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.


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

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.

Anything over a basement finish is an accomplishment.


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.

24 Responses to Toronto, Boston, Buffalo

  1. jarcpitre says:

    Nice read and good assessments. The season starts tonight! GO LEAFS GO!!!!!!

  2. habskovalev27 says:

    Toronto will fight the Sabres and MONTREAL for the second sport.  There is no way Toronto is that better than Montreal. 

    P.S : Toskala ?? hahahaha

  3. leafy says:

    I agree on the bottom line projection for the Leafs…provided they get goaltending similar to 3-4 years ago.  Otherwise, don't expect much improvement from last year, which is a shame, since the Leafs actually have a pretty good team.

    I just heard that Raycroft is getting the start tonight.  There's nothing like a nice opening day loss to the Senators to wake up Maurice.

  4. bleeds_blue_n_white says:

    Let's be serious here. Toronto finished ahead of Montreal last year, by a point, but ahead nonetheless.

    Fast forward to this year, the Leafs improved their top line, adding Jason Blake, they also improved their goaltending, adding Vesa Toskala both of these additions were done with no loss on the current roster (just futures, which is a problem, but we are looking only at this year)

    Montreal lost Sheldon Souray and instead replaced him with Roman Hamrlik. They added Brian Smolinski and let go Bonk, Mike Johnson and Janne Niinimaa.

    All in the all, the Leafs, by everyone's accounts, are improved over last year, while the Habs, at best, maintained the status quo, and some would say, took a step backward.

    Now, if this conversation were about who will be the better team in 3 years, Montreal appears to have a huge advantage. With Huet, Halak and Price they have goaltending depth that may rival the Sharks a few years back (Toskala, Nabokov and Kiprisoff), their farm system is producing some solid players that is already starting to pay off and will continue to for years to come, while the Leafs are still working to solidify and rebuild their farm system.

  5. Rysto says:

    <i>Both Cup finalists were ousted from the 2005-06 playoffs before getting to the dance last season.</i>

    Yeah, both Cup finalists and 13 other teams!  The sad truth for the Sabres is that Ottawa, who beat them handily last season has hardly gotten any worse, while Pittsburgh and New York look to be significantly better.  Losing Drury and Briere means that their time as contenders has past and they need some time to reload.

    They honestly should have let Vanek go and taken the draft picks.

  6. senators101 says:

    I think I'll agree with you here on the fact that toronto boosted their forwards and goaltending.  However, I believe toronto was 8th in scoring last year, so it wasn't NEEDED, although it always could be used.  As for goaltending, they traded away a number of picks for Toskala, but I think all they needed was a backup that Maurice trusted.  Starting Raycroft 72 games and 42 of the last 43 is more than he can handle.  As a Torontonian, I watched a lot of Leaf games last year, and to me the problem was defense and it all comes down to that.  If McCabe, Kubina, and Gill all have better years, the Leafs are no doubt in the playoffs – but ALL 3 need better years because some of the other eastern conference teams have improved (philly, florida, etc).

  7. leafy says:

    Question: Was toronto's defence worse than the Pat Quinn years before the lock-out (1999-2004)?

  8. senators101 says:

    I honestly can't remember that far back.  I just remember running into Cujo or Belfour, which Raycroft certainly is not. 

    But please don't think it's just me that thinks the D needs to be fixed.  I was watching TSN's analysis last night, and 3 of the 4 thought that the Leafs weren't making the playoffs, all because of defense.  There's no question about their offense (and in my mind, goaltending).  I don't think their goaltending is top 10 or championship calibre, I just think it's more than good enough to be in the playoffs, considering their offensive talent.

  9. Aetherial says:

    It's really too bad that I think Montreal is going to surprise a lot of people and grab a playoff spot.

    It is too bad because I find that most (not all) of the Habs fans on this, and other hockey sites, are complete A-holes.

    … but I gotta be honest, I say Montreal finishes ahead of Toronto.

  10. habskovalev27 says:

    we feel the same way about Leafs fans by the way……..they always seem better than us…

  11. leafy says:

    Thank you for acknowledging that Raycroft is not Cujo or Belfour.  But make no mistake, I'm not asking him to be Cujo or Belfour.  I am simply asking that the goaltending be somewhere around "middle of the pack", say, around 15th in the league rather than 25th-30th like last year.  IS that not fair?

    As for their D during the Quinn era, ask anyone, it wasn't very good.  Certainly no better than now, and mostly worse.  Remember Anders Erikson, Aki Berg, Lumme, Cross, Khavanov?  If anything, their D is better now.

    Yet the Quinn teams produced 100 point seasons repeatedly.  Nuff said.

  12. senators101 says:

    You cannot compare the two era's though.  First, Quinn's era had Cujo and Belfour.  2nd, Quinn's era didn't have to play ottawa and buffalo 8 times each in one season.  If they played other teams instead of them, don't you think they'd be a little closer?

    Even if their d was better than before, it's still not up to par.  McCabe doesn't do anything, and Gill is too slow for this new "high-paced hockey".  Just don't blame Raycroft for everything.  They missed by one point and everyone turns to Raycroft.  There isn't one player in any team that can take the majority of the blame.  You win as a team, you lose as a team. If you want to blame one player, then some people will blame Sundin for scoring 0 goals in the last 20 games.

  13. leafy says:

    They didn't have to play Ottawa and Buffalo 8 times?  You're right, they only faced easy teams back then and that pretty much explains their 5-6 years of finishing with around 100 points (without shootouts) and top 4 in the conference.

    What's that?  They had Cujo and Belfour before?   You mean to say goaltending is important?

  14. senators101 says:

    What teams have ripped them since the lockout? Teams that they didnt have to play 8 times each year.  16 games go to buffalo and ottawa each year (best 2 teams in the east). 
    Last year: Against Ottawa: Toronto collected 7 points
                               Buffalo: Toronto Collected 6 points..
                            Combined: 13/32 points.
    Year before: Ottawa: Toronto collected 4 points
                      Buffalo:                         5 points
                      Combined: 9 of 32 points.

    What I am saying is that the other teams in the other divisions only have to play them 4 times each… 8 games in total.  It's a lot easier for them.  Toronto, unfortunately for them, is in a shitty situation because of that.  Teams in the Southeast are coasting.  32 winnable games in their division.  If they can split wins in the other division, they're in the playoffs

    Of course goaltending is important, but so is everything else.  Look at vancouver…they only had a goalie and defense last year and where did they go in the playoffs? nowhere.  You need a completely balanced team – toronto doesn't have that.

    Question: Why are you so against Raycroft and nobody else on that team, like the defense (McCabe) or Sundin for not scoring 1 goal in the last 20 games?

  15. leafy says:

    You're either too young or you have a bad memory, because there are many Leaf teams in past years that were highly successful with a far more inferior defence and far more inferior players than Bryan McCabe.  Nobody is saying that other position players are unimportant.  But last year, their goaltending (Raycroft) was the primary reason they were out.  Not the only reason, but definitely the primary reason.  Most people would agree, as yesterday's online poll in showed.

  16. senators101 says:

    I'll take the opinion of hockey analys opinion over random people of toronto.  Like previously stated, they believe the achilles heel of the team was their defense and not Raycroft.

    Once again, try to understand, that you cannot compare the old nhl to the new one.  Slow teams don't work anymore and Toronto is living in the pre-lockout era with guys like Hal Gill.  There's a reason why teams like Nashville, Buffalo, Anaheim now and couldn't before.  They've adapted while the Leafs haven't.  I don't care how big Gill is, he's too slow.  It's all about defensive positioning, and that's something the Leafs D doesn't have.

  17. Hoondog2 says:

    How many times do people need to be told.  Yes Sundin had 1 goal, but he was 2nd only to Crosby in points in the last 20 games.  Sounds like he was still contributing to me.

  18. senators101 says:

    It's clear neither of us are going to persuade each other in this debate… Let's just agree to disagree.

  19. leafy says:

    Interesting that you don't like Gill, even though Howard Berger, one of those critics who criticizes the Leaf defence, says that Gill has been one of their best defenders and that they need more defencemen like him.  Hmmm….

    Furthermore, you imply that the Leaf defence is slow.  Apart from Gill, who on their defence is slow?

  20. leafy says:

    You're a very foolish person if you dismiss the opinion of the majority of fans in Toronto, arguably the most knowledgeable fans anywhere.

    Nevertheless, since you value the opinion of hockey analysts, here are 2 ESPN analysts who state clearly that the Leafs have a good defence.  What's going on?

  21. senators101 says:

    I take it you don't want to take the "agree to disagree" stance.  However, I will take it as fighting this is a losing battle.

  22. habs_punk says:

    You can look at replacing Souray with Hamrlik as a PP downgrade, or you could look at it as a drastic even strength upgrade. There was, what, a +50 differential between the two? Hamrlik was one of the top +/- guys on a solid defensive team, while Souray was the worst +/- guy on a bad defensive team. The Habs definitely improved on last season based on that alone. When you add in the fact that the core of the team is pretty much all in their mid-20's and improving every year, Montreal is going to surprise some people this season. The "experts" broadcast out of Toronto, they enjoy saying that Montreal will be a basement dwelling team. You have to take what they say with a grain of salt when it comes to the Habs and the Leafs.

  23. Bruinsfan91 says:

    i have to disagree, boston will be a competitive team this year for sure

  24. orlandomac says:

    Sens101 I applaud you for your constructive opinion… I am 50/50 with you both… I think it was a bit of both.. Raycroft could not trust the new D around him.. and they couldn't trust him… it made for bad performances on both sides… I believe this year that will change once Toskala acclimatizes to the new D around him… and I believe the early results so far have shown that.. even though we faced a very difficult Sens Team… I would say we out performed them in both games although their star players shown on the scoreboard..

    I would also like to applaud the excellent report and believe the writer is pretty close to the mark… although I don't think Montreal is as bad as everyone thinks..  they will be close but will still sit right behind the Leafs and think with Buffaloes small team injuries over the long haul might have an affect in terms of their depth now that they lost a few key players…. I too believe it will be close between Buffalo & Toronto.. although as well as the writer I don't forsee them contending for the Cup although an upset in the first round might be on the cards..

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