In Part I, we began our look around the NHL and the Northeast Division with some talk about the Bruins and an overriding theme around the league - it's all about the cap.
With Part II, it's time for a trio - division favourites Ottawa and Buffalo, and darkhorse Montreal -- as we save the Leafs for Part III, along with some predictions.
With the season a little more than 24 hours away, time's a-wastin'. Let's get to it then ...
JABS: Lyle, I know you’re picking Montreal third in the division. You like their team speed. But they don’t seem to have a stud defenceman and Cristobal Huet at 31 years old has to prove himself all over again. I’m very iffy on them this season – how about you?
LYLE: Bang on, for the most part. If Huet proves to be for real and not a one-season wonder, he'll carry the Canadiens into the playoffs. As for a "stud" defenceman, you're overlooking Andrei Markov, perhaps one of the most underrated blueliners in the NHL. For all the talk about Theodore last season, the bottom line was that when Markov wasn't in the lineup, the Habs struggled. When he was there, they had a winning record.
|Markov: Ready for a run to elite status?|
Up front, speed to burn and I'm really keen on their younger talent, particularly Higgins and Plekanec. If either Kostitsyn or Latendresse can crack the lineup and contribute offensively the Habs will be a post-season lock. The one major concern up front is the lack of a big offensive centre for the first or second line. Koivu is of course the heart and soul, but he needs help. With Ribeiro dealt, that opens the door for sophomore Tomas Plekanec between Samsonov and Kovalev. They looked good in the Habs' final exhibition game but one game doesn't make a season. This could be a continuing problem as the season wears on.
CHRIS: Montreal will be in the fight but in the end I see them finishing where they always do: in the middle of the Eastern Conference, fighting for a playoff spot. A lot will depend on Huet. Is he the next Jim Carrey or the real deal? I don't think even Bob Gainey knows for sure, hence he's keeping David Aebischer around despite his $1.9 million price tag. And Lyle's right, their D is a problem. They have a lot of 3rd and 4th defencemen, but no strong 30-minute workhorse, and while he was much improved last season, I'm not sold that Andrei Markov is the guy. They desperately need Sheldon Souray to find his old form.
TOM: I liked (or, from a Sabres-fan perspective, didn't like) what I saw from the guys Lyle mentioned, Higgins and Plekanec. Higgins, in particular, was quite impressive in the games I saw him play - tenacious, chippy, good nose for the puck. Blueline depth is the issue and, in my opinion, Souray should not take a 5-on-5 shift against most of the teams in the league - but he's got that great shot. Again, Montreal is another example of those 'incomplete' teams we talked about earlier. But, the pieces are coming together. If nothing else, they will be well-coached and if they gel could be a real surprise.
JABS: Gainey has addressed a problem area with the trade for Niinimaa (and to a lesser extent, snagging Traverse off waivers). But I like Ribeiro, who went the other way -- he's still pretty young, in his mid 20s. And I’m also wondering how Guillaume Latendresse at just 19 years old handles the twin pressure of the big leagues and Quebec hopes. It was apparently quite a circus during training camp with the kid – he’s handled it so far, but it's a long season.
LYLE: Traverse was the best he could get from waivers at this time. He's merely a short-term depth solution because of his two-way contract, which is not only affordable to absorb but easy to ditch once Bouillon returns to action. Given the fact the Habs were also planning on signing Latendresse, they didn't wish to commit more payroll to a rookie blueliner, especially if they'd run the risk of losing that blueliner via waivers if forced to send him down. The Habs have a bad recent history in that regard (Beauchemin, Hainsey) and obviously didn't want to risk it again.
Ribeiro has talent but he's also a small, slow skater who seemed to struggle under the new NHL rules last season. He also didn't help his situation as part of the infamous "Three Amigos" with Jose Theodore and Pierre Dagenais, rumoured to be a problem in the Habs’ dressing room. Still, Gainey gave "Mickey Ribs" plenty of rope. The last straw was his inability to click with Samsonov and Kovalev, and it appears Tomas Plekanec could benefit from Ribeiro's exit. As for Latendresse, it'll be interesting to see how he handles the pressure, but if the Habs bring him along properly with the right linemates he could have a good rookie season. I'm not expecting Crosby or Ovechkin numbers but I don't think 20 goals and 40 points would be out of the question.
CHRIS: Is Plekanec their #2 centre - or is it Bonk? If so, then that is an awful trade. Mike Johnson? Steve Begin? Will they try and convert a winger? Unless they have another move ready (Scott Gomez? Brian Gionta?), they're in trouble down the middle.
TOM: I really have nothing to add, except to say that the Sabres fans I've talked to are licking their chops at the prospect of both Niinimaa and Souray being on the same team. This trade does make the Habs look thinner up the middle, but maybe it was needed to allow one of the young'uns to step up to a bigger role.
|Huet: Habs' most important player?|
CHRIS: The Ribeiro trade seems like two teams trading headaches. Dallas had too many defenceman and $2.5 mil' is way too much to pay for a No. 5 D-man, while Ribeiro needed to get out of Montreal. Maybe a change of scenery while help his game because there's no disputing the talent. Either way, I don't see it as being a significant trade unless Niinimaa rediscovers his game from years ago, and I don't see that happening. Better than what they had though, I guess.
JAMES: It really does comes down to Huet. If he's lights out again, that team is fine, and could even get a 4th or 5th seed in the East. Montreal has a lot more offensive depth than even last year, and their top nine forwards are all at least 50-point players in the right situation. It's a luxury few teams have where players like Plekanec, Perezhogin and Mike Johnson will be on the third and fourth lines.
Niinimaa's a stop-gap solution here, and Gainey knows that. The thing is, he had to find more playing time for kids like Latendresse, Perezhogin, Plekhanov and Higgins, and moving Ribeiro really isn't going to take any bite out of that line-up. So he adds Niinimaa for a negligible salary increase and hopes he can fill in while Bouillion's out. Not too exciting, really.
The Habs still need another stud on defence - although Markov was, at times, excellent last season.
JABS: Let's go on to Ottawa – where according to Mirtle's listing, there are more Senators blogs than any other NHL team. Any theories on that, Chris? And what's the mood up in the capital?
CHRIS: As for the amount of blogs, I have no clue. Maybe it's all the government employees bored at work, with tons of time to write online. As for the mood, I'd say it's a strange mix of enthusiasm and nervousness. Any time you turn over as much talent as they did this offseason, people will wonder what's on the horizon. And while it's true they did so before last season (lost a coach, No. 1 goalie, and No. 1 centre), all of those moves were met with excitement from the fan base. Despite their poor playoffs, no one wanted to be without Chara or Martin Havlat. It doesn't help that a lot of the new faces are guys we in the East are pretty ignorant about. Hell, when they signed him, I had to post a blog asking Kings fans if Joe Corvo was any good because I had no real clue about him as a player beyond his stats.
|Spezza: Big money player now.|
LYLE: I don't have any concerns about Spezza earning his dough, but I am concerned about the club's lack of left wing depth and their scoring beyond their first line. Granted, shutting down Spezza-Alfredsson-Heatley isn't easy, but if they can be neutralized the Sens will have a tough time getting more scoring from their second and third lines.
Your concern about their goaltending is justified, Chris. What kind of Gerber are they getting? The one who was the rock in the 'Canes net throughout last season, or the one who imploded during the playoffs and lost his job to Cam Ward? As for Emery, he's good but not in the elite class by any stretch. Once again the lack of a big-game goalie could be the Sens’ undoing.
CHRIS: Sorry Lyle, but I have to disagree with you, significantly. The perception that Ottawa has poor scoring depth beyond the first line (assuming The Big Line will be reunited, which is not set in stone) just isn't accurate. Peter Schaefer scored 20 goals and 50 points last season. Mike Fisher scored 22 goals and 44 points in 68 games. Antoine Vermette had 21 goals despite playing on the fourth line, Patrick Eaves 20 in only 58 games. I expect Chris Kelly to nearly double his 10 from last season. Same things goes when pundits wonder how the Sens will fare without Havlat, not realizing they scored the most goals in the NHL last season with Mach 9 only playing 18 games. Scoring, at least in the regular season, is not an issue I'm losing any sleep over.
LYLE: Granted, yes, there is some scoring depth there, but let's face it, if the big line isn't producing, the Sens are in trouble, particularly come playoff time. No knock on those players you noted, but unless a couple of them step up significantly, I still see scoring being a problem for them during crunch time.
|Gerber: Which goalie are the Sens getting?|
TOM: Lyle, I have a higher opinion of Gerber than those expressed by you here and others. Our opinion of him playoff-wise is coloured by that nasty flu he contracted just as the playoffs started last year. This guy's got solid international experience and has the ability to dominate/steal games. That's more than I can say for Emery, my opinion of whom is less than complimentary. The strongest part of his game is his ability to forget, a valuable skill for a goalie. Unfortunately, with the amount of things he needs to forget he'll soon look like the guy from Memento.
But Chris, while Corvo and Preissing won't replace Chara, because he's irreplaceable, they’re both solid players with room to grow, especially Preissing. Both move the puck well and can play the power play. What I find cheeky is John Muckler's multiple comments about the salary cap breaking up the team, the "dynasty" that Melnyk mentioned. Well, correct me if I'm wrong but weren't the Sens one of the NHL's poster boys as to why the salary cap was needed? Sorry, buy y'all get no sympathy from me on this. Muckler's comments concerning the Havlat trade really irked me on that point. You know the rules, you worked hard to get these rules in place and then when they don't suit you you complain publicly about them? Feh! Be a man, deal with it and move on. Regier didn't bitch about the cap vis-a-vis the Dumont decision. He knew what the arbitrator was going to be awarded and he dealt with it. And, nowhere will you see me ever complain if the Sabres have to be 'broken up' because of the cap. I've already got concerns about 2007-08, but those will have to wait.
CHRIS: I think you’ve interpreted Muckler's comments wrong. I don't think he was complaining as much as he was stating a fact that this city and fan base will have to accept, and that's that part of the new CBA means we cannot hold on to the quality young players this organization has stockpiled since its inception. I'm sure a bit of it was sour grapes, because I can't see how you do that Havlat deal and not feel a little bitter, but it certainly wasn't him crying or wanting sympathy. Because he's not going to get it even from me. I think it all sucks, but, that's the way it goes. It's the new NHL.
TOM: Fair enough, Chris. You're closer to the situation than I am. But, you know, we let Satan go for NOTHING last summer, so, I still don't have any sympathy for Muckler. He got 2 good, young players back. As a side-note to this, I'm beginning to enjoy the changes that this "New NHL" hath wrought. The competition for jobs in the Sabres camp, for example, has made the losses from over the summer seem not so bad. Say goodbye to some and hello to twice that many wanting their jobs, and making the coaching staff's decisions on who to keep difficult in the process.
Asset management is different than it was before. I think for the better. Player movement in the NHL was enormous under the old CBA, only the reasons have changed.
LYLE: Even with the loss of Chara on defence, there's still plenty of quality depth there in Redden, Phillips, Svatos, Volchenkov, and Priessing, and if Corvo proves to be more than a one-year wonder, that'll be the cherry on the sundae.
JAMES: No qualms about the Sens from me, really. I like the guys they picked up nearly as much as those they lost, and I don't think there'll be much of a step back. Tom Preissing's an extremely underrated player. Another division win, or perhaps a fall to 4th in the conference. I get the feeling the brass in Ottawa couldn't care less where this team finishes during the regular season this year, because as good as they've been in the past, it's meant diddly in May.
TOM: I could see them slipping a bit during the regular season. This team might be better without home-ice advantage. But, in my opinion, this team's leadership is questionable. Alfreddsson and Redden just haven't gotten it done enough times now for me to be convinced that they can reverse course now. Pominville's goal last year is as clear an image of failed leadership in sports as you can ask for.
JABS: I find it hard to buy how you can telescope one goal into such a defining moment, Tom.
TOM: Images have power, and the image of Pominville skating around the captain of all those broken seasons, with the assistant captain staring on in disbelief, is a powerful one. That's what I meant and I'll be the first one to give them props if they overcome it.
JABS: Well, I will say this. It's a critical year for Ottawa. But how are things in Buffalo, Tom? I love this team. So do many others. What are the hurdles they have to get over to avoid the usual Buffalo heartbreak, if I can be so bald?
TOM: There are a couple of things they have to overcome and the biggest one is the perceived lack of grit/sand due to the losses of Griere, McKee and The Chin (Dumont). Who will provide the cornerwork on Chris Drury's line? Kotalik? Pominville? So, far it looks like Kotalik is going to get that job, which means he has to step up his role and be more consistent taking the body. The competition for the last forward spot has been tight. My gut tells me Daniel Paille gets the spot ahead of Chris Thorburn.
Is Tim Connolly going to play this season? For the Sabres to effectively roll four lines, three of which are a threat to score, then Connolly has to be there, or former first-round pick Jiri Novotny needs to develop more of a scoring touch quickly. While Novotny's been strong in pre-season he hasn't buried the chances he's made or had handed to him. Funny enough, though, Adam Mair, of all people, has. I'd love to see Mair on Drury's wing, if only once.
|Kalinin (right) and Tallinder: Sabres' big pair.|
The biggest hurdle, though, is complacency - a sense of entitlement. There will be a lot of teams wanting a piece of them, and while there aren't a lot of great teams in the East there are a number of improved teams and no one is an easy two points. The Northeast is going to be a tough division, top to bottom (except the Leafs, of course. *grin*) The best part about this team is there's a ton of talent growing up fast and pushing for roster spots. So if either Pominville or Kotalik, for example, aren't getting it done, then Drew Stafford should be ready for a call-up. That knowledge should keep everyone hungry enough to get things done.
JABS: That's a pretty thorough look there. And confident, as you say. Who do you as a group pencil in at the top of the division, assuming the Leafs are down your list (and we'll get to them next). Is it Ottawa or Buffalo? I'd lean slightly toward the Sabres, but is there some sort of Achilles' heel there I'm missing? I kinda doubt the complacency angle is going to come into play -- they're just too young for that. But I could see them falling back to earth some.
JAMES: I like the Sabres team, and I wouldn't be surprised to see them win that division, but I'd still go with Ottawa simply because of the calibre of the high-end talent they have. They have three potential 100-point guys on their top line and a top-end stud like Wade Redden on the blueline — two things Buffalo doesn't come close to matching.
One of the things that was the Sabres' strength last season was depth at offence, and with Dumont and Grier leaving and Connolly going down, you have to at least question if that's still the case. Of course, players like Pominville, Roy and Vanek deserve more ice time this go around, but winning a tough division like the Northeast with younger players taking bigger roles is a tough haul.
Senators by a nose, but Ryan Miller's making it close.
TOM: While I won't quibble with the prediction for the division, James, I am going to quibble with the talent assessment of the Sabres vis a vis the Sens. The more I watch Wade Redden the more I'm glad we have Tallinder, Spacek and Lydman. Do not be surprised if you here me pushing all year long for Tallinder as a Norris candidate. It'll be interesting to see how the perception of Buffalo's individual talent is reassessed this season given that they'll get a whole lot more media attention than last year.
|Miller: A division title would be no stretch.|
LYLE: The Sabres get my vote to top the division. The only thing I see beating them is themselves. If they get that "sense of entitlement" that Tom referred to, it could have serious implications. The Sens will still be dangerous, of course, and should give the Sabres a run for their money, but in the end, Buffalo's overall depth and aggressive style should put them on top.
CHRIS: I'd probably go with Ottawa, but it's so close that really there's no wrong answer and a case has clearly been made for each. Buffalo will be a 90+-point team, but I wonder if last season was their perfect year, where everyone played over their heads. As well, last season, they went into a lot of places and I suspect many of their opponents took them lightly, while Ottawa has been a team that others get up for for years now. There will be no teams looking past the Sabres this season. It'll be interesting to see how they respond in that position.
TOMORROW: The Leafs, and some closing predictions.