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Familiar foes: Northeast Division for the 2011-2012 season

July 30, 2011

Men who never fight, nor should ever fight, fighting.

You play a team six times a year, every year, and you get to know them pretty well. In the Northeast Division, a division that consists of three Original Six franchises and three Canadians franchises, and basks in the glow of well-followed teams and loving audiences, the tension only runs higher. Clustered tightly together, they’re a special division.

And one that will be quite different in the upcoming season, when compared with the last. With the exception of the Bruins and the Canadiens, the four other clubs will have a different look, feel and even an altogether different payroll.

Bruins: Same club, a few new parts. Simple. Pouliot has left his Habs for the Bruins, whilst Caron and Spooner may make runs for the line-up. They’ll have that slight hangover I’ve mentioned before, but it’s clear they’ll be the darlings of their division.

Canadiens: Hamrlik’s gone, Erik Cole is in, not a lot though has changed. PK Subban could be even more feisty in his sophomore campaign. These playoffs demonstrated once again that the Habs have a dynamic collection of players that accelerate on the the power-play and penalty kill. They’re a team that is capable of lock-down defense and up-tempo offense, all at once. They’re transition game has always been strong. Nothing about that has changed. Carey Price will be coming off of an incredibly strong playoff performance, despite bowing out in the first round. I dare say not a lot of pucks will be allowed in as long as he’s in net. The upside there is great and the gamble to trade Halak only looks more brilliant by the day.

Senators: The biggest question marks are here. After gutting their roster at the end of the season, shipping out salary, the core of this team has shifted. There’s face-of-the-franchise Alfredsson, who should be back from injury, and the ever unknown Spezza. Karlsson in the rear, and some questionable coverage in net. But this is also a team that collected three first-round draft picks this year. Will any crack the line? Mika Zibanejad is a possibility, but even a somewhat remote possibility at that. They could be poised to be another lottery team. But their 2010-2011 went from bad to worse quickly, and with a new coach and a healthy Alfredsson, though in his twilight, they may be competing again.

Sabres: What a difference a summer makes. Christian Ehrhoff, Ville Leino! Oh my. How the Sabres have changed under Terry Pegula. The truth is, the Sabres have always had a great squad. Other than Miller and perhaps Vanek, there hasn’t been a player that’s stood out in recent years. But the Sabres have managed to roll out a gritty product for the last several years, one that wins collectively, dies collectively. Yes, Miller has been all-world in net, but Gerbe and Ennis’s speed and slipperiness have been nothing to sneeze at. Their defense has been weaker than most, but Tyler Myers has developed nicely. They have been a well-coached, tough team. Their new additions will only bolster that. They gave the Flyers a run for their money in the first round this year, and I think they could give many an Eastern Conference squad some real trouble next playoffs.

Maple Leafs: Ah, the Leafs. Tom Connolly, a former Sabre, will be the biggest change to the team, providing the Leafs with a much needed center and some more scoring. But that’s about it. The controversial Nazem Kadri will challenge for a slot and Joe Colborne will likely spend more time with the Marlies, but could wind up with the big club. Lombardi adds some complexity. James Reimer is a big “if.” He wasn’t lights-out, but was impressive in the closing games of the 2010-2011 season. If he’s able to repeat that, time will tell. Will Kessel finally realize his potential? Will he finally haunt the Bruins and gain some payback in a trade that only seemed more lopsided with the acquisition of Dougie Hamilton in the draft?

Sure, there’s a lot of talking of changing the division system. It’s probably warranted, and it’s probably due for revamping. But I think the rivalries and match-ups in the Northeast Division are a gold-standard for the league, perhaps only rivaled by the Central Division in the West, or the Atlantic in the East. The familiarity of the clubs breeds animosity and great play. The fact they’re down to the wire in terms of playoff seeding intensifies matters only more. I like the Northeast, and I hope it retains its form when alterations are made.

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