Friday, August 10, 2007

Pre-Season Predictions: Northeast Division

The pool of free agents is shrinking by the day, and training camp begins in about a month. What shall I talk about? Perhaps a little pre-season prediction for each team? Let me see, who will succeed, and who will flop around like a fish…

Northeast Division

Saku Koivu let it slip that he’s a little disappointed that his Montreal Canadiens was unable to attract a big name. He may be a “little” disappointed, but Habs fans are wildly disappointed with Gainey for doing little to improve the team. The team was already on the rocks with fans for missing the playoffs by thismuch.

One problem that was solved was that of backup goaltender: Abby was a UFA and not given another chance with the Habs. That leaves Halak and Price to fight over the job, and since they are both projected to be starting goaltenders in the not-too-distant future, I think the Canadiens are okay in goal.

It’s hard to predict the impact of Souray’s departure on the team. While he was certainly a great powerplay quarterback who could help offensively, his defensive skills had so many holes – holes big enough to pass pucks through and score. So while the Habs will miss his contributions on the scoreboard…they also won’t miss his contributions on the scoreboard.

I don’t think that they really upgraded on defense with the signing of Brisebois, and they are pretty much the same up front as last season. Unless they can recapture the magic they had last fall, and not fall apart with the smallest sign of adversity, I can’t see the Habs making the playoffs in April – and that would surely bring about a change in coaching and management.

The Toronto Maple Leafs is another team that missed the playoffs by thismuch. But unlike the Habs, the Leafs did manage to make a few big signings this summer. First off, I believe that the Leafs solved their goaltending problem. Raycroft was the starting goaltender and even though he posted a franchise record for number of wins in a season, his stats and consistency were not becoming of a Calder Trophy-winning goaltender. Aubin, the backup, was shown the door to free agency and Vesa Toskala was ushered in. Toskala will force Raycroft to work harder if he wants to keep his job as a starter.

The Leafs also made a splash in the free agent pool when they signed Blake to a contract. He scored 40 goals with the Islanders last season, which will be greatly welcome in Toronto. I imagine that he’ll play alongside longtime captain Mats Sundin and I wouldn’t be surprised if they started scoring in bunches. The fact that he plays with an edge will likely make him a fan favourite in Toronto.

Their defensive corps was not really upgraded this off-season, which will cause fans to cry in frustration because certain defensemen are still hanging around and are still overpaid. That being said, I still think that the Leafs have a better chance at making the playoffs this season than the Habs. If not, John Ferguson Jr. can start looking for another job.

I was glad to see that Bryan Murray kept the Ottawa Senators pretty much intact this summer, which isn’t much of a surprise considering the Sens made it to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in 80 years. These guys are a talented bunch who found out that they could win by playing a physical, hard-hitting game. It’s a shame that they lost this edge in the Finals, because I thought that they would’ve ended Canada’s 14 year Cup drought. I believe the Senators learned their lesson the hard way back in June, and that they will come back in full force. I think we will see a new Sens team that is not the fragile team of years past, and they will go deep into the playoffs (perhaps making another run for the Cup).

The Buffalo Sabres have been kicked around and toyed with all summer, and this will surely have an impact on their season. First, they saw both of their captains bolt for big, fat salaries with big market teams. Then, big, bad K.Lo. from the West made the Sabres hand out a big, fat contract to Vanek, who hasn’t proven himself to be worthy of such a raise. While they will remain a run-and-gun team that will score in bunches, they will not score the most goals of any NHL team this season. The Sabres will be offensively gifted, solid in goal, and acceptable on defense (which is probably underrated), but I can virtually guarantee that they will not repeat as winners of the President’s Trophy. The biggest thing the Sabres will miss in this season’s playoff run: Drury’s leadership and clutch play.

The Boston Bruins. In years past, they were a force to be dealt with. In recent years, not so much. And I don’t believe that this coming season will reverse that trend. I think that Fernandez will definitely help with the goaltending situation, but I’m not convinced that the team can band together and make it to the playoffs. They certainly have some good players, like Savard and Bergeron, but you could say that about every team. I think that they’ll be in a bit of a rebuilding phase for another year or two.

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