The Bear Cave

August 2, 2009 8:56 AM

Bruins Remain Strong in Northeast Division

August has now arrived, meaning the National Hockey League is one month into the season of free agency. After a few thrilling days full of movement at the beginning, teams began to slow down drastically in the final weeks of July. Teams such as the Boston Bruins are on the verge of being finished with free agency, while other clubs are waiting for certain players to drop their price tags.

Over the next month or so, there should be a decent amount of signings. However, those signings will likely be spread out, as it seems like most of the teams are deciding who will earn their final roster spots. Big names may be a part of the mix here and there, but the contracts will be far from the high side with next season's anticipated drop in the salary cap.

With things beginning to settle down, now is a good time to check and see how the Boston Bruins are stacking up with the rest of the teams in the Northeast Division. Last season, the Bruins took home the division title by 23 points over the Montreal Canadiens, officially locking up the crown in late March.

As far as the fans and the media are concerned, the main focus of the offseason has and will continue to be Phil Kessel. Kessel and the Bruins have yet to agree on a deal, and are reportedly miles away from being close. The 21-year old is expected to miss the beginning of the regular season after recovering from surgery, meaning there could be more time to get a deal done.

Kessel or not, Boston has had a successful offseason to this point. PJ Axelsson, Stephane Yelle, Aaron Ward, Steve Montador, Shane Hnidy and Manny Fernandez are departing, but Derek Morris and Steve Begin will be welcome additions to one of the best clubs in the Eastern Conference. Some fans argue that the Bruins haven't done much. However, this is a team that has six players coming off of seasons with 20-or-more goals, a starting goaltender that won the Vezina Trophy, and a solid defense that made an upgrade. Superstars are great, but as a whole, the Bruins are a strong team that can win without them.

Moving on, the team making the most news in the Northeast Divsion has been the Montreal Canadiens. Montreal's roster was full of free agents at the end of June, leading most to believe that a busy offseason was in store. Some followers expected a bit of a rebuilding year for the Canadiens, but that is clearly not in mind, as Montreal has hit the market hard. At the moment, the Habs are at plus-2, losing four players to other clubs, while going out and bringing six new faces to the oldest franchise in the NHL. The six new players are: Mike Cammalleri, Hal Gill, Brian Gionta, Paul Mara, Travis Moen, and Jaroslav Spacek. The four former Canadiens are: Saku Koivu, Mike Komisarek, Tom Kostopoulos, and Alex Kovalev. Kyle Chipchura, Guillaume Latendresse, and Tomas Plekanec have all re-signed with Montreal, while the likes of Francis Bouillion, Robert Lang, Mathieu Schneider, and Alex Tanguay are still on the market.

So far, I believe that the Canadiens have improved. On the negative side, Kovalev was inconsistent and Koivu has declined with age. Kostopoulos was solid, but not overpowering, and Komisarek was basically a one-way defenseman. With Cammalleri and Gionta (as well as the trade for Scott Gomez), Montreal has three players it can depend on to lead the team offensively. Spacek is one of the better two-way defensemen around, while all three blueliners bring experience to the table. Moen will serve as a disciplined, but physical forward, which is something that the Canadiens have been lacking in previous seasons. That being said, size will still be their downfall, as Cammalleri, Gionta, and Gomez are all under six feet. Dangling is great, but they will certainly take some punishment from the larger defenders in the league.

The Northeast Division's third place team in 2008-09 was the Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres didn't waste much time in getting their name heard, signing Steve Montador and losing Jaroslav Spacek within the first few hours of free agency. Since then, things have been quiet in Buffalo, as Joe DiPenta and Cody McCormick are the only other new members of the team. Clarke MacArthur, Patrick Kaleta, and Andrej Sekera have all re-signed, but Maxim Afinogenov, Teppo Numminen, Drew Stafford, and others are still waiting for contracts.

Personally, I am not a fan Buffalo's direction. The Sabres barely missed out on the playoffs last year, meaning that their team was decent, but not all that special. Montador and DiPenta are nice depth signings for the blueline, but who is going ro replace Spacek as the top defenseman? Nathan Gerbe and Tim Kennedy should serve as two exciting prospects from the AHL, but the Sabres need to hit the market. The elite teams in the conference are still there, and the average teams are becoming more and more competitive. If Buffalo expects to make a run at a playoff spot, it's time for some serious action.

After an ugly start to the season, the Ottawa Senators had a much better second half of the season under interim coach Cory Clouston. Although the Senators failed to make the playoffs, there is a positive outlook on the future. The major headline in Ottawa this summer has been Dany Heatley, and where he will be playing next season. When free agency began, Heatley rejected a trade to the Edmonton Oilers. For the most part, that has been the extent of the trade talks. In terms of free agency, the Senators have almost been silent. Alex Kovalev has come in, Brendan Bell has left to become a member of the St. Louis Blues, and Chris Neil re-signed for four years and $8 million. That's it. Ottawa's two biggest remaining free agents are Mike Comrie and Brian Elliott.

Based on their finish last year, the Senators should be in for a better run in 2009-10. At this point, it is tough to say where they will finish, but I do anticipate that they will at least make a push for one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. Heatley's status will have a drastic impact, as his $7.5 million cap hit could create room to sign one or two significant players. That could be important, as Ottawa struggled on the offensive end. However, for me, Elliott is the most important piece to this puzzle, as the Senators need someone they can depend on between the pipes. The 24-year old went 16-8-3 in 31 appearances at the NHL level, and is deserving of a chance to be the number one.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have to be one of the most interesting teams in the NHL. Most people wrote the Maple Leafs off as one of the worst teams in the Eastern Conference a year ago. Although the club did finish in 12th place with a mere 81 points, this was a group of players that left everything they had on the ice. Brian Burke's goal during this offseason appears to be improving his blueline. One of Toronto's weaknesses from last season was a league-high 293 goals allowed. Francois Beauchemin and Mike Komisarek have been brought in from Anaheim and Montreal, adding toughness and two-way play to the team. The Maple Leafs also signed Colton Orr and Jonas Gustavsson, while re-signing Mikhail Grabovski. Toronto's list of free agents isn't all that impressive, as the majority of the players would be used to fill out rosters as third and fourth liners.

In all honesty, I'm not sure what to think of Toronto at this point. They seem to be headed in the right direction with drafts and free agency, but this is still a young club with a lot to prove. My gut feeling tells me not to expect much, but I look at who is running the show, and I see a proven winner out of Burke. The Maple Leafs might make one or two more moves, but they are also dealing with the salary cap.

Depending on what happens in the next month or so, fans around Boston should be feeling satisfied. The Bruins will have a strong team once again, and so far stand as favorites to repeat as Northeast Division Champions. The Canadiens are interesting, and we'll see how chemistry and a pile of new faces affects their approach on the ice. Ottawa and Toronto look to be in better shape, but still appear to be a few years away from being serious contenders, while the Sabres need to wake up fast.

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