Continuing with our previews of the divisions, we posed some questions to some of the Northeast Division bloggers – David Oleksy from Die By The Blade (Buffalo Sabres), Chris Topham from Lions In Winter (Montreal Canadiens) and The Wonderful World of Loser Domi (Toronto Maple Leafs). Here are their responses:
1. What was the biggest improvement your team has made for the upcoming season?
Die By The Blade: The biggest improvement the Sabres made might be mental as opposed to any specific move. The Sabres noticed that the game has become more physical than it was immediately following the lockout, because of that they went out and added toughness. There moves were minor, signing Steve Montador and Mike Grier but it gives the team a brand new mentality. Although the moves were essentially cosmetic they are expected to be a tougher team and a team that will grind it out in the corners. It has been evident in Pre-Season that players like Clarke MacArthur, Drew Stafford and Thomas Vanek have been more physical on the puck and in tight spots.
Lions In Winter: The biggest improvement to the team has been the complete overhaul of the coaching staff. Regardless of what you think of Jacques Martin, the fact he even has a strategy in mind is a step forward. Just today, evidence that the Candiens strength coach (a weak member of the old greater coaching staff) wasn’t conveying just how important fitness was. Jacques Martin sounded concerned as he said it might take a year to get this team into proper shape.
Loser Domi: One of the more noticeable improvements on the Leafs has, of course, been the addition of truculence and grittiness. I like this because even if the Leafs don’t win, I think they will be harder to play. Other teams won’t just walk over them as they have in seasons past. It should be interesting to watch.
2. Who (or what) has been the biggest surprise – good or bad – this preseason?
Die By The Blade: The biggest surprise in the pre-season has been the play of rookies Nathan Gerbe and Tim Kennedy. Both players looked good and figure to be a key part of the Sabres in the very near future. Nathan Gerbe was sent to Portland on the last round of cuts but Tim Kennedy made the roster and is expected to be in the lineup when the Sabres face the Canadiens on Saturday night.
Lions In Winter: There weren’t really any otherworldly pleasant surprises for me. Brian Gionta did alright, and Ryan O’Byrne was decent. But the most surprising thing was how team vets who should be driven and inspired by all the changes mailed in the camp. It was an unpleasant surprise really, despite the wins.
Loser Domi: First, I’ll start with the positive. Viktor Stalberg and Jonas Gustavsson were very pleasant surprises (to say the least) coming out of preseason. I know that Stalberg is apparently going to appear on opeing night, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more of Gustavsson (see the bad)
The bad: most noticeably, Vesa Toskala. While he’s not the only one who crapped the bed in a loss to the Buffalo Sabres, he was the most noticeable. He did have surgery in the off season and apparently he’s taking longer to get back into game form than anticipated. It’s possible that he’s not ready mentally to prove he deserves the job, or maybe he saw shiny objects and got distracted. I don’t know.
3. How would you rank your team compared to the other teams in the Northeast Division? (i.e. Where do you expect your team to finish and why?)
Die By The Blade: The Sabres were primed to be a playoff team last year until they lost Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller. This season they are going to surprise a lot of people that are giving the team no chance to win. I expect the Sabres to finish second in the Norteast Division behind the Boston Bruins. Behind the Bruins and Sabres I expect it to be Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa.
Lions In Winter: In the Northeast, we are second best I think. Simply by virtue of having a goaltending team we didn’t get via mail order and a defensive squad that has some experience. Of course the division is tight, but it seems just as likely to me that Boston fail as Buffalo overtake us, so I’m comfortable with second. Unfortunately for all of us, the division had a pretty weak build up year to be followed by a weak summer. No one here is contending with the Caps, Pens, Canes or even Flyers. if Gaborik stays healthy and NJ respond to Lemaire again, it could be a quiet spring for the Northeast.
Loser Domi: Toronto is in a very odd place. Unlike a lot of other people, I’m not totally on the PLAYOFFS!!1 train just yet. I can’t say that Toronto will definitely make or miss the playoffs. They’re in that weird place where they either just make the playoffs or they just miss them. All in all, it should be a fun team to watch. And GO LEAFS GO!
As for the Sens and Bruins, let me just add a couple of personal thoughts:
I’m not sure the Sens have benefited at all from the Dany Heatley deal. Getting Milan Michalek is nice, but he’s not nearly as dominant a player as Heatley was. I’m not convinced Jonathan Cheechoo can return to his Rocket Richard form. They’re also relying on the young kid Karlsson, who pushed previously, highly-touted prospect Brian Lee down to the farm. You can argue that they’re a bit better in goal with Pascal Leclaire, but Leclaire followed up his career 2007/2008 season with an injury-filled 2008/2009 season.
The Bruins have their share of question marks as well. They’re my pick to win the Northeast Division, but that’s assuming David Krejci’s and Tim Thomas’ seasons weren’t flukes, that a full season from Mark Recchi and Marco Sturm and continuous improvement from Blake Wheeler and Milan Lucic can help offset the loss of Phil Kessel, and that Derek Morris can return to his pre-Phoenix Coyotes form.