by PuckStopsHere on 10/05/08 at 08:16 AM ET
I am continuing with my pre—season predictions today by looking at the Northeast Division. Here are my West Division picks. The Northeast Division has produced the East Conference regular season champion for the past three seasons and each year it has been a different team (Ottawa in 2006, Buffalo in 2007 and Montreal in 2008). That says that this division has some good teams and should be able to challenge for the division lead again.
1. Montreal Canadiens The Canadiens had the best power play in the league last season and there is a good chance they can do that again. Assistant coach Doug Jarvis has built a strong system that continually does well despite a changing personnel. At forward they have Alexei Kovalev coming off of an 84 point season (his best since 2001), although that might not be repeatable, he is a strong forward. They have depth provided by Alex Tanguay, Saku Koivu, Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn and Tomas Plekanec. Although there are no gamebreakers here, this is a solid group of forwards. On defence Andrei Markov had a year where he was in consideration for a Norris Trophy nomination and Roman Hamrlik and Mike Komisarek are also very good defencemen. In goal, Carey Price will have his chance to lead the team. He had a very good rookie season, but stumbled in the playoffs. This season, he could establish himself as one of the better goalies in the NHL. Montreal is the team to beat in the Northeast Division.
2. Ottawa Senators Ottawa fell apart in the stretch run last season after a very good start. They have too much talent to be as bad as their stretch run showed. Their offence remains as strong as it was in their 2007 run to the Stanley Cup finals. Only Detroit has a top three forwards as good as Dan Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza. Last season, there were depth problems beyond these three and these problems still exist, although Antoine Vermette appears ready to make a step forward. Their defence is clearly weakened since 2007. Gone are Wade Redden and Andrej Meszaros. They will have to make due with Chris Phillips, Filip Kuba and Anton Volchenkov. None of these players have much offensive upside, but all are solid in their own zone. In goal, Martin Gerber is unspectacular, but can be reliable. This team is clearly weakened from their Stanley Cup finals run, but it is still a solid NHL team and I se no reason they will not be able to put their slide at the end of last season to rest.
3. Buffalo Sabres Buffalo has lost Daniel Briere, Chris Drury and Brian Campbell to free agency over the last two years and that is a big hit. With those players, this could be one of the strongest teams in the conference. Without them, it is not a bad team. Derek Roy, Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek are all young offensive talents who may be able to take steps forward. Their defence is solid but lacks any game breakers. It will rely on Craig Rivet, Jaroslav Spacek and Henrik Tallinder. In goal, Ryan Miller is a good goalie, but one rung below the best in the game. Buffalo’s pipeline of talent departing to free agency may have been plugged and this will allow them to compete, but enough damage has been done to keep them from the top.
4. Boston Bruins Boston was a playoff team last season. One of the main reasons for their playoff berth was a career season from 34 year old Tim Thomas in goal. That is likely unrepeatable and will cost the team. Nevertheless, Thomas is a more than adequate goalie. Zdeno Chara is the superstar on their defence. He is joined my players like Dennis Wideman and Andrew Ference. Their offence struggled at times last year, but it has some potential. The underrated Marc Savard could be one of the top 10 scorers in the league. Patrice Bergeron is back from a season lost to concussion and could be a huge improvement. Phil Kessel, Michael Ryder and Marco Sturm provide some depth. With a dropoff in goaltending (Thomas posted career bests in GAA and saves percentage last year), this team will likely fall short of the playoffs, but they are in the hunt.
5. Toronto Maple Leafs Toronto’s offence has been significantly weakened. Jason Blake, Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky might be the three best offensive talents and none managed 60 points last season. On defence, Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina are good defencemen and they will rely on Mike Van Ryn (if healthy) and Ian White to provide some depth. Vesa Toskala is a solid goalie, who is going to face a lot of shots this season, but should provide enough support to keep the Leafs from being the worst in the league. Toronto is rebuilding. This will be a long year for the Leafs, Leaf fans may not be happy as this team will not be good, but they likely won’t be bad enough to win first pick in the draft either.
The Northeast Division has a good chance of producing the East Conference champion. It would be a nice story if the Montreal Canadiens win it in their 100th year. There are no teams in the East Conference on the level of Detroit, Anaheim or San Jose, so there is a less clear elite class in the conference which makes the eventual conference winner hard to determine given the larger number of potential champions.
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