It’s that time again, time for the NHL previews at Sportscolumn. In this upcoming series of columns, we will look at what will drive the NHL this season. We start in the Northeast. There are some interesting story lines in, arguably, the best division in the east. Montreal forgives Patrick Roy and his number will be retired. Will the magical story of Phil Kessel write another chapter? Was Ray Emery the real locker room cancer in Ottawa? Can the Sabres rebound? Finally, just how awful are the Maple Leafs?Division Winner – Montreal
One look at the roof of the Bell Centre tells the story. Twenty-four championship banners. The numbers of Richard and other NHL legends hang from the rafters. This year, another number will be retired by the bleu, blanc et rouge. That number is 33. Finally, the bridge between Patrick Roy and Montreal Canadiens has been rebuilt. However, what the Habs have to offer on the ice is the story. The two major complaints about Montreal was the fact that their toughness was challenged, and the lack of a big named center.
Problem solved. George Laroque will fill the void of enforcer, while the Habs also may have made one of the most underrated moves of the off season, trading for Alex Tanguay. Micheal Ryder is now off to Boston, and Tanguay will make them quickly forget Ryder. Look for a bounce back season from “The Tangs”.
The Bruins were a trendy pick to do well and go far last season, however injuries took a huge toll on them. Center Patrice Bergeron, defenceman Andrew Ference, and veteran goalie Manny Fernandez all missed major points of the season, and the Bruins limped in the playoffs last season. My pick for the Jack Adams last season, Claude Julien did the best he could with what he had.
One of the great stories of last season was Phil Kessel. Completely cancer free, Kessel was the driving force behind the Bruins pushing Montreal to the limit in the first round. Meanwhile, Boston also improved, signing Stephane Yelle, who will shore up a questionable penalty kill. They also picked up Micheal Ryder, who will looking to do special things against his old club in Montreal. They are a trendy four seed pick this year.
The Crew aboard the S. S. Senator all crashed and burned last season. Constantly having to deal with “As the Emery Turns”, distracted a team that was a Stanley Cup pick. Emery is now in Russia, so with the distractions over how do the Sens not repeat last year’s collapse? Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley anyone?
Look for many of the secondary players to step up, including Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly and Nick Foligno. Wade Redden is now gone from the Sens, and the rebuilding of the blue line has begun. They still have Chris Phillips, but this will have to be a year that Anton Volchenkov, Brian Lee and Christoph Schubert all will have to step up for Sens if they want to make a solid playoff run.
The Sabres continue their rebuilding process after a tough 2007 off-season that saw the loss of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. Even with those losses, the Sabres still finished fourth in the NHL in goals. Yet, it was their depth that was their biggest problem in missing the playoffs just four points last season.
This could still be a long season in northern New York, with only Craig Rivet as their major pick up on the blue line. Speaking of the defense, this will have to be a make or break year for Steve Bernier, who the Sharks pinned their hopes on before the Brian Campbell trade. Now, Bernier has to show the Sabres why they want him to replace Campbell. Other players that will have to step up will be Thomas Vanek, Drew Stafford, Maxim Afinogenov, and Tim Connolly.
Toronto Maple Leafs
So, this is nuclear winter? I’m going to put as much effort in this preview as the Leafs did into their 2007-08 campaign, not much. So, here’s the list of players out of Toronto. Darcy Tucker, Bryan McCabe, Kyle Wellwood and Andrew Raycroft. Here’s the players that will replace them. Niklas Hagman, Jamal Mayers, Mikhail Grabovski and Ryan Hollweg, defencemen Mike Van Ryn and Jeff Finger and Curtis Joseph.
What am I missing, other than the sheer will to actually legitimize this team? Oh, yeah, that Mats Sundin guy. He’s not coming back. Here’s the look for the Leafs. Winter. It’s cold. It’s long, and it will never end in Toronto.