2009-10 Northeast Div. preview
The Bruins are Presidents Trophy contenders; it's make-or-break for the Sabres
GM Brian Burke has made the Leafs relevant again, but the playoffs are still iffty
Montreal and Ottawa have fallen from Stanley Cup contenders to early tee-times
Here's how I see them shaking out, in predicted order of finish:
2008-09 RECORD: 53-19-10, 116 points, first in Northeast
FRESH FACES: Derek Morris (NY Rangers), Steve Begin (Dallas)
OTHER PLACES: Phil Kessel (Toronto), Manny Fernandez (free agent), Stephane Yelle (Carolina), Aaron Ward (Carolina), PJ. Axelsson (Sweden), Steve Montador (Buffalo), Shane Hnidy (Minnesota)
STORYLINE: With the disappointment of that Game 7 OT loss to the Hurricanes and the drama of Kessel's free agency power play behind them, the Bruins look to pick up where they left off last season as one of the true powers in the East. Replacing Ward with Morris may hinder their chances to repeat as the league's stingiest defense, but the former Ranger should kickstart the transition game that failed the Bruins against Carolina. That, in turn, should help power a forward group as deep and well-balanced as any in the league, even without Kessel. With the picks they acquired in the Kessel deal with the Leafs, the Bruins are well positioned to supplement a deep run this season or re-stock the cupboard for the future. Either way, this is a team going places.
MVP: Tim Thomas. Even though his battle for respect has been won -- a couple All-Star Games and a Vezina will do that for a guy -- don't expect Thomas to rest on his laurels. The game's most entertaining goalie is driven to stay at the top of his game. "I don't take anything for granted," he says. "I believe there's still more I can do to improve my game."
KID TO WATCH: Tuukka Rask. No telling yet who the winner will be in the Kessel swap, but Boston clearly came out on top in this one: Andrew Raycroft became synonymous with colander in Toronto while Rask looks like the future No. 1 for the Bruins. After two years honing his craft in Providence, the 22-year-old Finn is ready to back up Thomas. With the Vezina-winner likely to carry the mail for Team USA at the Olympics on top of his Bruins responsibilities, Rask's ability to deliver 25-30 quality starts will be critical to Boston's success.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Blake Wheeler. The Bruins expect to replace Kessel's 36 goals by committee, and it's hoped that Wheeler will be a big part of that mix. He cooled off appreciably after a solid first half last season, worn out by the grind of the 82-game schedule, and was benched for the final three games of the playoffs. He hasn't impressed in camp, blowing a chance to fill in for Kessel on the first line and dimming his chances for a quick start. It'll be interesting to see how Claude Julien handles him.
BOTTOM LINE: With the chance to fatten up their stats against the Little Sisters of the Northeast, the Bruins should again contend for the Presidents' Trophy. If they can stay healthy, and maybe leverage one of those first-rounders into a key deadline pickup, there's a decent chance they'll end that 38-year Stanley Cup drought.
2008-09 RECORD: 41-32-9, 91 points, third in Northeast
FRESH FACES: Steve Montador (Boston), Mike Grier (San Jose), Joe DiPenta (Sweden), Cody McCormick (Colorado)
OTHER PLACES: Jaroslav Spacek (Montreal), Teppo Numminen (retired), Maxim Afinogenov (Atlanta), Dominic Moore (free agent), Andrew Peters (New Jersey), Mikael Tellqvist (Russia)
STORYLINE: Judging by the lack of activity over the summer, everything is swell in Sabreland. Sure, they missed the playoffs (again) and their top defender bolted to a division rival, but when a team's offseason splash is a third-pairing blueliner, everything else must be neatly in place, right? Time will tell if standing pat was a justifiable response to last season's DNQ, but GM Darcy Regier clearly has faith in this crew. Led by emerging stars Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy and Jason Pominville, the top six can be an effective group, and the four free agents who were brought in will address an obvious need for a little more sandpaper in the lineup. None of the four will play regularly, but if their presence adds even a little confidence to a roster that sagged too easily under fire last season, the Sabres should stay in the mix.
MVP: Ryan Miller. Despite steadily bleeding talent over the past few years, the Sabres had actually worked their way into a playoff spot in late February...until Miller went down with a high ankle sprain, taking their postseason hopes with him. Now fully recovered, he gives the Sabres a chance to win every night. Without him, they're sending someone to watch Bill Daly open oversized envelopes.
KID TO WATCH: Chris Butler. There'll be considerable pressure on the second-year blueliner to not only eat up some of the minutes abandoned by Spacek and Numminen, but expedite his own development process. With Henrik Tallinder, Toni Lydman and Nathan Paetsch all headed to free agency next summer, now's the time to get his game in order. A good place to start: Butler needs to make smarter decisions with the puck and fire it at the net more often.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Tim Connolly. He can be a game-breaking talent when he's healthy. Problem is, Connolly's averaged just 40 games per season over the past four years. He chipped in 47 points in just 48 games in 2008-09, so you do the math. If the hockey gods decide he's suffered enough and let him play the entire season, well, there aren't many teams whose second line center plays at a point-per-game pace.
BOTTOM LINE: This is a critical season for team management. Another playoff miss and it could be the end of the line for Regier and coach Lindy Ruff. Without the benefit of a defender who qualifies as top pairing material, Buffalo is in for some long nights, but as long as Miller stays healthy, they should be safe.
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