On the 100th anniversary of one of the most storied franchises in the league, it appears the Canadiens are the class of their division and will be in the hunt for the Stanley Cup. Teams are ranked in order of predicted finish.
How 'bout them Flying Frenchmen? Despite the presence of just one player,
That's a good sign. This year's team has to adapt to the loss of another QB, Streit, but could prove even more dangerous. Tanguay not only gives them another alternative on the point, but he'll anchor a potent second line alongside Lang. That leaves Montreal with three high-end offensive units, loaded with speed and guile, if not a lot of sandpaper. And with four players -- Tanguay, Lang, Kovalev and
For the Habs' sake, he'd better be. The return to form by the enigmatic forward keyed Montreal's rise from playoff also-ran to conference leader. Kovalev was the offensive catalyst, his 35-goal, 84-point season a surprising return to form after an abysmal 2006-07 campaign. For the Canadiens to maintain their standing as a contender, he needs to be a point-per-game force.
Even an impressive performance in camp couldn't save the burly 19-year-old winger from assignment to the minors on Friday. The demotion was more a reflection of the absence of a spot in Montreal's top nine than any deficiency in his play. Though he'll now start the season in Hamilton, it's inevitable that an injury will offer Pacioretty the chance to make his NHL debut this season.
The Belorussian rookie was called up right before Christmas, and brought along slowly by the Habs. He responded with a taste of the skill level that made him a 131-point scorer with London (OHL) as a rookie, netting nine goals and 27 points in 52 games. He's expected to play alongside Tanguay and Lang on the new second line, an opportunity that could see him double his point totals.
It's taken just two seasons for GM
But as fractious as the pivots can be, they can't match the intimidation factor of the blueline. To be sure, there's a decent level of skill, and a commitment to playing smart transitional hockey. But this group, led by
It's hard to get too hung up on a stat like "the league's 24th-ranked offense" when the end result was an unexpected trip to the postseason. But the games are still decided by which team scores the most goals, and the Bruins struggled mightily to light the lamp. Coach
The perennial Norris contender looked much more comfortable in his second season with the Bruins. The physicality that defined his time in Ottawa -- and that was visible only intermittently the previous season -- was back, and so was his confidence with the puck. Chara finished third on the team in scoring, setting a career-best with 51 points, and his 17 goals ranked second among all blueliners.
The Coyotes went off the board to select Wheeler with the fifth overall pick in 2004, lured by the thought of the 6-4, 225-pound winger maturing into an elite power forward. He may yet become one, but it won't be in Phoenix. Wheeler exploited a loophole in the CBA to become a free agent this summer, eventually choosing to pursue the dream in Boston with old buddy
Anyone who watched Phil the Thrill as an underager remembers him as a dynamic offensive force, a one-on-one wizard capable of changing the course of a game in a single shift. But outside of a few memorable shootout goals, he's come nowhere close to realizing that potential in his first two seasons. The Bruins are hoping that his third year will trigger the long-awaited breakout. If not, Kessel might not make it to a fourth season in Beantown.
For how many years have the Sens been hoping they could improve their results by separating Alfredsson from Spezza and Heatley, or by getting career years from
Murray at least recognized the need to re-tool the blueline. By bringing in a pair of veterans like Smith and Kuba, he slapped a heavy coat of paint on the defense. Unfortunately, it was pylon orange. Neither player is particularly mobile, and their puck skills won't enhance the team's transition game. Picard and incoming freshman
How's this for a dual-edged sword? The Sens need their captain to be their best player to have any chance at the playoffs. At the same time, Alfredsson's current contract is structured in such a way that he can opt for unrestricted free agency if he plays at least 70 games and scores at least 70 points. Neither target is a stretch, considering he's hit them both for the last six years. Extension talks already are underway, and it's hard to imagine Alfredsson seeking out greener pastures. But the sooner it's taken care of, the quicker it stops being an issue ... and that would likely help Allfredsson concentrate on what he does best.
Winchester earned plenty of buzz early in camp when Hartsburg used him extensively in Alfredsson's spot on the top line. The two switched places for the season-opener in Sweden, but Winchester looks to have won a job with a nice mix of aggressive forechecking and defensive awareness. Whether the summer free agent signing out of Colgate has the offensive chops to remain in the top six is debatable, but Winchester seems like a nice fit for Hartsburg's system.
Lee, the ninth overall pick in 2005, has a serious learning curve ahead of him but his skill set fills an obvious need for an offensive-minded defender. He'll be eased in on the third pairing, but his quick reads and poise with the puck should earn him some time on the second power play unit.
Why be something that you're not? After struggling through the season's first half while trying to compensate for the losses of
A lot's been made of
Fair to say Ruff is one of the league's most highly regarded bench bosses. But this issue dragged on throughout the season, and ultimately, it's the responsibility of the coach to sell the team on the program. He'll have an easier time of it this season with the return of
The boss deserved to be thrown under the bus for his handling of the Drury and Briere situations last summer. So let's be fair and give him credit for taking care of business this time around. By signing core players Miller, Pominville,
The Hobey Baker finalist was a Jedi on skates for the NCAA champion Boston College Eagles in 2008, scoring five goals in the Frozen Four and winning MVP honors. The fact that he's not much bigger than
No reason to sugarcoat it: Max was dog-sick brutal last year. Talented but clearly disinterested, he scored just 10 times and stumbled to a team-worst minus-16 rating. But if there's anything that can motivate a player like Afinogenov, it's the prospect of free agency beckoning at season's end. It's hard to believe the Sabres will want to put some whipped cream on that $3.33 million salary he's currently stealing from them, but he might just convince someone that he's found hockey Jesus with a bounce back campaign. Bet on a career-high 25 goals this year.
It tells you everything you need to know about the sad state of affairs in Toronto that a blueline that gave up 260 goals one year ago is looked upon as a positive, The thing is, in terms of talent, this looks like a reasonably sound unit and with Wilson focusing on reducing the team's propensity for generosity, it could see marked improvement.
Alright, things aren't exactly that bleak, but GM
Icing a roster not much better than a typical expansion club, the Leafs need their stopper to cover for their inevitable miscues and keep them in as many games as possible. In his first season with the club, he offered up a level of reliability that went far beyond his numbers (33 wins, 2.74 GAA, .904 save percentage). If he can provide his mates with a similar level of confidence this year, they'll avoid the Eastern cellar ... even if that is counterproductive to the team's long-term goals
The Leafs could open the season with as many as three rookies on the roster. Grabovski, a speedy, creative forward who couldn't carve out a spot for himself in Montreal, has found there's no such logjam of talent in Toronto. He'll be given every opportunity to stick on a scoring line, as will Kulemin, a former linemate of Evgeni Malkin who scored 21 goals last season in Russia. Mitchell, a 23-year-old winger who has slowly built up his credentials over the last three years spent with the AHL Toronto Marlies, could be a useful grinder on a depth line.
After a rookie season that saw him score 18 goals and 47 points, Steen appeared to be the most promising youngster in the team's limited stable of young talent. But instead of building on that success, he's spent the last two years treading water, making many of the same mistakes and providing less offensive pop. Now 24, and with no one standing in his way, he has the chance to prove he can be part of the solution. Anything less and Steen could be part of the late-season purge.