Canadiens favored in Northeast (cont.)
2007-08 RECORD: 39-31-12 -- 90 points; fourth in Northeast; finished 10th in conference, missed playoffs
KEY ADDS: Craig Rivet (San Jose), Patrick Lalime (Chicago)
KEY LOSSES: Steve Bernier (Vancouver), Jocelyn Thibault (free agent), Dmitri Kalinin (NY Rangers)
STRENGTHS: The run-and-gun offense
Why be something that you're not? After struggling through the season's first half while trying to compensate for the losses of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, the Sabres went back to being themselves. Capitalizing on career years from Derek Roy and Jason Pominville -- and a strong finish from Thomas Vanek -- Buffalo finished just off the league lead with 251 goals. If Tim Connolly can stay healthy and Max Afinogenov finds his inner Tony Robbins, the offense should remain among the best.
WEAKNESSES: The coaching of Lindy Ruff
A lot's been made of Ryan Miller's sub-par season. He certainly had his share of personal distractions, and he often appeared to be playing outside of his comfort zone, trying to do too much as the Sabres struggled. But the slippage wasn't entirely his fault. In fact, the former All-Star was victimized by the soft play of his mates away from the puck, particularly in the Buffalo end. And that falls squarely on the shoulders of the coach.
Fair to say Ruff is one of the league's most highly regarded bench bosses. But this issue dragged on throughout the season, and ultimately, it's the responsibility of the coach to sell the team on the program. He'll have an easier time of it this season with the return of Teppo Numminen and the acquisition of hard-rock Rivet, adding a layer of on-ice accountability. But it still comes back to Ruff to ensure there is commitment.
MVP: GM Darcy Regier
The boss deserved to be thrown under the bus for his handling of the Drury and Briere situations last summer. So let's be fair and give him credit for taking care of business this time around. By signing core players Miller, Pominville, Daniel Paille and Paul Gaustad to long-term deals, he not only ensured a level of continuity not seen since before the lockout, but he turned what could have been another bilious off-season into something positive. That should have a significant impact on the room, where an improved attitude could be worth a couple of points along the way.
ROOKIE TO WATCH: Nathan Gerbe
The Hobey Baker finalist was a Jedi on skates for the NCAA champion Boston College Eagles in 2008, scoring five goals in the Frozen Four and winning MVP honors. The fact that he's not much bigger than Yoda didn't slow him in his first NHL camp, but the Sabres prefer their youngsters matriculate in the AHL before graduating to the big leagues. Gerbe will start the season in Portland, but he'll likely be the first offensive call-up.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Maxim Afinogenov
No reason to sugarcoat it: Max was dog-sick brutal last year. Talented but clearly disinterested, he scored just 10 times and stumbled to a team-worst minus-16 rating. But if there's anything that can motivate a player like Afinogenov, it's the prospect of free agency beckoning at season's end. It's hard to believe the Sabres will want to put some whipped cream on that $3.33 million salary he's currently stealing from them, but he might just convince someone that he's found hockey Jesus with a bounce back campaign. Bet on a career-high 25 goals this year.
BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: Improvements to the blueline, a lightened load for Miller and, presumably, the sinking-in of the team defense concept should keep the Sabres in contention for a playoff spot. But they'll be fighting for position against teams that have made more obvious upgrades. Things could go either way.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
2007-08 RECORD: 36-35-11 -- 83 points, fifth in Northwest; finished 12th in conference, missed playoffs
KEY ADDS: coach Ron Wilson, Mikhail Grabovski (Montreal), Mike Van Ryn (Florida), Jeff Finger (Colorado), Curtis Joseph (Calgary), Niklas Hagman (Dallas), Jamal Mayers (St. Louis), Ryan Hollweg (NY Rangers), Jonas Frogren (Sweden)
KEY LOSSES: Mats Sundin (free agent), Bryan McCabe (Florida), Darcy Tucker (Colorado), Andrew Raycroft (Toronto), Kyle Wellwood (Vancouver), John Pohl (Switzerland), Andy Wozniewski (St. Louis)
STRENGTHS: The defense corps
It tells you everything you need to know about the sad state of affairs in Toronto that a blueline that gave up 260 goals one year ago is looked upon as a positive, The thing is, in terms of talent, this looks like a reasonably sound unit and with Wilson focusing on reducing the team's propensity for generosity, it could see marked improvement. Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina certainly can be better than last year. Finger, the summer's most derided free agent signing, can't possibly deliver value for the dollar, but the former Av can be a useful presence. The key to recovery may be Frogren. The Swedish vet has shown little to justify the team's hopes he can be a top-four defender, but it may simply be a matter of getting his feet wet. He's excelled internationally, and brings some physical pop to the back end. And then there's the promise of the fall's most-watched rookie, 2008 top pick Luke Schenn. He's expected to be returned to junior, but Schenn has shown enough to suggest he'll live up to his pre-draft hype.
WEAKNESSES: How much time have you got?
Alright, things aren't exactly that bleak, but GM Cliff Fletcher wasn't kidding when he announced that Nik Antropov was the team's only legitimate top-six forward. That doesn't bode well for the team's offensive prolificency, especially considering he'll be moved into a No. 1 center role despite obvious issues with his foot speed and passing skills. The Leafs are hoping for a rebound from Jason Blake, the forward who dropped from 40 goals to 15 in his first year with the team. Beyond him and 21-goal scorer Alexei Ponikarovsky, there's not a lot of dry powder up front. Without Sundin, the 15th rated power play should plummet. At least the penalty kill (29th) hasn't got far to fall.
MVP: Vesa Toskala
Icing a roster not much better than a typical expansion club, the Leafs need their stopper to cover for their inevitable miscues and keep them in as many games as possible. In his first season with the club, he offered up a level of reliability that went far beyond his numbers (33 wins, 2.74 GAA, .904 save percentage). If he can provide his mates with a similar level of confidence this year, they'll avoid the Eastern cellar ... even if that is counterproductive to the team's long-term goals
ROOKIES TO WATCH: Mikhail Grabovski/Nikolai Kulemin/John Mitchell
The Leafs could open the season with as many as three rookies on the roster. Grabovski, a speedy, creative forward who couldn't carve out a spot for himself in Montreal, has found there's no such logjam of talent in Toronto. He'll be given every opportunity to stick on a scoring line, as will Kulemin, a former linemate of Evgeni Malkin who scored 21 goals last season in Russia. Mitchell, a 23-year-old winger who has slowly built up his credentials over the last three years spent with the AHL Toronto Marlies, could be a useful grinder on a depth line.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Alexander Steen
After a rookie season that saw him score 18 goals and 47 points, Steen appeared to be the most promising youngster in the team's limited stable of young talent. But instead of building on that success, he's spent the last two years treading water, making many of the same mistakes and providing less offensive pop. Now 24, and with no one standing in his way, he has the chance to prove he can be part of the solution. Anything less and Steen could be part of the late-season purge.
BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: Wilson was only being honest when he barked at a reporter, "Here's a news flash for you -- we're not going to win the Stanley Cup!" Leafs fans -- at least, those above the age of eight -- are okay with that as long as they see the club taking steps in the right direction. This season, that might mean going backwards as the Leafs try to work in some of the younger players they hope will be part of the core when they finally are in a position to compete. Growing pains all but ensure the Leafs will be eliminated from the playoffs sometime around Family Day, with a big garage sale to follow.