The Engels Angle: Northeast Breakdown: Boston Bruins
Published Monday, September 12, 2011 12:21PM EDT
MONTREAL - Of the 82 games the Montreal Canadiens play this season, none will have more of an impact on their eventual standing than the 24 they play against divisional rivals.
The Northeast Division has grown tighter with the off-season improvement of the Canadiens and the Buffalo Sabres. The Boston Bruins enter this season as the reigning Stanley Cup Champions. The Toronto Maple Leafs have improved some as well, though their challenge to make the playoffs is significantly steeper than that of Boston, Montreal or Buffalo. And the Ottawa Senators are firmly entrenched in a rebuilding process that will likely prevent them from challenging for a playoff spot.
Let's get specific on the identities of each of Montreal's divisional rivals this week, starting with their greatest one, the Boston Bruins.
Additions: Joe Corvo, Benoit Pouliot
Subtractions: Tomas Kaberle, Michael Ryder
Long-term injuries: Marc Savard
The Bruins are unquestionably the favourite to win the NorthEast Division. After fulfilling their promise as an Eastern Conference leader, they surprised most of the hockey world by eventually beating the Stanley Cup favourites, the Vancouver Canucks, in seven games. Has the richness of Stanley Cup bounty given the Bruins a confidence edge over their rivals? Chances are it has.
With 46 wins and 103 points (9 points more than the Canadiens), the Bruins won the NorthEast uncontested. They say that defence wins championships, and in this case the saying holds true. The Bruins rode star-netminder Tim Thomas to success, allowing the least amount of goals against in the league and finishing with a 51-goal surplus-- nine goals more than their closest competitor, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
With an offensive arsenal that offers some of the best balance in the National Hockey League, the Bruins managed to overcome a significant injury to their most talented player (Marc Savard) to score the most goals in the NorthEast Division.
Oddly, the Bruins were a better away-team than they were a home-team. And from a special teams perspective, it's impressive to win a division with the 20th-best powerplay and the 16th-best penalty kill in the league.
Sufficed to say, the Bruins goal-differential, their success on the road and their special-team performance (or lack thereof) is a testament to how strong a team they are at even strength.
Tomas Kaberle was brought in at the trade deadline last season to help the Bruins improve their powerplay. The experiment was a colossal failure, one that nearly cost the Bruins the Stanley Cup (finishing at 11.4% efficiency, but hovering between 5-8% leading up to the Cup Finals).
In losing Kaberle to free agency, the Bruins felt a need to replace what he should've brought to them. They filled that need with the addition of Joe Corvo, who certainly has a pedigree that lends itself to boosting the powerplay. Most importantly, in addition to the similar skills Corvo brings in terms of rushing or passing the puck and his offensive creativity, he's also willing to do something Kaberle wasn't: shoot. Corvo has an excellent shot, and if he uses it, that will free up several options that were closed to the Bruins as they navigated their way through the playoffs last year.
The Bruins made a lateral move in bringing in Benoit Pouliot to replace Michael Ryder. Pouliot has all the skill to be a solid addition to any one of the Bruins top-3 lines, but like Ryder, he'll have marginal impact if he can't perform consistently. Considering Ryder's playoff contribution (8 goals, 9 assists, +8, 2 game-winning goals), Pouliot has big shoes to fill after proving to be completely unreliable in post-season action with the Canadiens.
Budding prospects Zach Hamill and Jordan Caron will challenge for roster spots and make the Bruins a faster, deeper team up front. On the backend, Steve Kampfer and Matt Bartkowski benefited from significant experience in the NHL last season and add to the depth of the big, bruising defence core established to start the season in Boston.
Marc Savard remains sidelined by concussion issues-- and it's been announced he will miss the entirety of the 2011-12 season. Though his salary counts against the Bruins cap, they do have the flexibility to replace him on the roster with a player(s) of lesser or equal value (in terms of salary) without penalty.
As it stands, the Bruins have yet to come to terms with Brad Marchand, but once he's settled on a new contract they'll still have plenty of cap space to improve. As it stands, without Marchand signed, they have roughly 7.6 million available to them, according to Capgeek.com. Add on replacement value for Marc Savard, and the Bruins figure to be a significantly better team at the trade deadline than the one that starts the season in October.
With a Stanley Cup in their pocket, what should be considered an improved roster and a boatload of cash to deal with injuries, or to fix deficiencies, the Boston Bruins have to be considered the NorthEast favourite--and to the chagrin of Canadiens fans everywhere--one of the best teams in the league.
Provided Tim Thomas gives them 80% of what he did last season, they'll be in position to challenge once again for the Stanley Cup.