The good thing about becoming hockey's version of the old Brooklyn Dodgers is that the Ottawa Senators at least still have a chance to wait until next year.
Consider it an accomplishment in the NHL's current day and age, when the new collective bargaining agreement has made big roster shakeups a fact of life over the past two summers. Even more so since hockey's new economics creates the toughest challenges for teams like Ottawa that have drafted and developed talent well over the years.
|The Senators re-sign Spezza, keeping their core players together. (Getty Images)|
It's not that easy anymore, and the Senators gave up some key players because of budget concerns this summer, but Ottawa still has enough of its critical producers to head into the season among the presumptive Stanley Cup favorites. Of course the Senators were in the same spot last season and again came up flat in the playoffs, losing the second round to division rival Buffalo, one of the NHL's biggest surprise teams.
The Sabres won't surprise anyone this year, but they'll again fight the Senators for the Northeast crown after doing slick wheeling and dealing for the past several weeks. Buffalo heads into training camp with a roster that looks nearly identical and at least as good as last year's, and with a payroll that is still relatively moderate.
Montreal turned into a dangerous team in the second half and had eventual Stanley Cup champion Carolina back on its heels in the first round of the playoffs. The Canadiens are improving and better since they got rid of the distractions caused by former goalie Jose Theodore, but Montreal has a rookie coach and is not likely to challenge either the Senators or Sabres.
Neither will the Bruins, who shook things up in the front office and at ice level with a splashy free-agent spending spree. They're hoping for a new era, but it will need a little time to evolve. Toronto fans can vouch for that. They're still waiting to see if GM John Ferguson Jr. will deliver the goods in his third season.
In order of last year's finish, here's a look at what the Northeast teams have done since the end of last season.
Ottawa Senators: Ottawa faced cap problems but got centers Jason Spezza and Chris Kelly, wingers Peter Schaefer, Chris Neil and Antoine Vermette, defenseman Christoph Schubert and goalie Ray Emery back under contract. The Senators had to make a choice along the blue line and essentially opted to get Wade Redden re-signed. That cost them Zdeno Chara, who jumped ship as a free agent, as did Brian Pothier.
The Senators also lost Dominik Hasek to free-agency, but the goalie disillusioned everyone enough last season to make him a good riddance. What hurt Ottawa more was being forced to trade away young scoring star Martin Havlat and dependable center Bryan Smolinski to ease payroll pressures, but it found a No. 1 goalie by signing Martin Gerber from the Cup champion Hurricanes, and replaced lost defensemen with Joe Corvo and Tom Preissing at a lower cost. Neither fills Chara's skates, but the Senators remain strong collectively on defense.
Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres finished just three points behind Ottawa, but the only thing they're thinking about now is getting Ryan Miller under contract. The goalie had a brilliant rookie season, but the Sabres have been stung this summer because 12 players had arbitration rights.
Buffalo settled with all but three, but the team payroll jumped more than a third to $38 million. The Sabres do have 19 players under contract now, including Martin Biron, who was outstanding when Miller was injured for an extended period last season. Biron wants to be traded and signed a $2.1 million, one-year deal to make him more attractive to teams, but the Sabres won't do anything until Miller's status is clarified.
Buffalo let bedrock defenseman Jay McKee leave to free-agency but filled the void nicely and for fewer dollars by signing Jaroslav Spacek. The Sabres also lost wingers J.P. Dumont and Mike Grier but should find those two easier to replace.
Montreal Canadiens: General manager Bob Gainey did an exemplary job coaching the Canadiens after firing Claude Julien in midseason, but he has stepped back and handed the job to Guy Carbonneau, who served as an understudy after the transition.
Carbonneau had a memorable career as a player in Montreal, but he left there a dozen years ago on a sour note and finished his days with other teams. That's apparently all forgotten, but that doesn't mean the pressure-cooker environment the Canadiens face will make life any easier for someone with no coaching experience.
Montreal hasn't made many changes but critically re-signed its goaltending duo of Cristobal Huet and David Aebischer, along with the majority of its restricted free agents. The Canadiens most notable move of the summer was signing free-agent forward Sergei Samsonov, who should provide of the offense lacking last year.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Coach Pat Quinn's era is over and GM Ferguson's is on thin ice in Toronto after the Leafs missed the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons. They were old, slow and generally out of step with the rest of the new NHL and will need some big years from unexpected sources to reverse things this time around.
Toronto dumped a fair amount of dead weight by passing on Eric Lindros, Tie Domi and Luke Richardson, among others, and made some moves on the free-agent front by signing quality two-way center Michael Peca and defensemen Pavel Kubina and Hal Gill. But how much they'll do with former Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice, who will be behind the bench, and one-time Boston rookie of the year Andrew Raycroft in goal is debatable.
There are more changes needed for this team to be seriously competitive, but the Leafs only have about $3 million in cap room, which doesn't give them much flexibility.
Boston Bruins: After a 13th-place finish in the East, the changes in Boston were wholesale and started at the top when former Senators executive Peter Chiarelli took over as general manager in July. Chiarelli brought in former Red Wings bench boss Dave Lewis as coach and then Boston put 75-year-old Harry Sinden, the president and former general manager, out to pasture, ending his three decades at the helm.
But the real fun for the Bruins this offseason has been the overhaul of the lineup. Boston made lots of noise only hours after free-agency began by signing Chara and 97-point center Marc Savard to big contracts, and they've also signed American-born first-round draft pick Phil Kessel, who some thought could have been the first overall pick.
There will be more speed in the lineup this year with the signing of forward Shean Donovan and Boston has a pretty solid group of defensemen that now includes Paul Mara. The Bruins' most important move over a longer period could be this week's signing of 21-year-old budding superstar Patrice Bergeron to a five-year deal.