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Posted: Tuesday September 29, 2009 8:22AM; Updated: Friday October 2, 2009 6:46PM

NHL Preview: 2009-10

Eastern Conference: Northeast

EASTERN CONFERENCE: Atlantic | Northeast | Southeast
WESTERN CONFERENCE: Central | Northwest | Pacific

NORTHEAST

Boston Bruins
Last season: 53-19-10 (1st in East); lost in second round to Carolina
Key additions: C Steve Bégin, D Derek Morris
Key losses: LW P.J. Axelsson, G Manny Fernandez, D Shane Hnidy, RW Phil Kessel, D Aaron Ward, C Stéphane Yelle

 
Milan Lucic's rampaging style keeps defenders off Boston's skilled but slender centers.
Milan Lucic's rampaging style keeps defenders off Boston's skilled but slender centers.
Damian Strohmeyer/SI
In a statistical curio that might puzzle coach Claude Julien if he gave a hoot about statistics -- "I don't pay much attention to them," he says -- a Northeast Division team has finished first in the Eastern Conference each year since the lockout (Ottawa in 2005-06, Buffalo in '06-07, Montreal in '07-08) and then failed to win the division the following season. After a dominant 116 points in 2008-09, could the Bruins continue the trend of backsliding?

No chance.

The second-round Game 7 overtime loss to Carolina last spring sabotaged a superb season, but Boston remains the class of the division. It has Vezina-winning goalie Tim Thomas, cornerstone defenseman Zdeno Chara and a slew of dynamic under-25 players, including center David Krejci and old-time hockey left wing Milan Lucic. Julien's forecheck rotation will be more aggressive this season; otherwise the Bruins, who allowed the fewest goals in 2008-09 while ranking second in the NHL in scoring, will stick to the formula: wingers collapsing in the slot defensively, quick transitions, a defenseman joining the rush and a big-time cycle game.

With 36-goal scorer Phil Kessel traded to Toronto for draft choices, Julien will have to find a new top-line right wing for center Marc Savard, but there are capable candidates in Michael Ryder, Marco Sturm and Mark Recchi. And with veteran defenseman Aaron Ward gone, Julien also must settle on Chara's new partner, possibly journeyman Derek Morris, whom G.M. Peter Chiarelli overpaid with a one-year, $3.3 million contract.

"We surprised people last year because we got a lot out of kids like Krejci and [rookie right wing Blake] Wheeler," Julien said of the team's jump from an eighth-place conference finish two years ago. "We'll see if those kinds of young players -- Wheeler again, [defenseman Matt] Hunwick -- can do the same thing."

If they do, the Bruins will be sorely disappointed if this time they cannot extend their season past the second round.

Montreal Canadiens
Last season: 41-30-11 (8th in East); lost in first round to Boston
Key additions: LW Mike Cammalleri, D Hal Gill, RW Brian Gionta, C Scott Gomez, D Paul Mara, LW Travis Moen, D Jaroslav Spacek, Coach Jacques Martin
Key losses: D Francis Bouillon, LW Chris Higgins, C Saku Koivu, D Mike Komisarek, RW Alex Kovalev, D Mathieu Schneider, LW Alex Tanguay

You are playing five-card draw. You have an ace, so you discard the rest and take four new cards. Will your gambit work? Tough to say. That's the Canadiens' outlook.

G.M. Bob Gainey let 10 unrestricted free agents walk, restocking with skilled forwards and a remade defense. Goalie Carey Price predicts Montreal will have "good chemistry," an assessment as offhandedly damning of the old dressing-room mix as it is praise for the newcomers.

Gainey says the key is former Ranger Scott Gomez, who averaged a mere 15 goals over the past three seasons and who has, gulp, five years and $33.5 million on his contract. (Gomez, generously listed at 5' 11", could center 5' 7" Brian Gionta and 5' 9" Mike Cammalleri on the Lilliputian Line.) If Gomez does not regain his brio, the G.M. has saddled himself with a contract that limits his flexibility.

Montreal should make the playoffs, and coach Jacques Martin's defense should help Price. Of course, sometimes chemistry experiments go boom.

Buffalo Sabres
Last season: 41-32-9 (10th in East)
Key additions: D Joe DiPenta, RW Mike Grier, D Steve Montador
Key losses: RW Maxim Afinogenov, D Teppo Numminen, LW Andrew Peters, D Jaroslav Spacek

In exit interviews after last season, coach Lindy Ruff threw some cold water on the core players of a franchise that leads the NHL in self-pity. (Gee, you would think Chris Drury and Daniel Brière, free-agent class of 2007, had bolted Buffalo yesterday considering how often their names still come up.) "Those guys have to take the next step, first and foremost, by holding themselves accountable," said Ruff, referring to 40-goal scorer Thomas Vanek and No. 1 center Derek Roy, among others. "We're close, but it's going to take that much more to get in [the playoffs]."

The repatriation of Mike Grier -- "a no-excuses guy, a great work ethic," Ruff enthuses -- might bolster the dressing room. But Buffalo needs a healthy year from soft-handed center Tim Connolly, who was limited to 48 games in each of the past two seasons, and continued stellar work from goalie Ryan Miller, who had a .918 save percentage playing behind a so-so defense. If the Sabres don't get both, exit interviews will again be in April, not May or June.

Toronto Maple Leafs
Last season: 34-35-13 (12th in East)
Key additions: D Fran¢ois Beauchemin, G Jonas Gustavsson, RW Phil Kessel, D Mike Komisarek, RW Colton Orr, C Wayne Primeau
Key losses: D Pavel Kubina, D Anton Stralman

Brian Burke is a G.M. who gets as much out of his players as he does out of his thesaurus. The man who introduced truculence into the NHL lexicon likes dukes-up teams built around skill and intimidation, and he's implementing a plan that should nudge Toronto down the path to playoff contention. After the Leafs allowed the most goals in the league last season, Burke revamped the defense and imported goalie Jonas Gustavsson, a.k.a. the Monster, from Sweden. He will push Vesa Toskala, who ranked 45th among 47 NHL goalies. "[Gustavsson's] going to play a lot of games, and we're going to give him room to grow," coach Ron Wilson says of the 6' 3" butterflyer.

Acquiring former Bruins sniper Phil Kessel (set to return from shoulder surgery next month) provides needed help for an offense dependent on still-developing youngsters such as center Mikhail Grabovski.

Burke says that Toronto can end a four-year playoff drought, but he may be speaking precipitately. The G.M. knows the meaning of that word too.

Ottawa Senators
Last season: 36-35-11 (11th in East)
Key additions: RW Jonathan Cheechoo, RW Alex Kovalev, G Pascal Leclaire, LW Milan Michalek
Key losses: G Alex Auld, C Mike Comrie, RW Dany Heatley, D Jason Smith LW Cory Stillman

Like many a national capital, Ottawa is the setting for low drama. The crisis over the summer centered on Dany Heatley, whose brazen trade demand festered until G.M. Bryan Murray obliged the two-time 50-goal scorer at the start of training camp by dealing him to San Jose. The Senators recouped 20-plus goal scorer Milan Michalek and, intriguingly, right wing Jonathan Cheechoo, who had 56 goals playing next to deft passer Joe Thornton in 2005-06 before a startling drop to just 12 last year. The theory is that center Jason Spezza can be his new muse, although unlike Thornton, Spezza is righthanded, which means his forehand dishes go to the left side, away from Cheechoo. A left wing-right wing issue... also typical of a capital, no?

The good news for the incoming forwards is the freedom in coach Cory Clouston's system. The bad news is Ottawa's defensemen aren't adept at moving the puck. Mercifully, the Heatley contretemps is history. And so, two years after the team reached the finals, is Ottawa's presumption of an annual playoff berth.

 
Milan Lucic.
Milan Lucic.
Jack Carroll/Icon SMI
Throwback: Milan Lucic

The Bruins' winger scores (17 goals last season), hits (he once checked Mike Van Ryn through the glass) and fights (notably crushing tough Mike Komisarek). He's a candidate for a Gordie Howe hat trick (goal, assist, fight) every night.

On the Spot: Carey Price

The Canadiens' goalie -- the title alone says "on the spot" doesn't it? -- suffered a drop-off last season, a big reason Montreal struggled after a revelatory 2007-08. If Price isn't the stopper he was as a rookie, the Habs will falter again.

On the Verge: Luke Schenn

In his second season the Maple Leafs' precocious blueliner should benefit from the defense's overall improvement. At 20, he's ready to be a reliable neutralizer against some of the NHL's most dangerous forwards.

-- Michael Farber

Pierre McGuire's In the Crease

Bruins center Patrice Bergeron, who scored only eight goals in 64 games last season and nearly retired because of postconcussion syndrome, looks strong -- ready to score again and to make the players around him better.... The Canadiens' off-season spending spree could leave them with little salary-cap flexibility for as long as five years.... Toronto's signing of star college forwards Tyler Bozak (Denver) and Viktor Stalberg (Vermont) will be a key to their return to respectability.... Good news for Senators' fans: Pascal Leclaire, acquired from Columbus late last season and now healthy after ankle surgery, is the best goalie in the team's 17-year history.

EASTERN CONFERENCE: Atlantic | Northeast | Southeast
WESTERN CONFERENCE: Central | Northwest | Pacific

This article appears in the October 5, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated

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