Northeast preview (cont.)
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
2008-09 RECORD: 34-35-13, 81 points, fifth in Northeast
FRESH FACES: Phil Kessel (Boston), Jonas Gustavsson (Sweden), Mike Komisarek (Montreal), Garnet Exelby (Atlanta), Francois Beauchemin (Anaheim), Colton Orr (NY Rangers), Wayne Primeau (Calgary), Christian Hanson (free agent), Tyler Bozak (free agent), Joey McDonald (NY Islanders)
OTHER PLACES: Pavel Kubina (Atlanta), Martin Gerber (Russia), Curtis Joseph (free agent), Anton Stralman (Calgary), Brad May (Detroit), Justin Pogge (Anaheim), Jamie Sifers (Minnesota)
STORYLINE: Brian Burke may be the only GM in hockey who's a bigger star than any of his players, and that rubs some folks the wrong way. But you've got to hand it to him, don't you? He said he wanted to reinvent the Leafs, to make them miserable to play against and competitive not five years down the road, but right now. If he failed to live up to that promise, he sure came awfully close. Beauchemin and Komisarek were added to a pugnacious, skilled top-four that stacks up well against just about anybody. In Gustavsson, Burke landed both the prize of the Euro free agent market and a netminder who could kick Vesa Toskala to the bench. His bold pursuit of Kessel cost the Leafs three high picks, but also provided an immediate (well, nearly immediate) answer to a desperate need for scoring punch. In short, he made the Leafs relevant again. Amazing.
MVP: Jonas Gustavsson. It has to be, doesn't it? For all the improvements Burke made up and down the lineup, the Leafs simply can't count on competitive goaltending from holdover Toskala. If they're to challenge for a playoff spot, they need The Monster to import his Swedish league success to Toronto. And you'd better believe that one-year contract he signed will motivate him to prove that he's the real deal.
KID TO WATCH: Viktor Stalberg. Probably best not to get too worked up about those five preseason goals, but it doesn't take too many looks to imagine him helping the team this season. A sixth-round steal from the 2006 draft, Stalberg has impressed with his speed, willingness to initiate contact and those kitten-soft mitts.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Mikhail Grabovski. The 25-year-old Belorussian is coming off a career season, but let's face it: 20 goals and 48 points are pretty lousy numbers for a first-line center. At least there's reason to believe that he can improve on those totals significantly. After Nik Antropov was dealt to the Rangers at the deadline, Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin were united with Alexei Ponikarovsky. The trio clicked instantly, tallying 45 points in the last 17 games, including seven goals and 10 assists from Grabovski.
BOTTOM LINE: The Leafs will certainly be an improved team, and probably among the most entertaining, but a playoff squad? Unless Gustavsson is the second coming of Henrik Lundqvist, they'll fall just short.
2008-09 RECORD: 41-30-11, 93 points, second in Northeast
FRESH FACES: Coach Jacques Martin, Mike Cammalleri (Calgary), Brian Gionta (New Jersey), Scott Gomez (NY Rangers), Jaroslav Spacek (Buffalo), Travis Moen (San Jose), Hal Gill (Pittsburgh), Paul Mara (NY Rangers), Curtis Sanford (Vancouver)
OTHER PLACES: Alexei Kovalev (Ottawa), Saku Koivu (Anaheim), Chris Higgins (NY Rangers), Alex Tanguay (Tampa Bay), Mike Komisarek (Toronto), Tom Kostopoulos (Carolina), Mathieu Schneider (Vancouver)
STORYLINE: Welcome to Extreme Makeover, Canadiens Edition. In a span of a few days, Les Glorieux dispatched with 11 members of last season's team, including three of its top four scorers and the No. 2 defenseman. To replace them, GM Bob Gainey imported a trio of forwards who are big in name, if not in stature, to supplement the front lines, and a highly underrated defenseman (Spacek) to shore up a sagging power play. It was a brash course of action, but will it work? There's plenty of focus on the size of the forwards, but the key for the Habs should be the work of coach Martin. His defensive-minded system won't remind anyone of the Flying Frenchmen, but the discipline it demands should lead to better results on the ice.
MVP: Andrei Markov. Despite turning down the captaincy (or not, depending upon whom you choose to believe), Markov remains Montreal's most important player. Though lauded for his power play work, he's an equally effective defender. Much like his countryman Sergei Zubov, Markov's game has to be watched regularly in order to appreciate the subtle nuances. As a result, he may never win the Norris Trophy, but he certainly belongs in the conversation.
KID TO WATCH: Matt D'Agostini. After working through some of the kinks in his up-and-down rookie season, D'Agostini could quickly step into an important role. He showed some touch last season, scoring 12 goals in a limited debut, but his effectiveness along the boards may slide him onto a line with Cammalleri or Gomez.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Carey Price. All-Star starter in February. Whipping boy by April. Price's shortcomings were, by virtue of his position, the most glaring even though the Habs had problems up and down the lineup last season. Battling a glacial glove hand and rapid loss of confidence, he was made the team's scapegoat. (A flippant gesture to the fans didn't help his standing, either.) Can he turn his game around? Tough to say. Price had rough moments in the preseason, but seems to be in a better frame of mind. Either way, he needs to hold the fort so the rest of the team has time to gel. If he struggles early, it could be another long season.
BOTTOM LINE: Despite sweeping changes, this roster won't frighten anyone. They'll hang around the fringes of the playoff race, but look for them to fall short.
2008-09 RECORD: 36-35-11, 83 points, fourth in Northeast
FRESH FACES: Milan Michalek (San Jose), Jonathan Cheechoo (San Jose), Alexei Kovalev (Montreal)
OTHER PLACES: Dany Heatley (San Jose), Jason Smith (retired), Alex Auld (Dallas), Mike Comrie (Edmonton), Brendan Bell (St. Louis), Drew Fata (Boston)
STORYLINE: It was just two years ago that the Sens ranked among the favorites to win the Cup. But after the disaster that was last season -- and the recently resolved Heatley issue -- their sights are set considerably lower now. The strong finish under new coach Cory Clouston (19-11-4) raised hopes of a quick turnaround, but didn't mask deficiencies that must be addressed. Scoring shouldn't be one of them, despite the loss of top sniper Heatley. Kovalev, who said he should have had 50 last season in Montreal, could fill the void himself by netting 40. Assured of a more prominent role, Michalek should be good for 25-30. And Ottawa finally looks to have the secondary scoring it's longed for. The unsolved mysteries surround the back end. Pascal Leclaire, sidelined since being acquired last March for Antoine Vermette, has to be the player he was for Columbus back in 2007-08 when he recorded nine shutouts and earned Vezina consideration. To get there, he'll need help from a nondescript blueline, led by Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov, that is fairly mobile but plays a little soft. They could prove sufficient, but don't count on it.
MVP: Daniel Alfredsson. The raw numbers suggest it was an off-year for the captain, but they don't paint the whole picture. Sure, his goals dropped from 40 to 24, and he failed to reach 80 points for the first time in five years. But Alfredsson still led the team in scoring despite having to play with, at various times, a broken jaw, a wrenched back and a knee injury. That's leadership. And unlike some players who needn't be named, Alfredsson thrived under Clouston, scoring 32 points in 33 games. A return to form is a solid bet.
KID TO WATCH: Erik Karlsson. There are several puck-moving types on the Sens blueline but none who dish the biscuit with such creativity and aplomb. Just 19, Karlsson looks like a prayer answered for a team that was short of a true offensive defender. His slick passing dazzled observers in the preseason and could earn him a spot on the team's first power play unit.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Jonathan Cheechoo. If a baseball player's home run totals dropped from 56 to 37 to 23 to 12 over the course of four seasons, fans would be pointing to the moment he stopped juicing. It's not so easy to explain Cheechoo's fall from Richard-winning grace to a third-liner grinding for scraps. The plan was to give him more opportunity in Ottawa than he earned the last couple years in San Jose, but after being widely outplayed by a couple of Binghamton spares at camp, you have to wonder how much rope they'll give him. The Sens boasted of improved depth after his arrival, but he has to deliver at least 20 to prove them right.
BOTTOM LINE: It's never a good idea to read too much into the preseason, but seeing the Sens limited to just one goal in four contests makes you realize how far this team has to go to find chemistry with several new parts in the mix. Funny, but most seasons a team would love the thought of playing 16 of their first 23 at home. This year though, Ottawa might have benefited from the bonding experience of the road. Either way, the Sens look to be better but probably not good enough for a postseason berth.
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