Tuesday, September 6, 2011

2011/12 NHL Preview - Northeast Division

And finally we arrive at the Northeast. If you missed the earlier division previews, check them out here:


Projected depth chart / lines:
Milan Lucic - Patrice Bergeron - Nathan Horton
Tyler Seguin - David Krejci - Brad Marchand
Benoit Pouliot - Rich Peverley - Chris Kelly
Daniel Paille - Greg Campbell - Shawn Thornton

Zdeno Chara - Dennis Seidenberg
Andrew Ference - Joe Corvo
Johnny Boychuk - Adam McQuaid

Tim Thomas
Tuukka Rask

The defending Stanley Cup champions lost some depth over the summer, notably playoff hero Michael Ryder who signed in Dallas, and trade deadline acquisition Tomas Kaberle who joined the Carolina Hurricanes. Picking up some slack offensively will be a year-older Tyler Seguin who should now be a regular, and Benoit Pouliot who will be trying his luck with a third club in his short NHL career. Rookies Zach Hamill and Jordan Caron will battle for jobs in training camp but the forward group is deep enough that they are likely to start the year in the AHL. Brad Marchand was a hero (second only to the man in goal) in last year's playoffs and should improve on the 41 point he scored last season. With the possible exception of assist-man David Krejci, all of Boston's top 6 should be expected to top the 20 goal mark, and with quality two-way players in trade deadline acquisitions Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley on the third line, the team looks ready to compete again.

The Bruins defense isn't nearly as deep as their offense with a significant drop-off after captain Zdeno Chara. The addition of Joe Corvo should help the team's powerplay, but just as it did last year with the acquisition of Kaberle, much of the team's remaining cap space (over $7M with only Marchand left to sign) should go to patch a hole on the back end as this year's deadline nears.

Goaltending isn't something Boston has to worry about as Tim Thomas dominated the league through the regular and post- season last year. And even if, at age 37, he begins to slow down, Tuukka Rask, who stole the starting job from Thomas for one season in 2009-10, is capable of putting up equally as impressive numbers.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Conference contender.


Projected depth chart / lines:
Thomas Vanek - Derek Roy - Jason Pominville
Drew Stafford - Brad Boyes - Ville Leino
Tyler Ennis - Paul Gaustad - Nathan Gerbe
Jochen Hecht - Cody McCormick - Patrick Kaleta

Tyler Myers - Christian Ehrhoff
Robyn Regehr - Jordan Leopold
Andrej Sekara - Mike Weber

Ryan Miller
Jhonas Enroth

Active on both the trades and free agency markets this summer, the Sabres enter the season with the best roster they've had since the Daniel Briere and Chris Drury days. At 5'5" and 5'9" respectively, Nathan Gerbe and Tyler Ennis are Buffalo's answer to David Desharnais and Brian Gionta on the Habs, with both showing last season that they belong in the NHL despite their diminutive stature. They will provide added scoring depth to a top 6 that was completed with the signing of Ville Leino, a player whose best seasons many feel are still ahead of him. It seems like top forward Derek Roy will be fully recuperated from his leg injury of last season when training camp opens in a couple of weeks which means Thomas Vanek should continue to score at a 30-goal, 70-point clip on his wing. Drew Stafford exploded last season with 31 goals in 62 games but it remains to be seen if that will be an anomaly for a typical 20 goal man or if it was simply a leap ahead in his development as an NHL'er. The Sabres do still have a bit of work to do to get under the salary cap, but the most likely situation seems to be a trade or demotion of Ales Kotalik up front and Shaone Morissonn on the back end, leaving the above roster unaffected.

Speaking of the defense, adding Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr gives Buffalo arguably a top 5 defense in the league for the coming season. Anchored by Tyler Myers, the top 4 is as good as any, and to provide further depth, 25-year old Andrej Sekera unexpectedly set a career high last year with 29 points.

For my money, Ryan Miller is the top goaltender in the NHL, and though his numbers took a bit of a dive last season, expect him to rebound behind his newly upgraded D and be one of the top fantasy performers in the league. The Sabres should get at least one more full season out of Jhonas Enroth, now 23, as a back-up, but it is likely he has starter aspirations and that will have to be with a different club.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Solid playoff team.


Projected depth chart / lines:
Mike Cammalleri - Tomas Plekanec - Erik Cole
Max Pacioretty - Scott Gomez - Brian Gionta
Travis Moen - Lars Eller - Andrei Kostitsyn
Ryan White - David Desharnais - Mathieu Darche

Andrei Markov - Josh Gorges
Hal Gill - P.K. Subban
Jaroslav Spacek - Alexei Yemelin

Carey Price
Peter Budaj

Ah oui, les Canadiens. Pierre Gauthier managed to land his man on July 1st this year with the signing of Erik Cole to a 4-year deal. Cole seems like a great fit, bringing much-needed size and physicality to the Montreal forward core, but Habs fans need to hope that he'll fit in much better with Tomas Plekanec than he did with the Edmonton Oilers - his only other stint in the NHL outside of Carolina. Andrei Kostitsyn had some harsh words about head coach Jacques Martin printed in the Belarussian media this summer so it will be interesting to see how long he remains in Montreal, given that he's a pending UFA next summer and appears to be slated in for third line duty. He formed a nice duo with Lars Eller at times last year, though, so if the two stick together, it could mean a breakout year statistically for the young Dane. Max Pacioretty should be back at full strength after a vicious Zdeno Chara hit ended his season and what was a very hot breakout stretch for him. The team must hope that the hit and concussion won't cause Pacioretty to play timidly and to avoid the corners and front of the net - the areas where he was most successful.

Montreal lost two pillars on the blueline in James Wisniewski and Roman Hamrlik but will see the return of veteran Andrei Markov who, when healthy, can be one of the game's top defensemen. Markov will find his old spot quaterbacking the powerplay, meaning P.K. Subban should improve upon the 38 points he scored last year just from receiving passes from the guy at the opposite point. Alexei Yemelin will be an intriguing addition to the club, assuming he makes the big team out of camp, as he brings a physical toolkit the team has missed since the departure of Mike Komisarek. Jaroslav Spacek has (rightfully) fallen out of favour with much of the Canadiens' fanbase, but as a pending UFA, he will have the pressure of improving or seeing his NHL days come to an end following this season, which hopefully will inspire him to reach his pre-Habs levels of play.

Carey Price made Pierre Gauthier look smart for making the unpopular move of trading Jaroslav Halak by turning in the best performances of his career. After playing 72 games, Habs fans must believe that he is the real deal, but there will remain some trepidation that it could have been just a good season until he plays well consistently again in 11-12. No one will mistake Peter Budaj for a quality NHL starter, but given that he played 45 games for Colorado last year, he should be expected to get more action than the 16 games Alex Auld saw in Montreal (perhaps a 60-22 split).

Frankly, if things go right, this team could be as good as the Bruins and chase them and/or the Sabres for the division title. However, if Scott Gomez doesn't rebound from a horrid season, Carey Price is inconsistent, Erik Cole disappoints, the injury bug strikes, and Pierre Gauthier sits tight all year with this group of d-men, it could be a long season that sees the team finish outside the top 8.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Solid playoff team.


Projected depth chart / lines:
Milan Michalek - Jason Spezza - Daniel Alfredsson
Nikita Filatov - Nick Foligno - Bobby Butler
Chris Neil - Peter Regin - Stephane Da Costa
Zack Smith - Zenon Konopka - Jesse Winchester

Sergei Gonchar - Erik Karlsson
Chris Phillips - Jared Cowen
David Rundblad - Filip Kuba

Craig Anderson
Alex Auld

The Senators are rebuilding and the fact that they were rather quiet this off-season seems to indicate the process is on-going. Offensively, there are a number of young players who will try to establish themselves during training camp, including mid-season signee Stephane Da Costa, draft day acquisition Nikita Filatov, and 2011 first round pick Mika Zibanejad. The Sens will need some of these guys to elevate their play as the offense is quite thin beyond the top trio of Jason Spezza (slowed by injuries), Daniel Alfredsson (aging, injuries), and Milan Michalek (hasn't been productive since removed from the top lines of San Jose). College free agent signing Bobby Butler looks to have been a nice find for the Sens, putting up 21 points in 36 NHL games after getting a call-up from the AHL in his first pro season. If he can build on that, he should have the inside track for a top 6 job this year.

If you look at half of Ottawa's defense, you see declining veterans whose best days seem long behind them. Fortunately, the other half is comprised of top notch defensive prospects Erik Karlsson, Jared Cowen, and David Rundblad, the first of which broke out last year with an all-star game nod worthy performance, and the latter two expected to play their NHL rookie seasons this year after putting up big numbers from the blueline in their respective leagues. Rundblad in particular comes over to North America turning 21 in October and coming off a season where he scored 50 points in 55 games in the Swedish Elite League; quite an impressive feat. The Sens hope they've found a balance of new and old, but it is more likely the veterans slowly fade out and give way as the youth takes on larger roles.

Craig Anderson will get another shot to prove he can be a quality starter over a full season after putting up studly numbers following a trade to Ottawa from Colorado (.939 save percentage and 2.05 GAA in 18 games). Sens fans should be cautious, though, as he only has one season of more than 55 games under his belt, meaning Alex Auld should expect to see more action than he did in Montreal.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Out of the playoffs.


Projected depth chart / lines:
Joffrey Lupul - Tim Connolly - Phil Kessel
Nikolai Kulemin - Mikhail Grabovski - Clarke MacArthur
Colby Armstrong - Matthew Lombardi - Nazem Kadri
Mike Brown - Tyler Bozak - Darryl Boyce

Dion Phaneuf - John-Michael Liles
Luke Schenn - Cody Franson
Keith Aulie - Mike Komisarek

James Reimer
Jonas Gustavsson

Brian Burke kept no secrets that he was looking to upgrade his center position this summer, and after missing out on Brad Richards, he did so by signing the highly skilled but oft-injured Tim Connolly. Having missed only 23 games in total over the last two years combined, the Leafs hope Connolly's biggest issues are in the past, and that he'll find chemistry with Phil Kessel on the team's top line. If that works out, the Leafs may have a potent offense this season, with the second line of Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhali Grabovski, and Clarke MacArthur coming off a big season. Further helping the club's depth is the fact that salary dump acquisition Matthew Lombardi looks to be healthy and may join the club as early as during training camp. Lombardi played only 2 games with Nashville last year due to a concussion, but topped the 50 point mark in Phoenix the year prior. A number of young players will be auditioning for roles, but only Nazem Kadri seems like a safe bet to make the team out of camp. Joe Colbourne, Matt Frattin, and Jerey D'Amigo will be amongst those looking for a call-up at some point.

The Leafs lost a lot of their depth on D but also got quite a bit younger. Picked up in trades, Cody Franson and Keith Aulie both look like they could be fixtures for many years, while another acquisition, John-Michael Liles, increases the group's mobility and puck-moving skills, eating minutes while the younger players develop. The pressure, then, will be on Mike Komisarek whose career has taken a disastrous turn, and captain Dion Phaneuf who seems to have left his offensive game in Calgary.

James Reimer had a hot start at the NHL level, emerging from obscurity to post a .921 save percentage and 2.60 GAA in 37 games. Toronto faithful have to hope for at least a repeat performance from the 23-year old, but it wouldn't be the first time a young goalie rose to stardom quickly only to fall right back down. Fortunately for the Leafs, there is still hope that Jonas Gustavsson develops into "The Monster" he was seen to be, with several great performances towards the end of the American League season after returning from injury.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Bubble playoff team.

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