With three of the NHL's Original Six franchises to call their own, the Northeast Division is always an intriguing group. Sadly, two of the division's historic franchises -- Toronto and Montreal -- have fallen on hard times of late.
Making matters worse for fans of the Maple Leafs and Canadiens is that the division's other Original Six team, the rival Boston Bruins, have enjoyed great success in recent years. Boston has won three of the last four division titles and also celebrated the franchise's first Stanley Cup title in decades in the spring of 2011.
The Bruins figure to be the divisional favorites again this season, but the up-and-coming Ottawa Senators may have something to say about that.
2011-12 - (1st place, 102 points); Projected Finish: 1st place
REVIEW: While the Bruins reached hockey's peak with their Stanley Cup title in 2011, the club's most recent postseason was a huge disappointment. Boston bowed out in the opening round to the Washington Capitals, losing a Game 7 overtime battle on home ice. More bad news came shortly after that playoff loss when the Bruins learned that goaltender Tim Thomas -- the 2011 Conn Smythe winner -- will sit out this season due to personal reasons.
KEY ADDITION: The Bruins were extremely quiet during the offseason in terms of acquiring proven NHL talent but Boston could get a huge boost from within its own system in the form of blue chip defensive prospect Dougie Hamilton. The 19-year-old was selected by Boston with the ninth overall pick of the 2011 draft and he should get a serious shot at making the NHL team this year. Even if he does make the jump from juniors to the NHL, Hamilton likely will struggle to garner minutes on a talented Boston blueline, but if the kid can match the hype right off the bat he could make an already strong defensive team even better.
X-FACTOR: Thomas' decision to take this year off leaves Tuukka Rask as the undisputed No. 1 netminder in Boston with Anton Khudobin as an unproven backup. Rask wrested the starting job away from Thomas in 2009-10 before reverting to a backup role over the last two years. The 25-year-old Rask has proven himself as an NHL-caliber goaltender by posting a 2.20 goals-against average during his 102 career games, but effectively replacing a two-time Vezina Trophy winner like Thomas is no easy task. The good news is Boston's aforementioned defense boasts perennial Norris candidate Zdeno Chara at the top of the rotation and that'll make things easier for any goalie.
PROGNOSIS: Unless Rask falls flat on his face the Bruins are destined for a sixth straight trip to the playoffs. The defense is strong and forward Tyler Seguin -- the second overall pick in the 2010 draft -- is primed for a breakout year after becoming a vastly improved player as a sophomore in 2011-12. Still, Thomas' year off would seem to drastically lower Boston's chance of winning another Cup.
2011-12 - (2nd, 92 pts); Projected Finish - 2nd
REVIEW: The Senators were a surprise team in 2011-12, exceeding just about everybody's expectations with a 92-point season and a trip to the playoffs. Even though the club lost in the first round, Ottawa gained even more respect in the playoffs by taking the top-seeded New York Rangers to the distance before losing Game 7 by a 2-1 score.
KEY ADDITION: The breakout star of Ottawa's campaign was clearly defenseman Erik Karlsson, who at 22 years of age joined Bobby Orr and Denis Potvin as the only players under the age of 23 to win the Norris Trophy. With Filip Kuba departed to Tampa Bay and the aging Sergei Gonchar coming off two underachieving years in Ottawa, new addition Marc Methot could get a crack at joining the top pairing with Karlsson. Methot was acquired in an offseason trade with Columbus and his stay-at-home style could turn out to be a good complement to the free-wheeling Karlsson.
X-FACTOR: The Senators were thrilled when captain Daniel Alfredsson announced he was putting off retirement to skate in his 17th NHL season in 2012-13, but it remains to be seen what the 40-year-old forward can offer in what could be his final campaign. He did well for himself with 27 goals and 59 points in 2011-12, but with Ottawa's lack of scoring depth the team can't afford him suffering a big drop-off this year.
PROGNOSIS: Rookie head coach Paul MacLean pushed all the right buttons last season but his Senators won't be sneaking up on anybody this time around. Making the playoffs again is certainly not out of the question but it does seem more likely that Ottawa will be watching the postseason from home in 2013.
2011-12 - (3rd, 89 pts); Projected Finish - 3rd
REVIEW: After missing out on the playoffs for the third time in five seasons, the Sabres opted to keep GM Darcy Regier and head coach Lindy Ruff in the fold, leaving the club with the same power structure it's had since 1997. Having not led the club to a playoff series' win since 2007, to say the duo of Ruff and Regier are on the hot seat in 2012-13 is an understatement.
KEY ADDITION: Since Ruff and Regier weren't considered expendable after last season's 89-point performance the Sabres decided to shake up the roster by swapping centermen with Dallas, sending Derek Roy to the Stars in exchange for uber-pest Steve Ott. With an average of nearly 155 penalty minutes per season over the last five years, Ott will certainly bring toughness to a team that lacks that trait but his lack of offensive punch could prevent him from being a true impact player for the Sabres.
X-FACTOR: Tyler Myers and Ville Leino both had incredibly disappointing seasons in 2011-12 and Buffalo desperately needs at least one of them to rebound this season. Myers won the Calder Trophy as the league's best rookie in 2009-10 but inconsistency has plagued the big defenseman over the last two seasons. At 22, Myers has time on his side but the 29-year-old Leino needs to produce now after a dreadful first season with Buffalo. The former Philadelphia Flyers forward inked a six-year, $27 million deal with Buffalo prior to last season only to post an anemic 25 points over 71 games.
PROGNOSIS: The Sabres have depth issues on both ends of the ice but the team has a decent chance at making the playoffs if goaltender Ryan Miller can regain the form that made him the Vezina Trophy winner in 2009-10. However, without a stellar year from Miller, the Sabres could be out of the postseason yet again, meaning Ruff and Regier could be looking for work.
2011-12 - (5th, 78 pts); Projected Finish - 4th
REVIEW: Last season, the Canadiens missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007 and the storied franchise also suffered the indignity of finishing dead last in the Eastern Conference. As a result, the Canadiens hired Marc Bergevin and Michel Therrien to be their new general manager and head coach, respectively, and the duo is tasked with regaining some of the respect the Habs lost last season.
KEY ADDITION: Bergevin didn't make a splash in his first offseason as Montreal's GM and maybe that's a sign he'll be patient with a team that has question marks everywhere except in net, where Carey Price is entrenched as the team's No. 1 goaltender. The Habs did sign physical forwards Colby Armstrong and Brandon Prust to add some much-needed toughness but neither player will help much in improving an offense that averaged only 2.52 goals per game last season.
X-FACTOR: Even with veteran Andrei Markov healthy to start the year, P.K. Subban is the present and future No. 1 defenseman for the Habs. The 23-year- old led Montreal in ice time last season, but his status for the start of the season is still uncertain due to his contract status. Subban's entry-level deal with the Canadiens expired after last season and at press time the restricted free agent has yet to re-sign. Most folks expect the talented blueliner to sign with the Habs at some point, but Montreal desperately hopes that time happens before the shortened season kicks off.
PROGNOSIS: After being the worst team in the East last season the good news is Montreal has an excellent shot at improving its standing in the conference. The presence of Price in net even gives the Habs an outside chance at sneaking into the playoffs during a shortened season but it seems likelier that the Habs will miss the postseason for a second straight year. The last time Montreal missed consecutive postseasons was during a three-year drought that lasted from 1999-2001.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
2011-12 - (4th, 80 pts); Projected Finish - 5th
REVIEW: The Maple Leafs were in playoff contention last February before finishing the season on a 7-18-4 slump. That late-season swoon caused Toronto to extend its dubious franchise record to seven straight campaigns without a playoff appearance. In a move that was surprising only due to its timing, GM Brian Burke was relieved of his duties with the club last week and was replaced by Dave Nonis, who now has the unenviable task of getting this Original Six franchise back on track.
KEY ADDITION: Before being sacrificed Burke made a move for size and scoring over the summer, acquiring forward James van Riemsdyk from Philadelphia in exchange for defenseman Luke Schenn. Van Riemsdyk, who is also known as "JVR," was selected by the Flyers with the second overall pick in the 2007 draft and the 23-year-old has showed glimpses of brilliance while posting 99 points (47 goals, 52 assists) over 196 career games. JVR only had 11 goals and 13 assists in an injury-plagued 2011-12 for the Flyers, but the Leafs will be counting on a bounce-back season from the New Jersey native as he tries to provide secondary scoring on a team that boasts Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul on offense and not much else.
X-FACTOR: Lupul skated on the opposite wing from Kessel last season and turned in the best offensive season of his career. The 29-year-old Lupul had his highest point total with 67 points and his 25 goals were just three shy of the personal best he set with Anaheim in 2005-06. Even more impressive is the fact that Lupul did all that despite missing 16 games due to injury. For Toronto to end its playoff drought in 2012-13, Lupul will not only have to stay healthy but he'll also have to be as productive as he was last season.
PROGNOSIS: Assuming the Leafs don't go out and trade for Vancouver goaltender Roberto Luongo, Toronto will once again have its share of issues in net. It's a risky bet to expect the Maple Leafs to get back to the playoffs this year, but the shortened season should give them a better shot at achieving that goal.