Each week, talented bloggers with team-specific daily blogs will write a short synopsis on the state of the team that they follow. Every week, one of the six NHL divisions will be featured on Illegal Curve, with the cycle continuing in order throughout the remainder of the season.
This week, we are focusing on the Northeast Division. Teams are appearing in the same order as they currently sit in the standings.
1. Boston Bruins–From Cornelius of The Hockey Blogging Adventure:
The Bruins. The first-in-the-division Bruins. The first-in-the-East Bruins. The won-on-Patrick-Roy-night-in-Montreal Bruins. What a crew. Second only to the Sharks in league standing, the Bruins have been on an early-season tear. After a false start of 2-2-3 over the first 7, they’ve gone 17-3-1 over the the last 21 games, during which time they had a 3-game, a 4-game, and 2 5-game winning streaks. The only team that’s allowed fewer goals is Minnesota, and the only teams that have scored more are Detroit and San Jose.
Why is it? Well, look who’s playing well right now: Marc Savard, Phil Kessel, Milan Lucic, Patrice Bergeron, Chuck Kobasew, David Krejci, Blake Wheeler, Manny Fernandez, Tim Thomas, Zdeno Chara, Andrew Ference, Aaron Ward, Matt Hunwick, Dennis Wideman. And that’s just to start. The team is playing OUT OF THEIR MINDS right now, and I know who to thank for that: Claude Julien, Peter Chiarelli, and Cam Neely.
All we need now is for Marco Sturm to come back from his concussion, Aaron Ward to come back from what he’s got, Ference’s leg to un-break, and we’re looking even better. Hunwick has been a fantastic callup so far, to boot. The only Bruins teams to have better starts were the 02-03 Bruins and the 1929-30 Bruins, as far as I know. And the 29-30 Bruins are good company to be in.
10-game home winning streaks don’t hurt.
Of course I don’t want to get too excited about the whole thing because, you know, Buckner.
2. Montreal Canadiens–From Robert of Habs Eyes On The Prize:
Contrary to how the play of certain individuals on the team has looked, the Habs are on pace for a 111 point season. The perception in / and of Montreal is an odd one, where it simply isn’t good enough just to be good enough. In this hockey mad city, the team has to be great and do it with flash and panache. Coach Carbonneau has done solid work in batling the complacency that sometimes sets in on teams whose core has been in place for several seasons.
What has helped the Canadiens best, is that players on the team are pushing for position everywhere one looks. In goal, Carey Price is solidly backed by Jaroslav Halak, a potential starter on many clubs. When Mike Komisarek and Mathieu Dandeneault return from injury, the team can dress as many as 8 NHL calibre D – men on a given night. The forward mix is even more interesting, and the Habs have enough depth up front that Carbonneau can mix and match, and often does, to his hearts content. Rolling four trios while getting contributions from each has been the norm of late for the Canadiens. The team’s depth is also GM Bob Gainey’s best playing card for upgrading the team before the final playoff sprint, as the organization boasts a standout crop of up and comers.
While no one player on the club is enjoying a career year, it is the team balance from top to bottom that make them a serious contender. It’s chameleon nature is also beginning to serve it well. Recent solid wins in Detroit, and over the Rangers and Calgary at home, are further proof that the Canadiens are capable of measuring up to any worthy opponant. The one main disappointment on the season has been the power play. While it continues to produce quality chances when employed, it has failed to hit the mark with any consistency thus far. The team doesn’t seem overly concerned about this, and as a reaction to it has begun to play a more airtight defensive game since Komisarek has gone down. As power plays tend to become less effective come playoff time, learning different methods of winning should pay dividends later in the season. The Canadiens should challenge the Bruins for the Eastern Conference title all the way until game 82.
3. Buffalo Sabres–From D.O. of Die By The Blade:
The best way to describe the Sabres season up until this point would be unpredictable. Predicting the outcome of a Sabres game is about as easy as predicting the lottery. Buffalo began the season 6-0-1 and beat some of the leagues best teams in the process. Since that point the Sabres have struggled to find any continuity. They have been up and down all season with the low point being a five game losing streak in November. They seemed to have things turned around at this point and are currently riding a three game winning streak.
Although the team has been an inconsistent as a whole, Thomas Vanek is off to the best start of his career. Before last season Vanek made headlines when he signed a seven-year $50 million offer sheet with the Edmonton Oilers, that the Sabres later matched. He struggled to live up to expectations last season but he leads the NHL with 22 goals scored this season.
Vanek is leading the team offensively but this season the team has a new dedication to defense. It hasn’t been evident all the time but one player who has made an impact defensively is Toni Lydman. Lydman is far and away the best defensive player on the team and is among the league leaders in blocked shots. Lydman has also led the way physically for the Sabres this season.
A perfect example of the team’s new commitment to defense would be the penalty killing. The penalty killing has been outstanding through 28 games and is currently ranked third in the NHL behind only the Minnesota Wild and the New York Rangers. Along with defense comes goaltending and that seems to be what the Sabres live and die by. Both Ryan Miller and backup Patrick Lalime have played well at times but that same inconsistency has been evident between the pipes.
The Sabres appear to be a team that is capable of making the playoffs but they need to play with more consistency. Darcy Regier is expected to make changes with the team as they get closer to the trade deadline but as per usual he will be extremely patient and search for the right deal.
4. Toronto Maple Leafs–From PPP of Pension Plan Puppets:
The Leafs’ 2008-2009 season thus far has been anything but boring. Interim GM Cliff Fletcher significantly overhauled the roster during the offseason. The lack of understanding combined with the addition of Ron Wilson as coach has been one of the defining problems for the Leafs thus far. While they seem to have improved there power play the penalty kill and defensive system have yet to gel although Wilson did note that it would take until December before we started seeing results. It doesn’t help that Toskala has been the biggest disappointment of the year. Despite a reduced workload he’s still above 3.00 in GAA and below .900 in save percentage.
Not that there haven’t been some pleasant surprises to distract fans from the team’s record (which is rightly secondary) because some of the kids have started to show that the future,while not necessarily blinding, is far from as bleak as most of the local media would have us believe. Mikhail Grabovski leads rookies in goals with 10 and has highlighted the increased team speed. Luke Schenn made the team out of training camp as an 18 year old and looks like he’ll be the anchor on the team’s defence for at least the next decade and a half (knock on wood). Nikolai Kulemin has had some growing pains with the move from the KHL but he’s shown a great scorer’s instinct. Even old hands like Matt Stajan and Nik Antropov are making cases to be considered part of the team’s future.
Of course, the biggest story of the first quarter/third of the season was the confirmation of the worst kept secret in sports: the hiring of Brian Burke as president and GM. Cliff Fletcher did a great job of building a strong management team with the hiring of Joe Nieuwendyk and Al Coates and Burke quickly added Dave Nonis to the group. Obviously a signing of this magnitude will never be received with unanimous consent but there’s no arguing with Burke’s Stanley Cup. Fletcher’s laid the table for him pretty well and we’ve entered Burke’s self-imposed Christmas trade deadline so he’ll have plenty of time to evaluate the Leafs’ scouts, prospects, and every other aspect of the organization. He’ll probably be ready to hit the ground running in 2009 looking to build on Fletcher’s good work including figuring out who to draft with what looks likely to be a top 5 draft pick.
5. Ottawa Senators–From Ben of Sens Army Blog:
The Sens have continued their late-season struggles from last season and are struggling mightily. Martin Gerber began the season labeled the #1 goalie by incoming newbie coach Craig Hartsburg, but quickly gave up the title to off-season acquisition Alex Auld. Auld has been the cornerstone of the team through most of the season so far, performing like one of the top goalies in the league (and his stats reflect that fact).
Except goaltending, everything else is the same old problems with the Sens. Alfredsson-Heatley-Spezza combine for more than 50% of the team’s goals so far this year and secondary scoring is sparce at best. Defence has also been a problem for Ottawa this seaon, while Filip Kuba (acquired from Tampa Bay for Andre Meszaros) has shown a lot of offensive flair, collecting a ton of assists earlier in the season. The overall defence has been pretty bad, out shutdown pair of Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov, as well as Jason Smith have left much to be desired purely in terms of preventing the other team from scoring their +/- ratings are shameful.
It’s safe to say that people in Ottawa are dissappointed with our team so far, but there does seem to be an air of patience around the capital as we figure out what sort of team this is exactly: tough (like Jarkko Ruutu) or stylish? (like Spezza and Heatley). Sens fans are hoping they figure it out soon.
Illegal Curve wants to thank the above bloggers for taking the time to write their pieces for our first State of the Division post. If you haven’t already, take a look at their respective blogs. All of them are extremely well done and informative.