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2013 Northeast Division preview

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It's Tuukka time in Boston as Rask takes over in net for Tim Thomas, who has gone on sabbatical.

Boston Bruins

Power Rankings | Milestones | Central | Northwest | Pacific | Southeast | AtlanticHACKEL: Short season will challenge NHL coaches | MUIR: Wild year on way

Coach: Claude Julien 2011-12 record: 49-29-4, 2nd in East, lost to Capitals in first round Vital signs (stat ranking): goals-for (3rd), goals-against (6th), power play (15th), penalty kill (11th), PIM (3rd) Notable adds: D Garnet Exelby, D Aaron Johnson Notable losses: LW Benoit Pouliot, D Joe Corvo, D Greg Zanon Team roster

Outlook: Their failure to defend their Stanley Cup -- losing to Washington in an epic seven-game opening round series -- is hardly a sign of trouble or impending decline. No team has repeated since the Red Wings in 1997 and '98, and since '99, only three defending champs (Stars, Devils, Red Wings) have made returned to the Cup final. The B's won 49 games, just two off the league-high shared by the Canucks, Penguins and Rangers, and their goal differential (+67) led the NHL, as did their total of six 20-goal and eight 15-goal scorers. The five players with the NHL's best plus/minus ratings were Bruins: Patrice Bergeron (+36), Tyler Seguin (+34), Zdeno Chara and Chris Kelly (+33), Brad Marchand (+31). Defenseman Johnny Boychuck was eighth at +27. And at 54.6 percent, Boston was superior to any other team in the face-off circle. Bottom line: the B's remain the NHL's most balanced team. Their core forwards (Bergeron, Tyler Seguin, the ornery Marchand and Milan Lucic) are young, talented and likely to be together for several years. Seguin, 20, Boston's leading scorer and most exciting player, looked great playing in the Swiss League during the lockout (25 goals, 40 points in 29 games) and should have an excellent season. Krejci was sharp in the Czech League (27 points in 24 games). And, as usual, the Bruins will be tough customers (they tied the Rangers for most major penalties with 65) with their ruggedness wearing foes down. If goalie Tuukka Rask is up to the job of succeeding Tim Thomas, the Bruins will be solid Stanley Cup contenders.

Key player: Zdeno Chara. If there's a more intimidating regular (who is more than an enforcer), it's hard to imagine who it would be. At 6'-9", 255 pounds, the Bruins' towering, bruising captain is also a deft outlet passer and smart positional player who will try to impart his wisdom to highly-touted defense prospect Dougie Hamilton, 19, who could make the team in training camp and is expected to become an impact player. Though Chara's defense gets the ink, he has recorded double figures in goals in eight of the last 10 seasons (his lethal shot was timed at 108.8 mph, the hardest in the history of the NHL's All-Star skills competition) and he's certainly been durable, having logged an average of 78 games since the 2000-01 season and ranking among the league leaders in minutes-played. But at 35, the quality of his time on ice has to become a question mark at some point. The 48-game campaign will entail a greater concentration of action in fewer days, upping the physical demands on Chara. If he can keep his intensity (and health) going, Boston can keep going until the end of June.

Buffalo Sabres

Coach: Lindy Ruff 2011-12 record: 39-32-11, 9th in East, did not make playoffs Vital signs: goals-for (17th), goals-against (18th), power play (16th), penalty kill (19th), PIM (16th) Notable adds: C Steve Ott, D Adam Pardy Notable losses: C Derek Roy, RW Ales Kotalik Team roster

Outlook: Few teams began last season with so much optimism. New owner Terry Pegula, a lifelong fan, pledged to spend what it takes to make the team more competitive. Then everything soured in a wave of slumps and injuries -- free agent signee Ville Leino struggled, veteran Thomas Vanek failed to hit the 30-goal mark for the second time in the last three seasons, 6'-8" defenseman Tyler Myers (who was given a seven-year, $38.5 million deal) broke his hand (the team went 9-11-7 without him), and goalie Ryan Miller suffered a neck injury and concussion symptoms -- as the Sabres missed the playoffs for the third time since 2007. There are bright spots that point to a promising 2013: Jason Pominville embraced his role as a captain, leading the team with 30 goals and 73 points. At 5'-9", 157 pounds, left wing Tyler Ennis (15 goals, 34 points, +11) played bigger than his size and older than his age (23). Young offensive talent such as forward Marcus Foligno and 2012 No. 12 overall draft pick Mikhail Grigorenko, 18, are coming along. The Sabres have also added agitator Steve Ott, who with Patrick Kaleta, should provide more toughness to counter the Bruins. With some development by the kids, a return to form by key veterans, and, of course, good health, Buffalo's optimism of a year earlier could prove to be merely premature rather than misplaced.

Key player: Ryan Miller. After seven straight 30-plus-win seasons, Miller's still the man in net, but his last two seasons have seemed sub-par after his Vezina-winning campaign of 2009-10. Of course, it will help if the Sabres' defense tightens up (Buffalo allowed the fourth-most shots in the league; many were high-quality) and Jhonas Enroth continues to show the promise in his support role that will allow coach Lindy Ruff to rest Miller and keep him sharp for the postseason. Miller has great net coverage, in part because he is so wiry, though teams (see: the Bruins) have learned they can bump him off his mark, so protecting the crease will be a must for the Sabres.

Ottawa Senators

Coach: Paul MacLean 2011-12 record: 41-31-10, 8th in East, lost to Rangers in first round Vital signs: goals-for (4th), goals-against (24th), power play (11th), penalty kill (20th), PIM (2nd) Notable adds: LW Guillaume Latendresse, D Mark Methot, D Mike Lundin Notable losses: D Matt Carkner, D Filip Kuba, LW Nick Foligno, C Zenon Konopka, RW Bobby Butler, LW Nikita Filatov Team roster

Outlook: The surprising Sens made a huge leap in the standings last year -- their 92-point season was an 18-point increase from the previous campaign in which they missed the playoffs by 19 -- and gave the heavily favored Rangers all they could handle in seven first-round games. In coach Paul MacLean's system, the Sens often outworked and outskated bigger, more talented foes. They can score, too, having finished fourth in the NHL in goals (242) and third with 102 third-period tallies, behind only Eastern powers Boston and Pittsburgh. MacLean turned his defensemen loose and the greatest beneficiary was Erik Karlsson, the long-haired, long-striding Swede. At 22, he's coming off a Norris-Trophy campaign (19 goals, 59 assists), and his defensive game, once a weakness, has improved (+16 after -30 in 2010-11). But making the jump from average team to very good team will be tougher because opponents are wise to the Sens, whose aggressive approach is bound to create some holes. Ottawa ranked 24th in in goals allowed (240), were second worst in shots allowed (32.0), and in the bottom third in penalty killing (81.6 percent). To fortify the blueline, the Sens picked up dependable stay-at-home defenseman Marc Methot from Columbus in exchange for promising forward Nick Foligno. (A decent move given the loss of Jared Cowen to hip surgery for the season.) Goalie Craig Anderson must remain an effective workhorse (33-22-6, .914 save pct., but a 2.84 GAA in 63 games) as backups Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner are unproven. It should be fun to watch the Senators again, but watching them make the playoffs may be another matter.

Key player: Daniel Alfredsson. To get a jump on their conditioning drills as the lockout ended, about a dozen Senators convened at Scotiabank Place with nary a coach in sight. The man who ran the drills is capable of leading a team through practice paces or games for what has been a marvelous 16-year NHL career. Captain Daniel Alfredsson, 40, who may become a head coach after he retires (and his number is retired in Ottawa) will again be an inspirational presence, his value enhanced if the Sens begin to call up prized prospects such as 19-year-old forward Mika Zibanejad, their first-round pick (6th overall) of 2011.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Coach: Randy Carlyle 2011-12 record: 35-37-10, 13th in East, did not make playoffs Vital signs: goals-for (10th), goals-against (29th), power play (10th), penalty kill (28th), PIM (22nd) Notable adds: LW James van Riemsdyk, C Jay McClement Notable losses: RW Joey Crabb, D Luke Schenn, G Jonas Gustavsson, LW Colby Armstrong, C Matthew Lombardi Team roster

Outlook: The odd timing of GM Brian Burke's dismissal suggests that concern may have turned to panic in Hogtown as the season was about to start. Heaven knows, the Leafs have holes. Last season, they finished 29th in goals allowed (264) and 28th in penalty killing (77.8%), so strong years by defensemen Dion Phaneuf and Mike Komisarek -- and a return to health by Jake Gardiner (concussion) -- will be crucial. Big questions remain in goal where James Reimer (14-14-4, .900) will try to battle back from his concussion-marred 2011-12 while inexperienced Ben Scrivens (4-5-2, .903) serves as backup. New GM Dave Nonis may not be satisfied standing pat with that duo through April, even if the Leafs don't ultimately trade for Roberto Luongo. Burke made a significant deal, shipping defenseman Luke Schenn to Philadelphia for James van Riesmdyk, a winger with a large upside and ability to play center of need be -- a move the club could make if Tyler Bozak doesn't pan out between high-scoring wings Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. Finding the right mix up front, and someone who can stop the bleeding in goal are the two essential ingredients the Leafs need to get back into the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

Key player: Phil Kessel. Fairly or not, he's been a whipping boy in Toronto and Boston. Plus, a 2012 poll of 145 NHL players conducted by SI named him as the easiest player in the league to intimidate. Leafs fans surely haven't forgotten that he was acquired from the Bruins for the draft pick that became Tyler Seguin. Yet, Kessel is an undeniably skilled player, Toronto's most talented, who has topped the 30-goal mark for four straight seasons, and his deftness with the puck can be stunning to watch. He's rung up 165 goals by age 25, but once the club finds a center for him, he will have to become a more robust player and leader because this team goes as he does.

Montreal Canadiens

Coach: Michel Therrien 2011-12 record: 31-35-16, 15th in East, did not make playoffs Vital signs: goals-for (19th), goals-against (11th), power play (28th), penalty kill (2nd), PIM (11th) Notable adds: GM Marc Bergevin, coach Michel Therrien, RW Brandon Prust, LW Colby Armstrong, D Francis Bouillon Notable losses: Coach Randy Cunneyworth, D Brad Staubitz. LW Mathieu Darche Team roster

Outlook: The past year has been a Royal Mountain of a mess on many fronts in La Belle Province. In the span of a season, the Habs sacked GM Pierre Gauthier, a pair of coaches (Jacques Martin, Randy Cunneyworth) and rid themselves of several key players, including forwards Andrei Kostitsyn and Mike Cammalleri, plus sturdy defenseman Hal Gill. They've added a few pieces, but an infusion of life will have to come from a fresh start, a new coach (Michel Therrien), and some hobbled bodies they hope have gotten healthy. Captain Brian Gionta, a former-48-goal scorer, tore a bicep muscle last year and missed the second half of the season. Defenseman Andrei Markov can say the words "knee reconstruction" in Russian, French and English. He is a top backliner when he's healthy and the Canadiens hope that his 21-game stint playing for Vityaz Chekhov in the KHL during the lockout is an indication that he's on his way to full recovery. The Habs didn't scare anyone with their firepower, or lack thereof -- they scored just 212 goals, went 5-12 in shootouts, and had the league's third-worst power play at 14.6 percent. They did kill penalties well (No. 2 at 88.6 pct.) and they ranked fourth in shorthanded goals (10). Carey Price is reliable in net, blueliner PK Subban is an emerging star, and the Habs added grit in Brandon Prust, Colby Armstrong, and the re-signed Travis Moen. But while it's hard to imagine this season being worse than the last, it's also hard to imagine this team in the playoffs.

Key player: At 24, Max Pacioretty has the story and the numbers to project a lengthy, solid NHL career. The left wing notched 33 goals and a team-leading 65 points last season, a remarkable comeback from injuries sustained when he was driven into a stanchion by Boston's Zdeno Chara in 2011. Pacioretty won the Bill Masterton Trophy for his dedication to the game, and last summer the Canadiens rewarded him for his resilience and strong performance with a six-year, $27 million extension. If he stays healthy and produces as he did last season, those will be dollars well spent. A strong Pacioretty is paramount to Montreal's offensive health.

Northeast's biggest surprise (for better or worse)

Milan Michalek, Senators. The veteran winger quietly scored a career-high 35 goals last season for a team that needed every one of them to sneak into the playoffs as the eighth seed in the East. Yet coach Paul MacLean believes that Michalek has an even greater upside and he'll show it this season.

Northeast breakout player

Marcus Foligno, Sabres. The 21-year-old winger gave the Sabres a late spark last season, posting 13 points in 14 games after starting with Rochester in the AHL. Though he's a scrapper, he has a long way to go to match his dad Mike's 2,049 NHL career penalty minutes. Penciled in on Buffalo's second line (at least in camp), the 21-year old looks ready to blossom as a potent power forward.

Northeast's unsung hero

Chris Kelly, Bruins. He's one of the game's most versatile and reliable forwards among players who won't make the All-Star team. A glue guy who can play any position up front, win face-offs, kill penalties, handle an opponent's best forward, and produce adequate offense for a third-liner, Kelly followed his strong postseason during the Bruins' Cup run in 2011 by scoring 20 goals last season and registering a plus-33. He'll play a vital role again this season.

Hottest seat in the division

Tuukka Rask, Bruins. With Tim Thomas on sabbatical, Rask will be under the magnifying glass between the pipes in Boston this season. He's shown signs of being an effective No. 1, having posted strong numbers (22-12-5; .931 save pct., 1.97 GAA) in 39 starts in 2009-10. But that was before Thomas proved that he could win the Conn Smythe Trophy and lead the B's to the Stanley Cup. Now it's Rask's turn. The Bruins are good enough to win it all again, but only he'll need to come close to matching Thomas' heroics.

Cool fact

This could be the 20th season without a Cup being raised in Montreal, the 46th without one in Toronto, and, if you want to count first incarnations, the 86th in Ottawa (that one gets an asterisk). In Buffalo, the Sabres are trying to bring a title to city that has never had one in any major sport. (The Bills whiffed in four Super Bowls and Bob McAdoo's Braves never reached an NBA final.) On the ice, Buffalo is in 0-6 in conference and Cup championship series. Among Northeast Division teams, only the Bruins, who snapped their own 39-year drought in 2011, have had a recent chance to work on their Cup-hoisting technique.

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