I'm going to look at all six divisions, starting with the home of the Leafs, the Northeast Division.
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Boston Bruins: The sad-sack Bruins have done little to improve their team from last season. The major upgrade was bringing in goalie Manny Fernandez from Minnesota; however, Fernandez may have inflated numbers due to time spent on the defensive-minded Wild, so he will have to prove himself this year. The addition of Peter Schaefer brings about much-needed offense, but will definitely not save the team. On defense, Zdeno Chara is going to have to prove his worth this season. If Phil Kessel, Marc Savard, and Marc-Andre Bergeron all have solid seasons, the team might have a chance to push for one of the last playoff spots, though it looks doubtful.
Buffalo Sabres: Just how good were the 2006-07 Buffalo Sabres? Well, as if winning the President's Trophy with 113 points and making the ECF wasn't enough, one way they can prove their worth is by being the only team that can lose its two co-captains and still have an optimistic outlook on the season. Although both Chris Drury and Daniel Briere skipped town for supposedly brighter pastures, this team still has a top scorer, and potential franchise face, in Thomas Vanek. Almost snagged by the Oilers, Buffalo felt it imperative to keep the speedy Austrian, who had a career year with 84 points last season. The Sabres also have impressive scoring power in players such as Tim Connolly, Maxim Afinogenov, not to mention Jason Pominville and Drew Stafford. The team also boasts solid depth players, and up-and-comers such as Paul Gaustad, Adam Mair, Daniel Paille and Clarke MacArthur. In net, the Sabres remain relatively strong in Ryan Miller. Thus, while it seems as if the Sabres have gotten weaker, don't kid yourself. They're still good. Scary good, even if you haven't realized it yet.
Montreal Canadiens: The Canadiens season can only be summed up in one word: disappointment. Sitting in fourth at one time, Montreal eventually dropped farther and farther down the playoff ladder, culminating in a loss to rival Toronto at season's end that kept them out of the playoffs. Unfortunately for them, not much has changed in Habland over the off-season. On D, they lost their PP pointman in Sheldon Souray; however, his one-dimensional play won't be missed much, and bringing in Roman Hamrlik, a more defensive blueliner, is a good call. As for offense, not much has changed, aside from the addition of Bryan Smolinski. The main thing the Habs have to work on is even-strength scoring. They were one of the better PP teams last year, but couldn't get it done 5-on-5. Ultimately, while the Habs boast strong prospects, giving them much hope for the future, they can't boast such optimism right now.
Ottawa Senators: Okay, so the Ottawa Senators choked last year...hardly shocking. What was shocking, however, was that it took them until Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals to do so. This team impressed a lot of people by breezing through the first three reounds virtually unscathed, with a record of 12-3. Much of that success can be attributed to their first line, consisting of perennial all-stars Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley, and Jason Spezza; the three forwards racked 60+ points in the playoffs. The team remains relatively unchanged from their successful campaign last year, the only change being the acquisition of Shean Donovan from Boston to add some much-needed grit. While Heatley will likely skip town as a UFA in 2008, he still will help the Sens dominate this season. Consider it a victory lap if you will.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Finally, we come to my favourite team. Another heartbreaking 9th place finish for the Leafs last season resulted in some noticeable changes. For one, the Leafs traded for goalie Vesa Toskala. The Finn, who has drawn comparisons to former teammate Miikka Kiprusoff, has undoubtedly shown flashes of brilliance in his tenure in San Jose, and is an upgrade from Andrew Raycroft. On offense, the Leafs got some punch from free agent Jason Blake, who scored 40 goals with the Isles last season. While unlikely to repeat the feat, Blake will give Sundin a solid winger to play with, and bolster the first line. The one remaining spectre, however, is penalty killing. The weakest part of Toronto's game, the Leafs have done little to address the need, something that may haunt them later. Nonetheless, Toronto is an improved team, and, barring injuries and other intangibles, the Leafs should expect some modest improvement this year.
HOW THEY STACK UP:
Ottawa has undoubtedly proven its supremacy in this division, although Buffalo cannot be counted out. On the second tier are Toronto and Montreal, the former having improved this off-season substantially more so than the latter. Boston, of course, will occupy the cellar once again.
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