The Northeast Division can be divided into three categories: Stanley Cup contenders, fringe playoff contenders, and the Ottawa Senators. A division that has been dominated in recent years by the Bruins and Sabres figures to be a battle between the division's two American teams once again. So, which one will come out on top, the defending Stanley Cup champions or the upstarts who spent lavishly to improve in the offseason?
1. Boston Bruins (projected points: 107)
I'll keep this brief, since we've got plenty of Bruin season preview content coming, but the Bruins arguably underperformed in the regular season last year; their goal differential was worthy of a better record. While Tim Thomas is sure to regress this year, the Bruins have plenty of players who should improve and fill the gap. I look for improvement from the defense as a group (much of it coming from a full year of an older and wiser Adam McQuaid), and Tuukka Rask as well, which will hopefully keep the Bruins goals against steady. I also expect further improvement up front from Tyler Seguin, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic and David Krejci, and probably a bounceback year from Rich Peverley as well. All in all, the champs are well poised for their third division crown in four years.
2. Buffalo Sabres (projected points: 103)
It's hard to overstate the rotten luck that Buffalo had last season. A number of important contributors missed significant time, led by Derek Roy, who was limited to 35 games. Franchise defenseman Tyler Myers got off to a horrible start before finding his way in the second half. Combine that with a step backward from Ryan Miller and it's impressive that they even managed 96 points. The fact is, Buffalo had a torrid second half, and probably would have beaten Philadelphia in round 1 of the playoffs had the injury bug not stung them once again. Like Boston, Buffalo features a fairly young core of players that should show improvement.
The Sabres spent lavishly in the offseason, bringing in Christian Ehrhoff, Ville Leino and Robyn Regehr. This will shore up a defense that was lacking behind Myers and the surprisingly good Jordan Leopold last year, though the loss of the underrated Steve Montador means the upgrade will not be quite as significant. Ehrhoff benefited mightily from playing with the star-laden Canucks last year, and will not put up the numbers Sabres fans might expect, but he remains a top-notch power play quarterback. Regehr is a thumper, who adds some muscle to the blue line, and will help keep the shots against down. Putting him on the first pair with the 6'8 Myers would give Buffalo's big man more ability to display his offensive talent. The Leino signing didn't impress me as much; that looks like one they may regret, as Leino benefited mightily from great teammates and soft matchups in Philly. Still, the Sabres will roll two quality scoring lines, and maybe three. Miller is, of course, a rock in goal, though Sabre fans probably need to realize that his magnificent 2009-10 season was the anomaly, and not the very good, but not great, one that followed. All in all, the Sabres have a fair chance to take back the Northeast Division for the third time in six years.
3. Montreal Canadiens (projected points: 95)
Les Habitantes pushed the eventual champs to overtime of the 7th game of the opening round before this happened. (And if you think that intro was just an excuse to link to that video, then you know me too well.) So why do I have them well behind the Bruins and Sabres? I just don't see how this team will score goals, particularly at even strength. Only 6 teams lit the lamp fewer times than the Habs last season, though there should be some improvement. The addition of 26 goal scorer Erik Cole should help, as will a healthy Max Pacioretty, and Scott Gomez can't possibly repeat the sort of lousy puck luck that led to a 4.5% shooting percentage. Even so, number 1 center Tomas Plekanac is a poor man's Patrice Bergeron, and Mike Cammalleri is a power play sniper who brings little to the table 5 on 5 and increasingly looks like he simply cashed in on a contract year.
But even a slight increase in scoring will probably be offset at the other end. "But wait, Andrei Markov is back!" Yes, Markov is healthy, at least as of the time of this article and 82 games of Markov would give Montreal a boost. But Markov is entering his 12th season and has played over 70 games exactly four times; we might see the second coming of Christ before we see Markov play a full season again. What's more, the Canadiens picked up James Wisniewski to replace Markov, and Wisniewski gave them 43 games of sublime play. 43 games of Wisniewski and 7 games of Markov isn't that different, production-wise, than the 50-60 games we can reasonably expect Markov to play. PK Subban will continue to improve, especially if the coaching staff gets him to concentrate more on his prodigious skills than being an agitator, and a healthy Josh Gorges won't hurt, either. But the steady Roman Hamrlik is gone, and Jaroslav Spacek and Hal Gill are just about ready for the glue factory. And then, there's Carey Price. Price was magnificent last year, and nearly stole the first round series on his own. But he also played 72 games, a number the Habs probably should limit a bit, and set a career high for save percentage. Any regression at all from Price would be disastrous. Once again, the season rides squarely on his shoulders; I'm not sure he's going to be able to carry this team to the playoffs once again, but if he does, all things are possible.
4. Toronto Maple Leafs (projected points: 93)
With the price tag paid in full on the Phil Kessel trade, Bruins fans can stop cheering against the Maple Leafs and go back to not giving a damn about them. This team is not unlike Montreal in a lot of ways, though they are a bit younger, and should show some overall improvement. Like the Habs, it's hard to tell where the goal scoring will come from. Toronto scored a meager 218 goals last year, just 2 more than Montreal, and it's questionable whether they'll score even that many again. The Leafs enjoyed surprisingly good seasons from Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur. MacArthur's offensive explosion was truly out of nowhere, and Kulemin's 17.9% shooting percentage is probably unsustainable, so at least two of those players figure to decline. Like Montreal, the Leafs figure to pin their offensive fortunes on talented, but oft-injured players: Matthew Lombardi and Tim Connolly. The Leafs hope that at least one of them can provide Phil Kessel with the service he's missed since leaving Marc Savard's wing. The bottom two lines contain little to no offensive talent unless someone (maybe Joe Colborne) has a breakout season.
Defensively, the Leafs are in better shape. Luke Schenn is on the verge of becoming a top-tier defenseman, and Carl Gunnarsson is extremely underrated. Dion Phaneuf is overrated, but still a quality player, and the additions of Cody Franson and John-Michael Liles give them a perfectly respectable set of defensemen. And if either Keith Aulie or Jake Gardiner can make the leap and shuffle the dreadful Mike Komisarek to the press box, so much the better. The Leafs will improve in goal, as well, as they'll get around 60 games of James Reimer, as opposed to what they had last year: 37 games of Reimer and 45 games of crap. A slight regression for "Optimus Reim" might be in the cards, but he's still better in goal than anyone this franchise has had since Curtis Joseph. If the KGM line is for real, and Connolly and Lombardi stay healthy, this team should make the playoffs. But, that's a pretty rosy scenario, and falling just short of the 8th spot is probably more likely.
5. Ottawa Senators (68 points)
The Senators management couldn't be bothered to spend much time on this season, so why should I? The fact is, this franchise is in a long-overdue rebuilding mode. The 2006-7 season was the high water mark, and they kept clinging to the illusion that they were just a player or two away from getting back there. When the roof finally caved in last season, as Daniel Alfredsson, Sergei Gonchar and Alexei Kovalev all got old at the same time, the rebuild began. The Senators have some building blocks in Mika Zibanejad, David Rundblad and Erik Karlsson. And Nikita Filatov will get every opportunity to showcase his prodigious skills, and may be the player he never could be in Columbus. It's easy to forget the Russian phenom is still just 21. As for the defense, there's bad, there's really bad, there's crime scene bad, and then there's the Senators. Their (ahem) shutdown defenseman, Chris Phillips, managed a -35 last year. And good news, he signed a contract extension in the offseason! Somehow, Filip Kuba is even worse. Rundblad and Karlsson will be fine players in time, but they will suffer through trial by fire this year.
The top line of Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and either Milan Michalek, Bobby Butler or Filatov will be productive if Alfredsson stays healthy, and Craig Anderson is a good enough goaltender to steal a few games here and there. But between an offense with zero depth, and that defense, it would be nothing short of stunning if this team finishes anywhere but the Northeast Division basement, and probably the Eastern Conference basement, for that matter.