Sunday, September 9, 2012

Keeping Our Enemies Close: A Look at the Northeast Division

The tentative schedule for the 2012-13 season (pending a conclusion to the all the CBA fun) has the Maple Leafs playing 24 of their 82 games against teams in their division, the Northeast. Six games will be played against each of the Senators, Bruins, Canadiens and Sabres. If history is any indication, success in these 24 games will be paramount in any push to the playoffs.

In 2011-12 the Leafs went 9-14-1 against the Northeast Division, the worst record of the division's 5 teams in inter-divisional play. We wanted to take a look at the Leafs' divisional rivals and see where opportunity lies for the team to scrape out few extra wins this coming year.
Ottawa Senators
2011-12 Record against Ottawa: 3-3-0
Heading into last season the Senators were supposed to be a team mired in what would be a long and arduous rebuild. In February of 2011 they traded 2nd line stalwart and fan favorite Mike Fisher to music city and the Nashville Predators. The team then shipped out forwards Chris Kelly and Jarko Ruutu along with the enigmatic Alex Kovalev. As the 2011 deadline approached the team then traded goalie Brian Elliot for the struggling Craig Anderson, and sent defenseman Chris Campoli to the Blackhawks.
GM Brian Murray was following the standard rules that apply to any team in the midst of a rebuild – strip yourself of all expiring assets and maximize your return in the form of draft picks and prospects. All this, mind you, with speculation of a Jason Spezza trade running rampant through the city. Fans prepared themselves for what would surely be a long rebuild filled with lottery picks in the coming seasons.
What a difference a year can make. Miraculously, Spezza returned to form (84 points, 4th in league scoring), Eric Karlsson emerged as the league’s premier offensive defenseman (winning the Norris to boot), and players like Kyle Turris and Milan Michalek provided ample secondary scoring support.
Still, there are some areas Ottawa will need to improve heading into this year. Goalie Craig Anderson has proven to be streaky at times, and back-ups Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop, while highly valued across the league, have yet to establish themselves at the pro level. Up front Alfredsson is a year older, which could bring a further drop off in production and increased risk of trips to the IR.
The Battle of Ontario was, for a time, one of the most heated in sports. Outside of the hatred exhibited between the Avalanche and Red Wings, it’s hard to think of a more passionate rivalry in the last 15 years. It may not ever reach those fevered heights again, but if both teams can position themselves for playoff contention deep into the year we may be treated to 6 competitive, entertaining games.
Boston Bruins
2011-12 Record against Boston: 0-6-0
The Leafs record against Boston the past 2 seasons can be described in one word; depressing. It’s enormously difficult to make the playoffs when going 0 for 6 against a divisional opponent. A combination of size, offensive depth, goaltending and a cycle game have made them a virtual kryptonite to the Leafs, as they’ve rightfully earned their “Big Bad” moniker.  
However, this season brings with it more question marks then in the past. Tim Thomas has taken a one year sabbatical after infamously mixing his political views with the best interests of the team, creating what appears to be a substantial rift between him and the team’s front office. Yes, 25 year old Tuukka Rask (as we painfully know) is a highly regarded goalie and brings with him some NHL experience but a bird in the hand is always worth two in the bush and the goaltending situation in Boston remains an uncertainty until Thomas’ future is determined.
Zdeno is a year older (36 in March) and while I’d never outright bet against him, you would have to imagine some sort of decline creeping into his game. Up front Seguin will continue to emerge as one of the game’s elite 2 way forwards, and should make the expected to jump to center from the wing. Nathan Horton’s future remains up in the air, with severe post-concussion syndrome limiting his play last year to 46 games. Speculating on a player’s ability to return following multiple concussions is extremely difficult, as the recovery truly is different for each individual.
The addition of JVR will add some desperately needed size to the 6 games against the Bruins next season. His success against Chara as a Flyer in the 2010 playoffs is well documented, where he was an absolute force in the offensive zone. The team will look to him to alleviate some of the pressure that follows Phil Kessel into all games against Boston.

Achieving some level of success, even if it’s only mild, against Boston will be an important factor in any Leafs playoff push this season.

Buffalo Sabres
2011-12 Record against Buffalo: 3-2-1
The Sabres biggest move of the offseason was sending veteran center Derek Roy to the Dallas Stars in exchange for pest Steve Ott. There were rumors that Roy clashed with long-time coach Lindy Ruff throughout last season, making a change of scenery necessary. The move also speaks volumes about GM Darcy Regier's confidence in centerman Cody Hodsgon. Cody’s stat line last year was less than impressive (41 points in 83 games) but one has to remember he was playing 3rd line minutes in Vancouver and adjusting to new surroundings after the mid-season trade to Buffalo.
The offensive mentality in Buffalo is winning through committee; sporting no true star players (with the possible exception of winger Thomas Vanek) they look for offensive contributions throughout the lineup. Players like Gerbe, Foligno, Ennis, and Pominville will provide solid support to Hodgson and Vanek.
Highly touted prospect Mikail Grigorenko was drafted by the team 12th overall and could be considered a bit of an X-factor heading into the season. However, we expect the Sabres to continue his development with another year in the QMJHL.

Ryan Miller’s performance last year was good but far from great. There were even rumblings from a sect of Buffalo fans looking for more starts from the 24 year old Swedish backup Jhonas Enroth. It’s hard to imagine a major goalie controversy coming to fruition with a player the calibre of Miller (also considering his contract of $6.25 million through 2014) but it’s something to keep an eye on this year.

The Sabres seem to match up evenly with the Maple Leafs. Last year resulted in a number of closely contested games, and we’ll expect more of the same heading into this season.  

Montreal Canadiens
2011-12 Record against Montreal: 3-3-0
Les Habitants most significant offseason acquisition was the hiring of Marc Bergevin to be the General Manager. Similar to what Burke did for Toronto 4 years ago, Bergevin has brought a fresh approach to the team and is looking to help fans forget many of the poor decisions made by former GM Pierre Gauthier.

Of all the teams in the Northeast none seems to, at least on the surface, have as many question marks as Montreal. Veterans Tomas Plekanec, Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta are all coming off poor seasons plagued with injuries and lacklustre production. Eric Cole was a revelation last season, playing in all 82 games and amassing 35 goals. However, his well documented history of health issues and advancing age make a repeat somewhat doubtful. Defenseman Andrei Markov has played a total of just 65 games the past 3 seasons combined due to knee problems. He’s a fantastic player to watch when healthy, but at 33 you have to wonder how much, if any, gas is left in the proverbial tank.

There is some reason for hope in Montreal – the young core of Price, Subban and Pacioretty does give hope for the future. Last year’s first round draft pick Alex Galchenyuk should represent a long term solution to their lack of size down the middle, but his impact will be limited in 2012-13.

The 6 games against Montreal will be winnable for the Maple Leafs. There is always the possibility of Price getting hot and stealing a game here and there, but by the large the Canadians team is one in flux.

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