The Hockey Writers 2009-10 Preview: Northeast Division

Boston Bruins: Well-stocked and ready to bear down

08-09 Season in a Nutshell:

The Bruins finished with a 53-19-10 record, good for first place in the Eastern Conference. They were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs, losing 4-3 to the Carolina Hurricanes. Claude Julien won the Jack Adams Award (Coach of the Year), Zdeno Chara picked up the Norris Trophy (Best Defenseman), and Tim Thomas won the Vezina (Best Goaltender) and he and Manny Fernandez shared the William Jennings (Fewest Goals Against).

Key Acquisitions: Derek Morris, Danny Sabourin

Key Losses: Manny Fernandez, Steve Montador

Player to Watch: Mark Recchi, Left Wing- Mark had 16 points in his 18 games with the Bruins last season, and he will be looking to help solidify the third line of this potential Cup contender.

Must watch games: October 1st vs. Washington, November 3rd at Detroit, January 1st vs. Philadelphia

For five bold predictions for the 09-10 Bruins, check out Mark Marino’s THW guest piece here

Strengths:

-Two way defensemen a key: The Bruins were led on the blue line last season by the hulking Zdeno Chara, and also Dennis Wideman, who both ended up with 50 points. Chara had 11 of his 19 goals occur on the power play, which led the team in that category. In addition, defenseman Matt Hunwick had 21 assists in his 53 games with the Bruins last season.

-Top six forwards indeed: Seven Bruins players (Savard, Krejci, Recchi, Kessel, Ryder, Wheeler, and Kobasew) scored 20 or more goals, and that number could have been eight if Zdeno Chara could have added one more tally. Six of those players are returning this season, and if Kobasew can stay healthier this season, his numbers could improve even more.

Weaknesses:

-Is Tukka Rask ready to fill Manny’s skates?- The Bruins allowed Manny Fernandez to leave via free agency this season, a year after he and Thomas combined to win the William Jennings Trophy. His absence will allow Rask to show that he was worth a number one pick that the Maple Leafs spent on him.

-Are all the wounds from the last post-season healed?- After a 2-for-25 showing on the power play against Carolina in their second round defeat, the Bruins could logically be expected to have some degree of self-pity. Add to that injuries to nearly all of their key players , and you could have a recipe for a letdown if the team does not come out of the gate strong.

Jim’s Prediction: 1st in Division, 3rd in East

Buffalo Sabres: Vanek and Miller will deliver the bread for this playoff-bound team

08-09 Season in a Nutshell: Nearly made the playoffs, but fell just short, finishing with a 41-32-9 record, good for 10th in the conference. An injury to stud goaltender Ryan Miller hindered their efforts greatly.

Key Acquisitions: Steve Montador

Key Losses: Teppo Numinen, Jaroslav Spacek

Player to Watch: Tim Connolly, Center- Connolly, who was a +12 and had 18 power play points last season, will be looked to for help in providing Buffalo with a center who can optimize the performance of winger Thomas Vanek.

Must watch games: December 7th vs. New Jersey (Versus), February 1st at Pittsburgh, March 29th at Boston

For a detailed preview of the Sabres season, check out Die by the Blade’s season preview here

Now, to review strengths and weaknesses of the Sabres, I’ll turn the floor over to the THW Sabres Correspondent Marilyn Sarvis:

The 2009-2010 Buffalo Sabres are looking to improve on two seasons without a post season- they have acquired veteran forwards and defensemen that will further guide their growing talent this season.

Strengths:

The Sabres strengths lie in their core players who have been playing together for a while, comprised of a group of forwards who can score 20+ goals a season. This group includes Tim Connolly, Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek and Derek Roy.

Another strength for the club is goaltender Ryan Miller, who is capable of playing well enough to give the team a playoff boost even if they are struggling.

Weaknesses:

The Sabres need a backup goalie who can play 15 to 25 games in Miller’s stead. The Sabres also have trouble with defense not contributing offensively- and have just lost their defenseman best suited to do so, in Jaroslav Spacek, who signed with the Canadiens earlier in the summer.

The Sabres also have trouble with forwards who have frustrating hot and cold offensive streaks- they got better last year with Vanek matching his previous years points in fewer games played.

Marilyn’s outlook:

The Sabres are well suited to make the playoffs, possibly 5th or 6th in the Eastern Conference, but it all depends on key players staying healthy enough and playing well enough to contribute.

Jim’s Prediction: 2nd in division, 7th in conference

Montreal Canadiens: The Price is Right for sneaking in to the playoffs

08-09 Season in a Nutshell: The Centennial campaign for the NHL’s most storied franchises saw its fair share of ups and downs. Finishing with a 41-30-11 record, the Canadiens barely snuck into the playoffs, only to be beaten soundly by the Boston Bruins in the first round.

Key Acquisitions: Michael Cammalleri, Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta, Travis Moen, Jaroslav Spacek

Key Losses: Saku Koivu, Mike Komisarek, Alex Kovalev

Player to Watch: Scott Gomez, Center- Gomez will be relied upon to center Montreal’s first line, and he will need to regain his 30-goal form in order to open up space for newcomer Michael Cammalleri to do his thing and help Montreal bolster their offense.

Must watch games: October 17th at Montreal, February 4th at Boston, April 8th at Carolina

Here’s Puck Daddy’s preview of the Canadiens

Strengths:

-Coming and going players may prove a shot in the arm: The Canadiens saw a huge exodus of talented players, with Alex Kovalev (Ottawa), Alex Tanquay (Florida), and Saku Koivu (Anaheim) all departing for greener pastures during the off-season. They did, however, have some excellent talent come into their system, with the arrivals of sniper Michael Cammalleri, Travis Moen, Scott Gomez, and Jaroslav Spacek all coming into the fold. Brian Gionata also is joining the team, which should prove to be a good addition.

-Improved defense should aid “Jesus” Price: The Canadiens were, simply put, a bad defensive team last season. They allowed 247 goals, which is enough to pretty much derail any significant bids to make a prolonged playoff run, but that should be an area of improvement. With the aforementioned Spacek coming into the picture, and with Hal Gill making the trek north from Pittsburgh, the Canadiens should be able to stop a lot more offensive rushes, and give Price a lot of help.

Weaknesses:

-Special teams is going to be weak early: The Canadiens not only lost two of their top three goal scorers to free agency, but they also lost the 4th best shot-blocker in the league last year in Mike Komisarek. With those losses, and with the addition of a bunch of new players on both special teams units, the team is going to need time to gel before they will make any significant progress.

-While Price and Halak will likely be helped by a bolstered defense, another problem that will need to be addressed will be their lack of shutouts last season. With only one zero-spot on the board for each goalie, the odds of either one of them taking over a game and helping a defense, even when they’re not at their best, are not in the team’s favor. Price is going to have to come out of the gate strong, because if he struggles during the beginning of the season, we could see Halak in there sooner rather than later.

Jim’s Prediction: 3rd in division, 8th in conference

Ottawa Senators: New elections will be necessary after subpar year

08-09 Season in a Nutshell: It was a down year for the Senators, who managed 83 points and a 11th place finish in the conference. The off-season has been even more trying, with the Dany Heatley drama taking center stage, and rumors swirling about possibly even getting rid of Jason Spezza.

Key Acquisitions: Alex Kovalev, Martin St. Pierre, Jonathan Cheechoo

Key Losses: Mike Comrie, Dany Heatley

Player to Watch: Alex Kovalev, Right Wing- Kovalev left Montreal after failing to live up to expectations, and he will be looked to for scoring, with the departure of Dany Heatley.

Must watch games: November 17th vs. Pittsburgh, November 19th vs. Washington, March 13th vs. Vancouver

Fraser Elliot provides us with a preview of the Senators’ season on Bleacher Report here

Strengths:

-Could the departure of Heatley spell morale boost in Ottawa?- After sending Heatley as far away as possible, the Senators are more than happy to be out from under the constant scrutiny of a press corps waiting for a scoop. His teammates were going to be distracted by the circus surrounding him, and so even though his offense will be missed by the team, his antics won’t. The acquisition of Jonathan Cheechoo will help soothe the pain too.

-Could Pascal LeClaire be this year’s Nikolai Khabibulin?- Last season, LeClaire got hurt in Columbus, and his job was not there waiting for him after the emergence of rookie sensation Steve Mason. With a new team and a healthy outlook, LeClaire could very well grab the reins in Ottawa and have a resurgent season, eager to show the Blue Jackets what they let get away.

Weaknesses:

-Is relying on Spezza a losing proposition?- Jason Spezza had two straight 90 point seasons, and then fell off the horse last year, only scoring 74 points as part of the vaunted CASH line with Alfredsson and Heatley. While he did score 32 goals, he will need to add a lot more punch than that now that Heatley has departed, and the lack of a guarantee with Cheechoo in the fold. He also had a -14 last season, third worst on the team, and that number has to improve in order for Ottawa’s fortunes to do likewise.

-Their record against the West left something to be desired- In order to be considered a legitimate contender for any sort of post-season hardware, a team needs to be able to play well against the opposing conference. This is especially important in the East, where the travel of heading West separates the men from the boys. The Senators were not a good team against the West last year, going 7-10-1 against them. Their 15 points matched the worst total of any team in the conference, along with Toronto and Tampa Bay.

Jim’s Prediction: 4th in division, 12th in conference

Toronto Maple Leafs: Burke’s boys will snuff out playoff dreams early

08-09 season in a nutshell: A last place finish in the Northeast division had fans calling for a huge overhaul of the squad under GM Brian Burke. Allowing 293 goals, which led the NHL in mediocrity in that stat, certainly did not help matters.

Key Acquisitions: Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin, Joey MacDonald, Phil Kessel

Key Losses: Justin Pogge, Jeremy Williams

Player to Watch: Vesa Toskala, Goaltender: With an improved defense in front of him featuring free agent acquisition Komisarek, Toskala is going to have to show way more consistent form if he is going to maintain his spot in net. If not, import Jonas Gustavsson and Joey MacDonald will be waiting in the wings.

Must watch games: October 31st at Montreal, March 2nd vs. Carolina, March 28th at Pittsburgh

Strengths:

-Physicality will be the name of the Leafs’ game- With the addition of Komisarek, and the emergence last season of Luke Schenn, the Leafs will be looking to add a more physical dimension to their repertoire in a competitive division. Schenn played with a hard-hitting style that won the affection of Toronto fans, and Komisarek racked up 121 penalty minutes in only 60 games played with Montreal. As a combo, they will deal out plenty of punishment.

-Brian Burke’s impatience could hasten a playoff run – In interviews throughout the past few months, Leafs GM Brian Burke has insisted that his team is not rebuilding. He has a history of making moves that some may consider reckless, but this trait could work well with this team. His acquisition of forward Phil Kessel certainly reflects this attitude, and he could continue to wheel and deal as the season wears on.

Weaknesses:

-One word: Goaltending – To sum up, the Maple Leafs were awful in this category last year. They allowed a league worst 3.57 goals per game, and a large hunk of the blame went to Vesa Toskala. Even though he was 22-17-11, he had a hideous goals against average of 3.26 and a save percentage of an anemic .891. His back-ups weren’t much better, with Curtis Joseph notching a .867 save percentage, and Martin Gerber allowing 3.23 goals per game. To help in this category, they brought in Jonas Gustavsson, but with his hospitalization with a heart condition may compromise his playing time.

-League worst penalty kill still a concern – With Schenn and Komisarek racking up penalty minutes, the team is going to be killing its fair share of penalties. The problem with that is this: they only killed 75.1% of their penalties last year, which ranked last in the NHL. This comes after the year before where they ranked 29th in the league. Fortunately for them, their power play was ranked in the middle of the pack in the league, but with that bad of a penalty killing unit, don’t expect the Leafs to make much headway up the playoff ladder in the East.

Jim’s Prediction: 5th in division, 13th in conference