After months of endless bickering and getting no where, the NHL has finally figured their stuff out and we will be getting some regular season hockey within the week. Lost in shuffle after the lockout took all the coverage was the teams themselves and the changes they made coming into the season. Some teams look poised to enter the top echelon of teams with bold off-season acquisitions, while some others seem to have taken a step back. Here is a division by division look at how I see the new season shaping up, and where each team should finish when the sprint to the end of the 48 game season is over.
#1 Boston Bruins
Last Season: 49-29-4; 1st in Northeast; 2nd in Eastern Conference
Playoffs: Lost first round (4-3) v. Washington Capitals
Goals For: 269 (2nd in NHL)
Goals Against: 202 (5th in NHL)
Coach: Claude Julien (347-218-73)
Top Scorers: F Tyler Seguin (29-38-67); F Patrice Bergeron (22-42-64)
Starting Goaltender: G Tim Thomas (35-19-1; 2.36 GAA; .920 SV%. 5 SO)
Key Acquisitions: N/A
Key Losses: F Benoit Pouliot (Trade), D Greg Zanon (Free Agent), D Joe Corvo (Free Agent), G Tim Thomas (Personal)
The 2013 Bruins return virtually every single important piece back from the same squad that won the 2011/12 Stanley Cup and this division two years running (minus Tim Thomas), and might be the biggest slam dunk pick to take their division in this shortened season.
Up front the Bruins have great depth, going four lines deep but that is nothing new. The top line returns, with Milan Lucic, Patrice Bergeron and Tyler Seguin looking to continue where they left off last year with each posting 60+ points. Follow that up with guys like Brad Marchand, David Krejci, Rich Peverley, Chris Kelly and a now healthy Nathan Horton and you have a squad with as many as 9 guys who could conceivably score 20 goals. Even the fourth line (Daniel Paille-Gregory Campbell-Shawn Thornton) can get some done on the offensive side, and make for the best fourth line in all of hockey.
Much like the forwards, their core of defenseman are deep and run six, and may even be better with the much anticipated debut of stud prospect Dougie Hamilton. They also sport possibly the best and most complete defenseman in the NHL in captain Zdeno Chara, who can play in any situation and can be counted on to play close to 30 minutes a game. Add to that guys like Dennis Seidenberg, Andrew Ference and Johnny Boychuk who play the tough, defensive minded hockey Bruins fans love and you got a group that is both deep and talented enough to keep them comfortable in their own end.
The real question for this team comes in net. It's no secret that Tim Thomas will take this season off, and this is now Tuukka Rask's team. The Bruins aren't too worried, as the last time he got serious time as a starter he put up an out of this world 1.97 goals against average. There shouldn't be much of a problem with this team in net.
X-Factor: G Tuukka Rask
As stated, the only real difference with this team and the one that won the cup is in net. Not only is it a difference, but when you lose a guy like Tim Thomas it doesn't matter who replaces him, there are bound to be some people worried. I don't think it's much of a drop off at this point with Thomas at the end of his career and Rask just coming into his prime, but if this team is going to be a Stanley Cup team they will need Rask to play like Thomas did, especially come playoff time.
As solid a team as your going to find. They can beat you playing any style of hockey, and are so deep up-front you can find yourselves overwhelmed having to keep up with quality fresh legs all game. They've been there, done that and that experience is so key come playoff time so this is a true Stanley Cup threat. Let's hope Rask is up to the challenge.
Projected Record: 30-15-3 (63 Points); 2nd in Eastern Conference
#2 Ottawa Senators
Last Season: 41-31-10; 2nd in Northeast; 8th in Eastern Conference
Playoffs: Lost first round (4-3) v. New York Rangers
Goals For: 249 (4th in NHL)
Goals Against: 240 (24th in NHL)
Coach: Paul MacLean (41-31-10)
Top Scorers: F Jason Spezza (34-50-84); D Erik Karlsson (19-59-78)
Starting Goaltender: G Craig Anderson (33-22-6; 2.84 GAA; .914 SV%; 3 SO)
Key Acquisitions: F Guillaume Latendresse (Free Agent), D Marc Methot (Trade), D Matt Lundin (Free Agent)
Key Losses: F Nick Foligno (Trade), D Matt Carkner (Free Agent), F Zenon Konopka (Free Agent)
This team can score, and score in bunches. Overall it's a fast group, and one that moves the puck up the ice quickly. Like the front runner Bruins, this was a relatively quiet off-season for the Senators, so the same team that took the Rangers to seven games last year is basically what they are returning. Whether or not their young forwards can step up will tell if they improve on last years somewhat surprising showing.
Again, up front this team sports some talent. Jason Spezza is one of the more underrated forwards in terms of how much better he makes those around them, and is as suited as any to be the top scorer on a good team. Veterans Milan Mihalek and Daniel Alfreddsson managed to stay pretty healthy and each contributed nicely last year combining for 62 goals. But after that, they get kind of thin. Chris Neil has become a tough guy, third line stalwart and does his job well, but where's the scoring coming from? Moving Nick Foligno makes less and less sense as you look at their depth chart, with everyone else (save maybe the young Kyle Turris) comes with considerable question marks.
This group of defensemen is pretty solid. The one plus to trading Foligno was Methot, who gives them another second pairing guy that they were lacking last year to go with Sergei Gonchar. The top pairing of Norris winner Erik Karlsson and the dependable Chris Phillips can do just about anything on the ice, and the group is rounded out with third year guy Jared Cowen and Matt Lundin. I like this group.
In net, the sum of all their parts is really nice. Craig Anderson has proven the ability to be a solid number one, and Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner look to have that type of potential as well. That's just the problem. While Anderson will come in as the starter, he has to be worried that as soon as things go a little south, he could be relegated to back-up duty. Also, the first team who is a goaltender away from contending (Chicago maybe?) knows where to go.
X-Factor: Forward Depth
This is the question with this team moving forward. Although a lot of the younger guys they got project well, that doesn't mean they'll work out, and if guys like Mike Zibanejad and Jakob Silverberg can't give that top line some help, you could see this team regress. I do think they can get enough from them to make a return trip to the playoffs, but a series win would be surprising.
They've got some nice pieces in Ottawa. Spezza has finally turned into the player most thought he would be when he was drafted, and Kyle Turris appears to have just needed a change of scenery after his disaster in Phoenix. It???s kind of scary to think that Alfreddson is going to retire, and with Mihalek getting a little long in the tooth, scoring will be an issue with them gone but they are there this year and they should be a competitive team.
Projected Record: 26-18-4 (56 Points); 6th in Eastern Conference
#3 Buffalo Sabres
Last Season: 39-32-11; 3rd in Northeast; 9th in Eastern Conference
Playoffs: Did Not Qualify
Goals For: 218 (16th in NHL)
Goals Against: 230 (18th in NHL)
Coach: Lindy Ruff (556-422-83)
Top Scorers: F Jason Pominville (30-43-83); F Thomas Vanek (26-35-61)
Starting Goaltender: G Ryan Miller (31-21-7; 2.55 GAA; .916 SV%; 6 SO)
Key Acquisitions: F Steve Ott (Trade), D Adam Pardy (Trade)
Key Losses: F Derek Roy (Trade), F Brad Boyes (Free Agent)
This division didn't like the years crop of free agents it seems, cause this is another team that comes back looking a lot like they did last year. Out goes Derek Roy, who never could quite reach that number one centre status, and in is tough guy Steve Ott. Other then that, really not much change in the roster, and I don't see too much a change in the result.
This group of forwards isn't terrible, but it comes with some key flaws. First and foremost is the lack of a proven and reliable number one centre. Looks like they'll go forward with last years deadline acquisition Cody Hodgson between Vanek and Pominville on the top line, and we'll see how it goes. Atleast we knew Roy could capably play the role most of the time, with Hodgson we don't. After that guys like Marcus Foligno, Tyler Ennis, Drew Stafford and free-agent flop Ville Leino will have to find a way to help the top line, but goals could be hard for this Buffalo team that doesn't bring much fire up front.
The back end is a lot like the forwards; an average group. Christian Ehrhoff and Tyler Myers could pass for a top pairing, if Myers learns how to play with his big body and gets more responsible in his own end, but it isn't a group you can stick on the other team's big guns and be confident about it. Robyn Regher has made a nice career for himself, and isn't a bad piece to have. I'm not sure at this point of his career he's a top four guy though, but will need to play those minutes on this team.
The best group on the team is who they got in the crease, and that may be their only chance at a playoff spot. If Ryan Miller comes out, and is back to his Vezina form that saw him win 41 games back in 09/10 this team may get some playoff hockey. If not, they won't. It sucks that Miller is that important to this team, and I'm not sure we'll ever see him as good as he was with the concussion he suffered last year and a less then stellar group in front of him.
X-Factor: F Cody Hodgson (Find #1 Centre)
I put Hodgson here because it looks like he'll get his shot, but if he can't handle the role (which I think may be the case this early in his career) this team will be hard pressed to even contend for a playoff spot. There aren't many teams who you can say are successful without that dependable number one centre, and even a team with a goalie this good is no different.
Nothing really changes from last year, and I really don't expect much more or less in terms of results and their standing either. They are merely average up front, and average on the back end, and it should result in a merely average season that may spell the end for the longest tenured coach in the NHL today, Lindy Ruff.
Projected Record: 22-20-6 (50 Points); 9th in Eastern Conference
#4 Montreal Canadiens
Last Season: 31-35-16; 5th in Northeast; 15th in Eastern Conference
Playoffs: Did Not Qualify
Goals For: 213 (19th in NHL)
Goals Against: 226 (14th in NHL)
Coach: Michel Therrien (212-182-46)
Top Scorers: F Max Pacioretty (33-32-65) F Erik Cole (35-26-61)
Starting Goaltender: G Carey Price (26-28-11; 2.43 GAA; .916 SV%; 4 SO)
Key Acquisitions: F Brandon Prust (Free Agent), D Francis Bouillon (Free Agent), F Colby Armstrong (Free Agent)
Key Losses: N/A
Unlike the other teams in the division, this team did make themselves definitively better then they were last year. Adding gritty, sand paper checking type guys has been a priority in Montreal for years and at least new General Manager Marc Bergevin did what he could to address it. Adding Armstrong and Prust should make this team harder to play against, and bring back Bouillon to somewhere they know he's comfortable was a nice move as well.
Up front the team has a variety of different options to produce offense, even if their only really two lines deep when your looking at guys with offensive upside. The top line of Tomas Plekanec, Pacioretty and Cole features three guys who you can reasonably lock in as 50+ point guys, and can play together well. David Desharnais was a nice surprise for the Habs last year, putting up 60 points and will centre a line with Rene Bourque and Brian Gionta that makes for a decent enough second line when you look at offensive production. After that, you got the two tough guys (Armstrong and Prust) adding some muscle along side Travis Moen and a couple of young kids looking to grow into NHL caliber hockey players (Lars Eller, Alex Galchenyuk). A very balanced group of forwards.
The back-end presents a few more questions, even if they are pretty deep with NHL ready guys. Bouillon, Alexei Emelin, Raphael Diaz and the oft-injured Andrei Markov will have to produce two guys who can handle second pairing minutes, and I'm not sure if they have enough there. Markov is more then capable, could play on the top pairing, but his inability to stay healthy is laughable at this point. I'll believe he can stay on the ice when I see it. Alexei Emelin (-18 last year) and Raphael Diaz (-7) are two guys who have not shown they can handle it up to this point in their career, and Bouillon is on the wrong side of 35. To expect two capable second pairing guys to emerge from that group could be a stretch.
At least this team can say goaltending isn't an issue. If Carey Price can play the game he is capable of, he could single handedly get this team to the post-season in a shortened season. I'm not saying he will, and I actually really don't think it'll happen, but at least this team can dream. In this guys humble opinion, he'll be Team Canada's goaltender at Sochi in 2014.
X-Factor: D Andrei Markov
Expecting one of the other three options on defense to pick up extra minutes and do it well is a bit of a stretch, but to expect two of them too will be too much for this team to handle. Markov will have to find a way to keep his ailing knees healthy and provide both solid play and veteran leadership for this young defense core if this team hopes to be successful this upcoming season.
I like where Bergevin is going with this team. He's addressed needs this team has had for a while (grit, depth on the point) and did it well. He still lacks the top shutdown pairing and that true number one, go-to guy up front, but they should be better then they were last year in what was a pretty unlucky year.
Projected Record: 21-20-7 (49 Points); 10th in Eastern Conference
#5 Toronto Maple Leafs
Last Season: 35-37-10; 4th in Northeast; 13th in Eastern Conference
Playoffs: Did Not Qualify
Goals For: 231 (10th in NHL)
Goals Against: 264 (29th in NHL)
Coach: Randy Carlyle (279-191-64)
Top Scorers: F Phil Kessel (37-45-82), F Joffrey Lupul (25-42-67)
Starting Goaltender: G Jonas Gustavsson (17-17-4; 2.92 GAA; .902 SV%; 4 SO)
Key Acquisitions: F James Van Riemsdyk (Trade), F Jay McClement (Free Agents)
Key Losses: G Jonas Gustavsson (Trade), D Luke Schenn (Trade), F Colby Armstrong (Free Agent)
This team can flat out score. There's no doubt about that. Phil Kessel gives you a guy you can reasonably expect 40 from, and Joffrey Lupul has proven to be a legitimate first line option who can distribute the puck and create on the offensive end. It has three lines with legitimate scoring options. The problem for the leafs lies in preventing goals however, and that should prove a problem yet again.
Again, scoring goals shouldn't be an issue. Kessel and Lupul were unbelievable last year until Lupul was hurt, and even with Tyler Bozak centering them will give them a legitimate main scoring option. If Van Riemsdyk can fit in nicely on the second line with Mikhail Grabovski and help Nikolai Kulemin get his mojo back (from 30 goals and 57 points to a mere 7 and 28) they provide another line that should have no trouble putting pucks in the net. Add Tim Connolly, Clarke Macarthur and the ever troubling Nazem Kadri to the mix and you've got a team that can outscore you.
Here is the real issue, and it didn't get any better. Heck, it got worse. Moving Schenn, although a guy who can look clueless with the puck at times, could prove problematic. You knew at the very least he was going to be tough in his own end, and a tough guy for a forward to go up against. They do still have captain Dion Phaneuf to provide that toughness, but he's another guy who's puck moving can be very questionable. John-Michael Liles is a nice piece, and Carl Gunnarsson and Jake Gardiner are a great up and coming pair. But they also will need to rely on Korbinian Holzer to play some NHL minutes, and don't get me started on the biggest blunder of the Burke era, Mike Komisarek.
Another part of the main issue, preventing goals, is what's between the pipes. James Reimer looks like the starter heading in, but he gives you anything but confidence he can be a number one guy. Ben Scrivens will start as his back-up, and although he played admirably well in his try-out last season is another guy I just can't see taking this team to the playoffs. A move here is necessary.
X-Factor: GM Dave Nonis
Number one centre; goaltending. Those are two needs that have plagued this Leafs team for as long as Burke was in power. He had a couple opportunities to acquire both (Jeff Carter, Roberto Luongo) but failed to pull the trigger and that could be a major reason he's jobless now. If Nonis can make strides to fixing both or even just one of these problems, it'll go a long way in continuing what has been a torturous rebuild in Toronto
Same old, same old for the Leafs. They will score enough goals to get hot, and maybe a well timed winning streak could help this team sniff some playoff hockey. Carlyle will undoubtedly have them playing better defensive hockey as well, but with the goaltending situation where it is and some question marks on the point, I don't see this team preventing enough goals to be any sort of threat this season.
Projected Record: 19-22-7 (45 Points); 13th in Eastern Conference
Written by Jordan Adduono