Coming out of the lockout, the Buffalo Sabres had what might have been the best opportunity in franchise history to win a Stanley Cup.
Buffalo had a fast, balanced and in what was probably just as important to the financially challenged organization, an affordable lineup. They went to the conference finals in each of the first two years after play resumed. Then old realities began setting in again for the small-market team, with the success on the ice increasing the value of key players who ended up pricing themselves out of Buffalo as the result.
|A healthy Thomas Vanek should bring an uptick to the Sabres offense. (US Presswire)|
"The [regular] season was a tremendous step forward and it was a kick in the backside and a step backward in the playoffs," Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff said.
Now heading toward training camp, there's nothing clear about the direction in which the Sabres are heading. Buffalo didn't spend to upgrade the offense over the summer, although a healthy Thomas Vanek could add a dozen more goals to the 28 he managed last season, and free agency cost the team veterans Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman along the blue line. Buffalo even walked away from an arbitration award given to local son Tim Kennedy.
The Sabres did sign Jordan Leopold to take one of the blue-line spots and veteran Rob Niedermayer will add some depth and defense up front, but Buffalo is counting on a lot on youngsters to step up and contribute. The Sabres still have the parts to play the kind of scrappy hockey long-time coach Lindy Ruff encourages, and that style along with Miller between the pipes means they should compete for a playoff spot.
But repeating as Northeast champion will be tougher, because the Bruins should be a lot better in the regular season. Boston got it together enough to eliminate Buffalo in the opening round, and has made some notable upgrades to the anemic offense it had last season.
Those changes were probably inevitable for the Bruins after they became one of the rare pro sports teams to blow a 3-0 series lead. But Boston got a chance to ease that embarrassing sting quickly by grabbing draft prize Tyler Seguin with the second overall pick they acquired in a trade.
If Seguin sticks with Boston, and the likelihood is that he will, the Bruins will have a pretty impressive group down the middle with centers Seguin, Marc Savard, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, although Savard has been the subject of trade rumors all summer. In the meantime, the Bruins did trade for talented if underachieving forward Nathan Horton, who could thrive in a real hockey environment after escaping Florida, and joins Boston with another ex-Panther, grinder Gregory Campbell.
Boston's defense is among the best in the league with perennial Norris candidate Zdeno Chara leading the group along the blue line, and Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas providing a quality tandem in goal. If the Bruins' league-worst offense has any kind of rebound season, they will be the team to beat in the Northeast.
Beyond the division's two American teams though, everything is up for grabs in the Northeast. The Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators figure to be in the hunt for playoff spots, although neither team's lineup looks that much better than the ones that scratched and clawed their way in last spring, while the Maple Leafs insist they can surprise people.
Certainly Montreal surprised everyone last season by reaching the third round after beating powerhouses Washington and Pittsburgh. Problem is the biggest reason the Canadiens managed those stunning upsets is no longer around. Goaltender Jaroslav Halak was been traded to St. Louis in the offseason. The Canadiens did that to anoint Carey Price as the starter, a gamble, made bigger perhaps by Montreal's failure to address its size problem that was exposed in the conference-final loss to the Flyers.
The Senators meanwhile didn't do much lineup shuffling after the team hit 94 points and won a couple of first-round games against the Penguins, but still made a major move by signing free-agent defenseman Sergei Gonchar to replace the departed Anton Volchenkov. The feeling in Canada's capital is that Gonchar's puck-moving skills can be a catalyst for slick Ottawa forwards like Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek and Mike Fisher, although it probably won't mean much unless the Senators get more consistent netminding from Pascal Leclaire and Brian Elliot.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are obviously counting on better work in goal with Jean-Sebastien Giguere starting the season there along with second-year Swede Jonas Gustavsson. Toronto actually has a pretty decent group of defenseman with Tomas Kaberle having survived the soap opera that surrounded him and his trade window. He's still around, and he'll join new captain Dion Phaneuf, Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin, Brett Ledba and Luke Schenn to give the Leafs a top six that can stand up to most teams in the league.
Toronto's problem, though, is on offense which effectively begins and ends with Phil Kessel. Newcomer Kris Versteeg could help, although he'll find it tougher without the cast surrounding him in Chicago, and Colby Armstrong will add some grit.
Maybe it will be enough to keep the Leafs from bringing up the division rear again, but if nothing else it will be a much clearer example of what general manager Brian Burke is trying to create in Toronto.
"I like a rough, crude team," Burke said. "I like a team that's difficult to play against, that makes you pay a price. We need to have a building that people come into with some trepidation. Where [other team's] guys are in the warmup saying: 'Geez, it's going to be a tough one tonight.' We haven't had that. I think we have that now."