Wednesday, January 9, 2013

HOCKEY IS BACK!!! Northeast Division Preview

Funny how one man's decision can affect an entire division.  The Bruins have had a strangle hold on this division for the past couple of years behind the resurrection of Tim Thomas and a stellar defense in Boston.  Now, Thomas is taking a year off and the Bruins are in flux.  The division is now up for the taking instead of a one man race the entire season.  The Northeast Division is one with a lot of questions that won't be answered until the season gets under way.  There is plenty of young talent around the division that it makes the development of these players the most vital "what if?" of the season.  There is a lot of history throughout this division.  There is also a lot of recent disappointments.  If the Canadiens don't win the Cup in 2013, it will be an even twenty years since they won their last Cup.  The Maple Leafs have not won a cup since 1967.  1967???  It is a crazy thought that one of the original six teams has spent over 45 years without being a part of the Stanley Cup Finals.  Buffalo has seemed to have the talent that should take them places in the league, but it doesn't seem to come together as planned.  Boston is the only team to have something to brag about in terms of this division.  Even Ottawa has had high expectations during the decade, since their re-entry into the league in 1992 they have not won a Stanley Cup. 

Who gets the biggest push from the Bruins loss of their star goaltender?  Is it Ottawa, who seems to have found a perfect balance after two seasons of rebuilding?  Is it Toronto who is riding the talent of high draft picks?  Maybe Buffalo can finally ride Ryan Miller and he can play like he did in the Olympics two years ago.  Does Montreal have a comeback season in them?  What is going to happen over the next few seasons will be telling, but let's first focus on 2013.

Boston Bruins: 49-29-4 1st in the Northeast Division, Lost to Capitals in First Round
Biggest Acquisition: D Aaron Johnson
Biggest Loss: G Tim Thomas
Overview:  The Bruins bring back most of a team that everyone had as a dark horse favorite to make it to the Finals last year.  They severely shorted those expectations by losing a hard-fought series to the Washington Capitals in the first round.  They have big names all over the roster in Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, and Milan Lucic.  Tyler Seguin is poised to be a part of the new group of stars as he tallied a 67 point season at the tender age of twenty years old.  He isn't old enough to drink, but he is old enough to drive a defense insane.  The Bruins go into this season with one of the deepest rosters in the NHL.  Having a first line of Bergeron, Seguin and Lucic is going to cause some mismatches when they are on the ice.

Boston still looks to be the favorite in the division.  They are the team that has proven they know how to win.  Last year looks more like an exception rather than the rule for Boston.  They will contend once again depending on how the defense/goaltender hold up throughout the season.  Their defense is still tremendous and they have a lot to prove after the way last season ended.  They seem genuinely happy to be together back on the ice once again.  They will most likely need to make a couple moves throughout the season based on the few free agents they did lose.  They didn't lose out on core players, but they did not replace the role players they did lose.  Brian Rolston is still out there to be signed so he could come back for another season.  The Bruins will most likely be major players in the players that get amnestied by other teams.  The point is, they have enough talent to win the division as they are now constructed, but they need something to put them over the top to compete with the rest of the Eastern Conference.

Biggest Question Going Into The Season: Is Tuukka Rask enough to replace the loss of Tim Thomas?
The simple answer, yes.  This team is too good as a whole to crumble over one lost player (although it is at the most important position).  Rask was always one of the better backups in the league.  How many backups in this league have a .929 save percentage?  How about a 2.05 goals against average?  The crazy thing is Rask may be a better option for the Bruins this season anyway.  Rask had three shutouts in twenty two games.  His three has him tied with the likes of Martin Brodeur, Marc-Andre Fluery, Craig Anderson and Cory Schneider.  Was this inevitably going to happen anyway?  Thomas had an up and down career and finally found his stride in Boston.  He talked way too much and was sometimes a distraction to his team.  Rask seems more like a guy who comes in, does his job and goes home.  It is starting to look as if the Bruins are better off without Thomas.  The future is now for the Bruins goaltender and it is not a bad thing.

Analysis: The Bruins are going to grab early headlines for how they play to start without Thomas.  They are one team that needs to get off to a good start because they need to show everyone they will not miss a beat with a new goalie and sans free agent pick-ups.  If the Bruins start to slip in the beginning, that vulture they call the Boston media will be all over the organization for doing too little.  Maybe this is rightfully so since the Bruins sat back and watched the rest of the conference get better.  They need the core of their team to take them to where they believed they should have been last year.  Rask will improve as the year goes on and their young stars like Seguin and Brad Marchand will become crucial elements of a surprisingly good Bruins offense.  Expect a happy Boston crowd going into June.

Buffalo Sabres: 39-32-11 3rd in Northeast Division, Missed Playoffs
Biggest Acquisition: Steve Ott
Biggest Loss: Derek Roy
Overview: The Buffalo Sabres just got a lot tougher.  They traded Derek Roy in the offseason for known tough guy Steve Ott (and Adam Pardy).  The Sabres are looking to be able to go blow for blow with tougher teams like the Bruins and they were looking to trade Roy since before last season.  They also went out and picked up 6'8 forward John Scott on the first day of free agency to protect the crease for Ryan Miller.  The Sabres were missing any kind of retaliation the past couple of years and they watched their stars get hit all game with no consequence.  I highly doubt you will be seeing that this year.  Now that the saga is finally over, they can look forward to the 2013 season.  The Sabres problem is that they will get offensive production from Jason Pomiville and Thomas Vanek, but then who else?  They need a surprise season out of one of their younger players (Cody Hogdson comes to mind as a possibility).

Buffalo seems to have an old school mentality when they try to win in today's NHL.  They are trying to win with only two or three real scorers and then have the rest of the team prevent goals.  It should be interesting how this works out throughout the season.  The Sabres had quite the comeback last season going from bottom of the barrel to being tied for a playoff spot with two games left.  Their run ended up coming short, but they showed they do have talent on this team.  They have guts and they are never ones to quit, showing by last year's 6-5 overtime victory over the Maple Leafs on April 3rd.  Go back and look at the tying goal, that shows a team that wants to win.  If that team shows up for this entire shortened season it may be a long one for their opponents.

Biggest Question Going Into The Season: Can Ryan Miller go back to the guy we saw in 2010?
Miller's numbers aren't much different than the ones we saw for his career, but something seemed off about him last year.  His GAA and save percentage were almost exactly equal to his career average.  He just wasn't the guy you didn't want to play.  He allowed goals at the worst possible moment.  He wasn't the guy that we saw taking America to the silver medal.  What is worse is there were people in Buffalo who actually thought that his rookie backup should be given a shot to start.  They had similar stats, but it probably just had more to do with the fact that the Sabres were so far down the standings at the time.  Miller will turn the corner this year.  As long as he comes to camp in shape he will go back to being that force that he was a few years ago.

Analysis:  The Sabres need a lot to go their way for this season to be considered a success.  They need their stars to carry their team for all 48 games, with little room for error.  They need Ryan Miller to remember that he is Ryan Miller.  The need their young guys to become budding stars.  They need the risks they took on tough guys to work out in their favor.  They need their penalty killers to be great since these tough guys spend a good amount of time in the penalty box.  Do you catch my drift?  The Sabres need everything to go positive in order for this season to be what Buffalo has been clamoring for.  I just don't see the stars aligning in such a way.

Montreal Canadiens: 31-35-16 5th in Northeast Division, Missed the Playoffs
Biggest Acquisition: Brandon Prust
Biggest Loss: Brad Staubitz
Overview:  The Canadiens had a very busy offseason.  After the controversy that surrounded the 2011-12 season turned this team into the worst in the Eastern Conference, a change needed to be made.  They stopped the fan backlash by deciding to dismiss their non-French speaking coach and rehiring Mike Therrien.  They revamped the front office (finally) by hiring a new general manager in Marc Bergervin.  The Canadiens were focused on getting those ducks in order before focusing on players.  They did make sure they resigned the most important free agents (Carey Price, Travis Moen, Max Pacioretty) and went out and acquired Brandon Prust from the New York Rangers.  This season should be a little smoother now that the problems that the team had to deal with last year have been smoothed over.

I say that knowing that just because it will be better, it still won't be good.  They won't come in last in the division like last year, but they will still miss the playoffs once again.  They have too many holes that still need to be filled.  To even compete, they need a healthy year out of Brian Gionta.  Last year, Gionta only played in thirty-one games and tallied fifteen points, his lowest since his rookie season.  The addition of Prust will make them a tougher team, but they still need to find scoring somewhere.  Their leading point getter was Pacioretty who ended with sixty-five points on the season.  That was good for thirty-seventh in the league.  (Only Winnepeg and Florida were under Montreal in the conference.)  They need Pacioretty and Eric Cole to continue at this level while Gionta and Tomas Plekanec to step up their game in the 2013 season.

Biggest Question Going Into The Season: Will anyone please take Scott Gomez?
This is the most drawn out, horrible hockey contract in recent memory.  I am sure Canadien fans would rather see the Yankees trade them Alex Rodriguez's horrible contract just to see Gomez off this team.  It is no secret that Scott Gomez has been a total disappointment since leaving the Devils in 2007, but two goals?  TWO GOALS???  The fact of the matter is that the fans need Scott Gomez to go somewhere else.  It doesn't matter where and for what, he just needs to leave.  Since coming over to the Canadiens in a trade he has gradually become worse every year, which is hard because he wasn't very good with the Rangers.  His goals, assists, power play points and shot percentage have plummeted every year for the past three years.  If you cannot find a trade partner, then bite the bullet and cut him.  Since March it has been rumored that the Canadiens were planning to part ways, but they haven't pulled the trigger just yet.  Pull of the band-aid Montreal, the quicker the better.  We understand that there is only one year left, but we just can't handle another year of seeing his ugly mug on the ice anymore.

Analysis: The moment of truth for this franchise is here.  Will they fall back into a pit of abomination, or can they bounce back and become a relevant team like they have been post 2004 lockout?  If Carey Price can play to the standards he had in 2011 where he was out of his mind then this team can go places.  If they can find more scoring from a currently unknown source they may be able to sneak into a playoff spot.  This is still a rebuilding project, but they are on the upswing rather than the beginning of the process.  The Canadien fans have a lot to be excited for in the form of young players who could develop into really good players (PK Subban, Pacioretty, Lars Eller).  This team's fans are some of the best in the league, they deserve something to cheer for.

Ottawa Senators: 41-31-10 2nd In Northeast Division, Lost In First Round to Rangers
Biggest Acquisition: Guillaume Latendresse
Biggest Loss: Filip Kuba
Overview: We remember the 2012 Ottawa Senators for one thing, that great first round series with the heavily favored Rangers.  It had everything, big goals, close games, big hits, controversial calls, suspensions, non-suspensions, star power, what more could you ask for?  The Senators showed in that series they could play with the big boys of the Eastern Conference.  The Senators come into this season with a very similar group on offense and defense.  They only lost Bobby Butler, Filip Kuba and Nick Foligno.  They were the number four scoring team in the league and they look to add to that this upcoming season.  The Sens are stacked with forwards as they have Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredson, Milan Michalek, and Kyle Turris among others who stepped up last season to bring this team back to prominence.

A huge surprise was how much offensive production the team got from their defense.  Erik Karlsson was second on the entire team in points.  The 22-year-old ended up being the second youngest player to win the Norris Trophy.  Grizzled veteran Sergei Gonchar was sixth on the team in points and tallied thirty-two assists over the entire season.  This is going to be the swan song for Sens captain Alfredson so you know this team is going to do everything they can to send this team out in style.  They want to have Alfie's career go out with a cup.

Biggest Question Going Into The Season: Is this the year the Sens take back the division?
There are many factors here; the Bruins have question marks, the Maple Leafs and Canadiens seem to be a year or two away, and the Sabres don't seem to have enough in terms of scoring to keep them on top.  Is this the year the Senators come back to prominence?  It, like a lot of other questions in hockey, can be answered by one position, goaltender.  Craig Anderson has been billed of the future of this organization, but until last year's playoff series never really wowed anyone.  It doesn't help that the Sens traded Brian Elliott to obtain him.  If Anderson can play another season in which he is an asset rather than a hinderence than the Sens have the best chance to win this division.  If not, then it looks like NHL ready backup Ben Bishop will get the call.  How long is Anderson's leesh?  That may have a lot to do with how he performs throughout the season.  Either way, this division is primed for picking by a team like Ottawa.  They have plenty of young up-and-comers, but with an equal amount of veteran presence to go along with it.  This may indeed be the year the division crown comes back across the border.

Analysis:  Upon further review, this may end up being the team to beat in the Northeast.  They have size, power, speed, scoring, and quite possibly goaltending.  This team may even have enough to go far in the conference once the playoffs roll around.  There are a few factors that could hold them back (injuries come to mind in the type of schedule they will be working with this year), but if nothing drastic happens I see the Sens at worst going into the playoffs a very dangerous team.  After seeing what they did to the top seed last year teams aren't going to let them sneak up on them anymore.  It will be interesting how they deal with the fact that the good teams are going to be ready for them.  I think they are going to be up for the challenge.

Toronto Maple Leafs: 35-37-10 4th In Northeast Division, Missed Playoffs
Biggest Acquisition: James Van Riemsdyk
Biggest Loss: Luke Schenn
Overview:  Well, they sure started the season off with a bang, huh.  The Maple Leafs fired their general manager Brian Burke today after what is rumored to be a dispute over whether there should have been a trade for Vancouver's Roberto Luongo.  That pretty much sums up the Maple Leafs for you.  They have not made the playoffs since 2004.  In seven seasons they could not find a way to be one of the eight best teams out of the sixteen in the conference.  I have bad news, it isn't looking good to end that streak this year.  The Leafs are going into the season with a fired GM, an inexperienced roster, no real starting goalie, and Randy Carlyle.  Don't get me wrong, it isn't all doom and gloom for Toronto.  The Leafs have great first line wingers in Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul and Van Riemsdyk is a great young scorer they got from the Philadelphia Flyers.

Then you take a look at who is playing in net and you have to see a long season ahead for Maple Leafs fans.  James Reimer is slated currently as the starting goaltender for the 2013 season.  The same James Reimer who ranked 42nd out of the 45 qualifying goaltenders in GAA.  He ranks 41st in save percentage.  The Maple Leafs haven't had a marketable goalie since they had Ed Belfour.  It is going to be tough if they don't either a) get the James Reimer they thought they were when he played well two years ago or b) get someone usable to play goalie in the next few weeks.

Biggest Question Going Into The Season: Where do we start?
For one you need to get Dion Phaneuf playing to his Calgary Flames days.  Phaneuf hasn't had a positive +/- since he has joined the Leafs in 2010.  For two and a half seasons he has been negative when it comes to goals for when he is on the ice against goals against in the same situation.  In the almost five seasons prior when he was with the Flames he had one season in which he was negative.  He went from eighty percent positive to zero percent positive.  They need to figure him out.  Like I said before they need to fix the goalie crisis.  They need to figure out why this team started off so great in 2011, but as soon as February came along they plummeted.  They need to see how they can get Phil Kessel to have his first half production continue throughout the year.  This probably had to do with the fact that he needed more protection.  When the Leafs went on that stretch in March when they could only win five games all month, Kessel only had ten points in fifteen games.  He also did not have one game in the fifteen in which he had a positive +/-.  In fact he went eighteen games in a row in which the other team scored more when he was on the ice.  If you're the star, you can't let that happen.

Analysis:  It is going to be a long season in Toronto.  Every team seems to be coming back to the pack in this league except for this team.  They need to make a lot of moves with a new GM (who you know the other GM's are going to try and take advantage of).  Don't be surprised if they sell the farm and try to start from scratch.  That means they could sell Kessel, Phaneuf, among others.  The team is still very young, but they aren't going to win.  They might as well get what they can for players like those.  If they can make up for losing the picks they did to get Kessel (one of which ended up being Tyler Seguin) then it can be a big win for Toronto.  They will end up last in the division, but hopefully they can see some light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to these young players. 

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