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2009-10: 45-27-10, 100 points, first in Northeast
FRESH FACES: Rob Niedermayer (New Jersey), Jordan Leopold (Pittsburgh), Shaone Morrisonn (Washington)
OTHER PLACES:Toni Lydman (Anaheim), Henrik Tallinder (New Jersey), Tim Kennedy (NY Rangers), Raffi Torres (Vancouver)
STORYLINE: The exodus of talent from the blueline continued with the departures of Tallinder and Lydman. While those who remain aren't quite a sextet of pylons, the most recent losses left an awfully thin line of defense in front of Ryan Miller. Calder Trophy-winner Tyler Myers and captain Craig Rivet can be counted upon, but once you get past them, you're relying on Leopold, Andrei Sekera, Chris Butler, Steve Montador and Morrisonn to eat the majority of the remaining minutes. Not exactly an Iron Curtain there. At least two of those players will have to step up.
MVP: Ryan Miller. The best goalie in the world not only gives Buffalo a chance to win every night, he gets in the heads of the opposition in a way no goalie has done since former Sabre Dominik Hasek was working his mojo. Old prejudices make it unlikely that Miller will see his name on the Hart Trophy, but the truth is there's not a player in the league more important to his team's fortunes than Miller.
KID TO WATCH: Tyler Ennis. It's hard to ignore the fact that Ennis is so small that he looks more like a Disney Channel star than a legitimate NHLer, but there's no denying he's poised to make a significant impact in Buffalo. Ask around and you'll hear his name mentioned as a dark horse favorite to win the Calder. You'll also hear comparisons to Theo Fleury.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Tyler Myers. He wildly exceeded expectations last season, leading the Sabres in ice time and finishing third among all defenders with his 31 even-strength points. The second-most important player on the team? Not a tough argument to make. So his ability to not just avoid the sophomore jinx, but add to his value will be critical to this team's chances.
BOTTOM LINE: They're not without serious flaws, but Miller and an improving offense make the Sabres the team to beat in the Northeast.
2009-10: 39-30-13, 91 points
FRESH FACES: Nathan Horton (Florida), Tyler Seguin (draft), Gregory Campbell (Florida), Jeremy Reich (NY Islanders)
OTHER PLACES: Dennis Wideman (Florida), Vladimir Sobotka (St. Louis)
STORYLINE: You think your team has it tough? Consider the case of the Bruins, a team that shed 25 points from its 2008-09 regular season, then followed that up by becoming just the third club in NHL history to blow a 3-0 lead in a best-of-seven playoff series. No wonder paper bag sales skyrocketed in New England last spring. Now the B's not only have to show that they've toughened up mentally, but that they've figured out how to put the puck in the net -- no mean feat for last season's most impotent offense. The additions of Seguin and Horton should make an impact, but with No. 1 center Marc Savard sidelined indefinitely with post-concussion syndrome, that duo may be a wash.
MVP: Tuukka Rask.Zdeno Chara may be their leader, but Rask's ability to play nearly mistake-free hockey gives Boston its best chance to move past last season's debacle. He has the size, technique and mental toughness to backstop a team to a championship.
KID TO WATCH: Tyler Seguin. The first piece of the bounty extracted from Toronto in the Phil Kessel trade has been sensational in the preseason and looks ready to make more than a nine-game cameo despite being just months removed from his second season of junior hockey. The absence of Savard opened a roster spot, but this dynamic young forward would have forced the issue even if the team's offensive leader had been healthy. Seguin's speed, playmaking creativity and finishing touch are exactly what the Bruins need.
KEEP AN EYE ON: David Krejci. With Savard out of the lineup, the Bruins need thIS young center to regain the form of his breakout 2008-09 season (22-51-73). He'll certainly have to be better than last season, when a bout of swine flu mitigated his impact for an extended period. He'll likely get a chance to soak up big minutes on the power play, the area where Savard's absence will be most dearly felt.
BOTTOM LINE: Coming into last season, the Bruins were considered Cup contenders. This time, they could be in tough just to make the playoffs. The back end is solid, but there are a lot of questions marks upfront. Until they're answered positively, this will be just one more team in a thick pack hunting for a postseason berth.
2009-10: 44-32-6, 94 points, second in Northeast
FRESH FACES: Sergei Gonchar (Pittsburgh)
OTHER PLACES: Matt Cullen (Minnesota), Anton Volchenkov (New Jersey)
STORYLINE: The future in net looks bright with 19-year-old second-rounder Robin Lehner making a big splash in camp. The present? Well, no one's forgotten Brian Elliott's postseason flameout that saw him pulled three times against the Penguins, or Pascal Leclaire's inability to grab hold of a job that was his entering the season. Neither offered much in the way of reassurance during the preseason, suggesting THAT Lehner could be called on before the end of the season ... and one of the two could be sent packing. If it gets to that point, this season could already be lost.
MVP: Daniel Alfredsson. Coming off his lowest scoring season of the past nine years, it's fair to ask if the 37-year-old captain is finally starting to show his age. Truth is, the team will probably be thrilled if Alfredsson -- who spent the summer recovering from sports hernia surgery -- just matched the 71 points he produced last season as long as he continues to be Ottawa's guiding spiritual force.
KID TO WATCH: Zack Smith. Looking to add some truculence of their own to the roster, the Sens gave Smith every opportunity to make the club, playing him in five of six preseason games. The 6-2, 210-pound forward took advantage, making his presence felt with hands both hard (a nice tussle with Leafs tough guy Jay Rosehill) and soft (a hat trick against the Rangers). He can be relied upon to make the right play and to provide a consistent effort. It's easy to see Smith quickly becoming a fan favorite at Scotiabank Place.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Sergei Gonchar. Gotta love the way GM Bryan Murray explained the reasoning for bringing in the flashy Gonchar and allowing self-sacrificing veteran Anton Volchenkov to walk this summer. It's nice to be able to block shots, the Ottawa GM said, but it would be nicer to make the other team try to block them for a change. Veteran puck mover Gonchar should make a significant contribution to a power play that ranked 21st last season, and to the development of promising youngster Erik Karlsson.
BOTTOM LINE: The Sens aren't getting much attention, but they look like a well-constructed group that mixes veteran experience with developing talent at both ends of the ice. With a solid coaching staff led by Cory Clouston, Ottawa should be in the running for the division title ... but until the situation is settled, this team will only go as far as its goaltending takes it. And right now, that's a hard duo to bet any money on.
2009-10: 39-33-10, 88 points, fourth in Northeast
FRESH FACES: Lars Eller (St. Louis), Alex Auld (NY Rangers), Dustin Boyd (Nashville)
OTHER PLACES: Jaroslav Halak (St. Louis), Sergei Kostitsyn (Nashville)
STORYLINE: Last season's whirlwind trip to the conference finals should be the nail on which the Canadiens hung this season's hat. Instead, this campaign boils down to one thing and one thing only: the decision of GM Pierre Gauthier to solve the team's goaltending logjam by dealing playoff hero Halak to the Blues and pinning the hopes of the franchise on the narrow shoulders of Carey Price. You'll find more than a few hockey insiders willing to get behind this move, but very few of the fickle fans in Montreal are on board. A couple of soft preseason performances quickly revealed how little slack Price will be cut at home. How he deals with this pressure will determine how this season plays out.
MVP: Tomas Plekanec. The Habs have flashier, and more handsomely compensated, forwards, but Plekanec has emerged as a reliable warrior. He's their go-to guy in the faceoff circle, he was second on the team in take-aways and he led the team's forwards in power play and short-handed time on ice. He does so many things so well that it's impossible to fully state his value ... although the six-year contract he signed over the summer does a pretty fair job of it.
KID TO WATCH: Lars Eller. It seemed like most Montreal fans were counting on the return from any goaltending trade to be a trio of first rounders and first dibs on Rocket Richard's great grandson, so the package of Eller and Ian Schultz didn't quite live up to their expectations. As the first to slip on La Sainte-Flanelle, Eller will be under the gun to prove his value. A former first round pick of the Blues, the Danish center could be an intriguing piece of the puzzle in the long run. Short term is a different story. His numbers in camp overstate the quality of his play. He might not contribute much this season.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Andrei Markov. The veteran defender follows up an injury-shortened 2009-10 season by starting this one on the IR following offseason surgery. A brilliant offensive mind and an underappreciated defensive force, Markov is the glue that holds Montreal's blueline together. They need him at full health, and soon ... especially to help make life easier on the back end for Price.
BOTTOM LINE: If Price is right for the job, then the Habs are a low-end playoff team. If not, they slip back into the pack of also-rans. With the standings likely to be bunched again, he won't have long to prove he's up to it.
2009-10: 30-38-14, 74 points, fifth in the Northeast
FRESH FACES: Kris Versteeg (Chicago), Colby Armstrong (Atlanta), Clarke MacArthur (Atlanta), Brett Lebda (Detroit), Mike Brown (Anaheim)
OTHER PLACES: Viktor Stalberg (Chicago), Mike Van Ryn (retired)
STORYLINE: GM Bryan Burke spent his summer upgrading the talent and grit levels of his maligned forward corps, but now the questions are swirling around his expensive defense. A group that includes Dion Phaneuf, François Beauchemin, Tomas Kaberle, Luke Schenn, Mike Komisarek and Carl Gunnarsson on the blueline and J-S Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson in net has plenty of name value, but it's a unit that experienced little success last season. The team was dead last on the penalty kill and allowed 3.21 goals per game, second most in the league. With a payroll approaching $26 million, and after a preseason in which many of the same mistakes were apparent, it's fair to wonder just how much value this group will provide.
MVP: Dion Phaneuf. He'd better be. No question the newly appointed captain brings the dressing room the kind of gravitas presence that is required of a leader, but the team needs the 25-year-old to live up to his massive on-ice potential if they're to make significant progress this season.
KID TO WATCH: Tyler Bozak. One year after entering the league as an undrafted free agent, Bozak is set to start the season as the Leafs' No. 1 center. Good for him -- he's worked hard for his shot -- but it says a lot about the paucity of talent down the middle that he's in this position. Bozak plays a conscientious defensive game and has the smarts and creativity to chip in offensively, but in this role a player has to have more than the tools. He has to deliver nightly. Bozak's ability to consistently perform at a high level will be the fulcrum on which the Toronto offense turns.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Phil Kessel. Look, it's not his fault that Burke mortgaged a considerable part of the team's future to obtain his services, or that the Bruins appeared to strike gold with the first of the three picks they got in return. But Kessel was brought onboard to re-energize the team's flagging offense, and while he had his nights last season, he simply wasn't able to bring the noise consistently. Healthy and surrounded by improved talent, Kessel has to live up to Burke's end of the bargain now.
BOTTOM LINE: No doubt, the Leafs will ice a more competitive team, one that will pose a tougher challenge for the opposition on a nightly basis ... but that doesn't mean they'll claw their way out of the division cellar this time around.
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