LAST SEASON52-24-6, fourth in East; lost in conference finals to Carolina
KEY ADDITIONS D Jaroslav Spacek
KEY LOSSES RW J.P. Dumont, RW Mike Grier, D Jay McKee
Success came at aprice for the Sabres, who for the first time in decades enter the season asStanley Cup contenders. After watching his team come within one period ofadvancing to the Cup finals last June, general manager Darcy Regier had onlyfour players under contract for 2006--07, and that proved costly in theoff-season. Over the summer a league-high 12 players filed for arbitration, andthe team's payroll soared from $29 million in '05--06 to more than $41 million.The good news for owner Tom Golisano? Season-ticket sales have kept pace."Expectations are going to be heightened," says goalie Ryan Miller, whowas a big reason for Buffalo's run deep into the postseason last year.
One casualty ofthe arbitration process was popular winger J.P. Dumont, whom the Sabres cutloose instead of paying the $2.9 million an arbitrator deemed he was worth.Buffalo also lost some of its muscle when power forward Mike Grier andshot-blocking defenseman Jay McKee departed as free agents. But the core of theteam, led by co-captains Daniel Briere and Chris Drury (box, opposite page) andright wing Maxim Afinogenov, remains largely intact. In addition, the Sabres'defense, among the most mobile and skilled in the league, was bolstered by thesigning of free-agent Jaroslav Spacek.
Fast, skilled andhardworking, these are no longer the Sabres of the late 1990s, who dependedheavily on goalie Dominik Hasek to get them a win. "We had a reputation asa goaltender team stuck on defensive hockey," says coach Lindy Ruff."[Now] all areas of our game [are] very good."
LAST SEASON52-21-9, first in East; lost in second round to Buffalo
KEY ADDITIONS G Martin Gerber
KEY LOSSES D Zdeno Chara, G Dominik Hasek, RW Martin Havlat
Same old, sameold for the Senators, who finished atop the conference last year only tofounder in the postseason. If you're counting, Ottawa has advanced past thefirst round only four times in the last nine seasons. This year's team has lessskill but more grit, a development that coach Bryan Murray hopes could finallyyield the sort of grinding team that can make it deep into the playoffs.
Ottawa filled thedefensive hole left by Zdeno Chara's free-agent departure with mobile,offensive-minded Joe Corvo and Tom Preissing. And in search of some consistencyin goal (Dominik Hasek missed 26 games last year with a groin injury), theSenators signed free agent Martin Gerber, who had 38 wins for Carolina but losthis starting job to Cam Ward after bombing in the playoffs. "[Gerber's] astrong goalie," says Murray. "The guys can have confidence that he'sgoing to be there every night."
Ottawa will stillrely on the league's top line of Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and JasonSpezza (112 goals combined in 2005--06) for the bulk of its scoring and isexpecting continued improvement from second-year forward Patrick Eaves (20goals in 58 games last season). Spezza underwent back surgery for a herniateddisk in late May but should start the season at full strength. On this team,however, it's all about how strong the players are at the end of theseason.
LAST SEASON29-37-16, 13th in East
KEY ADDITIONS G.M. Peter Chiarelli, Coach Dave Lewis, D Zdeno Chara, D PaulMara
KEY LOSSES Coach Mike Sullivan, D Hal Gill, D Brian Leetch, C AlexeiZhamnov
The biggestchanges for the Bruins occurred in the front office, not on the ice. Gone arelongtime club president Harry Sinden (who'd had a hand in running the teamsince 1966), general manager Mike O'Connell and coach Mike Sullivan. In arefirst-year G.M. Peter Chiarelli, who was an assistant G.M. with the Senators,and coach Dave Lewis, who led the Red Wings to the NHL's best record in2003--04. In addition to improving on the Bruins' meek 74-point performance oflast season, the new regime will be looking to instill team chemistry and focuson defense.
To help themachieve their goal of an improved blue line, the Bruins signed free-agentAll-Star defenseman Zdeno Chara (box, above right) to a five-year, $37.5million contract; a fitness fanatic, he could play 30 minutes a game. Bostonalso acquired sharpshooting defenseman Paul Mara, who scored 15 goals lastyear.
If only theBruins could have similarly increased their firepower at the forward positions.The pressure will be on young center Patrice Bergeron, a second-round pick inthe 2003 draft, to build on his team-leading totals of 31 goals and 73 pointsin '05--06--especially after getting a five-year, $23.75 million contract overthe summer. "The changes in Boston were more radical than most teams',"says Lewis. "Everything is a real plus-plus for us right now. Thecompetitive balance has changed."
LAST SEASON42-31-9, seventh in East; lost in first round to Carolina
KEY ADDITIONS LW Sergei Samsonov
KEY LOSSES RW Niklas Sundstrom, RW Richard Zednik
Goals will behard to come by for the former Flying Frenchmen, who are now led by abutterflying Frenchman, Cristobal Huet, the NHL's best goalie over the secondhalf of last season. Huet, 31, took the starting job from now-departed JoséThéodore and had the league's top save percentage (.929). With a lacklusteroffense--among playoff teams, only Calgary and New Jersey scored fewer goalslast year--the Canadiens will be counting on Huet to carry them into thepostseason. Health remains a question for captain Saku Koivu, who will centerthe first line between Chris Higgins, who scored 18 of his 23 goals in thesecond half of last season, and Michael Ryder, a 30-goal scorer.
LAST SEASON41-33-8, ninth in East
KEY ADDITIONS Coach Paul Maurice, D Hal Gill, C Michael Peca, G AndrewRaycroft
KEY LOSSES Coach Pat Quinn, C Jason Allison, G Ed Belfour, RW Tie Domi, C EricLindros
It's been 39years since the Maple Leafs won a Stanley Cup, a streak that's going to reach40. After they missed the playoffs last year for the first time since 1997--98,general manager John Ferguson fired coach Pat Quinn and replaced him withformer Carolina coach Paul Maurice, who has vowed to run tougher practices. Butthat won't make up for the lack of talent. At 35, center Mats Sundin remainsthe team's only legitimate first-line player (78 points in '05--06). Free-agentpickup Michael Peca brings leadership and checking, but scoring will have tocome from young forwards Alexander Steen (18 goals, 27 assists) and KyleWellwood (11 goals, 34 assists).
Coach Dave Lewis wants his big defenseman (6'9",260 pounds) to do for Boston what Nicklas Lidstrom does for Detroit: shut downthe opponent's top scorers, quarterback the power play and take charge of thepenalty killing. Chara signed with the Bruins so he could be the Man; he'll getthat chance.
Because of his poor work ethic the 26-year-old centerhas yet to reach his potential of an 80-point season. With Ribeiro's productiondropping from 20 goals and 65 points in 2003--04 to 16 goals and 51 points lastseason, Montreal fans are growing frustrated with their onetime hometownhero.
Drury, who won an NCAA championship with BostonUniversity in 1995 and a Stanley Cup with the Avalanche in 2001, has broughthis winning touch to Buffalo. Versatile, skilled and team-oriented, the30-year-old center led the Sabres with 30 goals last season and plays best inthe biggest games.
Pierre McGuire's IN THE CREASE
BLOWOUTS WILL be a thing of the past for the remadeSenators, who won 30 games by more than two goals last year. Losing forwardsMartin Havlat and Bryan Smolinski will result in a big drop in offensivepower.... Look for the Maple Leafs, who ranked 21st in goals allowed last year,to break up the Bryan McCabe--Tomas Kaberle defensive tandem and pair Kaberlewith off-season acquisition Pavel Kubina--a combination that has been veryeffective for the Czech Republic in international play.... Expect the Bruins torespond well to their new coaching staff, a group whose experience and acumengive it instant credibility with players and referees.... Canadiens goalieCristobal Huet, last year's breakout sensation, could have a hard timerepeating his success. Teams are seeing that he tends to drop to his kneesearly and thus can be beaten by shooting high or by forcing him to go side toside.
BLADE RUNNER The fast-skating Afinogenov embodies the Sabres' explosive new style.
DAVE SANDFORD/GETTY IMAGES (KOIVU)
SIGHT LINE While Koivu's playoff eye injury heals, Montreal's No. 1 unit is in question.
CHARLES LABERGE/GETTY IMAGES (CHARA)
BRAD WHITE/WIREIMAGE.COM (RIBEIRO)
LOU CAPOZZOLA (DRURY)