Toronto, Canada – With training camp around the corner it's 12 season.
Can the Boston Bruins repeat? Do the Toronto Maple Leafs have what it takes to turn the corner? Will big spending equal more wins in Buffalo? Can the Montreal Canadiens' revamped defense keep them in the hunt? Are the Ottawa Senators the NHL's new basement dwellers?
Let's try to answer some of these questions in a quick preview of each Northeast Division team.
The defending Stanley Cup champs will once again be a top contender thanks to having one of the more balanced line-ups in the league. With the bulk of their winning roster still intact, the question will be if they can maintain their focus for another full season. While a Cup hangover is always a possibility, Claude Julien's tough demeanour behind the bench should keep the team on track.
With Vezina winner Tim Thomas in net and Zdeno Chara guarding the back end, the Bruins will be one of the better defensive teams in the league. The question is whether or not an offense that lost Michael Ryder and Mark Recchi can match last year's output.
Coming in with another off-season of development under his belt, Tyler Seguin should be able to help in the scoring department, while defenseman Joe Corvo will be useful in sparking what was a terrible power play for most of last season. No NHL team has won back-to-back titles since the Red Wings did it in 1997 and 1998, but these Bruins are built for the task.
Toronto Maple Leafs:
The fortunes of the Leafs this season will rely heavily on whether goaltender James Reimer's breakout season was for real or not. Toronto hasn't had a true No.1 netminder since the days of Ed Belfour and by signing Reimer to a three- year, $5.4 million contract, it's clear the organization believes its found just that in the 23-year-old sophomore.
The addition of Cody Franson to an already outstanding young defense core should help Reimer adjust to his first full season as the starter, while power play specialist John Michael Liles will be an upgrade on the point. Captain Dion Phaneuf will need to prove that he's worth the over $6 million-a-year the Leafs are paying him, or Luke Schenn could surpass him as the Buds best option at crunch time.
Tim Connolly is the type of playmaking center the Leafs have lacked in recent years. The 30-year-old might be the answer to sparking sniper Phil Kessel, who despite criticism, put up a career-best 64 points last season. The problem is, Connolly has missed 198-games over his last six campaigns and managed to play in just 68 last year in Buffalo. Toronto should knock on the door for the eighth and final playoff spot and could climb higher if the team plays to its full potential.
The only major addition the Habs made this off-season was acquiring veteran forward Eric Cole, who will add some much needed size to the front end. The 32-year-old put up 52 points last season with the Carolina Hurricanes and played a full 82-game schedule for the first time in his nine-year career. The 6-2, 205-pound winger will bolster a feisty top-six that despite lacking a superstar is balanced enough to compete with the better teams in the conference.
Whether or not the defense is up to snuff will be the major question surrounding this version of the Canadiens. After parting ways with almost half of their blueline, the only addition made to the back end was depth defender Jeff Woywitka. Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges and Jaroslav Spacek all missed substantial time last season with injuries and will have to stay healthy. While emerging star P.K. Subban will be thrust into a leadership role in only his second year in the league.
Goaltender Carey Price, who answered the call last season by putting up his best season as a pro, has had his mental toughness questioned in the past and whether or not he will remain consistent all season long will be a storyline to watch. The Canadiens should find their way into the postseason again, but fans in Montreal shouldn't be overly confident.
For the second straight season the Sabres were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs and that didn't sit well with new owner Terry Pegula. In an emotional press conference last February, Pegula stated that the only reason for the club's existence would be to win a Cup, and he backed up those words this summer by giving general manager Darcy Regier the freedom to spend.
Regier responded by adding high-priced players like Christian Ehrhoff, Ville Leino, Ales Kotalik and Robyn Regehr, who combined represent a $15 million cap hit for the upcoming season. Christian Erhoff, who had 14 goals and 50 points with Vancouver last season, will add some offense to the blueline while Regehr will be a stabilizing force in front of the net. That should help Ryan Miller re-capture his Vezina form after putting up a rather normal 2.59 goals against average and .916 save percentage last season.
Up front Leino will provide some more scoring punch alongside Thomas Vanek, Drew Stafford and Jason Pominville, who all put up more than 50 points last season, while Tyler Ennis will look to build upon his own impressive 49-point rookie campaign. The Sabres just might be the most exciting team to watch in the division next season and could be good enough to challenge for the conference title.
Key additions: F Zenon Konopka, F Nikita Filatov, G Alex Auld
In the span of a year, the Senators went from fifth place in the Eastern Conference to 13th thanks to a 20-point drop in the standings. They scored the fewest goals in the entire league and couldn't keep the puck out of their own net either, thanks to the ineffectual tandem of Brian Elliot and Pascal LeClaire.
Although it might not reflect in the standings due to the overall improvement of the Eastern Conference, the Senators should be a better team this season. Captain Daniel Alfredsson is finally pain-free after back surgery corrected a nerve issue, the enigmatic Alexei Kovalev was finally shipped out of town and Craig Anderson will take the reins in net after finishing last season on a tear going 11-5-1 with a .939 save percentage.
With veterans Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly, Jarkko Ruutu and Kovalev gone, Ottawa will rely on new faces to carry the load. Relatively unproven players like Colin Greening, Erik Condra, Bobby Butler, will have increased roles this season, pulling the club up or down with their own successes or failures. Jason Spezza who had his second straight sub-par season with only 57 points will have to be better if the "Sens" are going to stay out of the basement in the East.