The Northeast Division at the Midway Point

Earlier this year, I made some predictions about the Northeast Division. So, as we near the All-Star Break, let's ask "how are those predictions holding up?" Not so well, but I'm not complaining in the least.

1. Boston Bruins

What's Gone Right?

The Bruins are the one team that's performing to form in this division (maybe the Leafs, too, I suppose). They're getting consistent scoring from three lines, maybe the best goaltending in NHL history, and solid defense. They lead the league in goal differential by a massive margin (+69, the next closest team is +48), and thus, if anything, may be underachieving with their 31-14-2 record. Tyler Seguin has developed faster than anyone dared dream possible, giving Boston the NHL's best #2 line.

What's Gone Wrong?

When you lead the league in goals scored, are 4th in goals against, 7th on the penalty kill and 11th on the power play, there's not a lot to complain about. As I mentioned previously, 2/3 of the first line has underachieved, but they're turning it around. If Nathan Horton's "mild concussion" turns out to be more serious than first thought, that would be a real problem. And a spate of hits that ranged from questionable (Lucic on Ryan Miller) to unquestionably dirty (Brad Marchand on Sami Salo; Andrew Ference on Ryan McDonagh) would seem to have the refs and league office looking more closely at the B's in the second half.

What's Got to Change?

Boston's biggest enemy isn't anyone in this division; barring a collapse of epic proportions, they'll win the division going away, but our old friend regression to the mean. The idea that the Bruins will have two goalies break the record for save percentage in a season is almost as absurd as someone turning down a chance to hang out at the White Hou...okay, bad example. But it's damn unlikely, in any event. The Bruins D is better than last year, but they need to tighten it up a bit more, as they're giving up 31.4 shots per game, 25th in the league. Granted, the Bruins appear content to play more of a fire wagon hockey style than anyone seems to realize, but shots are shots and they can't expect their goaltenders to keep blocking 94% of them. Upgrading a defensive corps that's pretty ordinary after Zdeno Chara should be a priority.

2. Ottawa Senators

What's Gone Right?

Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza have returned to old form, and Erik Karlsson's development has progressed at light speed. Craig Anderson has given the team consistently adequate goaltending for the first time since they employed a past-his-prime Dominik Hasek. The David Rundblad for Kyle Turris deal looks like a heist for the Senators, and a defense that looked to be AHL-level has generally played fairly well, showing some real offensive skill as a unit.

What's Gone Wrong?

The Senators, like the Bruins, need to tighten up on the back end. At 32.2 shots against per game, only Minnesota (wait, what?!?) is worse at allowing shots. Unlike the Bruins, the Senators don't have a deep and balanced offense to bury the other team under a mountain of shots; they're at a -1.4 shot differential per game (the Bruins are at +1.4).

What's Got to Change?

The Senators are a good bet for a second half regression. Their 27-19-6 record belies the fact that they're a meager -3 in goal differential. With so many players playing over their heads, it's hard to envision much further improvement for them; the focus has to be on maintaining a playoff spot. Filip Kuba and Chris Phillips were nightmares last season, and have been decent this season; that must keep up if they're going to stay in the hunt for a playoff berth. Spezza and Alfredsson need to continue believing that it's 5 years ago, and Karlsson needs to keep believing it's 5 years into the future.

3. Toronto Maple Leafs

What's Gone RIght?

The top line has been dynamite; Joffrey Lupul is healthy and wreaking havoc on opposing defenses. Phil Kessel is doing the same. Meanwhile, Tyler Bozak is doing his best Steve Rucchin impression. Kessel and Lupul have combined for 103 points thus far. Dion Phaneuf continues to play well and set the tone for a pretty solid defense that's shown some two-way skill. Tim Connolly has been pretty good, with 24 points in 37 games.

What's Gone Wrong?

Kessel and Lupul have outscored the next four Toronto forwards combined. The Leafs aren't getting much of anything without those two on the ice. They tried splitting up the duo and then even Ron Wilson realized that was a dumb idea. A healthy Connolly would help that a lot, but if a core part of your season planning includes the words "82 games from Tim Connolly", you might as well start planning for the draft lottery. The goaltending has been lousy, which usually is par for the course in T.O., but they thought that had been stabilized with the play of James Reimer. Reimer has struggled with injury this year, so it's way too soon to write him off as a Blaine Lacher/Andrew Raycroft clone.

What's Got to Change?

Last year, the Leafs got inspired play from the line of Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin. Grabovski has been good, with 32 points in 43 games, but the other two haven't even combined for a point per game. Kulemin's 20 in 49 is a real problem; he's too good to keep playing that poorly. Some puck luck would help; his 7.1% shooting percentage is well below his career average of 12.8%. Improved play from that line, and a healthy, productive Reimer would likely allow this team to cruise into the playoffs if everything else stays the same. But there's a big problem here; their itinerant superstar, Lupul, may be due for a huge fall from grace. There's a reason he's on his 4th team (plus two stints with Anaheim); he's got an injury track record that looks like the love child of Andrew Ference and Andrei Markov. Maybe he finally put all his talent together and figured out a way to stay healthy, but he's always a risk for a major injury.

4. Montreal Canadiens

What's Gone Right?

The Erik Cole pickup has been a stellar move for embattled GM Pierre Gauthier. Cole leads the team in goals and points. Max Pacioretty and P.K. Subban continue to develop into quality hockey players. Tomas Kaberle has managed to be a not-awful acquisition and the defense as a whole hasn't been too bad, giving up 28.6 shots per game, 6th best in the league. The penalty kill is the league's best. Lars Eller has come to life under embattled Anglophone Randy Cunneyworth.

What's Gone Wrong?

Andrei Markov, their best player, has missed the entire season so far with an injury. Excuse me while I sit on the Throne of Amazement and drink from my Goblet of Incredulity. The only guy who's gone longer without scoring than Scott Gomez is Tim Tebow. And I doubt Gomez would claim it's a life choice on his part. It's not like Gomez is alone, however; the offense as a whole hasn't been good; they're 18th in goals per game. Save for Subban and Kaberle, the defense has very little offensive skill, and now that Brian Gionta is done for the season, and they panic-traded Mike Cammalleri, there's not much offensive depth.

What's Got to Change?

Despite what seems like the season from Hell, it's important to note that Montreal is still just 10 points out of a playoff spot. If Price gets hot, he can make that up by himself. But more than anything else, they have to find some goals. If Eller and Pacioretty have both turned the corner, and they may have, that would help, as would a healthy Andrei Kostitsyn. They really need Markov back, but they can't count on that; he had another knee surgery in December and isn't even skating right now. Picking up another puck moving defenseman would help (James Wisniewski did a great job of filling Montreal's Markov-sized hole last year), but as any GM can tell you, that's a hard commodity to come by at the trade deadline.

5. Buffalo Sabres

What's Gone Right?

Jason Pominville played well enough to earn an all-star spot, and he and Thomas Vanek have been extremely productive this year. Jhonas Enroth has been playing pretty well in net, with a .919 save percentage. The ongoing Terry Pegula lovefest in Buffalo has kept the torches and pitchforks away from the First Niagara Center for the time being. Um...Cody McCormick has had some entertaining fights...yeah, I'm reaching here.

What's Gone Wrong?

A team that was predicted by many (including me) to contend for the division title has been a Costa Concordia-level shipwreck. Pretty much every Sabre not named "Pominville", "Vanek" or "Enroth" has been injured (Tyler Myers, Nathan Gerbe, Jochen Hecht), lousy (Drew Stafford, Robyn Regehr, Derek Roy) or both (Ryan Miller, Ville Leino, Christian Ehrhoff, Patrick Kaleta). Miller has taken the brunt of the criticism for this team, and it's hard to dispute that: his .897 save percentage is nearing Vesa Toskala levels of futility. But this is a team failure. Buffalo's defense has been sieve-like, giving up 31.4 shots per game (tied with the Bruins for 25th), and only 7 teams have a worse shot differential. A whopping three players have double digit goals, and the team is 26th in goals per game. The biggest problem is this: Buffalo rode Myers and Miller to their 2009-10 division title, and neither have been the same since. Miller, of course, has been awful this year, but goaltenders are unpredictable, so he could be going through a prolonged run of bad play. The real concern might be Myers. He's been hurt, but even when healthy, he's not the player the Sabres thought they were getting. He hasn't progressed beyond that great 2009-10 season, and in fact, seems to have regressed.

What's Got to Change?

As with the Canadiens, it's worth noting that, warts and all, this team is just 10 points out of a playoff spot, and they're clearly underachieving. Good health would help a lot. A trade might be difficult; the Sabres are capped out, and it's questionable how much return they'd be getting for some of their underachievers. Lindy Ruff is a good coach, and it's hard to imagine them letting him go. His previous protestations aside, I would expect Darcy Regier to be active in trying to make a move, if for no reason other than it's going to be damn hard to keep his job much longer if he doesn't.

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