Northeast: Canadiens, Maple Leafs finish draft lottery-worthy seasons

By John-Eric Iannicello

 

Photo: The play of Phil Kessel was a bright spot in what ended up being an otherwise forgettable season for the Toronto Maple Leafs (courtesy of

Nick Turchiaro/Icon SMI)

The NHL's Northeast Division produced two playoff teams and three clubs now busily planning tee times.  With the 2011-12 season now in the books, it is time to grade the teams' of the Northeast on how they fared this past season.

Boston Bruins, ‘A’: Coming into the season as the reigning Stanley Cup champions, the Bruins had to prove they weren’t just a one year wonder. The club finished the season atop the Northeast Division and second overall in the Eastern Conference Standings. Their 102 points accumulated throughout the year was one point off of their 103 point season in 2010-11. The Bruins have had to deal with key injuries to players such as Rich Peverley and Nathan Horton, and also off-ice issues surrounding controversial netminder Tim Thomas. Through it all, the Bruins remain one of the top teams in the league and will have a target on their backs heading into the playoffs. They’ve had great success this season and look poised to remain successful long-term.

Buffalo Sabres, ‘C’: In the summer prior to the 2011-12 season, the Sabres dished out large contracts to forward Ville Leino (6 years, $27 million) and defenseman Christian Ehrhoff (10 years, $40 million) who were considered two of the more highly regarded free agents at the time, and also acquired physical defenseman Robyn Regehr from the Calgary Flames. These moves made by new owner Terry Pegula had many pegging the Sabres as strong contenders in the East after finishing seventh in the conference a season ago. Instead, some untimely injuries and lackluster play by some of their key players (including the big ticket free agent acquisitions) resulted in the Sabres missing the playoffs for the third time in five years.

Montreal Canadiens, ‘D’: After being one goal shy of knocking the Bruins out of the playoffs a season ago, it was hard to imagine the type of season the Canadiens have gone through this year. The club has had to endure long-term injuries to key players such as Andrei Markov and team captain Brian Gionta, and the lack of NHL depth seemingly caught up with the club. A lack of secondary scoring also hurt the club as they really only had one line clicking all season. Andrei Kostitsyn failed to contribute enough offensively while Tomas Plekanec hasn’t come close to the 70-point season he tallied two seasons ago. The club finished the season as the third worst team in the league with 78 points. But if there is any silver lining to this lost season, the Canadiens were a win or two away from pulling themselves out of the Eastern basement.

Ottawa Senators, ‘A’: With a core of veterans that seemed to be regressing to the point of retirement, the Senators came into the season with the expectations that they would be a bottom-tier lottery team. The Senators were seen as a rebuilding club; infusing youth in the lineup in the hopes that their development would lead to a better tomorrow. What wasn’t expected would be how well the team seemed to fit together. Credit can certainly be directed at the coaching staff, but also to the bounce back seasons of veterans Sergei Gonchar and Filip Kuba, and the dominance of Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson. Finishing with 92 points and eighth seed firmly locked up, the Senators did an exceptional job this year and are poised to continue trending upwards in the Eastern standings.

Toronto Maple Leafs, ‘D -’: One could argue that few teams pull at the heart strings of their fans like the Maple Leafs. Each season brings new heightened expectations and promises from management that the players have failed to deliver. The 2011-12 season seemed to be no different. After a strong start to the year that had the Maple Leafs in the thick of the playoff picture, a disastrous February schedule quickly changed the fortunes of the club. A run of 1-10 in February eliminated the four months of hard work the club put in to cushion themselves in the standings. The team continued to spiral down the stretch, going 5-12 in the final two months of the season. One could argue the early success of the team should have them graded higher, but the colossal collapse of a club that has been outside the playoff picture for seven years garners little sympathy.

Northeast Division Notes

Boston Bruins – Bruins goaltender Marty Turco will be ineligible to play for the club in the postseason as he signed with the team after the NHL trade deadline. Tukka Rask continues to make progress towards a return, but may not be available until later into the first round. Anton Khudobin is expected to play the role of backup goaltender to Tim Thomas if Rask is unable to play on Thursday. Defensemen Johnny Boychuk (knee) and Adam McQuaid (eye) are still listed as day-to-day. Nathan Horton, who’s dealing with post-concussion syndrome, isn’t expected to return this year.

Buffalo Sabres – Ryan Miller will not be playing for Team USA at the upcoming World Championships. The 31-year-old played in 61 games for the Sabres this season, missing eight games due to a concussion.

Montreal Canadiens – The Montreal Canadiens are poised to select third in the NHL Entry Draft in June. They currently hold a 14.2 chance of winning the draft lottery and securing the top pick in the draft. Carey Price admitted his injury was a neck injury that resulted in a spinal compression. P.K. Subban will be suiting up for Team Canada at the upcoming World Championships.

Ottawa Senators – Chris Neil confirmed on Monday that he intends to be in the lineup on Thursday when the Senators face-off against the New York Rangers in Game 1 of the 2012 NHL Playoffs. Top prospect Mika Zibanejad joined the Senators for practise on Monday after returning from his season in Sweden. He’s expected to play in the final two games for Binghamton (AHL).

Toronto Maple Leafs – Phil Kessel revealed on Monday that he’s been playing with an injured left wrist that required cortisone shots. The injury is said to not require surgery, but will result in Kessel missing the World Championships for Team USA. John Michael Liles also declined for Team USA. Like the Canadiens, the Maple Leafs are also in the mix for the first overall selection. The Maple Leafs head into the draft lottery with an 8.1% chance of winning.