Pressing questions in Northeast
What did I do on my summer vacation? When I wasn't catching up with Generation Kill or picking up my jaw every time Usain Bolt stepped on the track in Beijing, I pondered the big questions facing each team in the NHL.
Let's start with the Northeast Division...
Will Patrice Bergeron be...Patrice Bergeron?
The image of Bergeron lying motionless against the boards, victimized by an illegal hit from behind, haunted Boston fans throughout a season that saw the team take significant steps toward legitimacy even without its best forward. And while there had to be a temptation to bring him back for the playoff push and the first round -- a loss to the Canadiens --the Bruins brass wisely held Bergeron out, keeping the bigger picture in mind.
Now we'll see if their patience pays off.
Outside of Marian Hossa in Detroit, the return of a healthy Bergeron could be the most impactful addition any team makes to its lineup this season. Slotted as the No. 2 center behind Marc Savard, he has the offensive chops to chip in 80 points, and the defensive skills to asset himself as one of the best two-way forwards in the conference.
But the ability to play the body is a critical component part of Bergeron's game. Even if the flesh is willing, there's no way of knowing if the spirit is weak without seeing if Bergeron will hesitate, even slightly, before going into the corners or initiating contact.
But even at 75 percent, Bergeron makes Boston a better team. He needs to be 100 percent, both physically and mentally, for the Bruins to move forward.
Can Thomas Vanek and Derek Roy build on their sensational second-half form?
Despite playing with a cast of thousands on their wing, Buffalo's top duo was dynamic after the All-Star break. Roy had 14 goals and 44 points in that 34-game span, a pace that works out to 106 points over a full season. Vanek, who clearly labored under the weight of his massive contract in the early going, finished strong with 23 goals. Maintaining that clip -- 55 over a full season -- would go a long way toward justifying Vanek's $7 million-plus cap hit.
Neither player has put up numbers like that before, so it may seem like a bit of a stretch. Given the lessons learned over the second half, both players could be in for monster seasons.
Sabres observers will attest to the fact that Vanek actually worked harder during his first half struggles. Trying to validate his fat contract, the sniper tried to round out his offensive game, too often choosing to pass instead of shoot, or getting himself out of position while trying to be physical. When Vanek got back to what he's good at -- finding space to take advantage of his enviable hands -- the results followed. If they keep it simple, both Vanek and Roy could emerge as top-10 scorers.
Is this Price right?
A tidy $1.6 million. That's the sum total that GM Bob Gainey has invested in his sophomore goaltending duo of Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak, less than half the gold Toronto used to honor Jeff Finger. Considering what's at stake this season -- Stanley Cup or bust during the team's centennial celebration -- it's a bold move ameliorated not one bit by the signing of veteran Marc Denis to be the team's third stopper.
If all goes according to plan, it'll be Price carrying the Habs to glory. But is he ready to tote that kind of weight? He wasn't last season...at least, not when it mattered. He was wildly uneven against the Bruins in the first round, twice shutting them out and twice giving up five goals in the final four games of that series. He followed that up by watching 15 pucks sail by him on just 89 shots in four games against the Flyers, his glove hand and positioning exploited mercilessly by Philly's snipers.
But that was what it was: a rookie, one who'd played up to his paper and then some all season long, finally starting to act his age in the playoffs. Price failed to live up to the freshmen legacies of Patrick Roy and Ken Dryden. So what? That doesn't detract from his potential. Pushed by Halak, he should establish himself as an elite stopper this year, just a rung below Martin Brodeur, Henrik Lundqvist and Roberto Luongo. And if Price delivers, the Habs will contend for the Eastern Conference title -- the postseason edition -- this time.
Gerber and Auld? Really?
After getting off to one of the best starts in league history, the Senators almost missed the playoffs thanks to an historically bad second half. It was a perfect storm of events that shot the wheels off the defending Eastern Conference champs, from a lack of depth that only grew more pronounced as Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson wore down from overuse to the turmoil surrounding Ray Emery.
There's no relief in sight for the forwards, and now the defense looks to be in worse shape than last season with the loss of Andrei Meszaros, who on Friday was dealt to the Lightning for Filip Kuba, Alexandre Picard and a first-round pick in 2009.
But heading into the new season, both of those issues pale next to a goaltending duo that ranks among the least imposing in the conference. While Emery was doing his best Dave Reece impression on the ice, Gerber was unable to nail down the starter's job, seesawing from solid to sieve. Auld, brought in to serve as backup, likely will battle Gerber for ice time. He was serviceable last season in Boston, but how many teams generate any sort of challenge with serviceable goaltending?
Gerber won 13 of his first 15 starts last season, but lost 11 of his final 14. Until he or Auld prove otherwise, it looks as if the Sens will enter the season with a pair of No.2 stoppers.
Toronto Maple Leafs
What size sweater would you like, Mr. Tavares?
So this is what a decade of mismanagement buys you -- a hodgepodge of mid-level spares, sagging vets and unproven newbies that just might leave Leafs fans longing for the dark years under Harold Ballard.
Is it any wonder that former captain Mats Sundin is exploring every option that involves him not returning to Hogtown?
Hope springs eternal in the heart of the hockey universe, and that's why there are Kool-Aid drinkers who believe that checking winger Niklas Hagman is a lock for 30 goals, Jeff Finger will push for a spot on the top pairing, and Curtis Joseph found the fountain of youth over the summer. But there's little reason to think this collection of misfits will contend for anything other than a lottery pick, maybe even a shot at John Tavares, the player who could be the first overall choice next summer.
Outside of a fairly competent back end led by Vesa Toskala and Tomas Kaberle, and promising forward Nikolai Kulemin, this edition of the Leafs looks like a club that will battle hard, but fail more often than not. And that's exactly what a team with so little in the cupboard needs to do: Suffer now, with thoughts of better days ahead.
Smart Leafs fans will hope for the worst this season.