LAST SEASON: 52-24-6, fourth in East; lost in conference finals to Carolina KEY ADDITIONS: D Jaroslav Spacek KEY LOSSES: RW J.P. Dumont, RW Mike Grier, D Jay McKee
The fast-skating Afinogenov embodies the Sabres' explosive new style.
Success came at a price for the Sabres, who for the first time in decades enter the season as Stanley Cup contenders. After watching his team come within one period of advancing to the Cup finals last June, general manager Darcy Regier had only four players under contract for 2006-07, and that proved costly in the off-season. Over the summer a league-high 12 players filed for arbitration, and the team's payroll soared from $29 million in '05-06 to more than $41 million. The good news for owner Tom Golisano? Season-ticket sales have kept pace. "Expectations are going to be heightened," says goalie Ryan Miller, who was a big reason for Buffalo's run deep into the postseason last year.
One casualty of the arbitration process was popular winger J.P. Dumont, whom the Sabres cut loose instead of paying the $2.9 million an arbitrator deemed he was worth. Buffalo also lost some of its muscle when power forward Mike Grier and shot-blocking defenseman Jay McKee departed as free agents. But the core of the team, led by co-captains Daniel Briere and Chris Drury and right wing Maxim Afinogenov, remains largely intact. In addition, the Sabres' defense, among the most mobile and skilled in the league, was bolstered by the signing of free-agent Jaroslav Spacek.
Fast, skilled and hardworking, these are no longer the Sabres of the late 1990s, who depended heavily on goalie Dominik Hasek to get them a win. "We had a reputation as a goaltender team stuck on defensive hockey," says coach Lindy Ruff. "[Now] all areas of our game [are] very good."
LAST SEASON: 52-21-9, first in East; lost in second round to Buffalo KEY ADDITIONS: G Martin Gerber KEY LOSSES: D Zdeno Chara, G Dominik Hasek, RW Martin Havlat
Same old, same old for the Senators, who finished atop the conference last year only to founder in the postseason. If you're counting, Ottawa has advanced past the first round only four times in the last nine seasons. This year's team has less skill but more grit, a development that coach Bryan Murray hopes could finally yield the sort of grinding team that can make it deep into the playoffs.
Ottawa filled the defensive hole left by Zdeno Chara's free-agent departure with mobile, offensive-minded Joe Corvo and Tom Preissing. And in search of some consistency in goal (Dominik Hasek missed 26 games last year with a groin injury), the Senators signed free agent Martin Gerber, who had 38 wins for Carolina but lost his starting job to Cam Ward after bombing in the playoffs. "[Gerber's] a strong goalie," says Murray. "The guys can have confidence that he's going to be there every night."
Ottawa will still rely on the league's top line of Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza (112 goals combined in 2005-06) for the bulk of its scoring and is expecting continued improvement from second-year forward Patrick Eaves (20 goals in 58 games last season). Spezza underwent back surgery for a herniated disk in late May but should start the season at full strength. On this team, however, it's all about how strong the players are at the end of the season.
LAST SEASON: 29-37-16, 13th in East KEY ADDITIONS: G.M. Peter Chiarelli,Coach Dave Lewis, D Zdeno Chara, D Paul Mara KEY LOSSES: Coach Mike Sullivan, D Hal Gill, D Brian Leetch, C Alexei Zhamnov
The biggest changes for the Bruins occurred in the front office, not on the ice. Gone are longtime club president Harry Sinden (who'd had a hand in running the team since 1966), general manager Mike O'Connell and coach Mike Sullivan. In are first-year G.M. Peter Chiarelli, who was an assistant G.M. with the Senators, and coach Dave Lewis, who led the Red Wings to the NHL's best record in 2003-04. In addition to improving on the Bruins' meek 74-point performance of last season, the new regime will be looking to instill team chemistry and focus on defense.
To help them achieve their goal of an improved blue line, the Bruins signed free-agent All-Star defenseman Zdeno Chara to a five-year, $37.5 million contract; a fitness fanatic, he could play 30 minutes a game. Boston also acquired sharpshooting defenseman Paul Mara, who scored 15 goals last year.
If only the Bruins could have similarly increased their firepower at the forward positions. The pressure will be on young center Patrice Bergeron, a second-round pick in the 2003 draft, to build on his team-leading totals of 31 goals and 73 points in '05-06 -- especially after getting a five-year, $23.75 million contract over the summer. "The changes in Boston were more radical than most teams'," says Lewis. "Everything is a real plus-plus for us right now. The competitive balance has changed."
LAST SEASON: 42-31-9, seventh in East; lost in first round to Carolina KEY ADDITIONS: LW Sergei Samsonov KEY LOSSES: RW Niklas Sundstrom,RW Richard Zednik
Goals will be hard to come by for the former Flying Frenchmen, who are now led by a butterflying Frenchman, Cristobal Huet, the NHL's best goalie over the second half of last season. Huet, 31, took the starting job from now-departed José Théodore and had the league's top save percentage (.929). With a lackluster offense -- among playoff teams, only Calgary and New Jersey scored fewer goals last year -- the Canadiens will be counting on Huet to carry them into the postseason. Health remains a question for captain Saku Koivu, who will center the first line between Chris Higgins, who scored 18 of his 23 goals in the second half of last season, and Michael Ryder, a 30-goal scorer.
Toronto Maple Leafs
LAST SEASON: 41-33-8, ninth in East KEY ADDITIONS: Coach Paul Maurice, D Hal Gill, C Michael Peca, G Andrew Raycroft KEY LOSSES: Coach Pat Quinn, C Jason Allison, G Ed Belfour, RW Tie Domi, C Eric Lindros
It's been 39 years since the Maple Leafs won a Stanley Cup, a streak that's going to reach 40. After they missed the playoffs last year for the first time since 1997-98, general manager John Ferguson fired coach Pat Quinn and replaced him with former Carolina coach Paul Maurice, who has vowed to run tougher practices. But that won't make up for the lack of talent. At 35, center Mats Sundin remains the team's only legitimate first-line player (78 points in '05-06). Free-agent pickup Michael Peca brings leadership and checking, but scoring will have to come from young forwards Alexander Steen (18 goals, 27 assists) and Kyle Wellwood (11 goals, 34 assists). -- E.M. Swift
MVP: Zdeno Chara, D, Bruins
Coach Dave Lewis wants his big defenseman (6'9", 260 pounds) to do for Boston what Nicklas Lidstrom does for Detroit: shut down the opponent's top scorers, quarterback the power play and take charge of the penalty killing. Chara signed with the Bruins so he could be the Man; he'll get that chance.
Because of his poor work ethic the 26-year-old center has yet to reach his potential of an 80-point season. With Ribeiro's production dropping from 20 goals and 65 points in 2003-04 to 16 goals and 51 points last season, Montreal fans are growing frustrated with their onetime hometown hero.
Underrated: Chris Drury, C, Sabres
Drury, who won an NCAA championship with Boston University in 1995 and a Stanley Cup with the Avalanche in 2001, has brought his winning touch to Buffalo. Versatile, skilled and team-oriented, the 30-year-old center led the Sabres with 30 goals last season and plays best in the biggest games.