Part II of VI in the on-going NHL 2008-2009 season predictions. For Part I, click here. If this image at-all resembles Kovalevs' season this year, the Habs are in trouble. --------------------------------------------------
There exists some formidable competition in this division, which could match the 3 playoff teams it generated last year. Find out whats good with the Leafs, Habs, Bruins, Sabres and Sens below.
-- A long shot for the Cup, this years Bruins squad is nonetheless trending upwards after putting a legitimate scare into the heavily-favoured Habs this past post-season. Their offensive forwards are young and skilled (Savard, Lucic, Kessel) and have some new tools to work (free agent signing, Michael Ryder, who will get a chance to replace Glen Murray on the top line). Returning from injury after getting shameless obliterated from behind is a fully-recovered Patrice Bergeron who's presence will aid the drowsy offense under Claude Guillien. Defensively Zdeno Chara will continue to be the most under-rated defensman in the league (+102 in his last 6 seasons and managed a career high 51pts last year) alongside newly re-signed Denis Wideman (who shockingly averaged 25:09mins per game last year). Another notable something-for-nothing is goaltender Manny Fernandez. I know we all the the quirky aggressiveness and agility of Tim Thomas, but does anyone think he can win a Stanley Cup? I don't and Manny Fernandez is Bostons solution; he thrived in the similarly uber-defensive system in Minni, but has been unremarkable during his tenure in Boston. All things considered the success of the '09 Bruins is reduced to one question: Can the team-defense concept forcibly nullify the inconsistency of a youthful offense and uncertain goal keeping? Probably not.
2008 Record: 41-29-12, 3rd Northeast
09 Projection: 40-27-13, 3rd Northeast
-- Going into last season the Habs were treated with absolutely no respect. They were too young, had too many vets along for the ride and a lack of grit. They proved everyone wrong and excelled to the top seed in the East, thanks largely to major contributions from the Kostitsyn Brother and career-years from two defenseman, Mark Streit (who chased the free-agent money offered from the dreadful NY Islanders) and Andrei Markov, who Montreal brass hopes will uphold the standard set. They are stacked in goal with Price, Halak and Denis, the former two being the likely 1-2 respectively, but not without significant controversy in broadsheets of La Belle Province. Losing Streit will dent the previously impenetrable power play that supplied more offense for their club than any other last year, whereas the another year of maturity should improve their even-strength play. The Stanley Cups odds are very generous for a team that over-achieved last year, but I feel their chances to take the division are justifiably high.
2008 Record: 47-25-10, 1st Northeast
09 Projection: 44-27-11, 1st Northeast
-- Two lackluster off-seasons have followed their run to the 2007 Cup Final meaning Ottawa enters the 08-09 campaign with the same unimpressive group that turned the best start in the NHL into Chernobyl. The exit of aging liabilities up front (Corey Stillman and Martin Lapointe) and at the rear (Redden and Commadore; contract pending for RFA Mezaros) has done little to boost my expectations of this team. These departures were countered by signing down-trending warrior Jason Smith, and gritty pest Jarko Ruutu. These two should improve the club defensively, much the same way buying out Ray Emery will boost their internal prospectus. However, if you think the aforementioned Ray Emery was the sole proprietor of their dressing-room dysfunction you probably rode the short bus to grade school. Complacency and stagnation has messed with the confidence levels of a team who has demonstrated its fragile make up regularly. With a new coach behind the bench (Craig Hartsburg) I anticipate tension and infighting to continue, problems that can be buoyed by their talent level which is admittedly upper-class. The likelihood of a playoff birth is high, but I feel the stars need to align for them to get out of the East. Oh, and is anyone convinced about Martin Gerber now that Emery is gone?
2008 Record: 43-31-8, 2nd Northeast
09 Projection: 42-27-11, 2nd Northeast
Toronto Maple Leafs
-- Leafs Nation is prepared for a well-overdue rebuilding program, but didn't anticipate doing so under the guidance of GM Cliff Fletcher. Having botched their last 40 seasons on-ice, the Leafs have unsurprisingly fumbled the GM search and delayed the maturation of the new vision. They will finish last in this division, receive less HNIC coverage and still make more money than the entire South East division combined: most Torontonians also rode the short bus, by the way. New coach Ron Wilson, and his increasing frustration with the media bombardment will provide the majority of the entertainment from this years abysmal squad (unless you are inexplicable fond of Joe Bowen and Harry Neale).
2008 Record: 36-35-11, 5th Northeast
09 Projection: 32-37-13, 5th Northeast
-- All indications suggest a Groundhog Day-like 08-09 for the blue-collar Sabres. Narrowly missing the playoffs last season left a bad taste in the mouth of Buffalo fans who have watched three All Stars leave town in a period on one-half season (Briere, Drury and subsequently Brian Campbell). That the challenging Buffalo market has impedes the Sabres annually surprises no one, however locking up their franchise goaltender (Ryan Miller) and signing a steady veteran D (Craig Rivet) may breed some optimism among their youthful core (Pominville, Roy, Hecht, Gaustad, Paille). This brief gaiety notwithstanding, I expect the Sabres to struggle mightily until they get an explosive offensive contributor (/huge annoying cough: Tomas freaking Vanek). Having dealt their return for Campbell (Bernier; to Vancouver) the message is clear: we need picks because this team isn't ready to win. They might surprise beyond in 2010 and beyond, but until then...
2008 Record: 39-31-12, 4th Northeast
09 Projection: 37-36-9, 4th Northeast
Thanks for reading. Be sure to check out the future installments in a few days. Cheers, Derek.