Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Blogosphere's Most Daring Northeast Division Preview

Much like Top 10 lists and Youtube tributes, season previews are the kind of stuff that bloggers use to justify their existence during the long, hockeyless summer. Since all the predictions go out the window as soon as the first puck is dropped, I see no reason to play a conservative game with these things.

Therefore, here are a few predictions that you're probably already thinking but would never say out loud:

- Barring an unexpected change in personnel, the Boston Bruins are the favorite to win the Northeast Division this season. Mark it.
- The Canadiens, in addition to being the Eastern Conference equivalent to the Sharks, are the most overrated team in the league.
- Mats Sundin is not going to be worth all the trouble.

Don't like my predictions? Get your own friggin' blog.

(Teams are listed in order of predicted finish)


Key change - Patrice Bergeron's return is going to grab all the headlines in Boston, but more significant to the Bruins' fortunes is the performance of Michael Ryder. Conventional wisdom says he should get much better ice time under Claude Julien, bond with setup artists Bergeron and Marc Savard, and return to the 30-goal level. But if he fails to find his game, the Bruins will be without a legit top-line RW and could be in for a season of deflecting media pressure around Ryder.

Biggest obstacle - The Bruins simply don't have a superstar player capable of putting the puck in the net more than 40 times per season. Therefore the pressure to score goals often falls to guys like Savard and Milan Lucic, who frankly aren't capable of carrying that kind of burden.

Daring prediction - Boston sports fans, without Tom Brady as their object of fanboi obsession, realize that the local hockey club has two starting goalies, a studly defense and two lines' worth of talented young forwards. By May the Celtics will be the second team in Boston to win a 2009 division title.


Key change - The Habs quietly allowed Mark Streit to sign with the minor-league Islanders this offseason. An injury to Andrei Markov would leave the Canadiens without a reliable 10-goal scorer on the blue line. Across the course of 82 games that might turn out to be a pretty bad gamble.

Biggest obstacle - Carey Price was the darling of the league through much of last season, but the Roy/Dryden comparisons might be a tad premature. "Sacre bleu! Price has won at every level of hockey! He's a winner!", say ze Habs fans from behind their rouge-colored glasses. Remember, we were saying that about Chris Drury several years ago... until he was expected to carry a team alone and fell right off the map. If Price crumbles under pressure, the backup is Marc Denis. That's like having only one reliable 10-goal scoring defenseman.

Daring prediction - True to form, it's an off year for Kovalev and Koivu. The Habs come to regret putting all their faith in Markov and Price, and find that losing 7-6 sucks just as much as losing 2-1. The Montreal media eats this young team alive, and a 5th-place finish is poor consolation for a season of wasted dreams.


Key change - Never has a team relied so heavily on addition by subtraction. The exodus of talent out of Ottawa - Emery, Redden, Meszaros, Commodore, Stillman - has left the Sens with fewer distractions but a schizophrenic identity. With some of the league's top-end talent juxtaposed against bottom-feeders like Brad Isbister and Jarkko Ruutu, the Senators have little choice but to break up their fearsome first line of Heatley/Spezza/Alfredsson.

Biggest obstacle - Let's not mince words. The Senators have positively the worst goaltending in the league. Martin Gerber is this generation's Damian Rhodes, and Alex Auld is a minor-leaguer at heart. Barring a stunning reversal in one of these guys' career, or a blockbuster deal (likely), the Sens are going to have a hard time keeping pucks out of the net even if they overachieve on defense.

Daring prediction - Reports of the Senators' demise are a tad premature. They still have top-flight talent and an underrated blueline. By the end of the season this team will undergo a total personality makeover, swing a deal for Khabibulin and make the playoffs.


Key change - Buffalo will be without the services of Brian Campbell and Dmitri Kalinin this season, and made only a small addition to the blueline (Rivet) to try and mitigate the damage. Like the Habs, they will be perilously thin at the point; unlike the Habs they don't have Andrei Markov. Sabres fans think they have already moved on from Campbell's departure, but wait until they get a load of their power play this season.

Biggest obstacle - This might be a problem year for Ryan Miller. He had the good fortune to join the Sabres at the same time they hit their peak, and was the darling of Buffalo in advance of his 5-year, "face of the franchise" contract. But this season he will truly be under the gun to rescue a struggling squad which is looking more and more like a lottery team. Frustrated goalies are rarely good goalies.

Daring prediction - By April, Lindy Ruff is no longer the coach of the Buffalo Sabres.


Key change - The Leafs have finally made the transition into a true rebuilding mode, shipping out more baggage than Air Canada over the summer. If Mats Sundin decides to head for greener pastures, it's a given that his departure becomes the biggest change from last season... but in any case the team has ditched its old identity and begun to take steps toward a new era.

Biggest obstacle - Oh, just pick anything.

Daring prediction - Sundin has not made a decision by November 1st, becoming a Forsberg-esque distraction to the entire league. He then re-signs with the Leafs for less than he made last season, just to piss everyone off.

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Spawn said...

You're picking with your heart with the Bruins as the top spot. This division is weird, with a lot of question marks, so I don't think it's out of the realm of possibility, though. Nice commentary on the Habs, but I'd be BEYOND shocked to see Ottawa in the playoffs, or anything near respectability. Like you said, worst goaltending in the league.

Tom said...

I readily admit that I was picking with my heart on that one, but the idea never crossed my mind till I saw a key stat:

If the Bruins had ONLY split their games with the Habs last season, they would have won the Eastern Conference.

Of course that's a huge "what if", but then again they managed to split the first 6 games of the playoff series so it's not much of a stretch either. So the question comes into play: could they split or win the series this season? If so, could they keep pace with Montreal in other games? I think the chances are at least 50/50 that the answer to both those questions is "yes".

It's remarkable how close the #1 and #8 seeds actually were last season.

andrewrice said...

i agree that the bruins post a big threat of taking the conference. but honestly, this is the first time in a while where the eastern conf isn't very strong. like you said, a lot lies with whether bergy and ryder can perform. anther question is manny because personally i don't know how long tim thomas can carry this team on his shoulders.

and one more thing, i have high expectations for kess and kreiji this year. we're talkin solid depth if these guys can produce

Spawn said...

I hear you on splitting the series, Tom. Last season, if the Devils split with the Rangers, they'd have won the East and New York wouldn't have even made the playoffs.

Anonymous said...

daring prediction: sens top your precious bruins

Anonymous said...

"daring prediction: sens top your precious bruins"

Really? Now that is picking with your heart.

Peter Raaymakers said...

I didn't like your prediction, so I did get my own blog. Maybe we were both picking with our hearts.

In fact, I've got two blogs, and linked to your solid writings on my Sens one. If you could return the favour, I'd be much obliged.