NHL Preview: 2008-09
Eastern Conference: Northeast
It even appeared last spring that Montreal might be 12 months ahead of plan, but its surprising first-place Eastern Conference finish (fueled by flashy winger Alexei Kovalev's comeback season and a freakish run of good health that resulted in a mere 109 man-games lost to injury) was followed by a disappointing second-round exit from the playoffs. Gainey has since upgraded his team to a level that has then mayor Jean Drapeau's renowned 1969 remark about the Stanley Cup parade -- "the usual route" -- on the tip of Montrealers' tongues.
The main uncertainty involves the power play. After fretting about the departure of free agent Sheldon Souray a year ago, the Canadiens eschewed the concept of a traditional power-play unit, stuck with their regular lines and finished first in the league with 90 man-up goals, splitting them evenly between home and the road. With the catalyst of that power play, Mark Streit, lost to free agency, Montreal will need special teams help from Kovalev and perhaps trade acquisition Robert Lang, a 37-year-old with a righthanded shot whose legs are tired but whose hands are still sweet.
Assuming precocious second-year goalie Carey Price can avoid a meltdown in the playoffs -- Philadelphia's insistent pressure got to him last spring -- the Canadiens are deep enough to vie for a spot in the finals. For Montreal anything less will be a lousy birthday present.
Don't mistake these Bruins for the bruisers who famously carried the club in the 1970s and '80s, but this is the Northeast's most physical team, and Boston should bully its way to a second straight playoff berth.
Boston was 24th in the NHL in goals last season, something the addition of free agent Michael Ryder will help but won't cure by itself. The Bruins' real center of attention is mild-mannered pivot Patrice Bergeron (above), who missed all but 10 games of the Bruins' 18-point revival last season. He sustained a career-threatening concussion when he was hit from behind and driven into the boards by Flyers defenseman Randy Jones.
In the preseason Bergeron appeared back at 100%, trumpeting his return in the first game with a goal and three assists. If Bergeron, a two-way force who also mans the point on the power play, returns as the 70-point player he was, he'll relieve the pressure from Marc Savard, the all-about-offense No. 1 center, and the Bruins will be heard from -- with the puck, and without it.
Another season, another (yawn) coach. Welcome, Craig Hartsburg, the all-business ex–Blackhawks and Ducks head man who compiled an impressive résumé in junior hockey the past four seasons. He replaces Bryan Murray, the G.M. who fired John Paddock last February and took his second turn behind the Ottawa bench. Hartsburg is charged with making the Senators accountable. Good luck. Since Ottawa's run to the 2007 final, the team has underachieved -- and the Stanley Cup window seems to have slammed shut.
Murray bought out troublesome goalie Ray Emery and tinkered with the defense, but he's left with a No. 1 netminder, Martin Gerber (above), who seems daunted in a pressure-packed market, and no obvious QB on the power play. Ottawa has elite offensive talent in forwards Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley. Continued good play from that trio will help, but will solve only the least of Ottawa's concerns.
After seeing star centers Daniel Brière and Chris Drury leave through free agency in 2007, team owner Tom Golisano has done a flip-flop that would make a politician proud. Long-term deals, once anathema in Buffalo, are now a cornerstone of the organization. In key signings this summer, forward Jason Pominville (above) and goaltender Ryan Miller re-upped for the next six years. (Note to the Red Wings: You'll have to find your successor to goalie Chris Osgood elsewhere.) With forwards Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Jochen Hecht and Paul Gaustad each locked up for at least four more years, the Sabres, while likely to be overmatched this season, have a solid long-term nucleus.
Buffalo can score in bunches, but its ho-hum defense created undue pressure on Miller, who made 34 consecutive starts and faded badly late in the season. (Miller had a lousy .883 save percentage in March.) Free-agent signee Patrick Lalime gives coach Lindy Ruff a viable backup in goal -- and, yes, Lalime got a multiyear deal too.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Starting their 41st year of rebuilding, the Maple Leafs have purposely taken a step backward. Retrenching under G.M. Cliff Fletcher, who may be keeping the seat warm until Brian Burke's contract expires in Anaheim next summer, Toronto allowed free agent Mats Sundin to depart and will fill a bunch of holes on the roster with young players. Even Fletcher concedes that the Leafs have only one top six forward -- a polite stretch in describing winger Nik Antropov -- and the defensive core is thin behind Tomas Kaberle (above). If nothing else, Fletcher and new coach Ron Wilson have tamped down expectations nicely.
Yet Toronto might not be the Hindenburg on skates. The canny Wilson, whose teams always play hard, can erect a picket fence in front of goalie Vesa Toskala and keep the Maple Leafs in most games. Toronto will miss the playoffs for the fourth straight season, but some luck in the 2009 draft lottery would speed the Leafs' ongoing reconstruction process considerably.
-- Michael Farber
The Bruins' giant defenseman (6' 9", 251) skates megaminutes against top lines, kills penalties, mans the point on the power play and gets into the occasional scrap. He showed leadership last spring, playing the seven-game first-round series with a torn labrum.
On the Spot: Alex Tanguay
After scoring 18 goals for Calgary last year, the Canadiens' new left wing -- acquired for two high draft picks -- must near his career-best 29 or feel the ire of Montreal fans, who expect a lot of Quebec-born players. More motivation: He's in the last year of his deal.
On the Verge: Milan Lucic
Boston's left wing doesn't have Hall of Famer Cam Neely's high-end skill, but he does have Neely's moxie. Lucic should double his rookie output of eight goals and 27 points -- especially if he gets time on the top line with center Marc Savard and Michael Ryder.
Pierre McGuire's In the Crease
Canadiens defenseman Andrei Markov is the NHL's most underappreciated player.... Top priority for the Bruins: Improve the penalty kill, which was 28th in the league last season.... With Wade Redden and Andrej Meszaros gone, Senators coach Craig Hartsburg needs to implement a carefully structured defense to mask his team's lack of depth.... If the Sabres lose any of their top four defensemen -- Craig Rivet, Henrik Tallinder, Toni Lydman, Jaroslav Spacek -- to injury, they're finished.... New coach Ron Wilson, comfortable in the limelight, is an ideal fit in Toronto.
NHL Truth & Rumors