Better Know a Division: Northeast

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The rivalries remain, but the faces change.  For all the substantial additions that the Leafs have made, the 29 other teams in the league have not been idle.  Though its anyone’s game any given night, it’s the contemplative, patient process of adding the right pieces during the summer that allow continued success over the marathon half year regular season.  Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be looking at all 6 divisions in the NHL team by team, how the Leafs compared to them last season, their improvements, additions, subtractions and the Leafs outlook against these revamped teams come the fall.

It should go without saying how significant the Leafs results in their own division will be on their chances at playoff contention.  But for the uninitiated, the Leafs play 6 games against each team in their division – almost 1/3rd of the season – with a possible 48 points they could garner.  The inclusion of three point games makes these contests wars of attrition, where winning in a shootout gains you only half a breath in the race to the playoffs.  The significance is again multiplied when considering both the parity of the 5 – 12 teams in the conference.  The wider a win margin for the Leafs in these 24 games means their position within the whole league is vastly improved.

With that in mind, the Leafs actually managed to put together a very respectable 13 – 9 – 2 record against Northeast competition last season, getting 28 (exactly 1/3 of their point total last season) of a possible 48 points.  Prorated over an 82 game slate, that comes out to a 95 point season, well within the top 8 in the Eastern Conference.  It should be noted that the Leafs acquitted themselves really quite well against the eventual cup champion Bruins, and the prolific Leaf-destroying Ryan Miller, picking up 7 wins combined and providing us with Nazem Kadri’s insane shootout goal on Tim Thomas.

Boston Bruins
Leafs record against in 2010-2011: 4 – 2 – 0; 8 points
Major Additions: Benoit Pouliot, Joe Corvo
Major Subtractions: Tomas Kaberle, Mark Recchi, Michael Ryder
Trending: Downward (I mean, c’mon… does anyone really think they’ll repeat?)

While it’s a safe bet that the only way for the Bruins to go is down, the issue is relativity.  They still possess Vezina and Norris caliber players, have some of the best Leaf talent, and are still a veritable lock to make the playoffs.  The Leafs did better against Boston than anywhere else in the division, though 2 of the Leafs wins came through shootouts so the favourable stat line is a tad misleading.  One positive for the Leafs is that the offensive depth of the Bruins will be tested given the losses during the offseason, and the unclear future of Mark Savard is still hanging over the team.  Their offseason additions were at best stop-gap measures, but with much of the team core from last season already signed and a bevy of prospects waiting in the wings, there wasn’t much that needed to be done.

Buffalo Sabres
Leafs record against in 2010-2011: 3 – 2 – 1; 7 points
Major Additions: Ville Leino, Ales Kotalik (in terms of salary), Robyn Regehr, Christian Ehrhoff,
Major Subtractions: Tim Connolly, Rob Niedermayer, Steve Montador
Trending: Upward, ever upward.

The Leafs did surprisingly well against Buffalo last season, but the task will only get harder against these border rivals.  Under the new ownership of Terry Pegula, this team has something its never had before: cash.  From famine to feast, Darcy Regier loaded the deck this offseason bringing in two premier (if not elite) defenders in Regehr and Ehrhoff.  Both players should instantly improve the Sabres’ already special teams. Leino might have made off like a bandit, but he will only augment and improve a top six unit that already includes Drew Stafford, Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville.  Behind all of this stands Ryan Miller, who tends to stand on his head when he sees the blue and white.  On top of that, the Leafs will have to contend with the outside speed and creativity of a deep, deep forward corps.  Currently over the cap, the Sabres will need to cut weight before October and will almost certainly bury Ales Kotalik in the minors.  I can’t help but hate the Buds chances, because I see this team as the cream of the East for the next 3-5 years.

Montreal Canadiens
Leafs record against in 2010-2011: 3 – 3 – 0; 6 points
Major Additions: Erik Cole, Alexei Yemelin, Peter Budaj
Major Subtractions: Benoit Pouliot, Roman Hamrlik, James Wisniewski, Brent Sopel, Alex Auld
Trending: Downwards

The smurfs, as you’re used to calling them, haven’t got much bigger, and they definitely haven’t gotten any younger.  Despite the modest showing against their classic rivals, I see the Leafs and Habs switching places in the conference this coming season, with the Leafs taking the season series.  They lost a lot of truculence and skill on the back end, and while Carey Price is a magician in net the team as a whole isn’t all that intimidating.  All that said, they did take the eventual cup champs to 7 games, and they have always been an implacable foe to the Leafs.  The Erik Cole signing was a great move on paper.  I think in hindsight we’d all say the same thing about Komisarek to the Leafs.  What remains to be seen is how well the oft-injured Cole, not particularly fleet of foot, can keep up with the up tempo style of the Canadiens offense and transition game.  If nothing else, he gives the team some bite and some net presence and he looks great in a suit and cast in the press box.

Ottawa Senators
Leafs record against in 2010-2011: 3 – 2 – 1; 7 points
Major Additions: Alex Auld, Nikita Filatov, Stefan Da Costa, Zenon Konopka
Major Subtractions: Cory Clouston, Pascal Leclaire
Trending: Downwards

It might not be fair to list the subtractions from the senators’ team in the offseason, since the team was gutted during the regular season in 2010/11.  The fire sale was on in the nation’s capital and shipped out names like Fisher, Kelly, Kovalev, Ruutu, Campoli, Elliot.  The core of veterans that remain include Spezza, Alfredsson, Gonchar, Phillips and Michalek, and they’ll be hard pressed to lead this team to anything even remotely resembling success.  The X-factor here is the re-signed Craig Anderson, who may be the third best American goaltender in the league (and – Sadly – the division).  Alone, he has the chance to dash the Sens hopes at landing Nail Yakupov next spring.  Another key addition is that of Filatov, the mercurial Russian phenom fallen on hard times.  If he can put it together and live up to his early hype, the Sens will have traded a 3rd round pick for a franchise player.  Or he’ll be in the KHL next year.  Regardless, the Leafs need to beat this Senators team.  Soundly and often.  Because these should be the easiest points in the division.  And because I really, really, really don’t like Daniel Alfredsson.

Thanks for reading.  On Saturday, I’ll be taking a look at the Atlantic Division