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Here's how I see them shaking out, in predicted order of finish:
2008-09 RECORD: 53-19-10, 116 points, first in Northeast
FRESH FACES: Derek Morris (NY Rangers), Steve Begin (Dallas)
OTHER PLACES: Phil Kessel (Toronto), Manny Fernandez (free agent), Stephane Yelle (Carolina), Aaron Ward (Carolina), PJ. Axelsson (Sweden), Steve Montador (Buffalo), Shane Hnidy (Minnesota)
STORYLINE: With the disappointment of that Game 7 OT loss to the Hurricanes and the drama of Kessel's free agency power play behind them, the Bruins look to pick up where they left off last season as one of the true powers in the East. Replacing Ward with Morris may hinder their chances to repeat as the league's stingiest defense, but the former Ranger should kickstart the transition game that failed the Bruins against Carolina. That, in turn, should help power a forward group as deep and well-balanced as any in the league, even without Kessel. With the picks they acquired in the Kessel deal with the Leafs, the Bruins are well positioned to supplement a deep run this season or re-stock the cupboard for the future. Either way, this is a team going places.
MVP: Tim Thomas. Even though his battle for respect has been won -- a couple All-Star Games and a Vezina will do that for a guy -- don't expect Thomas to rest on his laurels. The game's most entertaining goalie is driven to stay at the top of his game. "I don't take anything for granted," he says. "I believe there's still more I can do to improve my game."
KID TO WATCH: Tuukka Rask. No telling yet who the winner will be in the Kessel swap, but Boston clearly came out on top in this one: Andrew Raycroft became synonymous with colander in Toronto while Rask looks like the future No. 1 for the Bruins. After two years honing his craft in Providence, the 22-year-old Finn is ready to back up Thomas. With the Vezina-winner likely to carry the mail for Team USA at the Olympics on top of his Bruins responsibilities, Rask's ability to deliver 25-30 quality starts will be critical to Boston's success.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Blake Wheeler. The Bruins expect to replace Kessel's 36 goals by committee, and it's hoped that Wheeler will be a big part of that mix. He cooled off appreciably after a solid first half last season, worn out by the grind of the 82-game schedule, and was benched for the final three games of the playoffs. He hasn't impressed in camp, blowing a chance to fill in for Kessel on the first line and dimming his chances for a quick start. It'll be interesting to see how Claude Julien handles him.
BOTTOM LINE: With the chance to fatten up their stats against the Little Sisters of the Northeast, the Bruins should again contend for the Presidents' Trophy. If they can stay healthy, and maybe leverage one of those first-rounders into a key deadline pickup, there's a decent chance they'll end that 38-year Stanley Cup drought.
2008-09 RECORD: 41-32-9, 91 points, third in Northeast
FRESH FACES: Steve Montador (Boston), Mike Grier (San Jose), Joe DiPenta (Sweden), Cody McCormick (Colorado)
OTHER PLACES: Jaroslav Spacek (Montreal), Teppo Numminen (retired), Maxim Afinogenov (Atlanta), Dominic Moore (free agent), Andrew Peters (New Jersey), Mikael Tellqvist (Russia)
STORYLINE: Judging by the lack of activity over the summer, everything is swell in Sabreland. Sure, they missed the playoffs (again) and their top defender bolted to a division rival, but when a team's offseason splash is a third-pairing blueliner, everything else must be neatly in place, right? Time will tell if standing pat was a justifiable response to last season's DNQ, but GM Darcy Regier clearly has faith in this crew. Led by emerging stars Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy and Jason Pominville, the top six can be an effective group, and the four free agents who were brought in will address an obvious need for a little more sandpaper in the lineup. None of the four will play regularly, but if their presence adds even a little confidence to a roster that sagged too easily under fire last season, the Sabres should stay in the mix.
MVP: Ryan Miller. Despite steadily bleeding talent over the past few years, the Sabres had actually worked their way into a playoff spot in late February...until Miller went down with a high ankle sprain, taking their postseason hopes with him. Now fully recovered, he gives the Sabres a chance to win every night. Without him, they're sending someone to watch Bill Daly open oversized envelopes.
KID TO WATCH: Chris Butler. There'll be considerable pressure on the second-year blueliner to not only eat up some of the minutes abandoned by Spacek and Numminen, but expedite his own development process. With Henrik Tallinder, Toni Lydman and Nathan Paetsch all headed to free agency next summer, now's the time to get his game in order. A good place to start: Butler needs to make smarter decisions with the puck and fire it at the net more often.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Tim Connolly. He can be a game-breaking talent when he's healthy. Problem is, Connolly's averaged just 40 games per season over the past four years. He chipped in 47 points in just 48 games in 2008-09, so you do the math. If the hockey gods decide he's suffered enough and let him play the entire season, well, there aren't many teams whose second line center plays at a point-per-game pace.
BOTTOM LINE: This is a critical season for team management. Another playoff miss and it could be the end of the line for Regier and coach Lindy Ruff. Without the benefit of a defender who qualifies as top pairing material, Buffalo is in for some long nights, but as long as Miller stays healthy, they should be safe.
2008-09 RECORD: 34-35-13, 81 points, fifth in Northeast
FRESH FACES:Phil Kessel (Boston), Jonas Gustavsson (Sweden), Mike Komisarek (Montreal), Garnet Exelby (Atlanta), Francois Beauchemin (Anaheim), Colton Orr (NY Rangers), Wayne Primeau (Calgary), Christian Hanson (free agent), Tyler Bozak (free agent), Joey McDonald (NY Islanders)
OTHER PLACES: Pavel Kubina (Atlanta), Martin Gerber (Russia), Curtis Joseph (free agent), Anton Stralman (Calgary), Brad May (Detroit), Justin Pogge (Anaheim), Jamie Sifers (Minnesota)
STORYLINE:Brian Burke may be the only GM in hockey who's a bigger star than any of his players, and that rubs some folks the wrong way. But you've got to hand it to him, don't you? He said he wanted to reinvent the Leafs, to make them miserable to play against and competitive not five years down the road, but right now. If he failed to live up to that promise, he sure came awfully close. Beauchemin and Komisarek were added to a pugnacious, skilled top-four that stacks up well against just about anybody. In Gustavsson, Burke landed both the prize of the Euro free agent market and a netminder who could kick Vesa Toskala to the bench. His bold pursuit of Kessel cost the Leafs three high picks, but also provided an immediate (well, nearly immediate) answer to a desperate need for scoring punch. In short, he made the Leafs relevant again. Amazing.
MVP: Jonas Gustavsson. It has to be, doesn't it? For all the improvements Burke made up and down the lineup, the Leafs simply can't count on competitive goaltending from holdover Toskala. If they're to challenge for a playoff spot, they need The Monster to import his Swedish league success to Toronto. And you'd better believe that one-year contract he signed will motivate him to prove that he's the real deal.
KID TO WATCH: Viktor Stalberg. Probably best not to get too worked up about those five preseason goals, but it doesn't take too many looks to imagine him helping the team this season. A sixth-round steal from the 2006 draft, Stalberg has impressed with his speed, willingness to initiate contact and those kitten-soft mitts.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Mikhail Grabovski. The 25-year-old Belorussian is coming off a career season, but let's face it: 20 goals and 48 points are pretty lousy numbers for a first-line center. At least there's reason to believe that he can improve on those totals significantly. After Nik Antropov was dealt to the Rangers at the deadline, Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin were united with Alexei Ponikarovsky. The trio clicked instantly, tallying 45 points in the last 17 games, including seven goals and 10 assists from Grabovski.
BOTTOM LINE: The Leafs will certainly be an improved team, and probably among the most entertaining, but a playoff squad? Unless Gustavsson is the second coming of Henrik Lundqvist, they'll fall just short.
2008-09 RECORD: 41-30-11, 93 points, second in Northeast
FRESH FACES: Coach Jacques Martin, Mike Cammalleri (Calgary), Brian Gionta (New Jersey), Scott Gomez (NY Rangers), Jaroslav Spacek (Buffalo), Travis Moen (San Jose), Hal Gill (Pittsburgh), Paul Mara (NY Rangers), Curtis Sanford (Vancouver)
OTHER PLACES: Alexei Kovalev (Ottawa), Saku Koivu (Anaheim), Chris Higgins (NY Rangers), Alex Tanguay (Tampa Bay), Mike Komisarek (Toronto), Tom Kostopoulos (Carolina), Mathieu Schneider (Vancouver)
STORYLINE: Welcome to Extreme Makeover, Canadiens Edition. In a span of a few days, Les Glorieux dispatched with 11 members of last season's team, including three of its top four scorers and the No. 2 defenseman. To replace them, GM Bob Gainey imported a trio of forwards who are big in name, if not in stature, to supplement the front lines, and a highly underrated defenseman (Spacek) to shore up a sagging power play. It was a brash course of action, but will it work? There's plenty of focus on the size of the forwards, but the key for the Habs should be the work of coach Martin. His defensive-minded system won't remind anyone of the Flying Frenchmen, but the discipline it demands should lead to better results on the ice.
MVP: Andrei Markov. Despite turning down the captaincy (or not, depending upon whom you choose to believe), Markov remains Montreal's most important player. Though lauded for his power play work, he's an equally effective defender. Much like his countryman Sergei Zubov, Markov's game has to be watched regularly in order to appreciate the subtle nuances. As a result, he may never win the Norris Trophy, but he certainly belongs in the conversation.
KID TO WATCH: Matt D'Agostini. After working through some of the kinks in his up-and-down rookie season, D'Agostini could quickly step into an important role. He showed some touch last season, scoring 12 goals in a limited debut, but his effectiveness along the boards may slide him onto a line with Cammalleri or Gomez.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Carey Price. All-Star starter in February. Whipping boy by April. Price's shortcomings were, by virtue of his position, the most glaring even though the Habs had problems up and down the lineup last season. Battling a glacial glove hand and rapid loss of confidence, he was made the team's scapegoat. (A flippant gesture to the fans didn't help his standing, either.) Can he turn his game around? Tough to say. Price had rough moments in the preseason, but seems to be in a better frame of mind. Either way, he needs to hold the fort so the rest of the team has time to gel. If he struggles early, it could be another long season.
BOTTOM LINE: Despite sweeping changes, this roster won't frighten anyone. They'll hang around the fringes of the playoff race, but look for them to fall short.
2008-09 RECORD: 36-35-11, 83 points, fourth in Northeast
FRESH FACES: Milan Michalek (San Jose), Jonathan Cheechoo (San Jose), Alexei Kovalev (Montreal)
OTHER PLACES: Dany Heatley (San Jose), Jason Smith (retired), Alex Auld (Dallas), Mike Comrie (Edmonton), Brendan Bell (St. Louis), Drew Fata (Boston)
STORYLINE: It was just two years ago that the Sens ranked among the favorites to win the Cup. But after the disaster that was last season -- and the recently resolved Heatley issue -- their sights are set considerably lower now. The strong finish under new coach Cory Clouston (19-11-4) raised hopes of a quick turnaround, but didn't mask deficiencies that must be addressed. Scoring shouldn't be one of them, despite the loss of top sniper Heatley. Kovalev, who said he should have had 50 last season in Montreal, could fill the void himself by netting 40. Assured of a more prominent role, Michalek should be good for 25-30. And Ottawa finally looks to have the secondary scoring it's longed for. The unsolved mysteries surround the back end. Pascal Leclaire, sidelined since being acquired last March for Antoine Vermette, has to be the player he was for Columbus back in 2007-08 when he recorded nine shutouts and earned Vezina consideration. To get there, he'll need help from a nondescript blueline, led by Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov, that is fairly mobile but plays a little soft. They could prove sufficient, but don't count on it.
MVP: Daniel Alfredsson. The raw numbers suggest it was an off-year for the captain, but they don't paint the whole picture. Sure, his goals dropped from 40 to 24, and he failed to reach 80 points for the first time in five years. But Alfredsson still led the team in scoring despite having to play with, at various times, a broken jaw, a wrenched back and a knee injury. That's leadership. And unlike some players who needn't be named, Alfredsson thrived under Clouston, scoring 32 points in 33 games. A return to form is a solid bet.
KID TO WATCH: Erik Karlsson. There are several puck-moving types on the Sens blueline but none who dish the biscuit with such creativity and aplomb. Just 19, Karlsson looks like a prayer answered for a team that was short of a true offensive defender. His slick passing dazzled observers in the preseason and could earn him a spot on the team's first power play unit.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Jonathan Cheechoo. If a baseball player's home run totals dropped from 56 to 37 to 23 to 12 over the course of four seasons, fans would be pointing to the moment he stopped juicing. It's not so easy to explain Cheechoo's fall from Richard-winning grace to a third-liner grinding for scraps. The plan was to give him more opportunity in Ottawa than he earned the last couple years in San Jose, but after being widely outplayed by a couple of Binghamton spares at camp, you have to wonder how much rope they'll give him. The Sens boasted of improved depth after his arrival, but he has to deliver at least 20 to prove them right.
BOTTOM LINE: It's never a good idea to read too much into the preseason, but seeing the Sens limited to just one goal in four contests makes you realize how far this team has to go to find chemistry with several new parts in the mix. Funny, but most seasons a team would love the thought of playing 16 of their first 23 at home. This year though, Ottawa might have benefited from the bonding experience of the road. Either way, the Sens look to be better but probably not good enough for a postseason berth.
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