After a difficult 06-07 that saw the Canadiens barely miss the playoffs, GM Bob Gainey sat and did nothing in the offseason...and he was vilified for it. The Montreal media couldn't understand why Gainey wanted to put his youngsters in positions to make plays. Well it worked, and the Habs grabbed the #1 seed in the East last year. This year won't be much different...except they might score more. The only key loss was PP point-man Marc Streit. Alex Kovalev will likely move from his role of flank wing to the point and quarterback the power play from there, but he was basically the quarterback last year as well - so not much changes with the man-advantage. The puck movement of Kovalev and the blast of Andrei Markov will lead to plenty of goals.
The Canadiens added both Alex Tanguay and Robert Lang to give them even more depth at forward. The Kostitsyn brothers are the real deal. Tomas Plekanec, Saku Koivu, Christopher Higgins...that's a lot of extremely talented forwards.
Though the defense lost Streit, he wasn't known for his defensive abilities. The Habs' one-two punch of Komisarek and Markov is about as good as it comes. Komisarek will torture opposing teams' top lines, and Markov will make the breakout pass as good as anyone in the game. Roman Hamrlik and Francis Boullion are no slouches either.
The season will probably fall on Carey Price's shoulders. Price is a world-class talent but will have to improve on his playoff performance last year. Too many soft goals in the Philadelphia series led to whispers that perhaps Price wasn't up to the challenge, but everyone needs to relax. The kid is barely old enough to drink alcohol (in the States). Still, if he falters, Jaroslav Halak is a capable backup and can give the Habs enough to win games.
/The Same (or almost)/Worse
Tanguay and Lang? It's almost not even fair. The Habs win this division again.
What the hell happened last year? The Senators went from one of the most dominating teams in the league to one of the most depressing. Bryan Murray curiously hired John Paddock to take over the ship after Murray himself led the Sens to the Stanley Cup Finals in 06-07 (interestingly enough, that was Murray's first time taking a team past the 2nd round in 16 years of NHL head-coaching, so maybe it was the right move). Paddock looked like a great hire but lost the team midway through the season. This year, Murray looks to Craig Hartsburg, who coached the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds to a 141-91-23 record in the OHL over the last four seasons. Hartsburg will look to create a new identity for a team that is loaded in offensive talent.
You want to build a winning hockey team. Ok - start with Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson, Mike Fisher, and Antoine Vermette up front. That's one hell of a front 5. Chris Kelly and Nick Foligno will be granted more ice time this year, and they probably should get it. This team is too talented on the offensive side of the puck to lose games because of a lack of scoring.
The defense, however, will be an interesting situation. Wade Redden is gone, and probably should be after failing to perform under the pressures of a crumbling system. The team will expect Chris Phillips and new acquisition Filip Kuba to step up. Anton Volchenkov is one of the league's best shot blockers and a very underrated #2/#3 defenseman. Beyond that, though, could be trouble - Jason Smith showed last year that he lost a step as the year went on. Alexander Picard could certainly step in and overachieve, but right now he's going to have to battle just to get into the top 4.
Martin Gerber is probably good enough to start. The Sens picked up Alex Auld just in case Gerber runs into trouble, and that was a solid move; Auld played very well for Boston last year when Tim Thomas went down, taking the pressure off youngster Tuuka Rask.
/The Same (or almost)/Worse
It's hard to imagine that with all this talent, the Senators won't be a top 5 team in the East. Hartsburg will show them what it's like to play hockey for each other instead of for themselves.
This team was one of my favorites to watch last year, for one reason: speed. Chuck Kobasew can fly and finish. Phil Kessel is one step away from becoming a star in this league. And Marc Savard could be the best passer in the game. All this led to great puck movement and pursuit. The Bruins will be a tough defeat, as they'll make you work for your wins with solid forechecking and a third guy back (oh, and you yourself can try leaving two back...you'll be faced with 3 on 2's all game). Patrice Bergeron makes his comeback, but could be one big hit away from finding another career.
The signing of Michael Ryder was a good one, but Ryder's struggles in Montreal last year were troubling. Hopefully a decrease in media pressure will prove beneficial to him and he excels in Boston. He'll likely start the season playing on a line with Marc Savard, and that will help some. Milan Lucic might be my favorite young player in the NHL - he's a banger that has offensive touch and can play a defensive game. Along with Kessel, he's the future of this team.
The defense is solid - Zdeno Chara and Dennis Wideman are a nice 1-2 punch, and Andrew Ference/Marc Stuart/Shane Hnidy can hold their own. Head Coach Claude Julien will likely use the Bruins speed to his advantage and employ a nice counter-trap that takes the pressure off of defenders and puts more defensive responsibility in the forwards hands, but the defense corps can hold their own.
Tim Thomas is a good NHL goaltender and will seek to improve his status as a mid-ranked #1 netminder. Manny Fernandez is healthy this year, and will try to seize the starting role should Thomas falter. The Bruins are fine in net, especially with youngster Tukka Rask waiting in the minors and playing for Providence this year.
/The Same (or almost)/Worse
Boston got better - they lost almost nobody and have a nice amount of depth at forward, which leads me to believe...how strong is this division? It could supplant the Atlantic as the strongest in the East.
Buffalo: a young team with something to prove. The 07-08 season was a disappointment after the relative success of 2005-2007. A lot of people are writing them off already (including me).
After trading impending free agent Brian Campbell for a 1st rounder and Steve Bernier, the Sabres moved Bernier's rights to the Canucks for draft picks (used to obtain Craig Rivet). Bernier started strong but was noticeably less of a factor as the season progressed.
The forwards are solid, and the front 3 of Vanek-Roy-Pominville is young and talented. Two of these guys are going to score 30 goals this year. Tim Connolly is the number two center, but as far as I'm concerned, has bones that are constructed of playing cards. Kotalik and the enigmatic Afinogenov need to step up and provide more offense.
On defense the newly aquired Rivet should provide steady defense and a presence in the locker room. Rivet played in a defensive transition system out in San Jose and will play in a similar situation in Buffalo. His leadership will be on display this season as he'll take the captainship away from that putrid rotating system we saw a year ago (don't worry, the Sabres will still rotate 4 alternates to give you that shuffling feel) Teppo Numminen is a solid d-man, maybe not a #1 but close. Tony Lydman and Jaroslav Spacek are a solid 3/4.
Ryan Miller is a good goaltender but will have to prove that he's there in the big spot. Patrick Lalime is a serviceable backup and gives the Sabres an excuse to rest Miller.
Better/The Same (or almost)/
Things don't look much different. Unless that top line steps up and scores 90-100 goals between them, this could be another long year.
Alright, where do I begin. The Maple Leafs look to make it to the playoffs this year after the acquisitions of Jeff Finger and Ryan Hollweg....okay I'm just kidding. Toronto actually added a little depth up front with the signings of Nik Hagman and Jamal Mayers. Unfortunately, both of these players are likely to see at least some top 6 time which is not good for Leafs fans. Jiri Tlusty will probably step into a more prominent role, and Nik Antropov is one of the league's most dominating forwards when he wants to be.
Thomas Kaberle is a legit #1 d-man that can do it all. Behind him is a mystery. People are still scratching their heads as to how Jeff Finger got the contract he received, but he did get it and will play a prominent role. GM Cliff Fletcher, aka the Crypt Keeper, obviously saw something in Finger's game that is appealing him. Anyway, beyond these two is Pavel Kubina and etc., which will struggle to get the job done this year.
The goaltending is better, but only because the Leafs signed Curtis Joseph to back up Vesa Toskala. Whoever is in net is going to need help from the defensive corps, and who knows if that's going to come. New head coach Ron Wilson will probably try to bring a defensive system into play here, like he did in San Jose.
/The Same (or almost)/Worse
The Leafs got a little better but that's not saying much - there was really nowhere to go but up. Nik Hagman and Jiri Tlusty will be this year's solid contributors.
I don't think you did enough research on the Sabres, as to who plays on which D pairings, and who plays on which offensive lines. I appreciate your efforts to give the NorthEast a look, but I can't see the Senators being a better team after their losses, the Maple Leafs are certainly not a better team for this year (but they ARE much better for their future) and I just don't think the Bruins had the offseason splash that is going to keep them in the playoffs this year. Sabres didn't either...
I wrote this about two weeks ago (regarding the sabres d-pairings - i only updated for the captain), but I appreciate your comment.
They did not let Bernier go, he was traded for draft picks that were used to trade for Rivet. They also signed all their young and upcoming players.