(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 -
Predicted order of finish by staff:
Buffalo Sabres *
2005-06 record: 52-24-6, 110 points. 2nd in division/4th in conference. Lost in conference semi-final to
Head coach: Lindy Ruff
General Manager: Darcy Regier
Home arena: HSBC Arena
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 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
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
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
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.
Historically this has nearly always been one of
Lindy Ruff is the longest-tenured coach in the NHL, having been with
2005-06 record: 52-21-9, 113 points. 1st in division/1st in conference. Lost in conference semi-finals to
Head coach: Bryan Murray
General Manager: John Muckler
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
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
The obvious top story here is the loss of giant defenseman Zdeno Chara. The 6’7” Slovakian left for
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
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
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
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
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.
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
There has been such a string of negativity in
The acquisition of Chara gives
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
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).
2005-06 record: 42-31-9, 93 points. 3rd in division/7th in conference. Lost in first round to
Head coach: Guy Carbonneau
General Manager: Bob Gainey
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).
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.