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Northeast Division: Scoring is key for Bruins to lead

by | CBSSports.com Staff Writer
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Boston Bruins: General manager Peter Chiarelli says his team is bigger, faster and more skilled, which in theory should mean the Bruins will score at least as many goals as any other team in the league. They didn't last year and ultimately it undermined their season.

But the Bruins made some changes since then, most notably picking up sharpshooter Nathan Horton from Florida, who is only 25 years old and has a 30-goal season on his resume. And after watching the preseason play of teenaged rookies Tyler Seguin and Jordan Caron, both of whom have made the opening night roster, the Bruins have visions of serious improvement this year on offense.

Boston needs wingers like Milan Lucic to stay healthy. (AP)  
Boston needs wingers like Milan Lucic to stay healthy. (AP)  
They could get it if wingers like Milan Lucic stay healthy and Blake Wheeler and Michael Ryder bounce back. But Boston heads into the new season knowing there are still doubts about a lack of production from the back end, which was as big a reason as any for the Bruins dropping to last from first in overall offense last season. Captain Zdeno Chara had the most noticeable decline, although he did start putting up better numbers after Dennis Seidenberg arrived late in the season. But the Bruins didn't add any much-needed oomph to the back end over the summer and lost its best puck mover Dennis Wideman in the Horton deal.

That said, with coach Claude Julien a stickler for defensive hockey, and a goaltending tandem of sophomore Tuukka Rask and veteran Tim Thomas, the Bruins figure to be stingy enough to stay in most games. If they can put a few more pucks in the net, play better than .500 at home, and turn someone from the blue line into a sparkplug, the Bruins will be tough to beat.

Buffalo Sabres: Maybe they were trying to set the stage for a wild 40th birthday bash. The Sabres will celebrate that milestone anniversary this season on the heels of a campaign that seemed to hold a lot of promise, yet ultimately ended the way things often do in Buffalo, with disappointment. That's why the Sabres winning a division title for only the sixth time in its long history meant little when their hopes for a first Stanley Cup were dashed again with a first-round loss to Boston.

So it was time to go back to the drawing board. Sort of, because that generally translates into spending money, something the Sabres have never been known for. The bright side is that Buffalo didn't see any of its key players leave via free agency, but the Sabres didn't do much either to upgrade the look of a team that tends to find ways of coming up short. Still there was some shuffling with veterans Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman leaving the blue line and replaced by Jordan Leopold and Shoane Morrisson. But Buffalo failed to address its biggest issue -- adding some size and scoring power to a roster that struggles to score consistently.

And that figures to be a problem again this season. Buffalo has arguably the best goalie in the business in Ryan Miller, who in essence carried them to their first-place finish, and a budding star in rookie of the year defenseman Tyler Myers. But for Buffalo to seriously challenge the elites, they'll need more from players like Tomas Vanek, the $6 million man who scored only 28 times last season, and linemates Jason Pominville and Derek Roy, both of whom saw their production levels slip for the second straight season.

And another healthy season by Tim Connolly will obviously help. The often-injured Connolly played 73 games last season and had a career high 65 points. If he can produce at that level, and Buffalo's big guns recover their scoring touches, the Sabres should contend for the Northeast crown. Otherwise, they'll end up part of a crowded group trying to get over the playoff cutoff line.

Montreal Canadiens: As usual, the Canadiens are a hard team to get a read on heading into the new season, largely because figuring out what their previous campaign says about them tends to be a challenge.

Montreal was one of the big stories of the playoffs, upsetting powerhouses Washington and Pittsburgh in a pair of thrilling seven-game series. Problem was they hit that groove after barely managing to sneak into the postseason in the first place. And the player who led the surge -- goalie Jaroslav Halak -- isn't around anymore. Meanwhile Carey Price is, much to the chagrin of a large portion of the fans because he remains the team's biggest question mark. And Price will have a tougher time getting his bearings with two of his top defenseman -- Andrei Markov and Roman Hamrlik -- out for at least the first month of the season.

2010-11 Season Preview

On the whole though, the Montreal group along the blue line is one of its strengths, particularly within the context of coach Jacques Martin's defensive schemes. The concern though is with the offense, which finished 25th in the league last season.

A lot of that had to do with the Canadiens' most glaring deficiency. Their lack of size up front is a problem the team was unable to fix during the offseason. Montreal does have several scoring threats in Mike Cammalleri, new captain Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez and Thomas Plekanec, a group that collectively might be described as a latter-day version of the Smurfs on ice and was often overpowered in the conference final by Philadelphia.

But Montreal did have the NHL's second-best power play record last season, and in a league that puts so much emphasis on special teams, that could make a difference in a tight playoff race.

Or not. It's hard to tell with this team.

Ottawa Senators: Funny how long ago three seasons seems, doesn't it? For the Senators, the length of time since their last and only Stanley Cup Finals feels like an eternity, one that isn't likely to end soon for a team that tends to be uneven at the best of the times.

Granted the Senators did pull off a minor surprise last season by making the playoffs after a one-year absence, largely because they had a relatively productive offense led by their irrepressible leader Daniel Alfredsson. The veteran Senators captain topped the team in scoring with 71 points and had a pretty decent supporting cast with Jason Spezza, Mike Fisher and Milan Michalek up front. And now that the team has added puck-moving defenseman Sergei Gonchar, the group should be even better, especially if Alexei Kovalev decides to show up more often than not.

Gonchar's arrival, along with the continued development of sophomore Erik Karlsson sets Ottawa up to have as much if not more offensive punch from the back end as it has had at any point in franchise history. But there was a tradeoff with shutdown defenseman Anton Volchenkov and Andy Sutton leaving via free agency, departures likely to create more pressure for the Senators' less-than-impressive goaltending tandem of Pascal Leclaire and Brian Elliot.

One player who didn't leave was Spezza, who went public with his dissatisfaction about his situation in Ottawa. Fortunately for the Senators, Spezza didn't box the team in the way former linemate Dany Heatley did a year earlier when he demanded to be moved while exercising his no-trade clause to choose his destination, but he will remain the fans' favorite whipping boy until he takes his game to the next level.

In the meantime, several other Senators will be trying to do the same thing, especially some of the youngsters like forwards Nick Foligno and Peter Regin. For Ottawa to break away the playoff bubble pack, it's critical that they do.

Toronto Maple Leafs: No doubt it's tempting to write off the Maple Leafs before any season starts. And as a rule, it's easy to do since Toronto hasn't made the playoffs since the lockout ended. Truth is, this is a franchise that has generally been lost in the wilderness since winning its last Stanley Cup in 1967, and for the most part, has taken more steps backward than forward since then.

But things could actually be different for Toronto this season. For one thing, there isn't much separating those in the East who are not part of the division's top five teams. More important though, in his second full season as general manager, Brian Burke has taken advantage of the organization's deep pockets and may have assembled enough pieces to have the Leafs shock a lot of people this season.

Burke has been using the blueprint from his previous gig in Anaheim, where his physical and often intimidating Ducks won the 2007 Stanley Cup, and he is trying to recreate the Leafs in that image. What he has accomplished to this point won't be enough for those in the self-proclaimed center of the hockey universe to plan a Stanley Cup parade obviously, but look up and down the Toronto lineup and you'll see a team that is pretty solid along the blue line that is led by new captain and potential Norris candidate Dion Phaneuf, has credible goaltending with veteran and former Conn Smythe Trophy winner J-S Giguere around and some of the nucleus of a decent group up front.

Toronto can still use some more scoring to take pressure off sniper Phil Kessel, and Burke tried to find it by using his most valuable trade asset, veteran defenseman Tomas Kaberle, as bait while he had a limited window open this summer. That didn't work, but the Leafs did add some punch by getting winger Kris Versteeg in a trade from Chicago and Colby Armstrong and Clarke MacArthur through free agency.

In a conference that leaves a great deal to be desired in terms of overall quality, that could be enough for Toronto to grab a playoff spot.

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