It’s way too early to make any predictions about division standings and the like.
Although NHL teams are pretty much done wheeling and dealing with training camps about six weeks away from opening, there could still be a tweak done here or there by every club.
However, it’s still worthwhile to take a look at the Northeast Division clubs as currently constituted and briefly glance at how the Bruins stack up. Scott Burnside of ESPN did just that today.
I have to say that, at least at first glance, the Bruins have definitely done the most in the division to better their club. That’s not to say I foresee a run to the Stanley Cup or even the conference finals on the horizon from where I sit now, but it’s fair to expect Boston will report for duty next month as the Northeast Division favorites.
As far as addressing their needs, the Bruins definitely accomplished that feat best so far this summer. The league’s worst offense needed help up front, so the Bruins imported Nathan Horton and drafted Tyler Seguin with just much-maligned, inconsistent defenseman Dennis Wideman shipped out.
Boston is hoping the development of Mark Stuart and Johnny Boychuk, plus the health of Andrew Ference, will offset the loss of Wideman. If Boston’s plan on the back end doesn’t work out, general manager Peter Chiarelli could always swing a deal during the season. Once Marco Sturm returns from his major knee injury, Boston will both have a salary-cap crunch and a surplus of forwards (should everyone play up to expectations). So late November and early December will be a great time for Chiarelli to reassess his club and then fortify it for the second third of the season.
Following along with Burnside’s thumbnail sketch of the division, Ottawa has certainly improved its back end with the signing of Sergei Gonchar. But the Senators have also made themselves older and more prone to injury. There’s no telling how Jason Spezza will perform this season despite his stated pleasure with staying in Ottawa. And there are always going to be questions about a goaltending tandem of Pascal Leclaire and Brian Elliott, as well as a forward corps that could either be clogged up or accentuated by Alex Kovalev’s performances.
Up in Montreal, we all know where the focus will be: on the goaltender’s crease, where else? Now this is truly Carey Price’s team — assuming you’re not expecting Alex Auld to morph into Ken Dryden — and there’s really no telling how he’ll handle the No. 1 job or all the on- and off-ice responsibilities that go with it. We know that when he’s been in the driver’s seat for brief stretches of the past, he’s more often than not hit a pot hole. The Habs still have tons of speed up front and a defense corps that went from underrated to championship-caliber last spring. So more than ever, the fortunes of this club will rest with Price.
Buffalo will always just be Buffalo, which Burnside describes in his piece as being in “a perpetual state of wheel-spinning.” They’ve replaced Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman on defense with Jordan Leopold and Shaone Morrisonn to get younger and more mobile. But they’ve done nothing to address the offense, which is far too reliant on a healthy and productive Tim Connolly (a rarely seen figure in Western New York). As long as Ryan Miller is the backbone, Buffalo has a chance to win games. But a repeat as division champs, or even as a playoff team, seem remote.
And then you have Toronto, which is important to Boston in two ways. First, the Leafs are a hated rival on the ice. Second, the Leafs are going to give Boston one more first-round pick in 2011.
While it’s unlikely Toronto would go down the drain far enough to hand Boston another lottery pick, there’s still a chance the Bruins could end up in a prime position in St. Paul next summer if Toronto doesn’t make some more maneuvers. First and foremost, Toronto needs a No. 1 center, as Burnside points out. Maybe the Leafs think they’re going to get one for Tomas Kaberle, or maybe they think they’ll be able to swing something during the season, or maybe they think prospect Nazem Kadri is going to make a quantum leap from juniors to an NHL top line this season. Regardless, Toronto is still thin up front — because I’m not even sold on Kris Versteeg and Colby Armstrong providing enough offense now that they’re going to be key components instead of role players.
Toronto’s depth on defense and a projected bounce-back year by goaltender J.S Giguere (if he keeps Jonas Gustavsson on the bench) could keep the Leafs in the playoff hunt longer this season. However, I think they’ll be making another trip to the lottery without some upgrades.
The Bruins certainly have their share of question marks, starting with how Horton adapts to life in Boston and how quickly Seguin picks up the NHL game. Injuries on defense could be a disaster for the Bruins, as could the scoring if players other than Horton don’t lift their production from last year’s levels. Nonetheless, right now it looks like the Bruins’ questions are more answerable and their deficiencies are more fixable than those of their fellow Northeast Division competitors. Let home-ice advantage be there’s — for now.