2011-2012 NHL Northeast Division Preview: Can the Bruins Repeat?

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Can Zdeno Chara lead the Bruins to a second straight Stanley Cup? (slidingsideways/Flickr)

The Northeast used to be considered the NHL’s most exciting division. Lately, though, that hasn’t been the case.

Aside from the Boston Bruins becoming the new Stanley Cup champions in 2011, the Northeast Division has been somewhat dull. While the Montreal Canadiens and Buffalo Sabres both qualified for the post season, neither made it past the first round.

The Sabres, however, seem to be on the right track after an impressive off-season.

The Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators, meanwhile, are both young, re-building franchises that are almost sure to be a force within the next decade.

Mix that in with the Stanley Cup champions and two teams that will certainly be more than entertaining to watch, and the NHL’s Northeast Division just may regain it’s title of being the most exciting division in hockey this season.

But as we look deeper into the statistics and each teams’ roster, we see something unique about each squad.

In no particular order, here is a quick preview of each Northeast Division team.

Boston Bruins

This season may just be the toughest in recent history for the Bruins. There have been teams in the past who have won the Stanley Cup and gone on to struggle the following season. However, there are plenty of reasons to believe the Bruins will not join that group.

For one, the Bruins will once again have all-star goalie Tim Thomas backing them up. The 37-year-old veteran finished with a goals against average of 2.00 and a save percentage of .938 last season, both of which were at the top of the league.

Secondly, the Bruins have one of the NHL’s best defencemen anchoring the team’s back-end in Zdeno Chara, who, at the age of 34, scored 14 goals and 44 points while finishing with a plus/minus rating of plus-33.

Also on the blue line will be newly acquired defenceman Joe Corvo, who will surely provide the upgrade the Bruins were looking for.

World class goaltending, a strong defence group and talented forwards all make B’s fans believe this team has a legitimate shot at successfully defending both the Stanley Cup and the top spot in the Northeast.

Buffalo Sabres

The Sabres just may turn out to be the most exciting Northeast Division team to watch this season. With the additions of high-priced players such as Christian Ehrhoff, Ville Leino and Robyn Regehr, the Sabres will certainly be a forced to be reckoned with in 2011-2012.

Much like the Bruins, the Sabres will be backed up by a proven NHL goalie who has more than impressive career statistics.

Ryan Miller (HermanVonPetri)

Ryan Miller just about set new career highs last season. The 31-year-old finished with a 2.57 GAA, a .914 save percentage and a total of 34 wins; once again establishing himself as one of the best at his position.

But as THW’s own Tim Kolupanowich alluded to one of his recent articles, one of the biggest questions facing the Sabres this season is how Derek Roy responds to major knee surgery. If Roy plays up to his potential, we may just see the Sabres in the Stanley Cup Final this season.

Make no mistake about it, though, the Sabres will be near the top of the Eastern Conference after 82 games.

Montreal Canadiens

Although not as close this time around, the Canadiens’ season came right down to the end. The team managed to make the playoffs once again; however, this time by five points. Even with the addition of Erik Cole, though, people still have to wonder if the Canadiens are going to lock up a playoff spot relatively early.

No one really knows if Andrei Markov will last a full season,  if PK Subban will be able to avoid a sophomore slump, just how fine Max Pacioretty is, or─dare I say─whether Carey Price can repeat his success from last season.

While most, if not all of those players will be fine, Habs fans still shouldn’t get too confident. The only major addition made by the Canadiens in the off-season was Erik Cole, meaning we may not see a lot of improvement from the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge in 2011-2012.

However, it is still very likely that we will see the Canadiens in the playoffs again in 2012.

Toronto Maple Leafs

There’s no doubt that the Maple Leafs’ 2011-2012 season and their shot at the playoffs relies on a lot of “ifs”: If Nikolai Kulemin scores 30 goals again; if Phil Kessel can score 40; if James Reimer can stay a top-tier goalie; if Tim Connolly can remain healthy.

Nikolai Kulemin
Nikolai Kulemin will probably find himself on the Leafs’ top line this season (Icon SMI)

Those are just four of more than ten questions surrounding the Leafs going into the season.

While many hockey journalists are expecting the Leafs to finish out of the playoffs for a seventh consecutive season, fans should be relatively optimistic.

Assuming Reimer remains around the 2.65 and .910 mark in terms of statistics, the Maple Leafs defence group will know that they can afford to take risks in front of their goalie. That’s something that has plagued the Leafs’ back-end over the years without a solid No. 1 goaltender.

The Buds are going to need strong goaltending and solid play from the defence. Many Leafs forwards either struggled last season or have little to no experience. If that proves to be a problem once again, good play from the defenders certainly won’t go unnoticed.

Ottawa Senators

The summer of 2009 was one of the worst summers to be a Senators fan. With superstar Dany Heatley having demanded a trade, the Senators’ front office was put in a tough position.

After months of speculation and negotiating, the Sens traded the disgruntled forward to the San Jose Sharks. Everything turned out to be OK for the Sens in 2009-2010, but the team really fell apart in 2010-2011.

Daniel Alfredsson will soon be passing the torch on to Erik Karlsson (Andrew Rodger/THW)

Realizing his team wasn’t going to make the playoffs during the latter half of the season, Sens general manager Brian Murray traded away the likes of Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly, Alex Kovalev and Jarkko Ruutu. 2010-2011 marked the beginning of a new era for the Senators.

Now, as the 2011-2012 season approaches, Sens fans can only wonder what the future holds. The team will be made up of young players trying to prove themselves for the most part, with veterans such as Daniel Alfredsson, Sergei Gonchar and Jason Spezza at the top of the leadership department.

Also new to the Sens this year is their head coach, Paul MacLean. MacLean spent six years under Mike Babcock as an assistant coach in Detroit, meaning he isn’t exactly a brand new coach in the NHL. His style will certainly bring an all-new system and attitude to a team that has had a hard time finding the right coach since Brain Murray moved upstairs.

All of this should make for an exciting season in Ottawa.

 

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