- E.J. Hradek, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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Last Season: 47–25–10
Coach: Guy Carbonneau
GM Bob Gainey couldn't entice FA Mats Sundin to join the Canadiens' lineup over the summer. Tough break, but let's be frank: It's not about to keep the Northeast's defending champs out of the Cup mix. Start with the league's top PP and second-highest goal total (257). Add two F's, pivot Robert Lang (21 goals) and LW Alex Tanguay (40 assists), to an already skilled group that features RWs Alex Kovalev (35 goals) and Tomas Plekanec (69 points). Finish with the 13th-ranked D. Yes, stopper Carey Price (.920 SP) will be playing his first full season as No. 1. If he's up to it, les Habs will have more than a centennial to celebrate.
KEY PROSPECT: Max Pacioretty, 19, LW
"We like his size and skating," Carbonneau says of the 6'2'', 203-pound forward with the sweet finishing touch. And the rich get richer.
Last Season: 39–31–12
Coach: Lindy Ruff
Sabres fans were glad to see a star stay put for once when stopper Ryan Miller (76 games, .906 SP) inked a five-year deal. With backup Patrick Lalime and D Craig Rivet around to lighten his load, Buffalo's 22nd-ranked D should make a nice jump. It won't need to sky; the fourth-ranked offense has its share of young snipers: Thomas Vanek (36 goals), Derek Roy (32 goals) and Jason Pominville (27 goals). And F's Daniel Paille and Drew Stafford will contribute. Ruff can go places with this crew—but he'd better hurry.
KEY PROSPECT: Nathan Gerbe, 21, C
Last year, the 5'5'' Gerbe led Boston College to an NCAA title, with 68 points in 43 games. Some will say he's too small. They once said the same about Cup- and Hart-winner Martin St. Louis. With his quickness, any line he's on can be productive.
Last Season: 43–31–8
Coach: Craig Hartsburg
The new coach says he'll restore accountability to a team that has made self-destruction an art. It's a start, not a solution. This group scored the most goals (258) in the league but surrendered nearly as many (242). The D, which now includes vets Jason Smith and Filip Kuba, is tougher. It's also slower and no more help for G Martin Gerber
(.910 SP). RW Daniel Alfredsson (40 goals) and C Mike Fisher (23 goals) are always raring to go. But scorers Jason Spezza (58 assists) and Dany Heatley (41 goals) still don't seem at all willing to get down and dirty for a Finals run.
KEY PROSPECT: Brian Lee, 21, D
After two years at North Dakota and most of last season in the AHL, Lee saw action in 10 NHL games last season, four in the playoffs. The 2005 first-rounder seems like a nice fit for a retooled blue line.
Last Season: 41–29–12
Coach: Claude Julien
When you improve your goals-against by 70, and make the playoffs after two seasons on the couch, props are in order. So take a bow, Coach Julien, All-Star G Tim Thomas (.921 SP) and captain Zdeno Chara (plus-14). That trio was the catalyst for the Bruins' defensive renaissance. Now, about that 24th-ranked offense? C Patrice Bergeron
returns after missing most of 2007-08 with postconcussion woes. He'll rejoin playmaking C Marc Savard (63 assists) and LW Marco Sturm (27 goals). If young F's Milan Lucic, Phil Kessel and David Krejci can keep pace, more postseason encores will be in order.
KEY PROSPECT: Tuukka Rask, 21, G
The Finnish butterfly goalie with the explosive horizontal slide went 2–1–1 last season. He'll start the year in the AHL. It's not where he'll end it.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Last Season: 36–35–11
Coach: Ron Wilson
Wilson is an upgrade over departed coach Paul Maurice. The new guy's mandate: improve a dreadful D (27th ranked) and worse PK (29th). To that end, he'll lean on vets Tomas Kaberle (45 assists) and Pavel Kubina to protect G Vesa Toskala (.904 SP). And after scoring that big contract, D-man Jeff Finger better chip in too. Up front, the Leafs plan to replace Mats Sundin with a scoring-by-committee approach (Nik Antropov, 26 goals; Alex Steen, 15 goals; Niklas Hagman, 27 goals). And when that doesn't work, they'll try to think of something else next off-season.
KEY PROSPECT: Luke Schenn, 18, D
The Leafs traded up to grab the big (6'2'', 216), defensive defenseman with the fifth pick. That makes him a major piece in the rebuilding plan, and a man with a big future in Toronto.