The Good News: There are no grizzly bears in Slovakia, but there is D Zdeno Chara. With his 105-mph slapshot, his imposing 6’9” stature and his rugged defensive acumen, he might be the most imposing all-around rearguard in the NHL. The off-season addition of huge and skilled RW Nathan Horton gives the Bruins potential for the 30-goal scorer they sorely lacked in 2009-10. The addition of 2010 2nd overall draft pick Tyler Seguin gives them an enormously gifted forward to join two-way centers David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron and the intimidating Milan Lucic. G Tuukka Rask broke through with an excellent rookie campaign last year and looks like the real deal between the pipes.
The Bad News: Boston’s best forward is C Mark Savard, but he has been suffering post-concussion symptoms due to a dirty hit at the hands of Penguins’ pest Matt Cooke last year. This is an incomprehensible blow to an offense that didn’t have a single forward hit the modest 55-point plateau in 2009-10. Beyond Chara, the defense-corps is mediocre at best. Dennis Seidenberg and Mark Stuart are serviceable, but they don’t exactly remind anyone of Ray Bourque and Glen Wesley.
Fantasy Focus: Head Coach Claude Julien runs a tight defensive ship, another reason to move Rask up your goalie rankings. He posted a spectacular 1.97 GAA and .931 SV% as a rook, and those numbers shouldn’t fall too far. After the elite goalie trifecta of Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo and Ryan Miller is off the board, it wouldn’t be foolish to take a risk on Rask.
Fearless Forecast: Boston may have suffered the most heartbreaking loss in NHL playoff history last year, going up 3-0 in the series against Philadelphia and then going up 3-0 in game seven and humiliatingly blowing both leads. They’ll have to get over not only that, but the loss of their best forward in Savard. They should make the playoffs, but not by much, or for very long.
Northeast Division: 3rd place
Eastern Conference: 8th place
The Good News: Ryan Miller says he’s from Michigan, but after last year I’m guessing he’s actually from Krypton. He won his first Vezina for carrying an otherwise so-so Sabres squad to the top of the Northeast standings, but not before carrying Team USA to within a single goal of the gold medal in the 2010 Winter Olympics. If you were choosing a goalie to build a franchise around, who would even enter the equation aside from Miller and Roberto Luongo? And if you needed a defenseman to build around, you couldn’t go wrong with last year’s NHL Rookie-of-the-Year Tyler Myers. A smooth-skating 6’7” giant, Myers burst onto the scene as a 19-year old and quickly became the Sabres top rearguard both offensively and defensively. He posted a terrific line of 11-37-48 as a rook and is a good bet to improve upon that as a soph. Despite a tough 2009-10 for LW Thomas Vanek, he remains one of the more talented offensive weapons in the NHL. A return to the 40-goal mark for the Austrian sniper is far from out of the question.
The Bad News: Losing Henrik Tallinder to free agency left the Sabres with a thin blueline behind Myers and defensive stalwart Craig Rivet. Buffalo is a skilled and smart team, but their cavalcade of shifty, smallish forwards were severely pushed around in a first-round playoff loss to the rugged Boston Bruins. If the almost psychotically fistic 19-year old RW Zack Kassian could make the team out of training camp, it would give them a sorely-needed physical presence on the top two lines.
Fantasy Focus: LW Tyler Ennis is just 5’9”, but has elite speed and skill and is not afraid to go to the net for goals. After a point-per-game season in the AHL, the Sabres gave him a ten game tryout with the big club and Ennis didn’t disappoint, notching nine points and then playing excellently in their first-round playoff loss. Ennis should find himself on the second line with Tim Connolly and Drew Stafford, and as a player with 60 to 70 point upside in 2010-11, has to be considered one of the top sleepers in your fantasy draft.
Fearless Forecast: Ryan Miller is just entering his prime, and like Dominik Hasek before him, he has the talent to single-handedly win division titles for this good-but-not-great Sabres squad. This team will once again give Buffalo a reason to be happy aside from their gorgeous weather and the Goo Goo Dolls.
Northeast Division: 1st place
Eastern Conference: 3rd place
The Good News: LW Mike Cammalleri and RW Brian Gionta both missed about a quarter of last season with injuries, but if healthy, are both capable of 35+ goals in their second season with the Habs. C Scott Gomez, though overpaid, is still one of the best passers in the NHL and is excellent at gaining the offensive zone. C Tomas Plekanec re-signed a multi-year deal coming off a career-best 70 points and is an excellent two-way pivot for the second line. An infusion of youth is on the way, led by D P.K. Subban and LW Lars Eller. The defense corps is deep, and the Canadiens go into 2010-11 riding the high of a spectacular playoff run to the Eastern Conference finals last year.
The Bad News: D Andrei Markov is the team’s best player, and he may be sidelined as late as December with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. This gaping void will need to be filled by rookie wunderkind Subban, possessing enormous offensive talent and skating ability. Despite elite talent, LW Andrei Kostitsyn struggled last year with injury and ineffectiveness, finishing with just 33 points. The trade of playoff hero G Jaroslav Halak means that the enormously-gifted but much-maligned Carey Price must finally have a breakthrough year if this team is to succeed. The pressure on him will be enormous — in hockey-mad Montreal, heads will roll if Halak succeeds with the Blues and Price flops with the Canadiens.
Fantasy Focus: Though his 48-goal season with the Devils in 2005-06 seems to be a flash in the pan, Gionta is more than capable of 35 goals on the first line and top power play unit in Montreal. In both of the drafts I have participated in thus far, I took Gionta after the 11th round. Recently named Habs’ captain, expect this gritty overachiever to put together a big year and prove the doubters wrong once again.
Fearless Forecast: If Price falls on his face and the Canadiens miss the playoffs, Montreal will be torn to shreds and sink away into the St. Lawrence. But I love Montreal, so I’m going to go ahead and say Price becomes a star, the Habs make the post-season. As with all of my projections, feel free to remember them if I’m wrong and send me emails comparing me unfavorably to Nostradamus.
Northeast Division: 2nd place
Eastern Conference: 7th place
The Good News: C Jason Spezza and ageless RW Daniel Alfredsson form a potent punch on the power play and the top line. The Sens offset the loss of Anton Volchenkov, one of the top defensive defensemen in the NHL, with the addition of Sergei Gonchar, one of the top offensive defensemen in the NHL. Volchenkov’s loss is bearable due to the continued presence of defensive stalwart Chris Phillips on the blueline. D Erik Karlsson is just 20 years of age and looks to be one of the most talented young rearguards in the league. LW Chris Neil will beat you up if you don’t give him your lunch money.
The Bad News: The goaltending situation in Ottawa is about as uncertain as the Lost season finale, with injury-prone Pascal Leclaire and the solid but unspectacular youngster Brian Elliott fighting for starts. RW Alex Kovalev began to look his age last year, something which pains me to say since he is a year younger than myself at 37. Last year the Sens were average offensively (15th in goals) and defensively (18th in goals against), and they look to be average in both respects once again. This is a team treading water, in the dubious position surfing the playoff bubble.
Fantasy Focus: Karlsson scored 26 points in 60 games as a rookie. With a full season under his belt, the slick offensive-defenseman is a lock to improve on his half-point a game clip as a first-year player. On the Senators’ top power play unit, Karlsson will quarterback while Gonchar will set up his cannon shot from the point. This bodes well for Karlsson’s fantasy value, as he will certainly be available a dozen rounds into your draft and could emerge as a 50-point defenseman.
Fearless Forecast: The Spezza trade rumors won’t go away, and this team is not quite good enough to cope with such distractions. These Senators will fight all season for a playoff nomination but end up barely losing that election.
Northeast Division: 4th place
Eastern Conference: 9th place
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
The Good News: The Leafs have not made a trade with Boston in a while. Insanely rabid Leafs fans must cry in their Mooseheads every time they look up in the divisional standings and see a superior Bruins’ team building around Tuukka Rask and Tyler Seguin, two players that could have easily been Toronto future stars. In all fairness, GM Brian Burke did make a pair of extremely shrewd moves in his tenure, plucking D Dion Phaneuf, a mack truck-hitter with a howitzer slapshot, from a self-destructing franchise in Calgary, and then following that with the theft of underrated two-way LW Kris Versteeg from cap-strapped Chicago. G J.S. Giguere solidified the Leafs’ uncertain goal situation after Burke acquired him from Anaheim at the deadline last year. Toronto will be energized by the influx of some solid young talent, with bruising defensive defenseman Luke Schenn, and young centers Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri.
The Bad News: Bozak and Kadri, Toronto’s top two centers entering the 2010-11 season, have a combined 37 career games and 27 career points between the two of them. Up the middle, the Leafs are the thinnest team in hockey. RW Phil Kessel gives them a legitimate 40-goal threat, but aside from him Versteeg and Nikolai Kulemin are the Leafs’ only 20-goal threats. Phaneuf, Schenn and Mike Komisarek give the team a solid base to build the blueline around, but the impending trade of Tomas Kaberle must reap immediate awards on the forward lines if Toronto has any hope of being competitive in the upcoming campaign.
Fantasy Focus: Flipping from the second to the third lines on Stanley-Cup champion Chicago, Versteeg finished the 2009-10 season with a solid 20-24-44 line. In Toronto, the skilled and super-smart winger immediately becomes a first-liner and power play mainstay. An excellent passer, Versteeg will get a great deal of opportunities to set up Kessel, and a leap to the 60-point range is quite possible.
Fearless Forecast: The mathematical formula for figuring out how good the Maple Leafs are going to be in an upcoming season is simple: take how good Leafs’ fans think their team will be and divide that by a billion. This season, possessing of a team poor at forward and destitute at center, things will be no different.
Northeast Division: 5th place
Eastern Conference: 12th place
Do you have a question about your fantasy hockey team? Email Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org, and he’ll add it to the Fantasy Mailbag. Or follow fantasyhockey.com on Twitter for up-to-the-minute updates, general hockey discussion, and any fantasy hockey questions that you have. You can also become a fan on Facebook.