Tuesday, August 7, 2007

(Very) Early Prognostications (Is that how you spell it?) – NorthEast Division

Daydreaming is free; and that’s a good thing because in between paychecks I don’t have a pot to piss in. So how about we try and get an early line on how those summer lineups will do when the ice freezes and Gary Bettman’s tie is as tight as a hangman’s noose. First off: the Northeast, in order of expected finish.

1. Buffalo

Yes, some key people have left. Actually, two of their most key people left, but the Sabres will still win the division. Why? They have too much to prove after a season where the whole organization thought they were Stanley Cup bound. The Sabres collapse against the Senators sent shock waves through the fan base and iconoclastic general manager Darcy Regier was too stunned to try and work out contracts with Daniel Briere and Chris Drury. But those losses may actually help in the long run. Now instead of having to overpay for the two superstars (Philadelphia and the Rangers took care of that), the Sabres can now give star minutes to players like Thomas Vanek, Maxim Afinogenov (probably the most improved player in the league), Derek Roy, Drew Stafford and the hopefully healthy Tim Connolly. In Connolly’s case in particular, the Sabres have a secret weapon that everyone seems to have forgotten about. Connolly is capable of scoring over a 100 points if his brain isn’t totally destroyed after some nasty concussions.

If anyone can pick up the moping Sabres faithful, it’s coach Lindy Ruff who has somehow avoided being tuned out by his players for almost ten years. The Sabres still have speed and above all, great goaltending in Ryan Miller. They also have over $5 million in cap space for the trade deadline. They will be good. Very good.

2. Ottawa

This team still has it all in spades but their biggest foe is the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover. Edmonton and Carolina were colossal flops after fighting for the Cup in 2006 and the Senators will have to avoid getting snared in that trap. What they have going for them in this regard is a new voice in the dressing room. New coach John Paddock is in and Bryan Murray is upstairs eating popcorn. Usually in these cases, a new coach can light a fire under a team who might be complacent. It’s almost as if players have to prove themselves again under new eyes although Paddock has been an assistant coach the last two seasons. Not one to crack jokes to the media, Paddock is about as serious as they come. The only person who smiles less is Brian Burke and he is scientifically unable to do so. Look for the Sens to come out strong, coast a bit and then crank it up the last two months. Daniel Alfreddson will be on a mission to win the Cup after coming so close last year. The Sens also have a lot of young players who are bound to improve, like Ray Emery, Patrick Eaves, Chris Kelly, Christoph Schubert, Andrej Meszaros and Antoine Vermette. If Spezza can stay healthy, he’ll cash in a 100 points easily and help Dany Heatley get a third straight 50 goal season.

3. Boston

To be honest, I have no damn clue how this team will play. On paper, they look like a playoff team but Boston always finds ways to botch their season. They finally got a goaltender in Manny Fernandez but all signs point to him being some kind of a prima-donna. All he did was complain in Minnesota about this and that but he’s going to face more shots in Beantown than he did in Minnesota where Jacques Lemaire literally built a brick wall in front of him. On defence, the Bruins have Zdeno Chara but not much else. The forwards are a little top heavy with not much on the third or fourth lines but what a couple of top lines they do have. New coach Claude Julien will make sure the team plays a boring neutral zone trap game but that will probably help them in the standings. On paper, they’re better than Toronto and Montreal but they make me awful nervous. At least they got nice uniforms again.

4. Toronto

The quest for the Cup continues. Yah right. The Leafs have about as much chance of winning the Cup this year as Montreal and that’s not very promising. Jason Blake was a smart pickup but that only pushes Darcy Tucker to the third best forward on the team. If Tucker is your third best forward, you’re in deep shit. Mats Sundin is still a great player but he is being wasted in Toronto. Bryan McCabe continues to be an expensive burden for the blueline along with Pavel Kubina. Tomas Kaberle is decent but is way too overrated by the media machine in Hogtown. John Ferguson Jr. made a nice move in getting Vesa Toskala to take over from Andrew “The new Jim Carey” Raycroft and acquiring the troubled but promising Mark Bell ( the Toronto bars are anticipating his arrival). Other than that, the Leafs have to rely on their heart and grit to make the playoffs which they usually have in spades. Paul Maurice will have his hands full again to make this work.

5. Montreal

Montreal has been in a funk for over ten years now and it doesn’t look to be getting any better. Their star players are just ordinary stars and their role players are just average as well. They do not have any outstanding qualities in their lineup and it’s been that way for a long time. In the past, they at least had Sheldon Souray’s canon from the point on the power play but now that is replaced by the timid but reliable Roman Hamrlik. Bringing in Bryan Smolinski for $2 million was a terrible move. He replaces Radek Bonk but Smolinski has nothing left in his game. Bob Gainey failed to get Michael Ryder under contract for any length of time and he might walk out the door after the season. Patrice Brisebois was brought in for what seems like a farewell tour in the arena he was once booed out of. It’s puzzling to me that Montreal can’t acquire good players to build on some of their assets. Mike Komisarek is an excellent defenseman and Christopher Higgins is a rising forward. They do have goalie Carey Price in their system but not much else after him. At least Habs fans know that the hot dogs will be good. That’s about all they can count on this season.

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