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THN.com Blog: Northeast Division preview

Captain Zdeno Chara finished fifth in team scoring last season with 50 points in 80 games. (Getty Images)

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Captain Zdeno Chara finished fifth in team scoring last season with 50 points in 80 games. (Getty Images)

BOSTON BRUINS
THN Prediction: First in Eastern Conference
 
Key additions: Derek Morris, D; Steve Begin, LW
Key departures: Manny Fernandez, G; Stephane Yelle, C; Phil Kessel, RW; P-J Axelsson, LW; Patrick Eaves, RW; Aaron Ward, D; Shane Hnidy, D; Steve Montador, D
 
Some people believe the Bruins’ stunning rise to the top of the Eastern Conference last season was little more than a fluke triggered by a handful of career years from players such as Tim Thomas.

But look at two of the most important stats there are in hockey – goals-per-game and goals-against-average – and it’s easy to see Boston didn’t pull it off with smoke and mirrors.

The Bruins were second in the league in GPG and first in the league in GAA, evidence of the performance put on by Claude Julien that won him the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s best coach last season.

One of the challenges the Bruins face in matching their ’08-09 showing is to do it without the depth the salary cap has robbed their roster of. So long as emerging talents David Krejci, Milan Lucic and Blake Wheeler continue to improve alongside consistent greats such as Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard, that shouldn’t be a worry.

BUFFALO SABRES
THN Prediction: Seventh
 
Key additions: Jeff Cowan, RW; Mike Grier, RW; Cody McCormick, C; Steve Montador, D; Joe DiPenta, D
Key departures: Andrew Peters, LW; Teppo Numminen, D; Jaroslav Spacek, D; Maxim Afinogenov, RW; Dominic Moore, C
 
Sabres fans and players understand the team’s current ownership isn’t going to spend to the salary cap ceiling, putting the pressure on the team’s core of Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Jason Pominville and Ryan Miller to get them back into the playoffs after they finished 10th in the conference – just two points out of a post-season berth – last year.

The great news is that Miller is fully healed from the high ankle sprain that caused him to miss 13 games last season. The bad news is, with the departures of veteran defensemen Jaroslav Spacek and Teppo Numminen, the Sabres will be counting on Miller’s spindly frame more than ever.

Mike Grier (on his second tour of duty with the Sabres), Jeff Cowan and Steve Montador were brought in to add more edge to Buffalo’s lineup. But the Sabres will also require rebound seasons from Pominville and Jochen Hecht to keep up with the East’s beasts.
 
MONTREAL CANADIENS
THN Prediction: Eighth
 
Key additions: Curtis Sanford, G; Travis Moen, LW; Paul Mara, D; Hal Gill, D; Jaroslav Spacek, D; Mike Cammalleri, LW; Brian Gionta, RW; Scott Gomez, C
Key departures: Patrice Brisebois, D; Alex Tanguay, LW; Mathieu Schneider, D; Tom Kostopoulos, RW; Saku Koivu, C; Alex Kovalev, RW; Mike Komisarek, D; Chris Higgins, LW; Mathieu Dandenault, D; Marc Denis, G; Robert Lang, C
 
Living up to the sky-high expectations in the Canadiens’ centennial season last year was tough enough, but nobody expected the Habs to sky-dive through the standings in the second half of the season and barely hang on to the East’s last playoff spot before bowing out meekly to Boston in the first round.

That skid prompted Montreal GM Bob Gainey to clean house of all of his unrestricted free agents and start virtually from scratch with a new team and a new identity. For now, that new defining trait is speed and skill over size – a combination few other NHL franchises are attempting to utilize these days.

New additions Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and Mike Cammalleri will be looked upon to lead the charge at forward, while Montreal’s rebuilt defense needs yeoman’s work from Hal Gill, Jaroslav Spacek and Paul Mara to be more effective than the 21st-ranked ‘D’ unit was last year.

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That said, all eyes will be on goalie Carey Price to reverse a considerable fall from grace. If he can’t shake the demons that ailed him last year, Gainey and new coach Jacques Martin will need either Jaroslav Halak or journeyman Curtis Sanford to pick up the slack.

OTTAWA SENATORS
THN Prediction: Ninth
 
Key additions: Jonathan Cheechoo, RW; Milan Michalek, LW; Alex Kovalev, RW
Key departures: Dany Heatley, LW; Mike Comrie, RW; Jason Smith, D; Alex Auld, G
 
One of the most tumultuous off-seasons in Senators history didn’t really end until disgruntled sniper Dany Heatley was traded one day into training camp. But now that Heatley is in San Jose – and the Sens have a couple of talented, young-ish forwards in Jonathan Cheechoo and Milan Michalek to show for it – there are no more excuses for sophomore coach Cory Clouston & Co. in their efforts to return to the playoffs.
The retirement of veteran rearguard Jason Smith means Ottawa’s blueline (once the envy of the league) will be leaning heavily on former Blue Jackets goalie Pascal Leclaire and young defensemen such as Chris Campoli, Brian Lee and Alexandre Picard to raise their games.

Receiving a consistent amount of offense from eternal enigma Alex Kovalev would make life easier for Clouston as well, though the Sens still will need typical years from Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson to qualify for the post-season.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
THN Prediction: 11th
 
Key additions: Phil Kessel, RW; Joey MacDonald, G; Wayne Primeau, LW; Francois Beauchemin, D; Garnet Exelby, D; Colton Orr, RW; Mike Komisarek, D; Rickard Wallin, C; Tyler Bozak, C; Viktor Stalberg, LW
Key departures: Olaf Kolzig, G; Erik Reitz, D; Justin Pogge, G; Jeff Hamilton, RW; Anton Stralman, D; Pavel Kubina, D; Boyd Devereaux, RW; Martin Gerber, G; Ryan Hollweg, LW; Curtis Joseph, G; Brad May, LW
 
Nobody imagined the ’08-09 Maple Leafs would do much of consequence, but under coach Ron Wilson – and a half-season of new GM Brian Burke – a group of mostly worker bee forwards and surprisingly inept defensemen still managed to flirt with the outer regions of playoff contention for much of the year.

However, after Burke’s productive off-season brought savvy veterans such as Francois Beauchemin, Mike Komisarek and young star Phil Kessel to Ontario’s capital, Leafs fans are right to anticipate a playoff berth this year as a proper reward for their legendary patience.

One thing they shouldn’t expect is for the roster to stay intact all season. Toronto has too many NHL-caliber defensemen as it is – and though injuries usually cut into that depth, it’s very likely Burke will attempt to package a couple D-men with a forward in exchange for either another building block of a player, or to recoup one of the first-round draft picks he dealt to Boston for Kessel.

Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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