Strengths – Few teams can hang with the Bruins five-on-five; the B’s had the best goal differential in the NHL last year, and were second the year before. With the ability to roll three legitimate scoring lines, and a defense anchored by possibly the NHL’s best defenseman, Zdeno Chara, there’s little reason to suspect Boston’s strong five-on-five advantage will subside. The Bruins can also count on improvement from a lot of their core players. Tyler Seguin and Nathan Horton are the best examples, albeit for opposite reasons. Seguin led the team with 67 points last year, and isn’t even 20 yet. He’s not a star in the making; he’s a superstar in the making. Horton’s season was wrecked by a concussion, but all signs point to him being healthy and allowing Rich Peverley to slide back to the third line role where he’ll usually have a huge advantage over his opponents.
Weaknesses – For the first time in years, goaltending is not the backbone of this team. While Tuukka Rask is definitely a top 10 goaltender, there’s some question over his ability to hold up over a full season, even a shortened season like we’re about to have. Remember that the last time Rask was the #1 goaltender, he faded tremendously in the playoffs, playing a huge role in the Bruins’ playoff collapse against Philadelphia. Whether you think the Bruins sustained a downgrade by going from Tim Thomas to Rask as the starter (and I don’t), it’s plain that there is a downgrade in the #2 spot from Rask to Anton Khudobin. And of course, the age-old power play bugaboo may rear its ugly head, and we Bruin fans won’t have Tomas Kaberle or Joe Corvo to blame for its futility. For an early leader in the clubhouse for the scapegoat, how about Johnny Boychuk?
Outlook – The Bruins have the look of the best team in the Northeast, and look to be favorites for their fourth division title in five years. But how far they go in the playoffs will depend on Rask’s conditioning and ability to go every night.
Strengths – Perhaps the best thing the Sabres have going for them is that they can’t possibly have as many things go wrong as they did last year. Of their core players, only Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek played as well as expected. Inexplicable slumps and unfortunate injuries (only three Sabres played 80+ games last year) combined to submarine their season before it even got started. And yet, after a brutal start, they still finished just three points out of the playoffs. Ryan Miller remains a top-10 goaltender, and a healthy Tyler Myers is a fine defensive anchor. There is quite a bit of young talent on this team, in Marcus Foligno, Cody Hodgson, Luke Adam and Brayden McNabb. That, and Terry Pegula's desire to win at all costs, may make them trade chips if the Sabres need to add scoring....
Weaknesses – ...which they probably will. The Sabres have had a problem scoring goals for years, and they didn’t do a thing to address that in the offseason. Trading away skill for douchebaggery is usually a poor tradeoff, and so it was for the Sabres when they traded Derek Roy for Steve Ott. Roy wasn’t without fault, by any means, but he was a producer on a team that didn’t have many, whereas Ott is basically a penalty-taking machine. I can hear the announcers now ,"he’s an agitator! He gets under the other team’s skin!" That’s great, except when you take more penalties than you draw. Patrick Kaleta is a successful agitator; Steve Ott just hurts his own team. There’s going to be a lot of pressure on Ville Leino to justify his outlandish contract, and I doubt that’s going to happen. And there at least has to be a question of whether Myers will reach the immense potential he once showed. He has not been the same player since Henrik Tallinder was allowed to leave via free agency. Similarly, it looks more and more like Miller is merely a very good goaltender, as opposed to the stone wall he was in 2009-10. Expectations for those two franchise pillars thus must be kept in check.
Outlook – The Sabres look good enough to sneak into one of the bottom three spots in the Eastern Conference, but I just don’t see where this team can find the scoring to do more than that.
Strengths – The Senators’ core of Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson, Milan Michalek and Erik Karlsson had a phenomenal season last year, and the addition of Kyle Turris last season was a great pickup. There’s young talent up and down this roster, and this is a team that should see steps forward from a number of those kids. The combination of Craig Anderson, Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner should give the Senators above-average goaltending for the first time since a young pup named Dominik Hasek was between the pipes.
Weaknesses – As impressive a talent as Karlsson is, he’s a train wreck in his own end, a trait he shares with most of his fellow Senator blueliners. Only Carolina gave up more shots last year, and there’s not much reason to expect improvement on that front. More disconcertingly, the Spezza/Alfredsson/Michalek trio can expect some serious regression to the mean. Not that they’re stiffs, but Spezza and Alfredsson both have injury track records that suggest the 80 and 75 games they played, respectively, are unlikely to be repeated. Michalek, meanwhile, had an unsustainably high 16.5% shooting percentage. The improvement from the kids will probably be more than offset by regression from those core players.
Outlook – It’s hard for me to put this team above Buffalo. Consider that everything went wrong for Buffalo last year, and everything went right for Ottawa, and they still just finished three points apart. With the strength of the Atlantic Division, the second spot in the Northeast could easily be the last playoff spot in the conference. At the moment, I have the Senators on the outside looking in.
Strengths – If nothing else, the Leafs have firepower. Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, James Van Riemsdyk and Mikhail Grabovski can all put the puck in the net. This team had four 20 goal scorers last year, and the addition of JVR, and with any kind of puck luck at all for Nikolai Kulemin (he had an unsustainably low 6.5% shooting percentage), they could have 6 this year. Not surprisingly, the Leafs had one of the best power plays in the league, and that’s unlikely to change, with both Dion Phaneuf and John-Michael Liles capable power play point men. And it’s also noteworthy that for all the talk of "truculence" (wait, can we still say that?), the Leafs are one of the most disciplined teams in the league; they had the 7th fewest minor penalties in the league last year. Staying out of the box is always a good thing.
Weaknesses – They’d better score in bunches, because they’re likely to give up plenty in their own end. Phaneuf has long been an overrated defenseman, and Liles brings little value to that end of the rink. Jake Gardiner’s health remains in question. Cody Franson is good, but might get exposed in a larger role. And of course, there’s the age-old problem of goaltending. The Leafs thought they solved it with James Reimer, and then Reimer turned out to be a disappointment like every other goalie to wear the blue-and-white since Curtis Joseph. Also, Lupul was a nice story, bouncing back from chronic injuries to post a career-best season, but he faded as the year went on, and only played 17 games after the All-Star break. It’s hard to trust a player with such a poor medical history to be a major component of your team (see also, a certain Montreal blueliner that we'll cover in our next entry).
Outlook – Right now, they sit fourth in the division. However, if the oft-rumored trade for Roberto Luongo ever materializes, they could easily overtake Buffalo for second. Whatever his flaws, Luongo is a hell of a lot better than anyone else this team can trot out between the pipes and will camouflage a lot of the defense’s shortcomings. Long-suffering Leafs fans will surely roll the dice with his playoff track record (which isn't all that bad anyway; a whopping .003 percent separates his regular season save percentage and his playoff save percentage). So call them fourth for now, but keep an eye on this situation.
Strengths – Erik Cole, David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty all had fine seasons, and Pacioretty and the precocious (yes, let’s use that adjective, in the spirit of not being unkind) PK Subban are both excellent young players on the upswing, though Subban remains unsigned. Josh Gorges is a very steady blueliner and if Andrei Markov can finally stay healthy, the combo of Gorges, Subban and Markov could give Montreal a pretty good defense. Rene Bourque is due for a bounceback from his awful start in Montreal, and notably non-loathsome Hab Brian Gionta should be healthy and contributing. And of course, Carey Price not only is one of the best goaltenders on the planet, but can handle a huge workload. It wouldn’t shock me to see Price play 42 or more games, giving the Habs an advantage in net most nights, and a big edge if the opposition is playing a backup.
Weaknesses – Yikes, where to begin? Saying "if Markov can stay healthy" is sort of like saying "if pigs suddenly gain flight". And even if he is, it’s hard to imagine that all the injuries he’s had, combined with his 34 years of age, haven’t left him a fraction of the player he once was. Generally speaking, age is creeping up on the core of this team; Gionta, Markov and Cole will all be 34 when the season starts. Tomas Kaberle was lousy two years ago and isn’t getting younger. With their scoring so heavily concentrated on the top line, this isn't a difficult team to defend against. Size and strength is a perennial issue for this team, but their players have traditionally done a fine job of compensating by collapsing to the ice when a bigger player brushes them, so points for that.
Outlook – One of the best things Le Blue, Blanc et Rouge could do is treat this as a rebuilding year and give their kids plenty of time to develop. The buyout of Scott Gomez was a step in the right direction; nobody since DB Cooper has stolen money and vanished quite the way Gomez has done. Louis LeBlanc and Alex Galchenyuk should be on the roster from day one, short-season learning curve be damned. If Price steals a bunch of games, Subban signs quickly, the kids age quickly, the old guys don’t, and Markov stays reasonably healthy, this team can steal a playoff spot. But I wouldn’t bet on all those things happening.