Canadiens favored in Northeast
On the 100th anniversary of one of the most storied franchises in the league, it appears the Canadiens are the class of their division and will be in the hunt for the Stanley Cup. Teams are ranked in order of predicted finish.
2007-08 RECORD: 47-25-10 -- 104 points; first in Northeast; lost in conference semi-finals to Philadelphia
KEY ADDS: Alex Tanguay (Calgary), Robert Lang (Chicago), Marc Denis (Tampa Bay), Georges Laraque (Pittsburgh), Alex Henry (Edmonton)
KEY LOSSES: Mark Streit (NY Islanders), Michael Ryder (Boston), Bryan Smolinski (free agent)
STRENGTHS: Balanced offense and the deadly power play
How 'bout them Flying Frenchmen? Despite the presence of just one player, Alexei Kovalev, among the top 40 scorers, Montreal's offense ranked as the league's second-best. Its potency was fueled by the 24.1 percent success rate of the power play, a unit that thrived despite the loss of QB Sheldon Souray to free agency the previous summer.
That's a good sign. This year's team has to adapt to the loss of another QB, Streit, but could prove even more dangerous. Tanguay not only gives them another alternative on the point, but he'll anchor a potent second line alongside Lang. That leaves Montreal with three high-end offensive units, loaded with speed and guile, if not a lot of sandpaper. And with four players -- Tanguay, Lang, Kovalev and Saku Koivu -- entering their contract years, this will be a highly motivated group.
WEAKNESSES: Is the netminding as good as they think?
Carey Price will be an elite goalie. The question is, when? The prized prospect had his moments of greatness last season, but it was his repeated meltdowns that cost the Canadiens in their second-round series against the Flyers. How he responds to that lesson will go a long way in determining the team's fate. With fellow sophomore Jaroslav Halak and Lightning castoff Denis as the alternatives, Montreal is operating without a net.
MVP: Alex Kovalev
For the Habs' sake, he'd better be. The return to form by the enigmatic forward keyed Montreal's rise from playoff also-ran to conference leader. Kovalev was the offensive catalyst, his 35-goal, 84-point season a surprising return to form after an abysmal 2006-07 campaign. For the Canadiens to maintain their standing as a contender, he needs to be a point-per-game force.
ROOKIE TO WATCH: Max Pacioretty
Even an impressive performance in camp couldn't save the burly 19-year-old winger from assignment to the minors on Friday. The demotion was more a reflection of the absence of a spot in Montreal's top nine than any deficiency in his play. Though he'll now start the season in Hamilton, it's inevitable that an injury will offer Pacioretty the chance to make his NHL debut this season.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Sergei Kostitsyn
The Belorussian rookie was called up right before Christmas, and brought along slowly by the Habs. He responded with a taste of the skill level that made him a 131-point scorer with London (OHL) as a rookie, netting nine goals and 27 points in 52 games. He's expected to play alongside Tanguay and Lang on the new second line, an opportunity that could see him double his point totals.
BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: Incoming general managers always talk about five-year plans, but few execute them as adroitly as Bob Gainey. With the franchise celebrating its 100th anniversary, he has the Habs set up as clear favorites to win the division and in position to challenge for the conference title. A 25th Cup? Unlikely ... but you can't count out another dramatic transaction if the situation warrants. And you can't discount the ghosts ...
2007-08 RECORD: 41-29-12 -- 94 points; third in Northeast; lost in conference quarterfinals to Montreal
KEY ADDS: Michael Ryder (Montreal), Stephane Yelle (Calgary), Blake Wheeler (Phoenix)
KEY LOSSES: Glen Metropolit (Philadelphia), Glen Murray (free agent), Alex Auld (Ottawa)
STRENGTHS: Center depth and a nasty blueline
It's taken just two seasons for GM Peter Chiarelli to place his stamp on the Bruins, but his plan began paying dividends in last spring's thrilling seven-game loss to the Canadiens. The B's are solid down the middle, with Marc Savard, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci centering offensive-minded units, and Yelle guiding the gritty fourth line. As a group, they should put up somewhere around 225 points, and play with the kind of edge to their game that should make old school Bruins fans proud.
But as fractious as the pivots can be, they can't match the intimidation factor of the blueline. To be sure, there's a decent level of skill, and a commitment to playing smart transitional hockey. But this group, led by Zdeno Chara, Dennis Wideman, Mark Stuart, Shane Hnidy and Aaron Ward, is defined by its ability to turn the Boston zone into a place where angels fear to tread.
WEAKNESSES: Hands of stone
It's hard to get too hung up on a stat like "the league's 24th-ranked offense" when the end result was an unexpected trip to the postseason. But the games are still decided by which team scores the most goals, and the Bruins struggled mightily to light the lamp. Coach Claude Julien's system, though strict defensively, leaves room for offensive creativity, so it can't be blamed for the shortage. Instead, it was injuries like Bergeron's concussion, and the use of so many freshmen in key roles that led to the drought. Chiarelli brought in Ryder specifically to help address the shortage, but only the most optimistic believe he'll regain his 30-goal form. The B's need the kids to grow up fast if they hope to move out of the offensive basement.
MVP: Zdeno Chara
The perennial Norris contender looked much more comfortable in his second season with the Bruins. The physicality that defined his time in Ottawa -- and that was visible only intermittently the previous season -- was back, and so was his confidence with the puck. Chara finished third on the team in scoring, setting a career-best with 51 points, and his 17 goals ranked second among all blueliners.
ROOKIE TO WATCH: Blake Wheeler
The Coyotes went off the board to select Wheeler with the fifth overall pick in 2004, lured by the thought of the 6-4, 225-pound winger maturing into an elite power forward. He may yet become one, but it won't be in Phoenix. Wheeler exploited a loophole in the CBA to become a free agent this summer, eventually choosing to pursue the dream in Boston with old buddy Phil Kessel. His play in camp has earned him a spot, but that big contract might come back to haunt him. Until the B's clear salary, Wheeler's $2.85 million cap hit could banish him to the minors, at least temporarily.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Phil Kessel
Anyone who watched Phil the Thrill as an underager remembers him as a dynamic offensive force, a one-on-one wizard capable of changing the course of a game in a single shift. But outside of a few memorable shootout goals, he's come nowhere close to realizing that potential in his first two seasons. The Bruins are hoping that his third year will trigger the long-awaited breakout. If not, Kessel might not make it to a fourth season in Beantown.
BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: Last year's performance has been called a classic example of overachievement, the result of Julien's coaching legerdemain and the surprisingly rapid acclimation of youngsters like Milan Lucic, Vladimir Sobotka and David Krejci. But even with the return of Bergeron, this team won't out-talent many in the East. It was hard work and total adherence to the system that cut 67 goals-against and led to a playoff berth. Expect them to be at least as difficult to play against this time around.
2007-08 RECORD: 43-31-8 -- 94 points; second in Northeast; Lost in conference quarterfinals to Pittsburgh
KEY ADDS: coach Craig Hartsburg, Jason Smith (Philadelphia), Jarkko Ruutu (Pittsburgh), Filip Kuba (Tampa Bay), Alexandre Picard (Tampa Bay), Brendan Bell (Phoenix), Alex Auld (Boston)
KEY LOSSES: Wade Redden (NY Rangers), Ray Emery (Russia), Andrei Meszaros (Tampa Bay), Brian McGrattan (Phoenix), Mike Commodore (Columbus)
STRENGTHS: The Big Three
Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley. If that's not the best line in the Eastern Conference -- and maybe all of hockey -- it's close enough to rub elbows. The trio finished 10th, 11th and 15th in the scoring race, combining for 115 goals and 263 points thanks to a mix of raw talent and an undeniable chemistry that diminishes their effectiveness every time they're split up. The only way to defend them? Hope that whoever's manning the Ottawa bench is in one of those spread-the-wealth moods.
WEAKNESSES: Secondary scoring, slow defense
For how many years have the Sens been hoping they could improve their results by separating Alfredsson from Spezza and Heatley, or by getting career years from Antoine Vermette or Bryan Smolinski or whoever else they tried to wring something out of? It's long past time for GM Bryan Murray to pull the plug on that dream, but he continues to roll with it. Ottawa may score by the bushel in the regular season, but Murray's inability to acquire players capable of providing support for the top line when it counts continues to plague the team.
Murray at least recognized the need to re-tool the blueline. By bringing in a pair of veterans like Smith and Kuba, he slapped a heavy coat of paint on the defense. Unfortunately, it was pylon orange. Neither player is particularly mobile, and their puck skills won't enhance the team's transition game. Picard and incoming freshman Brian Lee can help there, but as a unit, it's not going to be as effective with the puck as it was just after the lockout.
How's this for a dual-edged sword? The Sens need their captain to be their best player to have any chance at the playoffs. At the same time, Alfredsson's current contract is structured in such a way that he can opt for unrestricted free agency if he plays at least 70 games and scores at least 70 points. Neither target is a stretch, considering he's hit them both for the last six years. Extension talks already are underway, and it's hard to imagine Alfredsson seeking out greener pastures. But the sooner it's taken care of, the quicker it stops being an issue ... and that would likely help Allfredsson concentrate on what he does best.
ROOKIES TO WATCH: Brian Lee/Jesse Winchester
Winchester earned plenty of buzz early in camp when Hartsburg used him extensively in Alfredsson's spot on the top line. The two switched places for the season-opener in Sweden, but Winchester looks to have won a job with a nice mix of aggressive forechecking and defensive awareness. Whether the summer free agent signing out of Colgate has the offensive chops to remain in the top six is debatable, but Winchester seems like a nice fit for Hartsburg's system.
Lee, the ninth overall pick in 2005, has a serious learning curve ahead of him but his skill set fills an obvious need for an offensive-minded defender. He'll be eased in on the third pairing, but his quick reads and poise with the puck should earn him some time on the second power play unit.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Alex Auld
Martin Gerber may enter the season with the professed faith of the Ottawa staff as their No. 1, but his play since joining the team has lacked the consistency required of a true starter. Auld, who shocked observers with his career resurrection in Boston, doesn't have what it takes either. But as he showed last season after joining the Bruins (2,32 GAA, .919 save percentage), he can play at a high level with a limited workload. A solid guy in the locker room, Auld could be an ideal complement to Gerber ... and he's unlikely to harass a single senior motorist.
BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: Hartsburg, demonstrably one of the best coaches in junior hockey, will find himself with an entirely different set of challenges this season. Rehabilitating a fractured dressing room and re-installing a sense of bon homie would be a good start, but this team is a far cry from the one that fell just short of the Cup in 2007. It needs cohesion on the ice as much as off, and adjusting to a new system can take time. The playoffs are likely given the star power and veteran experience, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see them on the outside looking in come April.