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Canadiens favored in Northeast

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.

2007-08 RECORD: 47-25-10 -- 104 points; first in Northeast; lost in conference semi-finals to Philadelphia

KEY ADDS:Alex Tanguay (Calgary), Robert Lang (Chicago), Marc Denis (Tampa Bay), Georges Laraque (Pittsburgh), Alex Henry (Edmonton)

KEY LOSSES:Mark Streit (NY Islanders), Michael Ryder (Boston), Bryan Smolinski (free agent)

STRENGTHS: Balanced offense and the deadly power play

How 'bout them Flying Frenchmen? Despite the presence of just one player, Alexei Kovalev, among the top 40 scorers, Montreal's offense ranked as the league's second-best. Its potency was fueled by the 24.1 percent success rate of the power play, a unit that thrived despite the loss of QB Sheldon Souray to free agency the previous summer.

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 Saku Koivu -- entering their contract years, this will be a highly motivated group.

WEAKNESSES: Is the netminding as good as they think?

Carey Price will be an elite goalie. The question is, when? The prized prospect had his moments of greatness last season, but it was his repeated meltdowns that cost the Canadiens in their second-round series against the Flyers. How he responds to that lesson will go a long way in determining the team's fate. With fellow sophomore Jaroslav Halak and Lightning castoff Denis as the alternatives, Montreal is operating without a net.

MVP:Alex Kovalev

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.

ROOKIE TO WATCH:Max Pacioretty

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.

BIGGEST SURPRISE:Sergei Kostitsyn

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.

BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: Incoming general managers always talk about five-year plans, but few execute them as adroitly as Bob Gainey. With the franchise celebrating its 100th anniversary, he has the Habs set up as clear favorites to win the division and in position to challenge for the conference title. A 25th Cup? Unlikely ... but you can't count out another dramatic transaction if the situation warrants. And you can't discount the ghosts ...

2007-08 RECORD: 41-29-12 -- 94 points; third in Northeast; lost in conference quarterfinals to Montreal

KEY ADDS:Michael Ryder (Montreal), Stephane Yelle (Calgary), Blake Wheeler (Phoenix)

KEY LOSSES:Glen Metropolit (Philadelphia), Glen Murray (free agent), Alex Auld (Ottawa)

STRENGTHS: Center depth and a nasty blueline

It's taken just two seasons for GM Peter Chiarelli to place his stamp on the Bruins, but his plan began paying dividends in last spring's thrilling seven-game loss to the Canadiens. The B's are solid down the middle, with Marc Savard, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci centering offensive-minded units, and Yelle guiding the gritty fourth line. As a group, they should put up somewhere around 225 points, and play with the kind of edge to their game that should make old school Bruins fans proud.

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 Zdeno Chara, Dennis Wideman, Mark Stuart, Shane Hnidy and Aaron Ward, is defined by its ability to turn the Boston zone into a place where angels fear to tread.

WEAKNESSES: Hands of stone

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 Claude Julien's system, though strict defensively, leaves room for offensive creativity, so it can't be blamed for the shortage. Instead, it was injuries like Bergeron's concussion, and the use of so many freshmen in key roles that led to the drought. Chiarelli brought in Ryder specifically to help address the shortage, but only the most optimistic believe he'll regain his 30-goal form. The B's need the kids to grow up fast if they hope to move out of the offensive basement.

MVP:Zdeno Chara

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.

ROOKIE TO WATCH:Blake Wheeler

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 Phil Kessel. His play in camp has earned him a spot, but that big contract might come back to haunt him. Until the B's clear salary, Wheeler's $2.85 million cap hit could banish him to the minors, at least temporarily.

BIGGEST SURPRISE:Phil Kessel

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.

BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: Last year's performance has been called a classic example of overachievement, the result of Julien's coaching legerdemain and the surprisingly rapid acclimation of youngsters like Milan Lucic, Vladimir Sobotka and David Krejci. But even with the return of Bergeron, this team won't out-talent many in the East. It was hard work and total adherence to the system that cut 67 goals-against and led to a playoff berth. Expect them to be at least as difficult to play against this time around.

2007-08 RECORD: 43-31-8 -- 94 points; second in Northeast; Lost in conference quarterfinals to Pittsburgh

KEY ADDS: coach Craig Hartsburg, Jason Smith (Philadelphia), Jarkko Ruutu (Pittsburgh), Filip Kuba (Tampa Bay), Alexandre Picard (Tampa Bay), Brendan Bell (Phoenix), Alex Auld (Boston)

KEY LOSSES:Wade Redden (NY Rangers), Ray Emery (Russia), Andrei Meszaros (Tampa Bay), Brian McGrattan (Phoenix), Mike Commodore (Columbus)

STRENGTHS: The Big Three

Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley. If that's not the best line in the Eastern Conference -- and maybe all of hockey -- it's close enough to rub elbows. The trio finished 10th, 11th and 15th in the scoring race, combining for 115 goals and 263 points thanks to a mix of raw talent and an undeniable chemistry that diminishes their effectiveness every time they're split up. The only way to defend them? Hope that whoever's manning the Ottawa bench is in one of those spread-the-wealth moods.

WEAKNESSES: Secondary scoring, slow defense

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 Antoine Vermette or Bryan Smolinski or whoever else they tried to wring something out of? It's long past time for GM Bryan Murray to pull the plug on that dream, but he continues to roll with it. Ottawa may score by the bushel in the regular season, but Murray's inability to acquire players capable of providing support for the top line when it counts continues to plague the team.

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 Brian Lee can help there, but as a unit, it's not going to be as effective with the puck as it was just after the lockout.

MVP: Alfredsson

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.

ROOKIES TO WATCH:Brian Lee/Jesse Winchester

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.

BIGGEST SURPRISE:Alex Auld

Martin Gerber may enter the season with the professed faith of the Ottawa staff as their No. 1, but his play since joining the team has lacked the consistency required of a true starter. Auld, who shocked observers with his career resurrection in Boston, doesn't have what it takes either. But as he showed last season after joining the Bruins (2,32 GAA, .919 save percentage), he can play at a high level with a limited workload. A solid guy in the locker room, Auld could be an ideal complement to Gerber ... and he's unlikely to harass a single senior motorist.

BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: Hartsburg, demonstrably one of the best coaches in junior hockey, will find himself with an entirely different set of challenges this season. Rehabilitating a fractured dressing room and re-installing a sense of bon homie would be a good start, but this team is a far cry from the one that fell just short of the Cup in 2007. It needs cohesion on the ice as much as off, and adjusting to a new system can take time. The playoffs are likely given the star power and veteran experience, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see them on the outside looking in come April.

2007-08 RECORD: 39-31-12 -- 90 points; fourth in Northeast; finished 10th in conference, missed playoffs

KEY ADDS:Craig Rivet (San Jose), Patrick Lalime (Chicago)

KEY LOSSES:Steve Bernier (Vancouver), Jocelyn Thibault (free agent), Dmitri Kalinin (NY Rangers)

STRENGTHS: The run-and-gun offense

Why be something that you're not? After struggling through the season's first half while trying to compensate for the losses of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, the Sabres went back to being themselves. Capitalizing on career years from Derek Roy and Jason Pominville -- and a strong finish from Thomas Vanek -- Buffalo finished just off the league lead with 251 goals. If Tim Connolly can stay healthy and Max Afinogenov finds his inner Tony Robbins, the offense should remain among the best.

WEAKNESSES: The coaching of Lindy Ruff

A lot's been made of Ryan Miller's sub-par season. He certainly had his share of personal distractions, and he often appeared to be playing outside of his comfort zone, trying to do too much as the Sabres struggled. But the slippage wasn't entirely his fault. In fact, the former All-Star was victimized by the soft play of his mates away from the puck, particularly in the Buffalo end. And that falls squarely on the shoulders of the coach.

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 Teppo Numminen and the acquisition of hard-rock Rivet, adding a layer of on-ice accountability. But it still comes back to Ruff to ensure there is commitment.

MVP: GM Darcy Regier

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, Daniel Paille and Paul Gaustad to long-term deals, he not only ensured a level of continuity not seen since before the lockout, but he turned what could have been another bilious off-season into something positive. That should have a significant impact on the room, where an improved attitude could be worth a couple of points along the way.

ROOKIE TO WATCH:Nathan Gerbe

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 Yoda didn't slow him in his first NHL camp, but the Sabres prefer their youngsters matriculate in the AHL before graduating to the big leagues. Gerbe will start the season in Portland, but he'll likely be the first offensive call-up.

BIGGEST SURPRISE:Maxim Afinogenov

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.

BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: Improvements to the blueline, a lightened load for Miller and, presumably, the sinking-in of the team defense concept should keep the Sabres in contention for a playoff spot. But they'll be fighting for position against teams that have made more obvious upgrades. Things could go either way.

2007-08 RECORD: 36-35-11 -- 83 points, fifth in Northwest; finished 12th in conference, missed playoffs

KEY ADDS: coach Ron Wilson, Mikhail Grabovski (Montreal), Mike Van Ryn (Florida), Jeff Finger (Colorado), Curtis Joseph (Calgary), Niklas Hagman (Dallas), Jamal Mayers (St. Louis), Ryan Hollweg (NY Rangers), Jonas Frogren (Sweden)

KEY LOSSES:Mats Sundin (free agent), Bryan McCabe (Florida), Darcy Tucker (Colorado), Andrew Raycroft (Toronto), Kyle Wellwood (Vancouver), John Pohl (Switzerland), Andy Wozniewski (St. Louis)

STRENGTHS: The defense corps

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. Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina certainly can be better than last year. Finger, the summer's most derided free agent signing, can't possibly deliver value for the dollar, but the former Av can be a useful presence. The key to recovery may be Frogren. The Swedish vet has shown little to justify the team's hopes he can be a top-four defender, but it may simply be a matter of getting his feet wet. He's excelled internationally, and brings some physical pop to the back end. And then there's the promise of the fall's most-watched rookie, 2008 top pick Luke Schenn. He's expected to be returned to junior, but Schenn has shown enough to suggest he'll live up to his pre-draft hype.

WEAKNESSES: How much time have you got?

Alright, things aren't exactly that bleak, but GM Cliff Fletcher wasn't kidding when he announced that Nik Antropov was the team's only legitimate top-six forward. That doesn't bode well for the team's offensive prolificency, especially considering he'll be moved into a No. 1 center role despite obvious issues with his foot speed and passing skills. The Leafs are hoping for a rebound from Jason Blake, the forward who dropped from 40 goals to 15 in his first year with the team. Beyond him and 21-goal scorer Alexei Ponikarovsky, there's not a lot of dry powder up front. Without Sundin, the 15th rated power play should plummet. At least the penalty kill (29th) hasn't got far to fall.

MVP:Vesa Toskala

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

ROOKIES TO WATCH:Mikhail Grabovski/Nikolai Kulemin/John Mitchell

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.

BIGGEST SURPRISE:Alexander Steen

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.

BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: Wilson was only being honest when he barked at a reporter, "Here's a news flash for you -- we're not going to win the Stanley Cup!" Leafs fans -- at least, those above the age of eight -- are okay with that as long as they see the club taking steps in the right direction. This season, that might mean going backwards as the Leafs try to work in some of the younger players they hope will be part of the core when they finally are in a position to compete. Growing pains all but ensure the Leafs will be eliminated from the playoffs sometime around Family Day, with a big garage sale to follow.Pressing Northeast questions | Atlantic preview | Southeast | Central | Northwest |Pacific

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