Cory and I go at it once again with our picks for the Northeast. If you missed our previous divisional picks, check out this link.
It's time to take a look at the North(l)east Division! My thought process is that this will not be a very tough group, (as a whole) this season, hence the new nickname. I only see two teams making it to the playoffs, and one of the two will just barely make it.
The Canadiens seem to have all the pieces this year- a great young goalie, several skilled forwards, and a stingy blueline. But more important than anything else, the Canadiens play as a team. If you compare individual to individual with some of the other top teams, it might seem like Montreal doesn't stack up, but these guys play as well in a group setting as any other team in the league.
The forwards are top-notch and include Christopher Higgins, Tomas Plekanec, Saku Koivu, and Alex Kovalev. They added Alex Tanguay, Robert Lang, and Georges Laraque to this group. Can you imagine if Mats Sundin joined them? While the blueline lost top point-getter Mark Streit, they are still loaded with grit and skill. Andrei Markov will lead them. Of course budding superstar Carey Price is in net. These guys could very well win it all. Now that would be a 100th anniversary to remember, wouldn't it?
The Bruins have a very good team, but I think lack the depth which would help put them into the league elite. Patrice Bergeron missed much of last year with concussion problems, so much of the team's success this year will depend upon his recovery. Marc Savard, Marco Sturm, Chuck Kobasew, and Phil Kessel add firepower up front and newcomver Michael Ryder should help. After those six, things get iffy though.
The defense is strong with Zdeno Chara, Aaron Ward, Mark Stuart, and Dennis Wideman. Manny Fernandez and Tim Thomas will probably share duties in goal, and while they are adequate, they aren't necessarily stellar. I can see these guys making the playoffs, but just barely.
Here is an enigma. The Senators went from being one of the dominate teams in the league during the first half of last season, to totally taking a nosedive in the second half. They backed their way into the playoffs and were easily swept by the Penguins. If you compare the skill on this team with some of the others, you would think they would be at the top of the division. But for some reason these guys stopped playing as a team.
Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza, and Daniel Alfredsson are among the best forwards in the league. I think defenseman Anton Volchenkov is very under-rated and is top-notch. Chris Philips is okay, but the rest of the defense doesn't necessarily stand out to me. Newcomer, Jason Smith will certainly help. Martin Gerber will be the bonifide number one goalie now that Ray Emery has left town. Can he handle the pressure and return to his 2005-06 form? New head coach Craig Hartsburgh will have his hands full, especially with Bryan Murray looking over his shoulder. My gut tells me that this team will continue with their meandering ways and miss the playoffs.
Some pundits are calling for the Sabres to be near the top this year, but personally I don't see it. I think the forwards over-achieved a bit last year. They are all about in the same mold and play well as a team, so that is a plus. They will certainly score goals, but will they score enough? Craig Rivet is not going to be the saviour on defense that Sabres fans are hoping for. Teppo Numminen is 39 years old. And the defense is supposed to be shored up with these two guys? Ryan Miller is solid in goal, they have a good keeper there. But with that defense, he will need to be sharp every single game. The team finished 10th in the conference last season, and their big additions to put them over the bubble were Rivet and Numminen. Sorry, but I don't see it happening.
The Maple Leafs are going to have a rough season, no two ways about it. The forwards include Jason Blake, Matt Stajan, Nik Antropov, and Alexander Steen but after that who knows? The defense has some good players as well with Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina. But will newcomer Jeff Finger live up to his new contract and lofty expectations? Even if he does, there are just too many holes to fill in this lineup. Vesa Toskala is a steady netminder, but is he ready to be the number one man?
Their new head coach, Ron Wilson, has already gotten angry at the press and declared that his team "will not win the Stanley Cup this year". Funny stuff! They will not disappoint their coach and should be in the John Tavares sweepstakes at year end.
When everyone talks about who is going to miss the playoffs so Carolina, Buffalo, Tampa Bay or whoever can get in, the first team that comes up is Boston. I'm not buying it. The addition of Michael Ryder — who will play under Claude Julien again, who coached him in junior and with Montreal — was a good one, even though he was overpaid. Not too many teams can say they have three goalies who could be NHL starters right now. Tim Thomas, Manny Fernandez and prospect Tuukka Rask provide depth in net and also trade bait to fill any needs during the season. Milan Lucic and Chuck Kobasew are only going to get better, and the fact this team got into the postseason last year without their best forward, Patrice Bergeron, means they should get better if everyone stays healthy. Throw in Zdeno Chara — my choice for the Norris this year — and I'm going with the B's.
Montreal, in their 100th anniversary, is the golden child of the 2008-09 season. Apparently, they are Bubba's, too. I'm not drinking the bleu blanc et rouge Kool-Aid. Their goalie, Carey Price, fell apart in the postseason, and I honestly don't think he's as good — or will ever be as good — as many in the media want us to believe (to quote Chris Rock: "Yeah, I said it!"). Alex Tanguay is a good addition, but losing the versatile Mark Streit is going to hurt. And I feel so much of Montreal's success hinges on Alexei Kovalev and the fear he instills in the Canadiens' opponents. If the Habs get the Kovalev of last season, they should have a good year. But if he lags off — which seems unlikely in a contract year, but stranger things have happened concerning AK27 — Montreal could be battling to just make the playoffs. I'll throw them in the middle and say they're a No. 4, 5 or 6 seed come the playoffs.
The big additions in Buffalo are Craig Rivet and Patrick Lalime ... yawn! The Sabres are paper thin down the middle. Derek Roy is a good center, though he's probably better suited to be a No. 2 pivot. The team's other top center, Tim Connolly, has played 50 games over the last two seasons and is destined to miss significant time again. Paul Gaustad, the No. 3 center, is already hurt, and after that you have Adam Mair, teeny Nathan Gerbe and Marek Zagrapan. The wingers are good, with Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek leading the way, but the D is average at best. Ryan Miller is solid, but he's not a Vezina-level netminder. With the Bills still unbeaten, Buffalo is a football town again, and the Sabres will be lucky to crack the East's top eight.
Bubba's got Ottawa dead on, even if I have them a spot lower. They were desperate to get rid of Joe Corvo last season — thanks Bryan Murray! — and now have lost Wade Redden to free agency and traded away Andrej Meszaros. Now? They're in search of a puck-moving defenseman — that's good management! I think Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson will do their thing, but this is a a big year for Jason Spezza and Martin Gerber. Neither have been able to prove they can be relied upon to be elite NHLers every night, particularly in the postseason. I don't see things being any different this season.
Toronto is a disaster, and I don't think MLSE will have the patience to rebuild through the draft like Phoenix and Los Angeles are doing. At some point, the bubble is going to burst and they — whoever is in charge — will deal some picks or prospects for a quick-fix player. It may not be this year, it may not be next year, but the Maple Leafs will crack and start peddling their assets for overvalued veterans and shelling out cash for free agents instead of taking their medicine in the loss column for five or six years and rebuilding the right way. I don't know when the Leafs will be good again, but I can guarantee it won't be this year.
Cory, are you sure you don't want any Montreal kool-aide? It tastes so good! Gary Bettman already has set the cards in place. The Habs will definitely celebrate their 100th year anniversary with a Cup win.
Seriously, as I mentioned before, while individually they might not stack up with some other teams, I love the way the Habs play as a team. They have excellent coaching and a fine GM, (even if he did give away Huet last year which I still think was a bonehead move.) They are in a great position to add some help before the trade deadline. (Is Mats Sundin on speed dial?). I still look at them to win the division.
Boston is good, but I just don't think they are THAT good. Sure they have three good goalies, but none of them are good enough to be "The Man". Can you tell me which one will start? The return of Bergeron helps and I think they will make the playoffs, but that's about it.
We agree about Buffalo. While I forgot to mention the acquisition of Patrick Lalime, (whoo hooo), these retreads from last year don't look playoff bound to me. Does Lindy have anymore tricks up his sleave?
Ottawa could challenge to be one of the better teams in the East, or they could fade away. Looks like we both agree on the latter.
It's a downright disgrace what has happened to the Toronto franchise. I think fans could have done a better job running that team over the past few years. They will suffer the consequences this season.
I guess you think more of Guy Carbonneau than I do. Could he be a great coach? Sure. But right now all we know about him is he took the top team in the East last year and didn't come out on top. Couple that with the unproven Carey Price and erratic Alex Kovalev and you have a recipe for "they're OK."
I think Toronto will be more fun to watch than in recent years because the team will be showcasing their young talent. That being said, expect each mistake mady by veterans like Jason Blake or Jeff Finger to be further amplified in the press and by the boo birds.