Work in Sports
Northeast Division Preview
Reversal of fortune needed this season for all teams
JERSEY CITY, New Jersey (Ticker) -- This past season, with the Ottawa Senators, Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens suffering through injury-plagued campaigns and the Buffalo Sabres missing Dominik Hasek, the Toronto Maple Leafs claimed the first division title in their storied history.
With the playing field leveled, the Northeast Division appears to be a wide-open race.
After reaching the Eastern Conference finals in 1999, the Leafs posted a franchise-best 100 points but lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils in the conference semifinals. Coming off back-to-back 40-win seasons for the first time in team history, Toronto boasts a talented group of forwards and arguably the league's top goaltender as it seeks its first Stanley Cup in 33 years.
Mats Sundin leads a freewheeling offense that ranked second in the conference in scoring this past season. In his second tour of duty with Toronto, 37-year-old winger Steve Thomas bagged 26 goals and should benefit from the additions Shayne Corson and Gary Roberts.
General manager and coach Pat Quinn is hoping those veteran forwards give his team a grittier look.
On the blue line, veteran Dave Manson adds a much-needed physical element to a defense that -- despite the play of goaltender Curtis Joseph -- allowed the fourth-most goals of any playoff team. With Bryan Berard's career uncertain following a gruesome eye injury, youngsters Tomas Kaberle and Danny Markov will anchor the blue line.
Goaltending is not a problem, assuming the groin injury that sidelined Joseph in training camp is not serious. An All-Star this past season, he was fourth in the league with 36 wins.
Alexei Yashin made his grudging and highly publicized return to the Ottawa Senators in training camp. The 26-year-old Russian sat out all of this past season in a bitter contract dispute but is immensely talented. He was a Hart Trophy finalist after amassing 94 points in 1998-99.
It's been three years since Ottawa won a playoff series, and the Senators are coming off a disappointing first-round loss to Toronto.
Complementing Yashin up front will be Shawn McEachern, who had 29 goals this past season, and Radek Bonk, who had a career-best 23 goals while anchoring coach Jacques Martin's checking unit. Right wing Daniel Alfredsson averaged a point-per-game during another injury-plagued campaign, but 21-year-old winger Marian Hossa must get over the incident in which his stick struck Berard, all but ending his career.
Hossa had just two goals in the 15 games after the incident.
Martin gets the most out of a defense that is led by 23-year-old Wade Redden and Jason York. Under the coach's system, forwards are responsible in their own zone and the Senators try to limit the number of opponents' power plays.
The club's biggest question mark resides between the pipes, where veteran Tom Barrasso was not re-signed. Patrick Lalime was impressive this past season with a 2.33 goals-against average but lacks the experience to be considered a true No. 1 netminder. Likely backup Jani Hurme has yet to make his NHL debut.
The situation in Buffalo clearly is now or never. This past season was supposed to be the last for the "Dominator." But after a groin injury forced Hasek to miss three months and the Sabres exited the playoffs in a listless first-round defeat, the 35-year-old Czech is back for one final season.
To contend for a division title, coach Lindy Ruff must improve an offense that ranked 20th in the league this past season with 213 goals. Veteran Doug Gilmour, acquired from the Blackhawks around the trade deadline and entering his 18th season, is a solid playmaker. Miroslav Satan has 73 goals over the past two seasons and veteran Dave Andreychuk is back where he started his career.
But holdout center Michael Peca must improve on a disappointing season and Ruff needs more from Chris Gratton, another late-season acquisition.
The Sabres' defense is solid if unspectacular. Rookie Brian Campbell could join five veterans, led by Alexei Zhitnik.
In Hasek's prolonged absence this past season, Martin Biron looked like a budding star. Hasek thrives on a lot of work, relegating Biron to a secondary role.
The Canadiens, hockey's most storied franchise, have been on a downward spiral for much of the past five seasons. They missed the playoffs for the second year in a row, although the team never had its top six forwards healthy at the same time and lost a league-leading 536 man-games to injury.
Coach Alain Vigneault returns for his fourth year behind the bench, although general manager Rejean Houle's fate is less certain.
Vigneault must improve upon an offense that ranked 26th in the NHL with 196 goals. A full season out of captain Saku Koivu, who was limited to 24 games in 1999-00, and Trevor Linden, hampered by a variety of ailments a year ago, should help.
Four Eastern Europeans -- Martin Rucinsky, Dainius Zubrus, Sergei Zholtok and Oleg Petrov also must step up. Martin Rucinsky led the team in scoring and Zholtok contributed a stunning 26 goals. The healthy return of winger Brian Savage, who suffered a serious neck injury early this past season, will help.
Eric Weinrich emerged as the team's top defenseman and was among the league leaders in minutes played. It's hard to imagine the Canadiens improving on last season's total of 194 goals allowed. Few teams have a better 1-2 combination in net than Montreal's tandem of Jeff Hackett and holdout Jose Theodore.
Hackett nearly posted a .500 record to go with a 2.40 GAA, while Theodore's mark was 2.10.
As bad as things were in Montreal this past season, they were even worse in Boston. A team that took Buffalo to six games in the 1999 conference semifinals opened with an 0-5-4 stretch and never got untracked, finishing last in the Northeast with 24 wins.
The season included the trade of Boston icon Ray Bourque and the arrest of Marty McSorley for assaulting Vancouver's Donald Brashear. Hard-nosed coach Pat Burns, after surviving rumors of his dismissal, returns for the final season of his four-year contract.
Like Vigneault in Montreal, Burns needs his top players to remain healthy. Center Jason Allison, who netted 76 points in 1998-99, was limited to 37 games because of wrist and hand injuries, while Anson Carter missed the stretch run following knee surgery.
Joe Thornton, the top overall pick in the 1997 draft, continued his development by leading the team in goals, assists and points. Sergei Samsonov, the diminutive winger also taken in the first round in 1997, dropped off this past season.
The loss of Bourque does not help a defense that allowed a division-leading 248 goals. The Bruins filled the veteran's role with 39-year-old Paul Coffey, who is playing for his sixth team in as many seasons. Joining Coffey on the blue line are 12-year veteran Don Sweeney, Kyle McLaren, Hal Gill and Darren Van Impe. Boston has been trying to work youngsters Jonathan Girard and Nick Boynton and newcomer Peter Popovic into the rotation.
Goalie Byron Dafoe hopes to return to the form that helped him post a 1.99 GAA and 10 shutouts two seasons ago. He missed the first 14 games due to this past season's holdout and was just 13-16-10 before undergoing season-ending knee surgery.
Boston's run of bad luck continued in the preseason, when backup goalie John Grahame tripped off a curb and broke his ankle. He'll be lost for three months and was suspended by the team.
Bad luck had a lot to do with how the Northeast Division shook out this past season. By remaining comparatively injury-free, the Maple Leafs were able to rise to the top. It won't be that easy this season.
© 2003 SportsTicker Enterprises, LP