Even with the transition from Tim Thomas to Tuukka Rask in goal, the Bruins are the class of the Northeast, and the only team virtually guaranteed to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
After that … who knows? The Buffalo Sabres look good on paper, but might not have enough pop. The Ottawa Senators are either at the cusp of a great run or were a one-hit wonder last season. As Kevin Allen put it: “If you stare long enough at Toronto's roster, you can convince yourself the team could finish seventh or eighth. But history says it's not a good bet.” And the Canadiens have Carey Price and an offense with some exciting young talent … but a ton of questions.
How will it all shake out in the shortened 48-game season?
Last Year’s Record: 49-29-4 (102 points)
Coach: Claude Julien
Pre-Lockout Preview: “First place in the Northeast Division, near the top of the conference and challenging for another Stanley Cup … assuming Rask is the real deal and if Horton can stay healthy — and if not, that Chiarelli finds a suitable replacement — the Bruins are primed for another run at the Cup. But let's face it: The magic inherent in winning all those Game 7s in 2011 and getting the performances they did out of Marchand, Thomas and others isn't easy to replicate."
What’s Changed: Tyler Seguin played at nearly a goal-per-game pace (and on the penalty kill!) in Switzerland. Defenseman and Kessel trade bounty Dougie Hamilton will stick with the Bruins, even if he was underwhelming at world juniors.
Pivotal Player: Tuukka Rask takes over the starting goalie job from disillusioned doomsday prepper Tim Thomas. Despite his occasional outbursts, Rask’s temperament during games is more measured than Thomas’. He has the skills to replicate Timmay’s stellar numbers; but does he have the durability and consistency to be the unquestioned No. 1? If so, he’s in for quite a payday.
Player That Benefits Most From 48-Game Season: Seguin. His play overseas gives him both fresh legs and a load of confidence as his star continues to ascend.
Prediction: First, and a Cup challenger.
Last Year’s Record: 39-32-11 (89 points)
Coach: Lindy Ruff
Pre-Lockout Preview: “Another year on the bubble. The Sabres could very well make the playoffs, but everything's going to have to go right for them. Tyler Ennis and Cody Hodgson are going to have to play like top-six centres. Tyler Myers is going to have to become a true number one guy. Ryan Miller is going to have to be one of the best goalies in the league again. Every one of these things is possible, but all of these things happening is less so. Expect the Sabres to be in contention right up until the final week of the season.”
What’s Changed: Myers injured his ankle playing for something called Klagenfurt AC. Marcus Foligno scored 27 points in 33 games for Rochester. Sabres fans set a single-day ticket sales record, because expectations are high thanks to Terry Pegula.
Pivotal Player: Thomas Vanek. He’s one season removed from posting 73 points in 80 games. Then need a dominant offensive season from a player that still has some dominant stretches. A lot of that potential will depend on how he plays on a line projected to include Cody Hodgson and Jason Pominville.
Player That Benefits Most From 48-Game Season: Ryan Miller. Traditionally, he’s at his best in the second half of an 82-game season. So perhaps he skips the early season struggles and gets right to being one of the best goalies in the conference.
Prediction: Second. The toughness and grittiness added in Steve Ott and John Scott, along with returning players like Foligno, should make the Sabres a pain in the backside to play against.
Last Year’s Record: 41-31-10 (92 points)
Coach: Paul MacLean
Pre-Lockout Preview: "There's enough promise up and down the Ottawa lineup to believe they can make a return trip to the postseason. If the offensive leaders in Alfredsson, Michalek and Spezza don't take big steps back and the defense improves slightly, the Senators will find their way into the Eastern Conference's top-8 again. Anderson will once again need to play at a consistent level, with Bishop (or Lehner) providing reliable spot duty. If the youngsters like Zibanejad, Silfverberg and/or Stone are able to help make an impact offensively, there won't be any questions about whether or not this team will be playoff-bound."
What’s Changed: Daniel Alfredsson hinted at retirement. Mika Zibanejad was pulled from world juniors. Eugene Melnyk begged fans and sponsors to come back to the Sens.
Pivotal Player: Erik Karlsson could have easily been a Hart Trophy nominee last season, the way he set the tone and the tempo for the Senators on most nights. Can he repeat the pace that gave him 78 points in 81 games? Bigger question: Can he continue to improve play in his own end?
Player That Benefits Most From 48-Game Season: Craig Anderson. The Sens starting goalie will be given a nice runway to solidify his hold on the job, as neither Ben Bishop nor Robin Lehner had a prolonged preseason in which to try and steal it.
Prediction: Third. Last season’s stunning ride to the postseason wasn’t a fluke. They’re loaded at forward, with players like Michalek and Kyle Turris just scratching the surface of their potential. It’ll come down to the Sabres and Sens for the second playoff berth in the Northeast … with the nod going to Buffalo this time.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Last Year’s Record: 35-37-10 (80 points)
Coach: Randy Carlyle
Pre-Lockout Preview: “The Leafs aren't much improved from last year. They may still make some adjustments to the roster, but as it stands, there's no reason to believe this team can do what the 2011-12 edition could not. The safe bet is another nightmarish, postseason-free year in Toronto.
“That said, this team could contend. All it will take is: van Riemsdyk finding his star game and blending seamlessly with the group, Kessel and Lupul posting huge numbers again, Dion Phaneuf re-finding his elite game, Jake Gardiner learning to defend and breaking out as a breakout starter, Reimer and Scrivens stunning the pundits with steady, heady goaltending, and Randy Carlyle getting a seamless, Jack Adams-calibre buy-in from his roster.
“But that's a lot to go right for a franchise that doesn't have a history of having everything fall into place. Brace yourselves, Leafs fans.”
What’s Changed: Brian Burke was fired as the GM, President and architect for the Leafs. Carlyle compared Nazem Kadri to Bobby Ryan. The Canucks started making noise about Roberto Luongo staying with the team for the 48-game season. Jake Gardiner suffered a concussion.
Pivotal Player: James van Riemsdyk. They gave up Luke Schenn for the Flyers forward, and his place in the lineup could set up the rest of the offense. Can be play center? Can he ride shotgun with Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, or is he a second-liner? More than anything: Can he stay healthy?
Player That Benefits Most From 48-Game Season: Mike Komisarek. Because he used the offseason and the lockout to stop being such a fatty.
Prediction: Fourth, unless they make a Luongo trade, because then they’re a playoff team. Once more, with feeling: The Leafs make the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons if Roberto Luongo is their goaltender. Especially if Dave Nonis is given a mandate from ownership to aggressively get this team into the postseason.
Last Year’s Record: 31-35-16 (78 points)
Coach: Michel Therrien
Pre-Lockout Preview: “It can't really get worse for the Canadiens. Despite returning mostly the same roster from 2011-12, a healthy one will show improvement as Montreal led the NHL with 440 man-games lost to injury. Contributions from the depth up front will help the offense. A healthy Markov will improve the defense. The Carey Price from 2011-12 returning to form will help the goals against. Michel Therrien will have his hands full as he returns as head coach, but he's shown a history of taking teams and improving them within a year.”
What’s Changed: Scott Gomez was sent home for the purposes of giving him a buyout. P.K. Subban’s RFA contract squabbles stretched into training camp. Andrei Markov is inexplicably healthy.
Pivotal Player: Tomas Plekanec was battling a rib injury he suffered playing in the Czech Republic during the lockout. He was a minus-15 last season; the Habs desperately need him to reclaim that 70-point form he had in 2009-10.
Player That Benefits Most From 48-Game Season: Alex Galchenyuk looked awesome at world juniors, and continues to impress at camp. There's a chance he could earn a look on the Habs' second line during the next 48 games; if so, he might just win a truncated Calder.
Prediction: Fifth. Too many lineup holes and question marks to truly contend in the East, but the Canadiens are starting amass an impressive group of young talent.