntled Dany Heatley has been traded. There is more variety in the lineup and a chance for this team to start anew. But there are a lot of question marks. The offense lost its top offensive weapon in Heatley but gain Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo in return and added Alexei Kovalev as a free agent. This gives the Senators a more balance offense that includes captain Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza. The team relied on its first line too much in the past two years with unsuccessful results.
The problem is on the back end, especially with Pascal Leclaire as the go-to guy in net. He must rebound to the form he displayed in 2007-08 or the Senators will be in trouble. The defense is average at best with Chris Philips, Anton Volchenkov and Filip Kuba leading the way. Ottawa needs to find more mobility and speed and could use a couple of top defensemen. If Leclaire bounces back and the offense improves, the Senators could battle for a playoff spot.
See also my other NHL Previews for each division