by PuckStopsHere on 10/01/09 at 11:40 PM ET
My pre-season predictions continue today with the Northeast Division. Here are my West Conference predictions.
This is the predicted order of finish for the Northeast Division this season:
1. Boston Bruins The Bruins won the East Conference last year. A big part of their success was the play of Tim Thomas. Thomas had one of the best seasons in recent memory from a goaltender in the NHL. At age 35, it is reasonable to believe Thomas should be in the decline phase of his career. It is also reasonable to doubt Thomas because last year was the best season of his career (to date?) by a significant margin. A significant portion of Boston’s success last year was goaltending and even if Tim Thomas plays well this season, a step backward is likely. The fact that rookie Tuukka Rask takes over for Manny Fernandez as their backup goalie is another likely drop in goal. Nevertheless, Boston has several young players who are likely improving led by David Krejci, Dennis Wideman, Milan Lucic and Blake Wheeler. Their improvement should help to offset any drops in goal. Boston has a significant talent in reigning Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara on defence and Marc Savard at forward. Michael Ryder, Patrice Bergeron and Chuck Kobasew provide good depth at forward. The Bruins might be hard pressed to repeat as East Conference Champions, but they should win their division.
2. Montreal Canadiens The Canadiens turned over a significant portion of their roster this summer. Returning is Carey Price in goal. Price is one of the finest young talents in the NHL but ran into some growing pains last year. In all likelihood he should move forward this year. Andrei Markov is the anchor of the Habs defence and one of the better defencemen in hockey. When he ran into injury problems late last season, it is no coincidence that Montreal struggled. Roman Hamrlik and newly acquired Jaroslav Spacek and Paul Mara fill out a good top four defencemen. Four of the Habs top scoring forwards from last season (Alexei Kovalev, Saku Koivu, Alex Tanguay and Robert Lang) are not returning. This would create a problem if they were not adequately replaced. Montreal is bringing in some talented players in Scott Gomez, Mike Camalleri and Brian Gionta to join existing players in Andrei Kostitsyn, Tomas Plekanec and Guillaume Latendresse. This is a talented but small forward unit. Montreal should be OK most nights, but may be beaten physically on occasion.
3. Buffalo Sabres The main reason Buffalo missed the playoffs last year was a late season injury to goaltender Ryan Miller. Miller lacks a significant backup again this year and will be asked to carry the load for the Sabres. Their defence is weakened with the loss of Jaroslav Spacek. Their top scoring returning defenceman is Craig Rivet, who put up 24 points last year. Toni Lydman is probably the only other proven NHL regular in the bunch. The Sabres offence could be strong. Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy and Jason Pominville are talented players who are still young enough that they may continue to improve. They would be helped significantly if Tim Connolly could ever put together an injury-free season. Drew Stafford is a pretty good piece of the Sabres forward depth. This is a middle of the road team that has largely stood pat; expect another middle of the road season.
4. Ottawa Senators Ottawa has had a lot of off-ice distractions over the past couple years. That didn’t change this summer, with the Dany Heatley trade mill churning all summer long. Heatley was eventually traded for Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo. This will downgrade the talent level of the Ottawa forwards. Ottawa is left with two of its big three forwards in aging Daniel Alfredsson and media whipping boy Jason Spezza. Depth beyond them is questionable with Nick Foligno and Mike Fisher among the keys. Their defence has been depeleted over the last few years. Chris Phillips, Filip Kuba, Chris Campoli and Anton Volchenkov should be their top four. In goal, it is hoped that Pascal Leclaire can recover from an injury plagued year last year. He is young enough that it is reasonable to imagine that he has yet to hit his peak. The key to Ottawa’s success is to limit off-ice distractions and come together as a team. That hasn’t happened in the last couple of years and there is no strong reason to imagine it will happen soon.
5. Toronto Maple Leafs Toronto is attempting to rebuild again. Their top returning scorer is 36 year old Jason Blake. It is unlikely he can be counted upon to repeat at that level. That leaves Alexei Ponikarovsky, Matt Stajan, Mikhail Grabovsky and the injured Phil Kessel to attempt to provide an offence. Defensive depth is significantly improved with the additions of Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin. They join Tomas Kaberle to give Toronto a solid top three defencemen. In goal, Vesa Toskala will attempt to recover from a poor season. He is joined by rookie Jonas Gustafsson in goal. A lot of parts are missing from the rebuilt team - especially at forward - but when Kessel gets healthy in the later part of the season we will likely get are first look at the team’s progress.
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