28 September 2006

Northeast Division Preview

(as published in the 2006-2007 SportsBlurb.com Hockey Sourcebook)


Last season the Northeast division started as a runaway and ended with a surprisingly close finish - Ottawa got off to a ridiculous start to the season but injuries began to slow them and the surprising Buffalo Sabres nearly caught them by season’s end. The Montreal Canadiens, buoyed by an unexpected goaltender, caught fire in the second half to reach the playoffs and put a scare into the eventual Cup champs. Toronto and Boston came into the season with high hopes but by April were left scrambling to answer many questions about their poor finishes. In this division filled with historically hockey-crazy markets the pressure is always on each of these teams to ice a contending team, and all have high hopes again for this year with at least two of them with serious Stanley Cup dreams.

Predicted order of finish by staff:

Ottawa Senators *

Buffalo Sabres *

Montreal Canadiens

Boston Bruins

Toronto Maple Leafs


2005-06 record: 52-24-6, 110 points. 2nd in division/4th in conference. Lost in conference semi-final to Carolina.

Head coach: Lindy Ruff

General Manager: Darcy Regier

Home arena: HSBC Arena

Capacity: 18690

Buffalo emerged from five years of hell to become one of last season’s great stories – after having missed the playoffs each years since 2001 and going through bankruptcy, ownership change, and possible loss of franchise, the Sabres made it to the conference finals last season only to run out of steam in the final 20 minutes of game seven. To many the Buffalo Sabres emerged from nowhere to win a franchise record 52 games but closer inspection would have revealed a team that was poised for success by the end of the 2004 season.

Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff were often criticized over the past few years and took the brunt of the heat for the team’s failings; fielding accusations from lack of organizational direction to simply producing boring teams. Yet their long-term plan came to fruition last year when they shed their reputation as a defensive-oriented team and scored 281 goals, good for fifth overall in the NHL, all with their highest point-producer only scoring 73 points (Maxim Afinogenov).

Buffalo’s success gave their front office troubles this past off-season as they had a league-high 10 players file for arbitration, and it was a real challenge to keep the squad together. General Manager Darcy Regier did a fine job in retaining all of his forwards by coming to agreements with most of his arbitration cases before their hearings. Daniel Briere was their first arbitration hearing and he was awarded $5 million, which threatened to throw the Sabres’ entire salary structure out of whack. Doubtless prompted by Briere's shocking award, Regier changed his long-held philosophy and began giving long term deals, insuring Buffalo’s core of remaining together for the next few years. They just completed signing arguably their key player, goaltender Ryan Miller, to complete a highly impressive job by Regier in keeping this team together. The two notable exceptions were Jay McKee (signed a four-year deal with St. Louis) and J.P. Dumont, who was awarded $2.9 million by an arbiter, but due to the Sabres’ rapidly escalating payroll they chose to walk away from the award. Dumont later signed with Nashville.


Buffalo offered up an offensive blueprint for the new NHL by rolling out four talented lines all season, none of which could really be considered their “top” line – this made it virtually impossible for opposing coaches to match up a checking line against the Sabres. If the Daniel Briere/Jochen Hecht/Dumont line was being marked, they’d have the Derek Roy/Maxim Afinogenov/Thomas Vanek line to contend with, along with other talented snipers like Jason Pominville, Ales Kotalik, and Chris Drury - who scored 30 goals for the first time in his career. Tim Connolly reversed years of disappointment to have by far his best season in the NHL, with 55 points in 63 games, and was utterly dominant at times. His serious concussion, suffered in the playoffs against Ottawa, is a concern as Connolly has a history of head injuries, and official word was slow in coming as to his status during the spring. Buffalo re-signed him to a three year deal this summer which indicated some confidence in his ability to bounce back, but as of early September he is not expected to attend training camp. If he is lost for any time, look for Jiri Novotny to be the first callup; Novotny saw limited action last year until the playoffs when he took a regular shift in place of Connolly. Paul Gaustad was a valuable rookie center on the fourth line last year, playing excellent two-way hockey. He’ll chip in the occasional goal but his main contribution this year will be to provide some unique toughness on a squad otherwise built on speed and finesse. Physical winger Adam Mair will also be expected to take on a greater role, with the losses of Mike Grier and Taylor Pyatt to free agency.

In the end, this year’s offence should look much the same as last year, with Briere being the offensive catalyst. He played to a 100-point pace last year (missing 34 games due to abdominal injury) and should approach that total this year. Candidates to replace Dumont on the top line would be team leading scorer Afinogenov, Thomas Vanek, or second year speedy winger Pominville, who excelled after a December callup and cemented his place on the team. Other candidates to make the big club this year on a regular basis would be Dan Paille and Drew Stafford – former star at the University of North Dakota.

A lot can be said about the depth of the Sabres’ offence in that the rookie left winger Vanek – a 25 goal scorer during the regular season – was benched during much of the postseason. He has 50 goal talent with a lethal shot and creative scoring mind, but at times needs a road map to the Buffalo side of the ice. With continued coaching and hard work, he has the greatest potential to dramatically increase his scoring totals this year.


On paper, this is a defence without a lot of big names, but – as with the offence – the sum may be greater than its parts. Buffalo will miss longtime veteran Jay McKee who signed as a free agent with the Blues. The shot blocker extraordinaire - who would have been a fool to turn down St. Louis’ overwhelming offer of $16 million for the next four years was replaced on the open market by Jaroslav Spacek, inked for the next three years. Spacek is a different sort of defenceman, who fits more in line with the Sabres’ aggressive offensive philosophy. Anything that might be lost on the defensive end will hopefully be made up on the offensive side of the scoresheet – expect Spacek and young Brian Campbell to anchor the top power play unit. Veterans Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman will be expected to absorb the bulk of the play against opponents’ top forwards, while ageless Teppo Numminen returns for one last shot at the Cup. Dmitri Kalinin, a disappointment for years, had an excellent playoff run before succumbing to injury. Depth at the position would be filled by rookie Nathan Paetsch (a near guarantee to slide into the lineup next season after Numminen finally retires). The Sabres are also very high on Owen Sound (OHL) defenceman Andrej Sekera who is likely a few years away.


Historically this has nearly always been one of Buffalo’s greatest strengths. From Roger Crozier to Don Edwards/Bob Sauve; Tom Barrasso to the legendary Dominik Hasek – there has been no shortage of excellent goaltending for the Sabres. Last year marked the official rookie season of arguably the most successful collegiate goaltender ever – Ryan Miller – who was dominant at Michigan State at the turn of the decade. Miller was solid all year and helped steal games on the rare night where the offense couldn’t dominate. Martin Biron, relegated to a backup role for the first time in a few years, ironically likely drove his market value to an all-time high with a 13-game winning streak over the winter while Miller was on the shelf with a broken thumb. Miller is clearly the goalie for the future, and even though having Biron is a great luxury, it’s a $2.1 million luxury. Don’t be surprised if Biron is dealt away at some point as the Sabres are right up at the cap maximum. Adam Dennis provides support and would be the backup in the event of a deal; Dennis split a highly successful junior career between Guelph and London, winning a Memorial Cup in 2005 with the Knights.


Lindy Ruff is the longest-tenured coach in the NHL, having been with Buffalo since 1997. He has earned the respect of his players and is a favourite of the local media, as he is both engaging and not shy about wearing his emotions on his sleeve. The Sabres’ franchise is back on strong ground after the roughest stretch of their history, and appears poised to recapture the popularity of their legendary 70s teams – they recently had to cap season ticket sales to allow a small amount of single game tickets. Cup fever runs high in the Queen City and therein lies a big difference between last year and this: last year’s success was perhaps the most entertaining season in 36 years of Sabres’ hockey. This year – rightly or wrongly - anything less than an appearance in the Cup final will be viewed as a disappointment. The team won’t sneak up on anyone this season, but probably won’t have to – they have the deepest offense in the league, one of the top young goaltenders in the world, and a solid and deep (if unspectacular) defensive corps. With the core of their team still very young, it’s not a stretch to expect them to actually improve by the end of this season. Barring their freakish run of injuries in last year’s playoffs they very likely could have won the Cup this past June – a goal that seems very much within reach this year.


2005-06 record: 52-21-9, 113 points. 1st in division/1st in conference. Lost in conference semi-finals to Buffalo.

Head coach: Bryan Murray

General Manager: John Muckler

Home arena: Scotiabank Place

Capacity: 19153

After another wildly successful regular season – finishing first in the East and holding that spot virtually all season – the Ottawa Senators once again failed to live up to lofty expectations, bowing out to the Buffalo Sabres in the second round in only five games. In their defence, that was one of the tightest five-game series in recent memory, with three games going to overtime. Still, at this point nothing less than a Cup finals appearance will appease Sens fans, who run the risk of seeing the Senators soon being labeled as one of the all-time underachieving teams. Often when a team goes through what Ottawa has there is much finger-pointing and an urge to make radical changes.

Ottawa has made no less than three significant changes to this point, starting with the loss of Zdeno Chara to Boston. Suffice to say the Sens will be poorer on defence without him this year, even if his loss was inevitable (and in the long run likely beneficial in a financial sense). One interesting side-story to losing Chara was the loss of assistant GM Peter Chiarelli, also to Boston. It was very curious that Chiarelli signed on with Boston before his official duties with the Senators were completed; both sides made attempts to insure that Chiarelli could do no business during the free-agent period but one would have to assume that he played at least some small role in Boston getting Chara. Chiarelli was summarily dismissed from his last days in Ottawa soon after the loss of big Z.

Speedy winger Martin Havlat seemed to be as good as gone, having postured through the media that he’d be seeking a rich contract when he became an unrestricted free agent after next season. So it was hardly a surprise when he was dealt, along with Brian Smolinski in a three way deal with Chicago and San Jose that netted defenceman Tom Priessing and young talent in defenceman Michal Barinka and center Josh Hennessy - two players that could play important roles for the Sens within a few years.

Finally, the team severed ties with Dominik Hasek after a long drawn-out “will he or won’t he come back?” affair after suffering a serious groin injury last year during the Olympics.


Despite the loss of Havlat, there probably isn’t a team in the world that can boast a top threesome of Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley, and Daniel Alfredsson. Before injuries, Spezza was a strong contender for the Art Ross trophy while Alfredsson was an early Hart trophy front-runner. Dany Heatley managed 50 goals and could easily match that this year in another bid for the Richard trophy. Havlat’s departure may appear to thin out the offensive ranks a bit, but make no mistake – this team is very deep (also remember that Havlat only played 18 games last season). The captain Alfredsson was the victim of some harsh criticism following the playoff loss to Buffalo (accentuated by him getting torched on a shorthanded series-winning overtime goal by Jason Pominville), but management wisely looked at the overall picture and retained the highly talented winger. It’s likely the top three will remain split up among the top two lines, with second year winger Patrick Eaves a good candidate to take a spot alongside Spezza and Heatley. If this is the case, Eaves could see a huge jump in his point totals, with 30 goals and 70 points not out of the question. Peter Schaefer and center Mike Fisher, while not as electric as their all-star teammates, are outstanding all around forwards who have 60 point capability. Chris Neil may often play the part of team goon, but his 16 goals prove that he’s more Tiger Williams than Dave Brown. Filling out the center positions are Antoine Vermette, who chipped in 21 goals while getting virtually no power play time, and Chris Kelly who added 30 points and was a +21 playing the defensive forward role. Veteran Dean McAmmond was also signed from St. Louis and will provide two-way support.


The obvious top story here is the loss of giant defenseman Zdeno Chara. The 6’7” Slovakian left for Boston, but what remains should still be a strong corps. Wade Redden was and is their best all-around defenseman – he was re-signed for two years and will likely take on more responsibilities this year. Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov return as the defensive stalwarts – these two will be saddled with the task of handling much of the opposition’s best (although it’s hard to shake the image of Volchenkov coughing up the puck against Buffalo last year in one of the all-time wild playoff games won by the Sabres 7-6). Newcomers include Tom Preissing and Joe Corvo - two very promising offensive additions acquired from the Sharks and Kings respectively. They both should see ample time on the power play, and in turn second year pro Andrej Meszaros hopes to build upon his outstanding rookie season, compiling 39 points and a +34 rating. I wouldn’t expect his point total to be any higher mostly due to the two new additions who will likely steal most of Meszaros’ special teams opportunities.


Ray Emery was made into a bit of a scapegoat last season and in the playoffs. While he did give up a few high-profile soft goals in the postseason, he was not the reason Ottawa went home early - after game one of the Sabres series the high-profile forwards of the Senators scored no more goals at five-on-five. Regardless, it seems that the Senators front office are also lacking faith in Emery as their new number one goalie, so this summer Ottawa came to terms with former Carolina goalie Martin Gerber, who had a fine season with the Cup champs. Gerber owned the starting job for most of the year before losing the starting job to Cam Ward for most of the playoffs. Gerber signed a three-year deal with the Senators.


It’s very possible that this is the “last chance” for this version of the Senator franchise, however you choose to define the phrase. Here is another team that the fanbase is counting on for a run to the finals, but the difference here may be a major rebuilding in Ottawa if they again underachieve. Again, the perception is that this is one of the most underachieving franchises in recent history and last year’s dominant regular season followed by a relatively quick playoff exit did nothing to disprove this. Yet to the credit of the front office, radical changes were not made as they should realize that for a few bounces that could have gone their way in the series loss to Buffalo, they could have advanced to face Carolina in the conference finals. Often times the degree of chance is dismissed in all sports, and hockey especially, and only a small amount of luck could have been the difference between a second round exit and the Stanley Cup. The franchise is mostly content to give this core one last try to advance to the finals, and they should be viewed as one of the top handful of teams to be able to contend this year.


2005-06 record: 29-37-16, 74 points. 5th in division/13th in conference. Missed playoffs.

Head coach: Dave Lewis

General Manager: Peter Chiarelli

Home arena: TD BankNorth Garden

Capacity: 17565

Wow, for a franchise that has been alienating fans and media for the better part of the past decade, the Bruins generated quick headlines early in the summer by making three major on-ice moves and initiating a front office shakeup. Finally loosening their grip on Bobby Orr, ageless Harry Sinden stepped down from the Bruins’ front office after over 30 years running the Boston Bruins’ ship in various capacities, from head coach in the Orr/Phil Esposito days, to becoming General Manager and presiding over various incarnations of the black and gold; the Don Cherry-led Big Bad Bruins of the late 70s through the talented squads led by Ray Bourque and Cam Neely in the 80s and early 90s. Not having Harry Sinden around anymore may be less of an organizational impact as it would have been a few years back, but the symbolic nature of the move is huge. Generations of hockey fans in New England know of no other man leading the team, and this now represents a new era. Previous to this long-rumoured yet still surprising move the Bruins began their house-cleaning in early summer by firing head coach Mike Sullivan, and replacing him with former Detroit coach Dave Lewis. They hired a new young General Manager - Peter Chiarelli - away from the Ottawa Senators, which cleared the path for Sinden to formally step aside.

With the new management team beginning to take shape, they wasted little time in popping the cork on the first day of free agency by signing towering defenceman Zdeno Chara to an equally-towering contract for USD$7.5 million per year for five years. There are two ways to view this – from a roster perspective and from a long-term financial perspective. There’s no way to look at this and think this doesn’t help the Bruins on-ice situation tremendously – Chara is a beast and has developed into one of the premier defencemen in the world. Yet there’s also reason to believe that this contract may cripple the Bruins for years, as they’ve committed a huge percentage of payroll to one player. Joe Thornton’s exit out of town last year was in part due to his huge contract; by dealing him for cheaper parts they were better poised to mold the rest of the team, and yet theoretically they’re in the same spot now, just with a different player. In the end this signing will likely be judged not on Chara’s performance but on the young (read: less expensive) players the Bruins will have to eventually surround him with.

Boston also swapped defencemen with Phoenix, giving up Nick Boynton and gaining hometown native Paul Mara. This deal should prove beneficial to Boston; with Nick Boynton last year the Bruins had a defenceman who could not adapt to the faster league. Mara brings a more creative and talented game to Boston and coupled with the strong defensive play of Chara these additions should improve the Bruin defence tremendously, one that played poorly last year, giving up over 32 shots per game - sixth-worst in the league.

The third major move was signing free agent center Marc Savard to a four year deal. Savard has always been a talented center who finally broke through last year with a huge season, notching 97 points for the Atlanta Thrashers. Cynics will point out that he’ll no longer have Ilya Kovalchuk to dish the puck to in Boston so anything south of say 80 points could bring the heat to Savard and the Bruins, especially since the Bruins have committed $20 million to him over the next four years. Nevertheless the addition of Savard gives Boston more balance to their offence, enabling them to hopefully spread more goals between lines.


There has been such a string of negativity in Boston towards the Bruins in recent years, and last year’s trade of Joe Thornton to San Jose – followed by his subsequent Art Ross and Hart trophy awards – only made it worse. The perception of the penurious nature of the combination of Harry Sinden and owner Jeremy Jacobs was first presented over a decade ago in the local press and has gathered steam exponentially over the years to the point where it is the knee-jerk analytical reaction to nearly every move or failure by the Bruin organization. It really helps to focus on each move individually to see – while there may be some strains of truth to this argument – many times the answer is not that simple. For example, in the deal for Thornton, the Bruins received three players, including winger Marco Sturm (along with center Wayne Primeau and defenceman Brad Stuart). The Bruins – and Joe Thornton himself – were wallowing along in mediocrity and this deal helped to signal to the players – and fanbase – that the status quo was not acceptable. On the ice, it created more roster flexibility – Sturm joined Patrice Bergeron and Brad Boyes (who came over from San Jose in a fantastic trade two years ago) for a first line that I anticipate will be that much better this year. The Bruins inked the 21-year old Bergeron to a long-term deal (five years) this summer, anticipating him leading the Bruins offence through the end of the decade. Bergeron is a flashy and fun player, and should be their best forward for the length of the contract. Boyes enjoyed an outstanding rookie season, notching 26 goals and 69 points – he should build upon that this year and reach those totals again. Last summer if you had told Boston fans that they’d be adding Phil Kessel to the team in one year they would have been thrilled – Kessel was pegged as the top pick in the 2006 draft until perception of a down season at the University of Minnesota and a widespread belief that he was lackluster at the World Junior tournament in Vancouver (despite leading the tournament in points) hurt his reputation. As a result he slid all the way to fifth in the draft where the Bruins were eager to snatch him up. Kessel could still end up being the most talented player to come out of this draft and at his peak could be a 40-goal scorer for the Bruins in the near future – in August he was enticed to forego the remainder of his collegiate career and signed a three-year deal with Boston. If he plays with Savard and winger Glen Murray – who occasionally looked helpless without Thornton as his center, this could be the makings of a dynamic and fun second scoring line in Boston, and if he plays with the top duo, 30 goals is not far off. Depth may be a problem, as the only reliable forward beyond the top lines is winger P.J. Axelsson, one of the better defensive forwards in the NHL. Wayne Primeau never has really shown the ability that made him a first round pick back in 1994 (although he did score one of last year’s highlight-reel goals). Anything that he can give on a third or fourth line will be welcome. Other wingers that will be vying for time are veteran Shean Donovan and wingers Petr Tenkrat and Yan Stastny. Mike Mowers should be the team’s fourth center.


The acquisition of Chara gives Boston a clear number one defenseman for the first time in years. Chara will play minutes in all situations, and with Brad Stuart (picked number three overall in the 1998 draft) as their number two immediately should give Bruin goaltenders confidence. Stuart is an outstanding understated defenceman who should be in his prime, and don’t discount the fact that this is his contract year. The two may be split up with Chara playing with second year defenceman Milan Jurcina – Jurcina has good upside and would benefit from playing with Chara - he didn't put up a lot of points last year but expect his offensive contributions to increase as his comfort level grows. Paul Mara brings a talented offensive flair to the Boston defence - he scored 47 points, 29 of which were on the powerplay. Much the same as their offense, Boston may have a problem with depth with Mark Stuart, Andrew Alberts, Nathan Dempsey and Jason York and vying for the fifth and sixth spots. David Tanabe was awarded $1.275 million in arbitration and the Bruins walked away from the award, enabling him to become an unrestricted free agent. This was a bit surprising - Tanabe was a mid-first round pick as recently as 1999 but with the Boston’s numerous additions this off-season he was deemed expendable.


Goaltending should be fine if not spectacular this season with veteran Tim Thomas and young Hannu Toivonen sharing duties. Thomas was a career (minor leaguer/backup) who by circumstance took on the top spot in the Bruins’ crease last January, and excelled, which ended up making former number one goalie Andrew Raycroft expendable. A summer deal with Toronto gave up Raycroft who seemed to have lost his way in Boston – this could pan out very well for Boston in the future as they gained highly-regarded prospect Tuukka Rask who should project to be the Bruins’ starting goalie in about three to four years.


On the negative side, the Chara and Savard signings could haunt them. In the salary cap era committing that much money to one player is potentially crippling. The Bruins’ front office will have to be creative and proactive in shaping their roster, filling out the remaining holes with talented “no-name” (read: inexpensive) players if they plan on competing, rather than becoming a top-heavy team – a few marquee names may carry you through the regular season, but the NHL chews up unbalanced teams come playoff time (see Philadelphia Flyers).

New England hockey fans will love the young forwards Boyes and Bergeron leading them over the next few years, and if Phil Kessel keeps his focus and can contribute the way Boston hopes there is potential for a lot of fun for Bruins fans this year. They should again be on the bubble of making the playoffs and if everything goes right they could find themselves playing meaningful hockey come mid-April. This team doesn’t appear ready to join the upper echelon of the league – or even the division – yet, as Ottawa and Buffalo show no signs of coming back to the pack, and depth for the Bruins is a problem this year. Yet Boston’s time is coming closer – this is a team that in two or three years could be a power and could be a sleeper team this year.


2005-06 record: 42-31-9, 93 points. 3rd in division/7th in conference. Lost in first round to Carolina.

Head coach: Guy Carbonneau

General Manager: Bob Gainey

Home arena: Bell Centre

Capacity: 21273

After a slow start last season, the Canadiens began the long slow climb to playoff contention, qualifying for the postseason despite being outscored on the season, 243-247. Probably the single-biggest story for the Habs last year was their goaltending – but of course the name was hardly the one that would have been expected. Former Hart Trophy winner Jose Theodore suffered through a nightmare of a year, from off-ice accusations of gambling and steroid involvement, to injuries and a dramatic dropoff in his overall play. Instead French-born goaltender Cristobal Huet took over top netminding duties in the winter and was so good during the second half in nearly singlehandedly bringing the Habs to the playoffs that he should have received Vezina consideration, even having played in only 36 games. Montreal seemed on their way to upsetting the second-seeded Carolina Hurricanes after two games, scoring 12 goals en route to winning both games in Carolina. In game three the Hurricanes switched goalies, introducing Cam Ward as the Hurricanes’ starter and the Canadiens lost Saku Koivu to a serious eye injury (which nearly ended his career). Carolina rattled off four straight wins to end Montreal’s season.


The biggest news for the Habs this summer was the free agent signing of the enigmatic Sergei Samsonov. He’ll be counted on for big things in Montreal, although it pays to bear in mind that only twice in eight NHL seasons has Sammy even hit 70 points, with 75 being a high back in 2001 (he also notched a career high in goals that season with 29). It’s time that Samsonov ultimately be filed in the “he is what he is” category – he’ll always dazzle, but he’s not a superstar 100-point type player, as many pundits and fans expect him to be. Still, this is a valuable offensive addition to a team that finished 20th out of 30 in scoring last season. The Canadiens could form a very potent top power play with Samsonov playing alongside captain Saku Koivu and Alexei Kovalev. Often Koivu centered Michael Ryder and 23 goal rookie Christopher Higgins. If Mike Ribeiro centers Samsonov and Kovalev, look for a good statistical season from him, in the range of 60-70 points. Montreal shouldn’t expect much point production beyond the top two lines, with centers Tomas Plekanec and Radek Bonk and aggressive wingers Garth Murray and Steve Begin. Begin is a popular player in Montreal, with his breakneck style of play. The energy he brings is a good contrast to the general lack of physical play for the top forwards on the team. Mike Johnson tallied 54 points which is probably his peak at this point in his career.


The Montreal defence won’t be compared with the legendary Larry Robinson/Serge Savard/Guy Lapointe defence. Andrei Markov is ever-improving, and led the defence with 46 points last year while earning a +13. He and Sheldon Souray should anchor the blueline for the first power play unit and could both approach the 50 point barrier. Beyond that the Habs need improvement. Mike Komisarek probably shows the most promise of any Montreal defenceman – he’ll never be a point-scorer but if he develops into a reliable defensive stalwart it will be a bonus for Montreal. Craig Rivet and Francis Bouillon are average defencemen called on to play a major role for the Canadiens, while veteran Mathieu Dandenault will likely round out the top six. Depth will be provided by Mark Streit. Rookie Jean-Philippe Cote, a stay at home defenceman, will hope to stick with the squad this year after playing eight games on Montreal last year.


The other major Canadiens’ signing this summer was the re-signing of goaltender Cristobal Huet to a two-year deal. Enough was written about Huet last year as he went from relative unknown to hero in Quebec, taking over from the fallen Jose Theodore and becoming the number one man in net. How long that will remain is uncertain, and all eyes will be on Huet to match his stellar second-half performance for the entire season. The Habs also inked David Aebischer for one season, solidifying the position as a backup to Huet. David Aebischer is three years younger and likely has a higher ceiling than Huet – if the Canadiens slip this year they could start having Aebischer share number one duties with Huet and create a competition.


Huet opens up this season as the number one goalie for the first time in his career. Not many have questioned the talent of David Aebischer in case Huet falters, but there are concerns as to whether each can carry a team for an entire season. The outlook for the Canadiens this year is uncertain – this appears to be a decent-at-best team, one that will be able to compete most nights with any team, but lacking the overall depth and star power to reel off enough winning streaks to put distance between them and the rest of the league. In the end, it remains to be seen whether what they currently have will be enough to make the playoffs as this team will probably be as good as it was last year – the only problem is that a number of teams just behind them appear to have improved. That may be enough to keep the Canadiens on the outside looking in come April.


2005-06 record: 41-33-8, 90 points. 4th in division/9th in conference. Missed playoffs.

Head coach: Paul Maurice

General Manager: John Ferguson, Jr.

Home arena: Air Canada Centre

Capacity: 18819

As fans of the five other Canadian NHL franchises like to remind their TO brethren – it has now been 39 years and counting since the Leafs last raised the Cup. Changes were needed and the most noticeable will be behind the bench as Pat Quinn was shown the door and replaced by former Hartford/Carolina head coach Paul Maurice. It seemed clear that a new vision was needed by the end of last year, and some big name veterans were jettisoned in the post-season housecleaning. The Eric Lindros experiment is wisely over – his name is clearly greater than his current skill level, and he now moves on to Dallas. Other vets who won’t be back are Jason Allison, Luke Richardson and Aki Berg.

The Paul Maurice era hopefully begins a long-overdue movement towards focusing on drafting and developing players from within their farm system. Yet General Manager John Ferguson, Jr. remains and he ultimately has been the somewhat failed architect of the Toronto club. His stamp on the team still remains as he did enter the free agent market, signing a few veterans this summer. Ferguson will be next on the chopping block if the Leafs don’t take advantage of the remaining years in Mats Sundin’s career and show progress within the next year or two.


Underrated captain Mats Sundin begins his 11th season with the Leafs. Sundin has occasionally been the recipient of criticism that he saves his best games for international competition, but the obvious logic behind that criticism is that he has played with vastly superior talent in the Olympics/World Championships than he ever has on the Leafs. Furthermore, coach Pat Quinn’s creative lineup construction often left Sundin outside of the top three in ice time for forwards in crucial games, an almost inconceivable error of judgment as Sundin has virtually always been the best player on the Leafs. Sundin heads up a decent cast of centers with Toronto native and veteran Michael Peca being signed away from the Edmonton Oilers for one year at $2.5 million; the Leafs should hope they’ve signed the Peca from the most recent playoffs, not the one who looked lost for most of the regular season. He will likely play on the third line with second year man Kyle Wellwood looking to improve on a very solid rookie campaign. Wellwood was a prolific scorer in the OHL and may be a great key to the success of the Leafs. The wingers are question marks for Toronto with the most promising being Alex Steen, son of former Winnipeg Jet Thomas Steen. Steen scored 45 points last year – he’s likely still about two years away from peaking but should reach the 50 point mark this year. Agitator Darcy Tucker – probably outside of Toronto the least-favourite player in the league this side of Sean Avery – had a career year last year with 28 goals, but he’ll need to improve his even-strength play to be able to duplicate that effort. Alexei Ponikarovsky not only chipped in 21 goals but was a +15 on a team that gave up 270 goals while only scoring 257. 19 of his goals were at even strength or short-handed – both were tops on the team. He’s probably the most unknown talent on the team. Wrapping up the scoring lines is Nik Antropov – the longtime enigma; watching him play at the right time, you’d swear he’d score more than the 12 goals (in 57 games) he did. At this point Antropov is not likely to produce much more than he had, and if he gets 20 goals or 50 points the Leafs should be thrilled. Peca’s third line wingers will most likely be veterans Jeff O’Neill and Chad Kilger, three players who have all but surely peaked in their careers. Peca especially hopes to rebound – despite an outstanding playoff run he had arguably the worst regular season of his career. The fourth line will likely be centered by Matt Stajan with any number of rookies looking to make the squad on wing, such as Aleksander Suglobov or Ben Ondrus.


The Leafs’ defence was led last year by fantastic seasons from Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle, scoring 68 and 67 points respectively. McCabe was resigned for two more years this offseason, insuring at least the Leafs’ top power play unit will be a constant threat. To bolster the losses of Luke Richardson and Aki Berg they dipped into the free agent market and signed Pavel Kubina from Tampa and Hal Gill from Boston. Kubina has very good offensive skills but the $5 million per year contract he was given is questionable – the Leafs have a need for defensive defenceman and Kubina doesn’t exactly fill that need. Hal Gill looks like a bad signing, as his skills have deteriorated. He’ll never get more than a handful of points and his slow skating could cause nightmares for Toronto goalies. Aside from veteran tough guy Wade Belak, the back end of the Toronto defence is highly inexperienced, with Carlo Colaiacovo, Staffan Kronwall and Ian White all battling for the final two spots; that final defensive pairing is likely to be in flux for months – in terms of fantasy spots, aside from the top three slots there’s no potential here outside of Colaiacovo who is likely still a few years away from getting enough ice time to produce consistently.


Likely the most noticeable problem for the Leafs last year was goaltending, with Billion-Dollar Eddie Belfour finally showing his age in having a poor season and the team’s lack of faith in backup Mikael Tellqvist. A trade with the Boston Bruins gained them their new number one goalie, former rookie of the year Andrew Raycroft, as they effectively severed ties with Belfour. This move at worst shouldn’t backfire on the Leafs this year - they immediately gain an experienced, successful, yet young goaltender. But if Raycroft can’t regain his Calder trophy form they’ll be forced to turn to Tellqvist and a host of minor league goaltenders. J.S. Aubin saw limited action last year but was undefeated in 11 games. The future at this point is in the hands of Justin Pogge, who was declared Canadian Junior Goaltender of the Year with the Calgary Hitmen (WHL) last season.


The Maple Leafs are not a bad team, but a team in transition. There’s a dichotomy of talent here – a number of veterans at or near the tail end of their career coupled with a number of first and second year players. Logically this would indicate a necessity to win in the immediate future, capitalizing on the time left for the veterans. However, it’s not going out on a limb to say that the Leafs aren’t going to win the Cup this year, despite some talent. Toronto also has a lot of money tied up in a few players – Mats Sundin and newly-resigned defenceman Bryan McCabe will make nearly $15 million between the two of them. Combine that with the $5 million they’re giving to Pavel Kubina and you have nearly half the cap room tied up in just three players. In the end, there’s just not enough for the Leafs to compete in this very challenging division, and another year will go by where fans in Toronto have to visit the Hall of Fame to see the Cup rather than have it paraded down Yonge Street.

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