Toronto, Boston, Buffalo

Gus Katsaros releases his season previews on the three Northeastern teams.TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

General Manager

John Ferguson Jr. enters the fourth term as Leafs General Manager eerily similar to the 2006-07 season. A new goaltender and new hope. Ferguson watched assets enter the infirmary in waves coupled with suspect goaltending, culminating in a one-point deficiency of a playoff berth. To right the ship, he worked a deadline deal, amid personal hardship, bringing in Vesa Toskala as what would potentially be the legitimate number one, at the expense of two draft picks. At the peak of the busy summer free agent period, he was with his dying father, legendary John Ferguson Sr., when he signed 40-goal scorer, Jason Blake, to a long-term deal.

Head Coach

Second year Buds coach, Paul Maurice, arguably the best asset in the Maple Leafs organization, implemented an offensive strategy that saw the Leafs score 254 goals, good enough to tie for eighth place with the Stanley Cup Champions, Anaheim Ducks. Maurice’s message at camp was to instill better defense without sacrificing offense. He echoed the sentiment with a blatant jab at defensive systems, saying they were ‘easy to coach, terrible to watch.’ The players were able to buy into his system, but some could say he overworked Andrew Raycroft. He has a better goaltending tandem this season, and if the Leafs produce similar output, a playoff spot couldn’t be far out of the picture. If things do go well … let’s wait for the predictions section to answer that one.

Team Mode

This season’s edition of the Maple Leafs has a much better chance to emerge with a playoff spot than any post lockout team, for two factors, improved goaltending, and changes within the conference/division. Montreal didn’t change much, but could emerge as a dark horse, considering the talent accumulated on the Calder Cup, Hamilton, Bulldogs. Battle of Ontario partner, Ottawa, is the class of the Northeast, the team to beat for a shot at the division title. Buffalo, it is said, may drop a peg due to the loss of their captains. It may be unwise to count out the talent available to the Sabres. Toronto will be in a dogfight for a second place division finish, which should translate into a sixth or seventh spot in the Conference. They are far from being a Cup contending squad, but should be a playoff team.

To Take Charge

Players stepping up to be on-ice and dressing room leaders. Example of minor and primary leaders
Mats Sundin season will feature more publicity than ever, since being one goal shy of tying Darryl Sittler’s record for most goals by a Leaf. The next milestone becomes the Maple Leafs all-time leading scorer, being 34 points shy. His on-ice performance will be scrutinized worse than any other season as the label ‘Maple Leafs greatest player’ starts to make an appearance. Sundin, both an on- and off-ice leader, will be relied upon to lead the troops into the Leafs first post-lockout playoffs appearance, under a microscope that just increased the magnification.

On the Rush

Toronto relied on balanced scoring throughout the lineup up front and ended up with 254 goals, a remarkable feat, considering the injuries to the lineup. Scoring came from unlikely sources. The players bought into Maurice’s system and had success scoring, but trouble translating that into wins. The focus is to get the puck in deep and maintain offensive zone pressure. When executed properly, Toronto’s transition to defense was effective, but when they turned the puck over in the neutral zone, or opposition blueline, the mad scramble began. The addition of Jason Blake adds an even-strength and penalty-killing threat, something that was missing in Toronto last season. A wild card is Mark Bell. Can he return to the 20-plus goal form of two seasons ago, or just wither under the burden of a jail sentence at season’s end?

Covering the D-Zone

Goals against were a concern last season and the same defense is returning for a second go-round. Toronto gave up 269 goals (25th overall), a figure that must change for any chance at a playoff spot. A closer look at the numbers paints a slightly different picture. Toronto collectively had five players that played over 20 games, in the minus column in 2006-07. On the plus side, 16 players featured a positive plus/minus statistic, leading to the culprit in Toronto being the penalty-killing. With the same group of blueliners set to return in blue and white, the goal is to create a better penalty-killing unit. Offensively, the Leafs blueline is mobile with the likes of Tomas Kaberle and Bryan McCabe, along with upstart Ian White and injury-prone Carlo Colaiacovo’s penchant for joining the rush. Pavel Kubina faced wrath last season mainly due to the constraints of his $5 million salary in a tight cap space. A reliable defender, with some offensive ability, he should stabilize the second defensive pairing, barring injury. Last season, a pair of injuries limited his mobility and shooting. That should change this season.

Guarding the Net

Andrew Raycroft manned the crease last season, in a set of circumstances that befit a martyr. Booed heavily by Leafs faithful, they realized giving up a prospect for him may not have been the brightest move by Leafs management. However, he did manage to break Eddie Belfour’s record for wins in a season with 37, but required 70-plus games to do so. The inconsistency in goal triggered the draft-day deal to bring in Toskala who led the Sharks into the postseason in 2005-06, and bumped Evgeni Nabokov from the starting position in the first game of 2006-07. His $1.3 million salary pegged him to the bench in San Jose, while Nabokov ran with the squad in front of him into another second round disappointment on the West Coast. The battle will be on who will emerge as the bona fide number one netminder in Toronto, between Raycroft and Toskala, with the Finn seemingly assured of a number one spot.

Expected and Projected

Expected: Expectations of the general view
With the state of the division, Toronto could end up in second place should they receive a better goaltending effort. Balanced scoring and better penalty killing should improve the squad in 2007-08. A bottom listed playoff spot is a likely scenario, with a second place in the division finish

Projected: Prediction for what will transpire next season.
Toronto will make a playoff spot this season, while battling the Buffalo Sabres for the second place slot in the division.

BOSTON BRUINS

General Manager

Former Senators assistant General Manager, Peter Chiarelli, transitioned into the GM of the Bruins, to pillage his old club, plucking Zdeno Chara to solidify a dismal blueline. He then signed Marc Savard to another long-term deal to boost offense. Both players had marginal impact, as the club failed to make the postseason. Unhappy with the 289 goals-against in 2006-07, the necessity to tighten up defensively and to build from the crease on out, he acquired Manny Fernandez, giving the Bruins a good start and something to build on in 2007-08.

Head Coach

Unceremoniously dumped in the 79th game for the Devils, Claude Julien became the 28th head coach of the Bruins. His defensive presence should cut down the Bruins goals-against (289), 29th overall in the league. Manny Fernandez provides stability between the pipes, the essence of a good defensive system. Boston won’t be a high scoring team this season, so they better compensate by easing the bleeding.

Team Mode

A playoff spot may be too lofty a goal. Boston has a talented blend of veterans and youth up front, but remain thin enough to lose close games as scoring isn’t abundant. Will the players buy into the system and will Fernandez be able to win a few games left alone, to fend for himself. It may not be enough to withstand an 82 game schedule with a playoff spot. Unless they can find the right blend of enough scoring with capable defense, they will battle for the basement in the Northeast.

To Take Charge

Bruins management wants a team character on and off the ice, something that went missing recently. Chara must stand up and leader a defense corp that will be pressured to overachieve should he return to his 2005-06 form. The mix of veterans and youth must find the identity with Glen Murray and Savard mentor Patrice Bergeron into the leader he is bound to become.

On the Rush

Marc Savard has registered 143 assists since the lockout, third in the NHL behind Crosby and ex-Bruin, Joe Thornton. Patrice Bergeron has the capability of a point-a-game, and could very well bounce back to that level as he meshed well with Savard. If Marco Sturm strikes earlier with better consistently than last season’s erratic production, those numbers could lift Bergeron to the 2005-06 level. Will the Bruins thin offensive crew be able to cope with a tightened system of defense? Can coach Claude Julien control the playmaking and lackadaisical defense of Marc Savard? Can Savard commit to playing more like the Devils, and less like the Thrashers?

Covering the D-Zone

The 289 goals eaten last season is the main reason Fernandez was airlifted into the Bruins crease, but there are bigger issues than merely goaltending. Aside from Chara and Aaron Ward, the defense thins out quick as the depth isn’t there. Andrew Alberts is a physical force on the blueline, but slow-footed and no distinct partner to share the load, makes secondary defenders work much harder to accomplish the job of containing the opposition. The Bruins defense doesn’t support the transition as well as management would like, and a more mobile defense could see the likes of Dennis Wideman and possibly Matt Lashoff thrown into the lineup, despite defensive limitations.

Guarding the Net

Manny Fernandez gives Boston the stability between the pipes they have lacked since Andrew Raycroft’s rookie season. The combination of Thomas and revolving back-up goaltenders, hasn’t worked out, and a true number one was needed. The 33-year-old brings a feisty attitude and competitive spirit, which should translate to a better competitive effort directly in front of him. Playing behind Fernandez is last season’s starter, Tim Thomas whose inconsistent performance led to the shipping in of the former Minnesota netminder.

Expected and Projected

Expected:
They won’t be a competitive team. They won’t outright blow away the opposition, but won’t be blown out every night either. They could very well play spoiler to many clubs down the stretch. Winning begins with the little games, those hard fought battles, the game within the game. To win, Boston will have to be there every game, every period, every whistle and every shift.

Projected:
Anything over a basement finish is an accomplishment.

BUFFALO SABRES

General Manager

Darcy Regier enters the 11th season as the longest tenured General Manager in the NHL. Together with coach, Lindy Ruff, make up the longest serving GM/coach tandem in the league. Considered a pioneer of the ‘new NHL’, Regier has supplied talent for the Sabres to make it to the Conference Finals in consecutive post-lockout seasons, after reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 1999. Regier endured a trying off season in 2007 as he watched his star co-captains walk away signing huge long-term deals, and tested further to match a mammoth contract offer sheet for Thomas Vanek by the Oilers. He didn’t do much to bolster the loss of Drury and Briere, but has amassed enough young, speedy and talented forwards with potential to overcome the 69 goals taken out of the lineup.

Head Coach

Lindy Ruff, the longest reigning coach in the NHL, returns for the 11th season. Ruff’s game is all about high-octane offense, built on speed and quick transition. Buffalo was able to do just that, utilizing young talent providing roadrunner speed and the ability to execute. Opposition turnover at the Sabres blueline, usually found its way to the twine at the other end. Look for more of the same type of system, regardless of the personnel changes. With the talent at Buffalo’s disposal, Ruff could very well be the best asset in Buffalo at the moment. This same style took last season’s President Trophy winners to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1999, and has excelled at getting his players to buy into a fun system.

Team Mode

Has the loss of Briere and Drury made them any less a playoff contender? Not at all. Buffalo has enough firepower to maintain a balanced attack scoring from different parts of the roster. The offensive threat might not best the 308 goals from 2006-07, but it does make them legitimate Cup contenders. Championship teams must endure the adversity that they did in the playoffs last season, struggling through both New York teams before bowing out in five games to the powerhouse Senators. Both Cup finalists were ousted from the 2005-06 playoffs before getting to the dance last season. Buffalo could well be on their way. If Tim Connolly can rebound to play the entire season, the loss of the stars would be negligible.

To Take Charge

With the loss of Drury and Briere, leadership up front will come from young sources; Henrik Tallinder was a presence last season for the Sabres. The loss of veteran Teppo Numminen forces the young squad to engrave an identity this season that will be the blueprint for season’s to come. Tim Connolly has the first line center potential and Thomas Vanek’s goal-scoring capability will be counted on to lead the offense. Veteran Jochen Hecht has dressing room meshing qualities. Derek Roy will have the first line center duties, should Connolly get injured.

On the Rush

Offensive outlook for this season:
Last season, Buffalo was the highest scoring club in the NHL (308) but they lost 69 goals with the departure of Drury and Briere. Buffalo’s game is about speed, transition and scoring in bunches. In the end, Buffalo has more than enough young talent to supplement the loss in Drew Stafford and an improved effort from Ales Kotalik. Much will be asked from Derek Roy, but armed with a new 6-year contract he could slip into first line center duties, or at least, split it with Connolly. A mobile defense supports the scoring juggernaut, while a full season from Tim Connolly should improve the Sabres powerplay. Fast up-front and a supporting defense makes Buffalo just as much a threat as they were last season, only with more experience. They will live and die with their offense, seeing as their defense (below) is lacking.

Covering the D-Zone

Teppo Numminen’s absence due to heart surgery takes away a veteran presence and solid puckmover from the lineup thin on defense, but world class in transition. Brian Campbell bettered his breakout year of two seasons ago, manning the point on the powerplay although enraptured under the same spell as the Sabres underachieving with the man-advantage. Tim Connolly provides a threat from the other point, and his smooth passing ability should be enough to maintain a similar offensive output. On the defensive side of the puck, Lindy Ruff felt the lack of defensive presence in the postseason, which will be a work-in-progress this season. A total transformation into a defensive squad is highly unlikely, but Buffalo to be a legitimate Contender must work on instilling a better team defense, similar to what they Senators did last season.

Guarding the Net

Ryan Miller recorded 40 wins and a 2.73 goals-against average, over 63 games last season. In 41 games he ended up facing 30 or more shots, garnering 25 wins over those games. The frightening statistic is in regards to the goals-against average, which in those contests ballooned to 3.94. Many of the wins were dependant on an explosive Buffalo offense, something that should be inherent in 2007-08. The Sabres are bound to struggle to reach last season’s lofty milestones of highest scoring team and President Trophy finish. How will Miller respond to the 30-plus shots contests this season? He will have to be phenomenal to translate those games into wins. To back him up, the Sabres brought in Jocelyn Thibault, a capable backup, but not enough to take over from Miller, should he go down to injury. Miller is an elite puckstopper in the NHL. As his play goes, so too does the fortune of the Sabres. He will need to improve from last season, and will be relied upon heavily to provide stability in goal in light of the league catching on to the Sabres style and thinning defense.

Expected and Projected

Expected: Expectations of the general view
Buffalo remains an elite team in the East, capable of potting enough behind opposition goaltenders to compete for division and conference titles. Much will depend on the continuation of their scoring machine. As an organization, following the vision Regier implemented a decade ago, they have drafted well, and give the prospects the shot they need to step up and contribute at the NHL level. Management has done an admirable job bringing in talent, it’s expected that lesser lights, those breaking into the league step up and take on a greater role for the success of the club. They may not be Cup contenders due to their lack of replacing keys like Mike Grier and Jay McKee, but they can compensate with a high-powered offense and excellent goaltending.

Projected: Prediction for what will transpire next season.
May not have enough to take the division or conference, but will battle all season for a top spot. They should end up second in the division, battling Toronto for that spot, behind the class of the East, the Ottawa Senators.


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