The rest of the Northeast Division continues to chase the Boston Bruins at the head of the pack, and the first step in closing that gap may come at the 2012 NHL Draft.
For the past two years the Bruins have had the rare blessing of being an elite team while also holding top-10 picks in the draft, courtesy of the trade that sent Phil Kessel from Boston to Toronto in 2009.
The Bruins used the picks they received from Toronto in exchange for Kessel to draft center Tyler Seguin with the second pick and right wing Jared Knight with the 32nd choice in 2010, and then took defenseman Dougie Hamilton with the ninth selection overall in 2011. That infusion of young talent greatly strengthened the team's future even while the Bruins remained among the League's elite.
This year, however, the Bruins don't select until the 24th choice in the first round and don't have another selection until the third round (No. 85). Assuming there's no change to the current draft order, by the time Boston makes its third selection (No. 145), the Buffalo Sabres and Montreal Canadiens will have each drafted six players and the Ottawa Senators will have chosen five.
The Maple Leafs, meanwhile, currently match the Bruins' number of three picks in the first five rounds.
So while the fruits of this year's crop may take some time to ripen, we could be witnessing the first steps towards a changing of the guard in the Northeast Division at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh on June 22-23.
Here's a look at the five Northeast Division teams as they prepare for the draft:
(No. 3 overall)
The Canadiens had one of the worst seasons in the history of the franchise, resulting in a complete makeover of the team's management and coaching staff. One of the few people to survive the purge, was the team's director of amateur scouting, Trevor Timmins -- and his team's misfortune has given him the strongest hand he's had to work with since he began overseeing the Canadiens' draft in 2003.
The Canadiens have not had a selection this high since they owned the first pick in 1980, and the pressure is on Timmins and his staff to hit a home run. While the Canadiens have a number of young players filling key roles on the big club, their prospect pool is not very deep -- something Timmins can begin to address with four picks in the top 64.
Strengths: The Canadiens' future in goal and on defense appears to be quite bright. Carey Price turns 25 in August and looks to be the franchise goalie for the foreseeable future. On defense, P.K. Subban is developing into a solid puck mover while Alexei Emelin and Josh Gorges are still young and provide strong defensive play. The team's last two first-round picks, defensemen Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu, both will turn pro this season and could be as little as a year away from entering the NHL.
Weaknesses: The forwards – particularly the centers – are a problem. Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Lars Eller are young and already with the big club, while 2009 first-rounder Louis Leblanc played 42 games in his first pro season when injuries forced the Canadiens to rush him to the NHL. Montreal has a handful of intriguing forward prospects, but no one who is a sure-fire top-six at the NHL level.
Biggest need: Size, and lots of it, up front. In an ideal world the Canadiens would nab a big center, but generally speaking the team needs to bulk up its forward core.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
(No. 5 overall)
The Leafs had a near-historic slide from a playoff spot to finish the season 26th overall, marking the fifth straight year they have finished in the bottom 10 of the League. However, this is the first time since 2009 the Leafs will benefit from their misfortune with a high draft pick, as they've been forced to watch their division rivals from Boston using their high draft picks in each of the past two years.
The Maple Leafs do have a strong prospect base -- their AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies, reached the Calder Cup final this season. Whoever the Leafs select with the fifth pick will become the team's brightest prospect, but the group behind him will be deep and getting closer to helping the Leafs snap a playoff drought that dates to 2004.
Strengths: Some shrewd trades by general manager Brian Burke have allowed the Leafs to restock the prospect cupboard on the fly and build depth across all positions. Burke acquired big forwards Joe Colborne from Boston and Carter Ashton from Tampa Bay, and he also moved up in last year's draft to select hulking forward Tyler Biggs in the first round. 2009 first-rounder Nazem Kadri remains the team's most talented forward prospect. Another Burke trade landed talented young defenseman Jake Gardiner, while James Reimer and Ben Scrivens appear to be the future in goal, barring a major trade for a goaltender.
Weaknesses: While the depth is strong, the Maple Leafs lack a prospect with superstar potential anywhere in their system, a deficiency Burke will surely look to rectify with the No. 5 pick. While both Reimer and Scrivens are young and talented, there is no guarantee either will turn into a top-flight No. 1 goalie.
Biggest need: Star power, something that potentially could be available at the No. 5 spot. Kadri has shown flashes of brilliance since he was taken seventh overall three years ago, but his ceiling has yet to be established, and it risks being lower than that of a top-line wing. The same thing applies for Colborne; he has a tantalizing combination of size and skill, but has yet to show that he will be able to use it to its potential.
(No. 12 overall, No. 21 from Nashville)
The Sabres just missed out on a playoff berth last season, but it appears as though GM Darcy Regier has begun reshaping his team on the fly. The late-season trade with Vancouver that saw Cody Hodgson land in Buffalo in exchange for big, tough forward Zack Kassian brought in a talented young center who one day could displace Derek Roy on the Sabres' top line.
The Buffalo system has added some very interesting pieces through the draft over the past few years, and this year's draft can bring in the biggest haul yet. The Sabres have two selections in the first round – their own at No. 12 and the No. 21 (via Nashville in the Paul Gaustad trade) – and two more in the second round at No. 42 and 44. To put that in perspective within the division, the Sabres will have selected four players by the time Boston and Ottawa get to make their second selection.
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Strengths: The Sabres have some high-end talent coming down the pipe, particularly on defense with Mark Pysyk of the Edmonton Oil Kings and Brayden McNabb, who made his NHL debut last season. Those two are obviously in addition to the young defensemen on the NHL roster in Tyler Myers and Andrej Sekera.
Weaknesses: With the loss of Kassian, the Sabres lost an asset that they already had in short supply – size up front. Prospect Joel Armia, taken in the first round last year, looks like he might fill that void, and Marcus Foligno made some big strides with the NHL club last season as well.
Biggest need: With two of the top young forwards on the Sabres being Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe, Buffalo could use some bulk up front, particularly among the top-six forwards. Luke Adam is a promising option up front, but aside from Armia there is not much in terms of skilled forwards with big bodies on the horizon.
(No. 15 overall)
The Senators enter this year's draft in a far different position than at the same time a year ago. Having badly missed the playoffs and sold off key veterans Mike Fisher and Chris Kelly for draft picks at the trade deadline, GM Bryan Murray entered the 2011 draft looking to embark on a long rebuilding plan.
Ultimately, it didn't take that long as the Senators were one of the League's biggest surprises, qualifying for the playoffs and pushing the top-seeded New York Rangers to a seventh game in round one. The Senators don't have nearly as many draft picks this year, but their system is sufficiently stocked with prospects, making that less of an issue.
Strengths: The Senators have youth at every position, both with the big club and in the system. Defenseman Erik Karlsson is a Norris Trophy candidate who's coming off his entry-level contract, while fellow defenseman Jared Cowen had a very promising first season in Ottawa. Up front, last year's top pick Mika Zibanejad nearly made the club out of training camp before being sent back to Sweden after playing nine games in Ottawa, while Matt Puempel and Stefan Noesen are on their way. That's in addition to youngsters Kyle Turris, Nick Foligno, Colin Greening and Zack Smith who played big roles with the Senators last season. In goal, the Senators boast Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop, who will compete for the right to back up Craig Anderson this season.
Weaknesses: In terms of young players, the Senators don't particularly have any weaknesses -- there's a good level of promising young players sprinkled everywhere. The depth on defense in the system could use a bit of a boost.
Biggest need: The Senators will need to fill some holes on defense very soon. Filip Kuba is an unrestricted free agent, Sergei Gonchar is entering the final year of his contract and Chris Phillips has two years left on his deal. Ottawa needs to find some players to replace these veterans in the coming years. Luckily for the Senators, this draft is stacked with defensemen.
(No. 24 overall)
The Bruins are poised to be among the NHL's best teams for years to come, with a young starting goaltender in Tuukka Rask, a perennial Norris Trophy contender in Zdeno Chara showing no signs of slowing down, and a core group of forwards who have yet to hit the age of 27 in Tyler Seguin, Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic, Nathan Horton, David Krejci.
Boston has just five picks in this draft -- just one in the top 84 -- so there shouldn't be much help coming from this year's class. Luckily for the Bruins, they don't particularly need it.
Strengths: The strength of the Bruins is already in Boston with their young forwards, but the biggest boost coming this season is the potential arrival of Hamilton, last year's top pick. Should Hamilton make the club, he will have a chance to learn his trade under the watchful eye of Chara, and his development could make the Bruins defense much stronger in a hurry.
Biggest need: A general influx of talent to the prospect pool is needed, as the forwards in the pipeline lack star power and the defensemen in the system drops off greatly after Hamilton.
Potential targets: Slater Koekkoek, D, Peterborough (OHL); Hampus Lindholm, D, Rogle Jr. (Sweden-Jr.); Stefan Matteau, LW, USA U-18 (USHL); Brendan Gaunce, C, Belleville (OHL); Brady Skjei, D, USA U-18 (USHL).