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2011-12 NHL Season Preview: Montreal Canadiens

In Hockey on August 31, 2011 at 10:30 am

A Look Back at 2010-11
There was magic back in Montreal after the Habs made a surprise trip to the Eastern Conference finals in 2010. Expectations were high for the whole team, but for no one more than Carey Price. After the trade of Jaroslav Halak to St. Louis, Price assumed control of the team and was absolutely spectacular. The Canadiens were a small group that looked to beat you with skill over power, and had the eventual champs on the ropes after two games in Boston. They then lost four of five games to Boston, including two games in double OT. Since no one knew how Price would fare as the full-time starter, Habs fans had to be pleased with how the team finished. They did struggle to score goals at times, and it hurt them in the end against Boston. Grade: B- (Carey Price had a lot to do with ranking them this high.)

A Look Ahead to 2011-12

Erik Cole brings some physicality to the Montreal group of forwards

Forwards
Once again, the forward for this Montreal unit will be small (no one stands taller than 6’2) but fast and skilled. They have a very good top center in Tomas Plekanec, who led the team in points last year and has five straight seasons of 20+ goals. Scott Gomez needs to be better for the Habs. He has been absolutely dreadful since the Rangers signed him to a contract, and was at his worst last year scoring only 38 points. If Montreal wants to go back to the playoffs, he has to be better. There remains some decent firepower on the wings, but the one guy that can’t have another slow season in Mike Cammalleri. Cammy was a playoff hero back in 2010, but his goal total fell to only 19 last year. He was signed to score, but he could also benefit from a healthy season. Team captain Brian Gionta will occupy the top spot on the right side for Montreal, and he works well with Plekanec on the top line. The Habs added Erik Cole from Carolina as a way to add some physicality to combat the beating they took from Boston throughout last year. Andrei Kostitsyn, Lars Eller and Max Pacioretty make up a third line that should be able to absolutely fly around the ice. They also add a dangerous option on that third line because they could see the opposition’s bottom defensive pair. Mathieu Darche, Travis Moen, Michael Blunden, David Desharnais and Ryan White round out the forwards. This team needs size and physicality in a big way up front and it’s not coming from the minors. Grade: C+ (The lack of bigger forwards is alarming. A team like Boston could throw them around with ease.)

Andrei Markov needs to stay healthy for the Canadiens to make a playoff push.

Defense
The lack of size on offense is made up for on defense. All but one of the team’s current defensemen stands 6’0, with Hal Gill being the biggest at 6’7. This unit can put up the points, provided Andrei Markov stays healthy for a full year. When he is healthy, Markov is one of the best defenseman in the game. That hasn’t been the case for a while, and for the Habs to be a player this year, they need him healthy again. Fortunately for Montreal, the offensive slack was picked up by P.K. Subban last season. Subban was great once he put everything together in the second half of the year, gaining a reputation for himself in the process as someone who plays with a lot of cockiness. That doesn’t matter since he does produce on defense and log some important minutes. He’s a keeper. Also, unlike the forwards, the Habs’ defense has two guys that will throw the body and play a physical game in Gill and Josh Gorges. The Habs lost Gorges for the playoffs last year, and it hurt them in the end. Jaroslav Spacek is another veteran presence for the Habs to send out each game, and he can still contribute offensively. Yannick Weber is the only other defenseman under contract that has played in the NHL. Not a bad unit, but they could definitely use some depth and more physicality. Especially if Markov gets hurt again. Grade: B-

Carey Price met his lofty expectations last year.

Goaltending
For all the uncertainty the rest of the team has, in goal isn’t one of them. Carey Price was an absolute beast last year for the Habs and was event in consideration for the Vezina Trophy at one point. Despite all of his brilliance, Price was forced to play in 72 games because his team needed him every night. That can wear a goalie out. However, Price was also brilliant against Boston, he just got no help from his offense. As good as he is, he’s going to have to steal games for the Habs once again. Filling his role of backup is Peter Budaj, who comes over after five years in Colorado. Budaj won’t play much, but has shown that he can handle a heavy workload if need be.  All is good in the Montreal nets right now. Grade: A- (If Price gets hurt, they will be in a lot of trouble.)

Prediction
The East is getting bigger by the year, and the Habs aren’t. There are too many injury-prone skaters, not much depth, little to no physicality and streaky scoring for me to buy stock in the Canadiens this year. Unless Carey Price suddenly becomes Patrick Roy, they won’t make the playoffs this year. 4th in Northeast, 9th in East.

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2011-12 NHL Season Preview: Buffalo Sabres

In Hockey on August 30, 2011 at 10:30 am

Buffalo Sabres

A Look Back at 2010-11
The Sabres were able to rebound from an awful start to the season and earn a spot in the playoffs for the second straight season. The Sabres also presented a tough match-up for the heavily favored Flyers. That’s where the good news for the Sabres ended, as they held sizable leads in two games they ended up losing to the Flyers, which led to a beating in game seven they weren’t able to fight back from to win. Shaky defense and some shaky goaltending by Ryan Miller didn’t help the cause. What they didn’t have for that playoff run was top center Derek Roy who was lost with a quad injury. What they did acquire through the season was new owner Terry Pegula, who wants to build a winner and open up the checkbook to do so. The season wasn’t a total failure, but there was more to be desired after the Philly series. Grade: B- (Without that poor start, they could have caught Boston for the top spot.)

A Look Ahead to 2011-12

Ville Leino is the biggest addition to the Sabres' offense this season

Forwards
The Sabres have loaded up since Pegula took ownership of the team. They already boasted talent in the form of Roy, Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Drew Stafford, Nathan Gerbe and Tyler Ennis. They have since added Brad Boyes and Ville Leino to add even more firepower to the group. These aren’t household names, but the Sabres managed to finish ninth in goals scored last season and those numbers should increase with the addition of Leino and Ales Kotalik. Where the Sabres were lacking was at the second line center position after failing to land Brad Richards. They hope that moving Leino, who last played center while he was in Finland, will be able to move back to the center position to give them that boost they need. With Vanek, Roy and Stafford as the scorers and Pominville, Leino and Boyes pass-first guys, the Sabres can throw out two potentially lethal lines. Ennis and Gerbe are both small in stature, but play are very talented and use their speed to burn the opposition. Steady Jochen Hecht, Pat Kaleta, Cody McCormick and Paul Gaustad will be looked at for penalty killing and shutting down the opposition. The also have Luke Adam, Joel Armia and Zack Kassian in the system as depth. They’re not ready challenge Boston yet, but they’re damn close. Grade: B+ (They’re going to be scary, but they can’t afford a drop in production from Stafford or a couple major injuries.)

Christian Ehrhoff inked a big contract with the Sabres over the off-season.

Defense
This unit absolutely killed the Sabres in the playoffs. There were numerous times they blew assignments against the Flyers and it cost them. Mr. Pegula saw that as unacceptable, and he went and added two quality pieces to his blue line. Christian Ehrhoff ended up being the odd man out in Vancouver, and he comes over to join Tyler Myers as another big shot on the blue line. To fill the stay-at-home defensive need, the Sabres went and got Robyn Regehr from Calgary. Regehr is starting to get up there in age, but he’s still as physical as any defender in the league and a great protector for Ryan Miller. Myers had a solid sophomore campaign and is developing into one of the best young defensemen in the game. He’s not as physical as his size suggests he should be, but he does everything else well. Jordan Leopold, Andrej Sekera and Shaone Morrisonn round out the remainder of the blue line. One guy that had a great playoff and should get a chance to shine this year is Marc-Andre Gragnani. He’s a slick puck-mover and looked cool as a cucumber during the playoffs last year. The Ehrhoff signing might hold him back in terms of PP time, but he’s someone that could surprise the league this year. They could use another physical defender, but this squad is one that many wouldn’t be upset to have. Grade: B (Too many pass-first guys and not enough physicality. Still a very good unit.)

Ryan Miller will have an easier time this year with a better defense in front of him

Goaltending
The strongest area of the team remains in goal and Ryan Miller.  Miller looked mortal at times last year, especially early. But he, much like the rest of the team got it together late and made a charge to the playoffs. I wouldn’t expect a letdown this season from Miller. I could see him pulling a Kobe Bryant and spend the off-season in exile, doing nothing but training to make the Sabres as good as they can be. With Miller playing at the level he did during the 2010 Olympics, the Sabres are legitimate Stanley Cup threats. He stymied the Flyers when his defense wasn’t busy betraying him, and with the improvements on defense, expect Miller’s numbers to get better. When Miller does get a break, he will be spelled by young Jhonas Enroth. Enroth held the fort down when Miller got hurt last year, and that performance earned him the trust of the Buffalo front office to not re-sign backup (and Ryan Miller’s best friend) Patrick Lalime. Enroth may not play much this year, but he is a capable backup that has paid his dues and deserves a chance to contribute. Grade: A-

Prediction
The Sabres are going to be a beast to deal with in the East this year. They’ll score a bunch of goals and will see the amount of goals against go down this year. This team won’t be a fun one to deal with come playoff time. They won’t win the division, but they’ll give the Bruins everything they can handle this year and in the future. Those two teams could bring that old rivalry back, which would be a ton of fun for me to watch. 2nd in Northeast, 5th in East.

2011-12 NHL Season Preview: Boston Bruins

In Hockey on August 29, 2011 at 10:31 am

Boston Bruins

A Look Back at 2010-11
Coming off one of the greatest playoff collapses of all time, the Bruins were determined to get over the hump and become the class of the Eastern Conference. So how did the Bruins respond? By going out and winning the Stanley Cup in one of the most entertaining playoff series of all time against Vancouver. I have stated before why the Bruins deserved to win the Cup in that series, and I hold true to that belief. Tim Thomas had one of the greatest seasons for a goalie in recent memory, the Bruins had to endure three seven-game series and I was actually able to cheer for a Boston team without any guilt. They were fun, and they got it done when it counted. Grade: A+

A Look Ahead to 2011-12

Tyler Seguin is expected to see more ice time in his sophomore season.

Forwards
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The Bruins return most of their forwards from this past year’s championship team. The team remains deep up the middle with David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Greg Campbell, Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley and Chris Kelly. There’s plenty of offense and defensive skill in that quartet of centermen, as Bergeron continues to be the best two-way center in the game that no one talks about. With the exception of Krejci and Bergeron, the rest of the group is versatile and can play on the wing. Campbell and Kelly also cemented themselves as one hell of a PK unit in the playoffs. Plenty of versatility to go around. One guy to keep an eye on, and he showed up big in the playoffs on a few occasions, is Seguin. He struggled at times to even earn ice time during the season, but after a year of seasoning, he should see more ice time and some time on the Power Play. Moving to the wings, there’s plenty of toughness, nerve and skill to go around. Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton are the two top guns to play with Krejci. Lucic has become the power forward that everyone thought he would after a great season last year. Horton will hopefully bounce back from the nasty hit he took in the Finals last year and return to play at the top of his game. He deserves that chance. Wrapping up the wings are the likes of Brad Marchand, who has become one of the most hated guys around the league and it wasn’t hard to see why, Dan Paille, Shawn Thornton and newcomer Benoit Pouliot. They may still be a little thin on scoring, but there are no holes in this group. Jordan Caron and Zach Hamill are waiting in the minors for their chance to step in if they need to. Grade: B (Adding another scorer would be ideal. Could move up to an A if Seguin explodes this year)

That thing looks like a toy in Zdeno Chara's hands. Big Z will be back to anchor the Bruins D again this year

Defense
The strength of the Bruins lies on their back end. They’re mean, their physical and they have the ability to chip in on the score sheet. Of course, Zdeno Chara leads the team on defense as the team’s best all-around player. No one messes with Big Z, and the rest of the defense has started to mold their game after Chara. Dennis Seidenberg partners with Chara and has improved ten-fold since he was traded to Boston. Joe Corvo comes over to take Tomas Kaberle’s spot, and Bruins fans will rejoice. Kaberle wasn’t awful for the Bruins, but he wasn’t what the Bruins were expecting. Corvo doesn’t have those expectations to produce offensively, but he’s actually on par with Kaberle. Solid trade by the Bruins. Andrew Ference, Johnny Boychuk and nasty Adam McQuaid round out the defense with Steve Kampfer around for depth. Scary depth and snarl all around. Grade: A- (They get the job done, that’s all you can ask for out of your defense.)

You do NOT enter Tim Thomas' crease without paying for it

Goaltending
Boston has a bevy of riches between the pipes, not only for this year, but down the road as well. The entire country got the Tim Thomas experience this year in the playoffs, and everyone loved what they saw. Thomas took home a ton of hardware, including the Vezina Trophy and Conn Smyth Trophy on top of the Stanley Cup. Not a bad year for a guy that was told he’d never play. It’s hard not to love a guy that fights as hard as Thomas does in net night after night. He never quits on a play, defends his turf and will throw the occasional body check. How can’t you love a guy that plays that way (all our fans in Vancouver are preparing to wander into traffic)? When fully healthy, Thomas is one of the best in the game, and that’s nice for Boston to have as they look to repeat. Waiting in the wings as goalie of the future is current backup Tuukka Rask. Rask is ready to be a starter right now, but the Bruins aren’t letting him go somewhere he has a chance to be a starter. With Thomas now 38, Rask just has to be patient. He’s a big goalie that relies on his positioning and reflexes to make saves. Either way, B’s opponents will have a tough time scoring this season. Grade: A

Prediction
While the Bruins will struggle to score on occasion, they’re still going to be a top team in the East and one of the favorites to make it back to the Stanley Cup finals because of their defense and goaltending. 1st in Northeast, 3rd in East.