Beasts of The Northeastern Wild: Analyzing the NHL Northeast Division 2013

by Jacob Saltiel
Map-3

Dragons Be Here
from TheHockeyGuys.net

Last year, the Bruins feasted on a dilapidated Northeast division, while the Senator overachieved, made the playoffs and pushed a tough Rangers team to 7 games.

The Habs, Sabres, and Leafs?

The former two did their fans the favour of playing mediocre hockey all year, while the latter had a strong first half, then decided to stop trying to win at all, plummeting into the draft.

What can we expect from the division this year?

It’s hard to predict how the 48 game schedule will affect things. As Sean McIndoe writes on Grantland.com:

“About the only thing we do know is that a shorter season means more variance — the smaller sample size leaves more room for random chance to take over. In theory, that helps bad teams, since anything that works against true talent levels is good for teams who don’t have much. But those teams are already at a disadvantage because, well, they’re bad, and they should get blown out by good teams who won’t be tempted to take their foot off the accelerator this year.”

And that’s about as clear and concise an explanation of how the shortened season can screw with predictions. Consider also how lockout injuries* may affect some teams more strongly for others, and it’ll be a chaotic season.

In the Eastern Conference, the Northeast may fall below the terrifying Atlantic Division (three cup contenders in PHI, PIT, NYR), and the potentially solid Southeast (WSH Capitals, much-improved CAR and TB) in terms of quality teams.The Montreal Canadiens will be discussed separately. This post is about their closest competition.

So, based purely on the offseason’s moves- and there may still be some trades before the season begins- here are some thoughts on the Northeastern division:

The Boston Bruins

GM Peter Chiarelli smartly locked up his core to reasonable long-term extensions, and now all that remains to be seen is if the job security afforded his players results in harmonious continuity or not. The Bruins have dominated for the past few years, and that should continue this season barring injuries and a couple of small question marks.

Will Nathan Horton be healthy this season? His absence last year robbed Coach Julien of the possibility of overwhelming opponents with an oversized top-line including Lucic and Krejci.

Next, leave aside whether or not Rask can replace Thomas, in the event of injury; the Bruins team defence is more than capable of covering up a slight decrease in goaltending. Rask might not even be a downgrade from Thomas. If he gets injured, though, who replaces Rask?

The Bruins backups right now are Anton Khudobin and Michael Hutchison. Pray for rain!

The Buffalo Sabres

Steve Ott will be an upgrade over Derek Roy based simply on the fact that he provides something that the Sabres’ young forwards and prospects don’t: grit. Roy is easily replaced by Hodgson on the top line, who can conceivably produce as much offence as Roy did last year. Meanwhile, Ott is an effective 3rd line grinder who enrages his opponents. If you’re a fan of any other team in the Northeast this year, prepare to grind your teeth aplenty when your team plays the Sabres.

For the second-line centre, they’ll have to hope that Luke Adam or Leino can step in and score some points. If the Sabres are going to improve, it will have to come either from young players (Myers, Ennis, Hodgson, or Foligno) or from last year’s free agents who had rocky starts to their Sabres careers (Ehrhoff and Leino).

The rest of the lineup is composed of veterans such as Miller, Pominville, Vanek, Stafford, or Regehr who are, at this point in their careers, more or less known commodities.

Leino was overestimated as a free agent following a season in Philly where he demonstrated that he could be a good scorer on a strong line. It became clear in Buffalo, however, that he cannot create offence on his own.

Ehrhoff, on the other hand, may not reach the point totals he had in Vancouver, benefiting as he did from one of the league’s best offences, but he can still be productive in Buffalo, and should be fine.

If the young forwards in Buffalo can take advantage of the lineup spots and ice-time vacated by the departures of Roy, Hecht, and Boyes, and score goals then this will be a good time- scary good.

If not, then, well, expect more ruminating about Regier and Ruff’s job security. I, for one, hope Ruff retains his employment, since I can’t imagine what that man would do without supervision.

The Ottawa Senators

The Senators are a tricky team to figure out, as much of their success relies on season-to-season consistency from young players like Karlsson, Greening, and the excellent-but-injured Cowen, or old veterans due to decline in effectiveness, such as Alfredsson or Gonchar. Since last year, they also unloaded two of their scrappiest players in Carkner and Konopka.

They are loaded with young players who, if they can replicate the success that young players on Ottawa last year, can take advantage of the recently opened spots to create a potent scoring offence. Guys like Silfverberg and Wiercioch, who both have strong statistical season in the AHL this season may improve the team as a whole.

Meanwhile, offseason acquisitions Latendresse and Methot are, respectively, a wildcard and a solid pickup. Latendresse has show flashes of scoring capability, but has also struggled with his conditioning and injuries for years. If he can put it all together this season, he might be the steal of the very long offseason.

Methot, meanwhile, is essentially a replacement for the jettisoned Carkner. He represents a significant upgrade over Carkner in terms of his ability to play consistent defence and defend against top-players. He’ll also help settle down a team that contains two players who tied for 7th in the NHL for giveaways (Karlsson and Spezza with 84 each).

Losing the useful Konopka hurts, but there’s still enough grit and competent defending on the team to get by.

Barring a rash of injuries or horrific regression from key young players, the Senators should be as good as they were last season, if not better.

The Toronto Maple Leafs

As covered in the Brian Burke post, this team is terrible defensively. What’d they do this offseason? Send Luke Schenn to Philadelphia for Van Riemsdyk, and add the defensively-responsible McClement. Taken together, these moves don’t do much for improving the team’s (not including the concussed and excellent Gardiner) big, heavy, and slow defence, nor the mediocre goaltending. Maybe Van Riemsdyk turns into a 30 or 40 goal scorer and Nazem Kadri and the rest of the forwards have breakthrough years and the Leafs are as exciting or more than some of those firewagon Capitals teams, but they’ll still be letting in a lot of goals.

Before 2013 even started, Lombardi and Connolly’s careers as Leafs ended within a day of one another. This opens up more spots at centre for better defensive centres in McClement and Steckel, while creating more icetime for young players, who probably can’t be less effective than Lombardi and Connolly.

McClement is a boost to Carlyle’s quest to improve the penalty kill, but unless they trade for Luongo or some other above-average goaltender, there doesn’t seem to be much to suggest that they can collectively learn to play defence all of the sudden. If the other four teams in the division play similarly to last year or improve, it could get ugly for the Leafs.

***

*Players hurt playing overseas during the lockout.

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