A look at my projected divisional standings for the coming NHL season hits the halfway point with the Northeast this week. (Atlantic Division breakdown can be found HERE, and the Central is HERE. The remaining three conferences will be dealt with through the end of this month.)
NORTHEAST DIVISION (in predicted order of finish)
Coming: Niko Dimitrakos, Shean Donovan
Going: Mike Comrie, Tom Preissing, Peter Schaefer
Why 1st? Because, despite the manner in which the Anaheim Ducks roughed them up in the Stanley Cup final, the Senators remain one of the league’s premier teams.
True, Ottawa’s defense won’t be quite as deep with the departure of Preissing; and with Comrie and Schaefer gone, the pressure on the Sens’ secondary scorers will be greater than ever.
But, given that most of the other teams in the Northeast have either taken a step backwards or figure to be about as mediocre as last season, the adjustment for the new management duo of GM Bryan Murray and coach John Paddock shouldn’t result in too much trouble.
Coming: Jocelyn Thibault
Going: Daniel Briere, Ty Conklin, Chris Drury, Dainius Zubrus
Why 2nd? Because those who’ve departed from Buffalo this summer have left behind a hole Â– no, make that a crater Â– even an organization brimming with NHL-ready prospects (as the Sabres are) would have problems properly filling.
It’s not all bad news for the Sabres, though. No team wants to lose the type of talent they’ve lost, but it is believed coach Lindy Ruff prefers working with the Â“underdogÂ” label rather than the Â“surefire Cup contenderÂ” tag some believe made his players overconfident heading into the 2007 playoffs.
If he wants another lengthy post-season run, Ruff will (a) have to convert the Sabres into a grittier, more humble squad; and (b) hope a defense corps that sagged noticeably in Buffalo’s conference final loss to Ottawa will provide more support to star goalie Ryan Miller. I’m far more confident in him accomplishing the former than I am in him achieving the latter.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Coming: Jason Blake, Mark Bell, Scott Clemmensen, Tony Salmelainen, Vesa Toskala
Going: Jean-Sebastien Aubin, Michael Peca, Yanic Perreault
Why 3rd? Because third place seems perfectly appropriate for a franchise that’s specialized in mediocrity over the last few seasons. Are they a playoff team? I think they are. But ask Atlanta how good it felt to be a playoff team last year.
Now, the Maple Leafs undoubtedly are better on paper than the Blue and White group that finished a point out of the playoffs in ’06-07. Blake was brought in primarily for his offense, but his gritty demeanor may have a more immediate impact on the team by freeing up Darcy Tucker from his intimidation duties. And in net, Toskala will push Andrew Raycroft to be better, or he’ll push the former Calder Trophy-winner out of the picture altogether.
Nonetheless, no one but the franchise’s true believers could possibly paint the Leafs as a bona fide Cup threat.
That may change if John Ferguson can package Raycroft and one of his high-priced blueliners in an in-season trade, but Ferguson hasn’t built a reputation for making blockbuster deals thus far in his tenure as GM. And if Toronto stumbles out of the regular-season gate, or doesn’t win at least one playoff round, that tenure could very well be terminated.
Coming: Manny Fernandez, Shawn Thornton, Peter Schaefer
Going: Petr Tenkrat, Hannu Toivonen, Shean Donovan
Why 4th? Because this is a team that’s still trying to find its identity. What else can you say about an organization that hires defense-minded coach Claude Julien to work with players such as Phil Kessel and Glen Murray (neither of whom will be mistaken for Doug Jarvis)?
That said, Julien will be an effective tonic for Bruins players who’d grown too comfortable under former bench boss Dave Lewis. And former Wild starter Manny Fernandez will improve the team’s fortunes in net.
But if those are the biggest changes on a team that finished 25th in offense and 29th in defense last year, is a playoff berth a realistic possibility? Not unless Â“realisticÂ” has been redefined since I started this column.
Coming: Patrice Brisebois, Roman Hamrlik, Tom Kostopoulos, Jamie Rivers, Bryan Smolinski
Going: David Aebischer, Radek Bonk, Alexander Perezhogin, Tony Salmelainen, Sergei Samsonov, Sheldon Souray
Why 5th? Because, especially at center, size matters. And the Habs’ current contingent of pivots could easily fit into a clown car.
There are many important building blocks already in place Â– their embarrassment of riches in goal, up-and-comers such as Tomas Plekanec, Andrei Kostitsyn and Chris Higgins Â– but the departure of Souray will leave a major leadership void in Montreal’s dressing room and Hamrlik is far from an appropriate replacement in that department.
If the Canadiens have any hope at the playoffs, they’ll need notoriously inconsistent winger Alexei Kovalev to consistently produce, their average defense corps to overachieve, and all of their youngsters to enjoy career seasons. In my humble estimation, that’s too tall of an order.
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