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What key questions face Northeast Division teams?

Sunday, 01.13.2013 / 10:00 AM / 2012-2013 Season Preview

By NHL.com Staff

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What key questions face Northeast Division teams?
What questions does each Northeast Division NHL team need to answer to be successful, and do they have the resources to provide said responses?

The wait for the 2012-13 season is nearly over. What questions do each NHL team need to answer to be successful, and do they have the resources to provide said responses? Well, let's take a division-by-division look at some of the key quandaries for each NHL franchise as the campaign beckons. Next up is the Northeast Division, where four teams continue to chase the Boston Bruins.

Bruins BOSTON BRUINS

The Boston Bruins have some question marks heading into the season, but none are likely of a make-or-break nature for a team that has had a stranglehold on the Northeast Division for the past two years and doesn't appear to be on the verge of relinquishing it. Still, with a new starting goaltender, a sniper returning from injury, a young defenseman attempting to make a big jump to the NHL, and a chronic deficiency still unresolved, the Bruins do have some issues that need to be dealt with.

1. Is Rask ready for Tuukka Time?

The Bruins' ties with Tim Thomas were cut a year earlier than expected when the quirky goaltender informed Boston general manager Peter Chiarelli after the season ended that he would be taking a year off from hockey.

Rask, 25, has been groomed for this moment ever since he was acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2006 for Andrew Raycroft, waiting patiently behind one of the League's top goaltenders for his opportunity to shine. The pressure on Rask to perform at a level approaching what Thomas has given the Bruins the past two seasons will be enormous, so he will need to be just as mentally strong as he is physically to get through it.

2. Can Nathan Horton get back to being the player he once was?

Horton was having one of the best seasons of his career when an illegal hit by the Vancouver Canucks' Aaron Rome (now with the Dallas Stars) in Game 3 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final left him with a concussion. Horton scored 26 goals in the regular season in 2010-11, his first in Boston, and he was a key component of the Bruins' march to the Final.

Last season, Horton, much like his entire team, got off to a slow start with two goals and three assists in his first 12 games. But he was on a good run of eight goals in 11 games when he was hit Jan. 22 by Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Tom Sestito, giving Horton another concussion that cost him the remainder of the season. If he's unable to get back to that level of play, it will leave a big hole among Boston's top six forwards.

3. Can Dougie Hamilton make a seamless jump from junior hockey to the NHL?

The Bruins appear to hope so.

The No. 9 selection at the 2011 NHL Draft had a tremendous 2011-12 season with the Ontario Hockey League's Niagara IceDogs, putting up 72 points in 50 games to be named the Canadian Hockey League's defenseman of the year. He's been dominant in 2012-13 as well, with 41 points in 32 games before representing Canada at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship.

"One of the things that we've accomplished, that [coach] Claude [Julien] has accomplished, is we've brought youth into our lineup and allowed them to develop and succeed rather than throw them into the fire right away and all," Chiarelli told reporters at the Bruins' development camp in July. "Dougie Hamilton, we would hope that he would get into our lineup and fall into that category."

4. How much higher will Tyler Seguin climb this season?

Seguin led the Bruins in scoring last season with 67 points at the age of 20, a jump of 45 points from his rookie year. It would be unreasonable to suggest Seguin's production could increase at a similar rate a second year in a row, but there is very little doubt his point total will continue to climb -- just how high is the question.

Tuukka Rask
Tuukka Rask
Goalie - BOS
RECORD: 11-8-3
GAA: 2.05 | SVP: 0.929
Coming in with some already established chemistry with linemates Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, plus some physical maturity that should help him deal with the rigors of the long NHL season, should help Seguin maintain the production he showed early on last season right through spring.

5. Will the Bruins power play improve?

One of the mysteries surrounding the Bruins the past few seasons has been the relative ineffectiveness of the team's power play. All the pieces are there -- the League's hardest slap shot from the point from Chara, the big body in front of the net with Milan Lucic and Horton, the elite playmaking skill of Seguin, Bergeron and David Krejci, plus a healthy dose of solid role players with enough offensive skill to fill holes in case of injury.

Despite having the necessary ingredients for a potent power play, the Bruins finished 15th in the NHL last season with a 17.2 percent success rate – and that was their highest ranking since finishing fourth in the League in 2008-09.

6. Could a long summer propel the Bruins back into Stanley Cup contention?

Winning back-to-back Stanley Cups has proven to be impossible for any team during the past 14 years, and the Bruins definitely showed the effects of a long playoff run at both the beginning and end of last season.

But with the core elements of their champion team from 2011 still in Boston, and with many of the younger ones having improved since that time, there's little reason to believe the Bruins are not legitimate contenders for hockey's ultimate prize.

-- Arpon Basu

Sabres BUFFALO SABRES

In back-to-back seasons, the Buffalo Sabres have gotten off to a bad start. They were able to overcome it in 2010-11 and make the playoffs but came up three points short last season. Buffalo has made the playoffs twice in the past five seasons and hasn't gotten past the first round since 2007, when the Sabres lost in the Eastern Conference Finals for the second year in a row.

1. Can Ryan Miller return to the form he showed in 2009-10, when he was the best goaltender in the world?

Miller was the MVP at the 2010 Winter Olympics and won the Vezina Trophy four months later. But he hasn't been nearly as good in the past two seasons, though his play improved down the stretch last season after he recovered from an injury, and he nearly carried the Sabres into the playoffs.

The Sabres need Miller to play at an elite level for a full season (as he did in 2009-10) to return to the postseason. A good season from their most important player isn't good enough.

2. Will either (or both) of this year's first-round picks make the team?

The Sabres are desperate for a big center and likely would love for either Mikhail Grigorenko or Zemgus Girgensons to make the roster and fill that hole.

Both players looked good at development camp, and both have enough size to cope with the increased physicality they'll face in the NHL. Grigorenko has 29 goals and 50 points in 30 games for in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, while Girgensons has three goals and seven points in 28 contests in the American Hockey League. Center is the weak link on the roster, so both players figure to get a chance to show they belong.

3. Can Cody Hodgson be the No. 1 center?

Hodgson was buried behind Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler with the Vancouver Canucks before coming to the Sabres at the trade deadline in exchange for Zack Kassian. Hodgson got off to a slow start with Buffalo -- no points in nine games -- then had six points in his next four, enough to demonstrate his skills.

The trade that sent Derek Roy to the Dallas Stars leaves the Sabres without a top-line center, and Hodgson, chosen 10th in the 2008 NHL Draft, figures to get first crack at the job. If he isn't up to the task, the Sabres will have a big hole in their offense.

4. Which Ville Leino will the Sabres see this season -- the 2010 playoff star who earned a six-year, big-money deal from the Sabres, or the one who never got it going in his first season in Buffalo?

Leino had 21 points helping the Philadelphia Flyers get within two wins of the 2010 Stanley Cup and had the winning goal in Game 7 of their opening-round win against the Sabres in 2011, inspiring Buffalo to sign him to a six-year contract last summer. They tried him at center, an experiment that didn't work. His 25 points were less than half of what he produced in his final season with the Flyers.

Ville Leino
Ville Leino
Center - BUF
GOALS: 8 | ASST: 17 | PTS: 25
SOG: 78 | +/-: -2
The Sabres need Leino to rebound to his 2010-11 form and provide the offense they'll miss after trading Roy for forward Steve Ott and defenseman Adam Pardy. But assuming Leino is moved back to wing, it may be hard for him to get top-six ice time on a team that's top-heavy there.

5. Who will be the odd man/men out on defense?

The roster lists nine players capable of being competent (or better) NHL defensemen. Five were regulars in Buffalo last season, and minor-leaguers Brayden McNabb and TJ Brennan showed promise when they were called up during the spate of injuries that decimated the blue line.

The depth on defense opens up trade possibilities for general manager Darcy Regier if he wants to bring in a big-time forward. He could also make a deal to change some of the cast on the blue line because Tyler Myers is the lone right-hand shot.

6. Will the Sabres' makeover into a "tough" team work?

The addition of Ott and enforcer John Scott bring the kind of physicality that hasn't been seen in Western New York for years. Regier wants a change in philosophy, but will that turn the Sabres into a playoff team?

Scott will have to work hard for fourth-line time – he barely played for the New York Rangers after being acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks at the deadline. But Ott is a legit top-nine forward and the type of superpest the Sabres haven't had in years.

-- John Kreiser

Canadiens MONTREAL CANADIENS

The Montreal Canadiens are coming off one of the worst seasons in franchise history, and that alone would suggest the questions facing this club for the upcoming season are numerous. But with new general manager Marc Bergevin, a vastly revamped front office, and a new coaching staff led by Michel Therrien, the potential for questions grows exponentially.

1. Can Andrei Markov still be the Andrei Markov of old?

No player among the Montreal Canadiens' skaters is as important to the team's success as Markov. Reinserting Markov as the team's No. 1 defenseman has a ripple effect on the remainder of the defense.

Markov's impact on the Canadiens' power play is easy to forget because he's been hurt for so long, but he was a major reason why Montreal had a top-five power play in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010. Markov has worked extremely hard to have an opportunity to prove he can still perform at that game-changing level. The Canadiens' chances for success in 2012-13 rest largely on his ability to do just that.

2. Is David Desharnais a legitimate No. 1 center?

Much of the success Desharnais has known at every level of hockey he has played – from major junior to the ECHL to the AHL to the NHL – has been fueled by his desire to prove his doubters wrong. Listed at 5-foot-7, 177 pounds, Desharnais pounced on the opportunity he was given to center Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole to post a 60-point season, 20th among NHL centers.

Desharnais is entering the final year of his contract and the questions regarding his legitimacy as a top-line center will probably remain unless he's able to repeat his performance from last season. Of course, those continued questions may very well be the fuel Desharnais needs to silence them for good.

3. How has Michel Therrien changed from his previous tenure in Montreal?

As popular as the hiring of Marc Bergevin as the team's new general manager appeared to be among the Canadiens fans and media, the rehiring of Therrien as coach was met with a chorus of indignation. In his two NHL head coaching stints, Therrien has proven an ability to have a positive impact on a struggling club.

But Therrien's history in Montreal will make it so a rough start to the season – or even a little slump at some point – could shine a bright spotlight on the coach. His ability to handle the inevitable firestorm over any swoon the team may experience will be very telling as to the ability of Therrien version 2.0 to handle the Montreal market.

4. How much can the team's young stars improve?

While Markov is an extremely important piece of the puzzle, the Canadiens are being built around Carey Price in goal, P.K. Subban on defense and Max Pacioretty at forward. Price, who signed a six-year, $39 million contract extension July 2, finished 20th last season in save percentage at .916 and 18th in goals-against average at 2.43, but on many nights he was the only thing separating a one-goal Canadiens loss from an embarrassing blowout. With the possibility of a more structured team in front of him, there's no reason to believe Price won't improve -- even though the pressure to do so will be enormous.

Andrei Markov
Andrei Markov
Defense - MTL
GOALS: 0 | ASST: 3 | PTS: 3
SOG: 17 | +/-: -4
Subban's entry into the NHL has been very impressive, but the 23-year-old also been the target of a lot of criticism for the way he plays the game, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Pacioretty, also 23, led the Canadiens in scoring with 65 points and showed he is ready to emerge as one of the NHL's top power forwards, but the pressure is on him to repeat last season's performance.

5. Will the Canadiens' underachievers turn it around?

The Canadiens need a lot more from Rene Bourque, who scored 27 goals in back-to-back seasons with the Calgary Flames in 2009-10 and 2010-11, but never found his niche in Montreal after a Jan. 12 trade to the Canadiens. Though Bourque has been a target for criticism for his lack of consistency and unwillingness to effectively use his physical gifts, he is far from done at age 30 and could benefit from having a full season with the Canadiens to bounce back and put up similar numbers to his two previous years in Calgary.
 
Scott Gomez, the team's highest-paid player, would have been a comeback candidate after he produced just 11 points in 38 games of an injury-riddled season, but the Canadiens have opted to send him home with the intention of buying him out next summer. Bergevin says Gome won't be permitted to play anywhere because the buyout could not take place if he suffered a long-term injury.

6. How much tougher will the Canadiens be?

A consistent criticism of the Canadiens over the past few years has been their lack of size and physicality. Bergevin clearly felt the same way.

The addition of Brandon Prust coupled with the re-signings of Travis Moen and Ryan White gives the Canadiens three forwards who aren't afraid to drop the gloves. Free-agent acquisitions Colby Armstrong at forward and Francis Bouillon on defense are also tough customers in the sense that they play a physical game, but both have a history of injuries as a result of that style of play.

-- Arpon Basu

Senators OTTAWA SENATORS

The Ottawa Senators enter this season as an incumbent playoff team after having fast-tracked a turnaround from a 13th-place finish in the Eastern Conference in 2010-11 to nab the eighth spot in the East last spring. But unexpected performances can sometimes lead to unreasonably heightened expectations, and they mean the Senators will not be sneaking up on any opponents this season.

1. Can the Senators maintain last season's momentum?

That's hard to say, because practically the entire Senators season was driven by streaks right up to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, when they dropped two of the first three games in the first round against the New York Rangers after finishing the regular season with three straight losses. If the season were mapped out on a line graph, it would look like the Rocky Mountains.

General manager Bryan Murray would like to see his club avoid a similarly hot and cold path this season, and he thinks increased maturity from his young players can help in that regard. If the Senators are able to come out of their losing spells quicker and maintain the emotional highs of their winning streaks as well as last season, a climb up the standings is definitely possible.

2. What can Erik Karlsson do for an encore?

The improvement Karlsson showed in his third NHL season was simply staggering, and he capped it by winning the Norris Trophy as the League's best defenseman just a few weeks after his 22nd birthday. While that may be a frightening thought for the rest of the NHL, one look at Karlsson's performance in the playoffs shows where there may be room for improvement.

The Rangers decided to target Karlsson physically at every opportunity, finishing every check and sending a forward to slow him down as soon as he got the puck. On the power play, Karlsson was closely shadowed and had a man in his face on the point at all times, forcing him to get rid of the puck. Karlsson will likely see similar tactics deployed against him throughout the regular season from now on, but Murray feels the strides made last season in terms of maturity will allow Karlsson to make adjustments and create opportunities for teammates when he is being checked so closely.

3. Can the Senators improve defensively?

Ottawa finished 24th in the NHL in goals against per game (2.88), 29th in shots against per game (32), and 20th on the penalty kill (81.6 percent) last season. Karlsson's defense partner Filip Kuba accepted a two-year, $8 million contract from the Florida Panthers -- a dollar figure Murray said he was unable to match -- so he traded restricted free agent forward Nick Foligno to the Columbus Blue Jackets for rugged Marc Methot and signed Mike Lundin to a one-year, $1.15 million contract to fill out his top-six and replace departed free agents Matt Carkner and Matt Gilroy.

Lundin has a broken finger and could be out up to a month. The Senators will also be without Jared Cowen, the No. 9 pick in the 2009 draft, who is out for the season after hip surgery. Mark Borowieczki and Patrick Wiercioch -- two standouts in the American Hockey League with Binghamton last season -- could battle for a spot in training camp.

4. Are the kids ready for the big stage?

There could be three high-end forward prospects battling for spots on the club. Mika Zibanejad, the No. 6 pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, received a nine-game audition last fall before being sent back to Djurgardens of the Swedish Elite League.

Erik Karlsson
Erik Karlsson
Defense - OTT
GOALS: 19 | ASST: 59 | PTS: 78
SOG: 261 | +/-: 16
Countryman Jakob Silfverberg, a second-round pick in 2009, and 2010 sixth-round pick Mark Stone will battle for a potential spot on Ottawa's top line with Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek. Both Silfverberg and Stone saw action in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, suggesting they may possibly have a leg up in training camp.

5. Can Guillaume Latendresse stay healthy and provide the Senators with enough offense to replace Nick Foligno?

To help replace Foligno's 47 points, Murray took a chance on oft-injured Guillaume Latendresse with a one-year, bonus-laden contract with a base salary of $1.15 million. Latendresse, 25, showed what kind of offensive potential he had, scoring 25 goals in 55 games with the Minnesota Wild in 2009-10, but that marked the start of a horrible run of injuries that included a groin issue that cost him 58 games, a hip injury that sidelined him for another 14 games, and finally concussion-related problems that kept him out of all but 16 games last season.

Latendresse received a clean bill of health prior to signing with Ottawa, and he hopes he can put his medical problems behind him for good. Murray said Latendresse is likely to start the season alongside Kyle Turris and Daniel Alfredsson on Ottawa's second line, meaning he should get an opportunity to produce. Now he just needs to stay healthy.

6. Who will be the backup goalie, and how much will he play?

The Senators have two high-end goaltending prospects -- Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop -- who will be battling in training camp for the right to back up starter Craig Anderson. Lehner has been the better of the two for Binghamton in the AHL this season, with a .944 save percentage and 1.94 goals against average, but Bishop is older and has slightly more NHL experience.

When healthy, Anderson appeared in 61 of Ottawa's 70 games, but that number should be reduced with a promising, young goaltender behind him instead of journeyman Alex Auld.

-- Arpon Basu

Maple Leafs TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

When a team hasn't reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs in seven years, there are always going to be more questions than answers surrounding the club. That's the case for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who, thanks to the Florida Panthers qualifying for the playoffs last season, have the longest current drought in the NHL. The Leafs haven't had more than 85 points in a season since 2007-08 and enter the season coached by Randy Carlyle, who took over in March.

1. Who will be the Leafs' opening-night goalie?

As things stand now, James Reimer will be the man between the pipes with Ben Scrivens as the backup. But it's possible the Leafs could make a deal for a new No. 1 goaltender.

The Leafs reportedly have been interested in swinging a deal for the Canucks' Roberto Luongo, who would immediately become the unquestioned No. 1 goaltender. Another name has been mentioned in reports involving the Leafs -- the Los Angeles Kings' Jonathan Bernier. Reimer not only has to deal with the pressure of playing in a hockey-mad market starved for a winner, but near-daily rumors that Toronto will add someone to replace him.

2. Will JVR fit in the middle?

There's no denying the 23-year-old and second pick of the 2007 NHL Draft has loads of potential, but how James van Riemsdyk acclimates himself will go a long way toward determining the Leafs' success this season. Van Riemsdyk played almost exclusively on the wing with the Flyers, a team that has plenty of depth down the middle.

Though the Leafs could use help at center, Carlyle said he would start van Riemsdyk at wing during training camp. At center, the Leafs could have a deadly top line with Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul and van Riemsdyk. But the Leafs might spend another season looking for a top-line pivot.

3. How will the young players progress?

The Leafs have plenty of youth in the organization, and now wouldn't be a bad time for those players to start realizing their potential. Nazem Kadri, 21, was the seventh pick of the 2009 NHL Draft, but hasn't been able to stick with the big club in two stints the past two seasons. Matt Frattin, 24, had eight goals and seven assists in 51 games last season with the Leafs, his first extended time in the NHL.

Jake Gardiner, 21, looked like a seasoned pro as a rookie last season with seven goals and 30 points in 75 games. Sometimes defensemen regress in their second seasons after solid rookie years (examples include Tyler Myers of the Buffalo Sabres and Michael Del Zotto of the New York Rangers) so Gardiner, who missed almost a month with concussion symptoms while in the AHL this season, will need to avoid that if the Leafs are to improve.

4. How can the PK improve?

Only two teams were worse at killing penalties last season than the Leafs -- the Columbus Blue Jackets and San Jose Sharks. Recently  fired GM Brian Burke addressed the issue in free agency by signing forward Jay McClement, but it will take more than one forward to remedy all of the Leafs' shorthanded problems.

James van Riemsdyk
James van Riemsdyk
Left Wing - TOR
GOALS: 11 | ASST: 13 | PTS: 24
SOG: 121 | +/-: -1
Improvement from the Leafs' goaltenders in shorthanded situations couldn't hurt either. Reimer ranked 75th out of 89 eligible goaltenders in shorthanded save percentage last season at .808. Luongo posted an .870 save percentage in the same category.

5. Will the defense be any better?

Penalty killing wasn't the only way the Leafs were getting burned defensively -- they were also one of the worst teams at 5-on-5 as well. The Leafs allowed 182 goals at 5-on-5, the second-worst total in the League, and 189 overall at even strength.

With little roster turnover and Reimer still the team's No. 1 goaltender (for now), a defensive turnaround will likely have to stem from a change in philosophy. In Carlyle's 18 games as coach, the Leafs allowed 61 goals. Some of that had to do with the coach installing a new system midstream, but that won't be an available excuse this season.

6. How does hiring Dave Nonis affect this team?

As it stands now, this is still Burke's roster. These are the players he signed, acquired, drafted or inherited but kept on the club during his four years as general manager. With Nonis taking over so close to the start of the season, will he tinker with the club by making a deal? Will he make a blockbuster trade and acquire Roberto Luongo from the Vancouver Canucks? No job ever is completely safe in the NHL, but there's likely an uneasy feeling for some of the players -- and perhaps Carlyle -- in that locker room after this shift in power.

Should the Leafs find themselves out of playoff contention for an eighth straight season near the trade deadline, Nonis could look to make over the roster. But if the Leafs get off to a hot start in a shortened season, he could wait until the offseason to make any big decisions. The next 3-4 months will go a long way toward deciding the future of the franchise.

-- Dave Lozo

Quote of the Day

It was the look in his eyes. Hockey is the most important thing in his life. He wants to be a hockey player, and nothing's going to stop him from being a hockey player.

— Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin on forward Alex Galchenyuk's potential