Posted: Wednesday October 5, 2011 2:32PM ; Updated: Friday October 14, 2011 11:48AM
Darren Eliot
Darren Eliot>VIEW FROM THE ICE

2011-12 Northeast Div. Preview

Story Highlights

A Vezina-worthy season by Ryan Miller will give improved Buffalo the division title

Goalie Tim Thomas need not be super again, but Boston needs a kid to step up

Lack of scoring depth puts the Habs in peril while Toronto hopes for the best

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Teams listed in order of predicted finish.

*Denotes playoff pick

Buffalo Sabres*

2010-11: 43-29-10, 96 points, third in Northeast

FRESH FACES: Christian Ehrhoff (Vancouver via NY Islanders), Robyn Regehr (Calgary), Ville Leino (Philadelphia), Drew MacIntyre (Montreal)

NEW PLACES: Tim Connolly (Toronto), Steve Montador (Chicago), Chris Butler (Calgary), Mike Grier (unsigned), Rob Niedermayer (unsigned)

STORYLINE: At first blush, the moves they made during the offseason don't seem all that earth-shattering. A closer look reveals that GM Darcy Regier spent owner Terry Pegula's money prudently. All of his acquisitions fit a need. Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff bolster a blueline that's built around third-year pro Tyler Myers, who shook off a sophomore swoon early last season and re-established his all-around impact game. Ville Leino fits in with the top six forwards along with a returning Derek Roy, who missed the second half of the season with a debilitating leg injury. Not the biggest names, but the Sabres have assembled a roster from top to bottom that fits their image: small market team with big aspirations.

MVP: Ryan Miller. No matter moves were made up front and on the backline, this is still Miller's team. He won't have to carry it as much as he did the past couple of seasons, but he is still the difference-maker. If he contends for the Vezina Trophy, with everything else the team has done to solidify the line-up, Miller could lead the Sabres to the division title.

KID TO WATCH: Tyler Ennis. The 21-year-old winger had a 20-goal rookie season and should continue to flourish in the Sabres' deeper forward mix with his skill and creativity being even more effective with favorable match-ups a likelihood. He's small (5-9, 157), but he is an impact player -- a wild card in the offensive scheme. For a football comparison, think Darren Sproles on ice.

KEEP AN EYE ON: Drew Stafford. He hit the 30-goal plateau last season and finally seemed to find his stride as a power forward threat. He scored in bunches, with four hat tricks, and became a power play option with 11 man-advantage goals. More than anything, Stafford is worth following to see if he can remain healthy and if so, is able to build on last season.

BOTTOM LINE: The Sabres have a complete four-line, six-D compliment for the first time in ages and the goaltending to back it up. Lindy Ruff is an excellent coach. They have the full support of new ownership. With all of that come greater expectations. Living up to the loftiest of goals is their challenge.

Boston Bruins*

After the Bruins' summer party, captain Zdeno Chara will have to do his part to stave off Stanley Cup hangover.
After the Bruins' summer party, captain Zdeno Chara will have to do his part to stave off Stanley Cup hangover.
Julie Jacobson/AP

2010-11: 46-25-11, 103 points, first in Northeast

FRESH FACES: Joe Corvo (Carolina), Benoit Pouliot (Montreal)

NEW PLACES: Tomas Kaberle (Carolina), Mark Recchi (retired), Michael Ryder (Dallas), Boris Valabik (Pittsburgh)

STORYLINE: The Bruins face the realities of trying to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. Part of the struggle is mental (can they conjure up the same group resolve?) and some is physical ( a short summer means rest and recovery was compromised). They play a tough, physical style, expending a lot of energy in the process -- right down to goaltender Tim Thomas and his acrobatics. Getting to peak level will truly test them, as will every opponent that knows it is facing the champs and wants to show its best against the best.

MVP: Zdeno Chara. The towering backliner still sets the tone. He plays more than any other Bruin in total, at even-strength, on the penalty kill and more than any other defenseman on the power play. He is the go-to guy in all critical situations and, as such, his presence is palpable in every single Bruins' outing. His numbers and impact were Norris-worthy last season, but I'm sure he'll take the trade in hardware THAT he and his teammates did hoist.

KID TO WATCH: Tyler Seguin. His rookie campaign was short on individual highlights, but he did have an impact game in the playoffs when pressed into duty. The opportunity will be there for him to grab more minutes, particularly with the free agent move of Michael Ryder to Dallas and the retirement of Mark Recchi. The Bruins could use a boost of energy up front from a youngster looking to prove himself, especially in the first half of the season.

KEEP AN EYE ON: The goaltending. Can anyone expect Tim Thomas to repeat his unbelievable season? It doesn't really matter because he doesn't have to. Not with Tuukka Rask as his partner. Both are capable of backstopping the Bruins at any point, for any stretch of time. That quality in goal will serve the B's well in this follow- up to their Cup campaign.

BOTTOM LINE: The roster that won it all is largely intact. Recent history is against it, as no team has won the Stanley Cup back-to-back since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. Motivating or mitigating? That is the Bruins' challenge to face and question to answer.

What Players Really Think
Source: SI
Alex Ovechkin, Brad Richards, Ryan Kesler, Tim Thomas and other major stars talk about whose highlights they always watch, their toughest foes, speed demons, the worst trash talkers in the NHL and more hot topics.

Montreal Canadiens

If the Habs have trouble scoring, the play of goalie Carey Price will ultimately decide Montreal's playoff fate.
If the Habs have trouble scoring, the play of goalie Carey Price will ultimately decide Montreal's playoff fate.
Minas Panagiotakis/Icon SMI

2010-11: 44-30-8, 96 points, second in Northeast

FRESH FACES: Peter Budaj (Colorado), Erik Cole (Carolina), Bryan Willsie (Washington), Nathan Lawson (NY Islanders)

NEW PLACES: Alex Auld (Ottawa), Roman Hamrlik (Washington), James Wisniewski (Columbus), Benoit Pouliot (Boston), Jeff Halpern (Washington), Curtis Sanford (Columbus), Drew MacIntyre (Buffalo), Tom Pyatt (Tampa Bay), Alex Picard (Pittsburgh), Brent Sopel (KHL)

STORYLINE: The Canadiens are an interesting study in that they have some fine, young pieces in goaltender Carey Price, defenseman PK Subban and forward Tomas Plekanec (one of the most under-rated two-way centermen in the game). And they've acquitted themselves reasonably well in the past two playoffs, going to the conference final two years ago and taking the eventual Cup champion Bruins to overtime in Game 7 of the first round last spring. Yet, their offense is meager and their depth is questionable. That means it will all come down to a couple of individuals putting Montreal not over the top but into the playoff mix.

MVP: Carey Price. The young goaltender had a brilliant season, setting a franchise -- and let's face it, this isn't just any franchise -- mark by playing in 72 games. He is the reason the Habs made the playoffs at all, stretching their 23rd ranked offense to maximum effect.

KID TO WATCH: PK Subban. The brash young blueliner is one of those players that draws your attention whenever he is on the ice. He plays with flash and flare and there is an element of risk to his game at times. He is a pure talent, and with Andrei Markhov still recovering from reconstructive knee surgery, the Canadiens need Subban to start the season by showing that he is one year more mature instead of playing as if he has already arrived after a fine rookie campaign.

KEEP AN EYE ON: Scott Gomez. The veteran center is truly the wild card in terms of Montreal's attack. He struggled mightily last season, continuing a trend of declining output. If he can find some chemistry with veteran free agent winger Erik Cole, the Canadiens could stretch their scoring depth to two lines. Otherwise, they remain one-dimensional at even strength.

BOTTOM LINE: If Carey Price plays brilliantly again, the Habs may squeak into the playoffs. If he is merely very good, it will be a struggle to stay off the links in April.

Toronto Maple Leafs

A season of smart play from workhorse blueliner Dion Phaneuf will lighten young goalie James Reimer's load.
A season of smart play from workhorse blueliner Dion Phaneuf will lighten young goalie James Reimer's load.
Blair Gable/Reuters

2010-11: 37-34-11, 85 points, fourth in Northeast

FRESH FACES: Tim Connolly (Buffalo), Matthew Lombardi (Nashville), Cody Franson (Nashville), John Michael Liles (Colorado), David Steckel (New Jersey)

NEW PLACES: Tim Brent (Carolina), Jean-Sebastien Giguere (Colorado)

STORYLINE: Not much has changed in that Toronto is hoping more so than being hopeful. The Leafs added centermen Tim Connolly and Matthew Lombardi, both proven NHL players, yes, but both have a history of injury. The goaltending has been turned over to James Reimer, who is coming off a stellar half-season effort as a rookie, yes, but he is unproven as a bona fide number one starter. Rookie Jake Gardiner out of Wisconsin had a "have to keep him" kind of camp, so the Leafs might have found some added mobility to go along with John-Michael Liles who came from Colorado in a trade. But Gardiner is an unknown quantity.

Up front, the hope is that Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski and Nik Kulemin can produce like a top line again while actually being the second line behind Connolly, Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel. That's a lot of hoping that things come together, but hey, Leaf Nation is notoriously long on faith.

MVP: Dion Phaneuf. The captain seemed to finally find his game last season in Toronto, particularly in the second half. He played over 25 minutes a night and could play more this season if he continues to mature from the standpoint that less exertion is sometimes more and the simple, quick outlet pass is a defensemen's responsibility.

KID TO WATCH: James Reimer. All eyes will be on the young netminder. He handled himself exceedingly well as a rookie replacing a veteran in J-S Giguere. All things point to Reimer being durable and dependable. If that proves to be true, some of the Leafs' shortcomings won't be quite so glaring.

KEEP AN EYE ON: Mikhail Grabovski. He's a whirling dervish in the middle who has made both of his wingers better. His output (29 goals, 58 points, 10 power play goals) was stellar and defensively he was much better than anticipated (+14). He needs to build on last season and move closer to elite status among centermen in the east.

BOTTOM LINE: The Leafs are inching towards their goal of getting back to postseason relevance. Here's hoping it happens soon as their annual early summers have become dreary.

Ottawa Senators

Sage old winger Daniel Alfredsson must help guide a young, rebuilding team.
Sage old winger Daniel Alfredsson must help guide a young, rebuilding team.
Mark Box/ZUMApress

2010-11: 32-40-10, 74 points, fifth in Northeast

FRESH FACES: Paul MacLean (coach), Alex Auld (Montreal), Nikita Filatov (Columbus), Zenon Konopka (NY Islanders)

NEW PLACES: David Hale (Calgary), Ryan Shannon (Tampa Bay), Curtis McElhinney (Phoenix), Ryan Potulny (Washington), Cody Bass (Columbus), Derek Smith (Calgary)

STORYLINE: The Senators are in full rebuild mode. New head coach Paul MacLean will have some long nights with a young group that includes enigmatic forward Nikita Filatov (the sixth overall pick in the 2008 draft by the Columbus Blue Jackets) and defensemen David Rundblad and Jared Cowen. MacLean gets his first opportunity behind an NHL bench after nearly a decade as an assistant in Detroit, where kids go to the AHL before they ever see the ice at the top level. The Sens don't have that luxury, so this season is all about learning for all involved.

MVP: Craig Anderson. It will have to be Ottawa's starting goaltender. He miraculously backstopped a similarly restocking Avalanche group to the playoffs two seasons ago and is facing the same situation here: play great, cover up weaknesses, give the group confidence and see where it takes you.

KID TO WATCH: Jared Cowen. The Senators' first-round pick in 2009 uses his 6-5 frame to great advantage low in the zone in coverage and has some offensive game as well. The size and speed of his opponents in the NHL will be an adjustment, but he should anchor Ottawa's blueline for years to come.

KEEP AN EYE ON: Daniel Alfredsson. The veteran winger has done everything for this franchise. He suffered through the team's struggles early on, was part of the rise that saw the Senators reach the Stanley Cup Final in 2007, and now as captain and returning from back surgery he'll have to be the wisem old head leading the way for the youngsters.

BOTTOM LINE: The Senators know their plight. They've restocked draft picks and prospects. Some are here now. Others are a few years away. Ottawa is at least that far from playoff contention again. Patience will be paramount -- in the moment and in the longer view.

 
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