COACH Claude Julien (5th season)
LAST SEASON 46-25-11 (3rd in East); won Stanley Cup
KEY ADDITONS D Joe Corvo, LW Benoit Pouliot
KEY LOSSES D Tomas Kaberle, RW Mark Recchi, RW Michael Ryder
THERE IS NO simple cure for a Stanley Cup hangover. No hair of the underdog. The short, giddy summer of an NHL champion invariably saps energy and sometimes will. While there has been no repeat Cup winner since the 1997--98 Red Wings, curiously no team has ever won back-to-back Northeast Division titles since the group was carved out of the old Adams Division in 1993.
The Bruins figure to hold off the Sabres and the Canadiens in the Northeast. But the Cup? "I'm not going to project that we'll repeat, although ultimately that'll end up being our goal," says Tim Thomas, coming off the best year of any goalie since the Flyers' Bernie Parent in 1975. "The season will be broken down to smaller, digestible pieces. That approach served us well last year."
It worked better than the bumbling power play—Boston ranked 20th during the season, then scored on just five of 61 opportunities through three rounds of the playoffs as the club careened its way to the Stanley Cup finals. With only light roster turnover, the Bruins will likely tread a similar path in 2011--12. Boston is unique among elite teams because it has shown the ability to win without either a fully functional power play or a classic No. 1 center. (Marc Savard will miss the season because of postconcussion syndrome.) Patrice Bergeron reestablished himself as a cornerstone in the playoffs, scoring 20 points in 23 games while playing sublime defense, but he is not an archetypal point-per-game player. He will again be flanked by Brad Marchand, a caustic sophomore who had 11 playoff goals, almost double the number of jabs he landed on the mug of Canucks winger Daniel Sedin during a goalmouth scrum in Game 6 of the finals. "That Cup run should help us to improve from within," says Thomas, "because it boosted the confidence of a lot of guys."
COACH Jacques Martin (3rd season)
LAST SEASON 44-30-8 (6th in East); lost in first round to Bruins
KEY ADDITIONS G Peter Budaj, RW Erik Cole
KEY LOSSES G Alex Auld, D Roman Hamrlik, D James Wisniewski
AFTER RIVALING THE Sabres as Lilliput's Team (four of their top six forwards were under six feet tall), the Canadiens added bulk by signing 6'2", 205-pound winger Erik Cole. In 34 career games (including playoffs) against Montreal, Cole has averaged 0.53 goals per game. That qualifies him as a Canadiens killer of a different sort than, say, Montreal center Scott Gomez, who had seven goals and 31 assists last year while sucking up more than $7 million of cap room. "Adding [Cole] and getting back [winger] Max [Pacioretty, who was lost for the season with a concussion last March] gives us more size and depth," says captain Brian Gionta (below). "It'll help us five-on-five"—the Canadiens ranked 26th in even strength scoring last year—"and should also make the third and fourth lines stronger."
Montreal has rebuilt its blue line in front of goalie Carey Price (.923 save percentage, 2.35 GAA), but much depends on the rebuilt right knee of defenseman Andrei Markov, who's coming off his second ACL surgery in seven months. The club re-signed him for three years on June 23, but he labored in camp. The defensive burden could shift to Josh Gorges, who's also returning from knee surgery, and the irrepressible P.K. Subban. A 25th Stanley Cup will be a tall order.
COACH Lindy Ruff (14th season)
LAST SEASON 43-29-10 (7th in East); lost in first round to Flyers
KEY ADDITIONS D Christian Ehrhoff, C Ville Leino, D Robyn Regehr
KEY LOSSES C Tim Connolly, RW Mike Grier, C Rob Niedermayer
NEW SABRES OWNER Terry Pegula seems to be gunning for MVP—Most Valuable Proprietor. He paid for an $8 million dressing room upgrade and a $3 million dehumidification system to improve the quality of the ice at HSBC Arena. He also laid new carpets and splashed paint throughout the rink. But cosmetics aside, he and G.M. Darcy Regier also acquired some actual hockey players during the off-season, trading for defenseman Robyn Regehr and signing (and overpaying, to the tune of $67 million) free-agent defenseman Christian Ehrhoff and forward Ville Leino, whom coach Lindy Ruff will shift from wing to center.
"Those free-agent signings happened so fast, I was in shock almost," says defenseman Tyler Myers, who, courtesy of Pegula's largesse, signed a seven-year, $38.5 million extension. "That shows how things are changing in Buffalo. It's becoming a place where guys want to play."
Pegula has also subtracted: He took away excuses, a cherished Buffalo tradition. Instead of the small-market plaints that suffuse the city, the well-heeled Sabres are now obliged to focus on making a deep playoff push, and possibly winning the franchise's first Stanley Cup. That day, however, may still be a few years away.
COACH Ron Wilson (4th season)
LAST SEASON 37-34-11 (10th in East)
KEY ADDITIONS C Tim Connolly, D Cody Franson, D John-Michael Liles
KEY LOSSES C Tim Brent, G Jean-Sébastien Gigu√®re
AS A ROOKIE in 2010--11, James Reimer displayed the demeanor of an angel and the goals-against average of a Devil. He may not be in the class of Martin Brodeur, but Reimer sparkled with a .921 save percentage and a 20-10-5 record. Marvels Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf (below), "He doesn't seem to be fazed by anything."
Not even by Toronto's ugly special teams. The Leafs' wonky power play (22nd in the NHL last year) and penalty kill (28th) remain mysteries. The additions of point man John-Michael Liles, who has scored 54.2% of his career points on the power play, and skilled but brittle center Tim Connolly might help. As for the penalty kill, Wilson says he has "tweaks" in mind.
For a heritage franchise that has not been to the postseason since 2004, the clock is ticking—loudly. After teasing long-suffering fans with a late-season playoff flirtation last spring, Toronto needs something more tangible than a goalie's grin.
COACH Paul MacLean (1st season)
LAST SEASON 32-40-10 (13th in East)
KEY ADDITIONS G Alex Auld, LW Nikita Filatov, C Zenon Konopka
KEY LOSSES D David Hale, RW Ryan Shannon
SINCE ASCENDING to the 2007 final, the Senators have been going the other way. Now Ottawa will go still another way on the power play, at least tactically—and that's a good thing.
The Senators plan to shift defenseman Sergei Gonchar—a cipher last season after he signed a three-year, $16.5 million contract—from the left point to the right, where his lefthanded shot is more comfortable, while center Jason Spezza switches to the right half wall after spending his career on the left. "This'll get Gonch a little more involved, because he's a much better player than he showed," says Spezza, a righthanded shot. "Now I won't be able to shoot a one-timer, so I'll have to do it like the Detroit guys: catch [the puck], protect it on the right side and shoot."
Ottawa's altered scheme is part of the Red Wings--ification of a club coached by former Detroit assistant Paul MacLean. He will be warmer and indisputably fuzzier—MacLean has hockey's best mustache—than his predecessor, the imperious Cory Clouston. And improved coach-player relationships should help almost as much as having a full season of Craig Anderson's calm goaltending and sophomore right wing Bobby Butler, who had 21 points in his last 27 games. But good vibes aside, the Senators are still a quart low on talent.
ON THE VERGE
The Sabres' 5'9", 163-pound dervish is a big-time forward. He had 20 goals as a rookie last year and should score 30 for a club on which pint-sized forwards have thrived.
THE HOT SEAT
The Maple Leafs' bench boss is in the final year of his contract. Although he ranks seventh in career wins and his relationship with G.M. Brian Burke dates to their days at Providence College in the 1970s, Wilson, who has two new assistant coaches, needs a quick start.
Few players fulfill their roles as well as the Bruins' winger. Although slotted as an enforcer—he had 14 fights last year—Thornton also had 10 goals and 10 assists, and was +8 while averaging 10 energetic minutes per game. He rarely takes a foolish penalty.
IN THE CREASE
Look for Patrice Bergeron to assume a bigger leadership role with the Bruins. The 26-year-old center is one of the most respected players in the NHL... . The Sabres' pair of 20-year-old rookies, wingers Marcus Foligno (6'2", 215 pounds) and Zack Kassian (6'3", 214 pounds), will start the season in Rochester but should soon add an imposing physical presence to the Buffalo lineup... . The Senators have four great young players—none older than 21—as their foundation: hulking 6'5", 228-pound defenseman Jared Cowen; speedy and skilled defenseman Erik Karlsson; center Mika Zibanejad, a 2011 first-round pick; and AHL goaltending sensation Robin Lehner.
DAVID E. KLUTHO (THOMAS)
BOSTON BACKBONE Thomas, coming off one of the best seasons in NHL history, will help the Bruins remain among the East's best.
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (GIONTA)
LOU CAPOZZOLA (ENNIS)
REBECCA COOK/REUTERS (PHANEUF)
SCOTT ROVAK/US PRESSWIRE (KARLSSON)