47-25-10, 1st in East; lost in second round to Flyers
G Marc Denis, C Robert Lang, LW Georges Laraque, LW Alex Tanguay
RW Michael Ryder, C Bryan Smolinski, D Mark Streit
THIS IS onefive-year plan that worked. Drafting judiciously and developing playersdeliberately, general manager Bob Gainey has righted the stumbling organizationand is delivering a Stanley Cup contender on schedule and in time for theCanadiens' celebration of their 100th year.
It even appearedlast spring that Montreal might be 12 months ahead of plan, but its surprisingfirst-place Eastern Conference finish (fueled by flashy winger Alexei Kovalev'scomeback season and a freakish run of good health that resulted in a mere 109man-games lost to injury) was followed by a disappointing second-round exitfrom the playoffs. Gainey has since upgraded his team to a level that has thenmayor Jean Drapeau's renowned 1969 remark about the Stanley Cup parade—"theusual route"—on the tip of Montrealers' tongues.
The mainuncertainty involves the power play. After fretting about the departure of freeagent Sheldon Souray a year ago, the Canadiens eschewed the concept of atraditional power-play unit, stuck with their regular lines and finished firstin the league with 90 man-up goals, splitting them evenly between home and theroad. With the catalyst of that power play, Mark Streit, lost to free agency,Montreal will need special teams help from Kovalev and perhaps tradeacquisition Robert Lang, a 37-year-old with a righthanded shot whose legs aretired but whose hands are still sweet.
Assumingprecocious second-year goalie Carey Price can avoid a meltdown in theplayoffs—Philadelphia's insistent pressure got to him last spring—the Canadiensare deep enough to vie for a spot in the finals. For Montreal anything lesswill be a lousy birthday present.
41-29-12, 8th in East; lost in first round to Canadiens
RW Michael Ryder
D Bobby Allen, G Alex Auld, C Glen Metropolit, RW Glen Murray
DON'T MISTAKEthese Bruins for the bruisers who famously carried the club in the 1970s and'80s, but this is the Northeast's most physical team, and Boston should bullyits way to a second straight playoff berth.
Boston was 24th inthe NHL in goals last season, something the addition of free agent MichaelRyder will help but won't cure by itself. The Bruins' real center of attentionis mild-mannered pivot Patrice Bergeron (above), who missed all but 10 games ofthe Bruins' 18-point revival last season. He sustained a career-threateningconcussion when he was hit from behind and driven into the boards by Flyersdefenseman Randy Jones.
In the preseasonBergeron appeared back at 100%, trumpeting his return in the first game with agoal and three assists. If Bergeron, a two-way force who also mans the point onthe power play, returns as the 70-point player he was, he'll relieve thepressure from Marc Savard, the all-about-offense No. 1 center, and the Bruinswill be heard from—with the puck, and without it.
43-31-8, 7th in East; lost in first round to Penguins
G Alex Auld, Coach Craig Hartsburg, LW Jarkko Ruutu, D Jason Smith
G Ray Emery, D Andrei Meszaros, D Wade Redden, D Luke Richardson, C RandyRobitaille, LW Cory Stillman
ANOTHER SEASON,another (yawn) coach. Welcome, Craig Hartsburg, the all-business ex--Blackhawksand Ducks head man who compiled an impressive résumé in junior hockey the pastfour seasons. He replaces Bryan Murray, the G.M. who fired John Paddock lastFebruary and took his second turn behind the Ottawa bench. Hartsburg is chargedwith making the Senators accountable. Good luck. Since Ottawa's run to the 2007final, the team has underachieved—and the Stanley Cup window seems to haveslammed shut.
Murray bought outtroublesome goalie Ray Emery and tinkered with the defense, but he's left witha No. 1 netminder, Martin Gerber (above), who seems daunted in apressure-packed market, and no obvious QB on the power play. Ottawa has eliteoffensive talent in forwards Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley.Continued good play from that trio will help, but will solve only the least ofOttawa's concerns.
39-31-12, 10th in East
G Patrick Lalime, D Craig Rivet
RW Steve Bernier, D Dmitri Kalinin, G Jocelyn Thibault
AFTER SEEING starcenters Daniel Bri√®re and Chris Drury leave through free agency in 2007, teamowner Tom Golisano has done a flip-flop that would make a politician proud.Long-term deals, once anathema in Buffalo, are now a cornerstone of theorganization. In key signings this summer, forward Jason Pominville (above) andgoaltender Ryan Miller re-upped for the next six years. (Note to the Red Wings:You'll have to find your successor to goalie Chris Osgood elsewhere.) Withforwards Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Jochen Hecht and Paul Gaustad each locked upfor at least four more years, the Sabres, while likely to be overmatched thisseason, have a solid long-term nucleus.
Buffalo can scorein bunches, but its ho-hum defense created undue pressure on Miller, who made34 consecutive starts and faded badly late in the season. (Miller had a lousy.883 save percentage in March.) Free-agent signee Patrick Lalime gives coachLindy Ruff a viable backup in goal—and, yes, Lalime got a multiyear dealtoo.
36-35-11, 12th in East
D Jeff Finger, LW Niklas Hagman, G Curtis Joseph, Coach Ron Wilson
Coach Paul Maurice, G Andrew Raycroft, C Mats Sundin, RW Darcy Tucker, C KyleWellwood
STARTING THEIR41st year of rebuilding, the Maple Leafs have purposely taken a step backward.Retrenching under G.M. Cliff Fletcher, who may be keeping the seat warm untilBrian Burke's contract expires in Anaheim next summer, Toronto allowed freeagent Mats Sundin to depart and will fill a bunch of holes on the roster withyoung players. Even Fletcher concedes that the Leafs have only one top sixforward—a polite stretch in describing winger Nik Antropov—and the defensivecore is thin behind Tomas Kaberle (above). If nothing else, Fletcher and newcoach Ron Wilson have tamped down expectations nicely.
Yet Toronto mightnot be the Hindenburg on skates. The canny Wilson, whose teams always playhard, can erect a picket fence in front of goalie Vesa Toskala and keep theMaple Leafs in most games. Toronto will miss the playoffs for the fourthstraight season, but some luck in the 2009 draft lottery would speed the Leafs'ongoing reconstruction process considerably.
"This is a highly skilled division, with fast,young players. It's wide-open."
—DEREK ROY, Buffalo center
The Bruins' giant defenseman (6'9", 251) skates megaminutes against toplines, kills penalties, mans the point on the power play and gets into theoccasional scrap. He showed leadership last spring, playing the seven-gamefirst-round series with a torn labrum.
On the Spot
After scoring 18 goals for Calgary last year, the Canadiens' new leftwing—acquired for two high draft picks—must near his career-best 29 or feel theire of Montreal fans, who expect a lot of Quebec-born players. More motivation:He's in the last year of his deal.
On the Verge
Boston's left wing doesn't have Hall of Famer Cam Neely's high-end skill, buthe does have Neely's moxie. Lucic should double his rookie output of eightgoals and 27 points—especially if he gets time on the top line with center MarcSavard and Michael Ryder.
PIERRE McGUIRE'S IN THE CREASE
Canadiens defenseman Andrei Markov is the NHL's mostunderappreciated player.... Top priority for the Bruins: Improve the penaltykill, which was 28th in the league last season.... With Wade Redden and AndrejMeszaros gone, Senators coach Craig Hartsburg needs to implement a carefullystructured defense to mask his team's lack of depth.... If the Sabres lose anyof their top four defensemen—Craig Rivet, Henrik Tallinder, Toni Lydman,Jaroslav Spacek—to injury, they're finished.... New coach Ron Wilson,comfortable in the limelight, is an ideal fit in Toronto.
PHILLIP MACCALLUM/GETTY IMAGES (PRICE)
PRICE CHECK As a 20-year-old rookie Price went 28-15-3 before slipping in the second playoff round.
DAVID E. KLUTHO (BERGERON)
GRAIG ABEL/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (GERBER)
BILL WIPPERT/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (POMINVILLE)
NOAH GRAHAM/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (KABERLE)
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (CHARA)
DAVID E. KLUTHO (TANGUAY)
RICHARD WOLOWICZ/ICON SMI (LUCIC)