With the Boston Bruins having to skate without their top netminder for the shortened 2013 season and the rest of the Northeast Division looking largely as it did in 2011-12, the Buffalo Sabres figure to remain competitive for a second division title in four seasons.
Following is a capsule look at the Sabres' division rivals.
The Bruins look drastically different in goal, as Tim Thomas (35-19-1, 2.36 GAA in 2011-12) has taken a self-imposed one-year sabbatical from the sport. That leaves Tuukka Rask (11-8-3, 2.05 GAA last season) and Anton Khudobin (one start, one win and one goal against for his career) to share duties between the pipes.
The Bruins did not score much last season, despite running away with the division after a 3-7 start. Tyler Seguin led the team with a meager 29 goals and 38 assists. But they did have six 20-goal scorers in Seguin, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand and Chris Kelly. And the defense, led by Zdeno Chara and Johnny Boychuk, was superb, allowing only 193 goals all season.
The bulk of this team was around two years ago when the Bruins won the Stanley Cup. But they were part of the same team that was upset in the first round of last spring's playoffs. So they could go either way. But Rask has been huge when called upon, so don't look for the loss of Thomas to mean much. The road to the division title will once again go through Boston, and that will be a very tough road to hoe.
The Senators snuck into last year's playoffs as the eighth seed and by the end of the season looked about as good as both the Sabres and Maple Leafs.
They remain a top-heavy team, with star snipers Jason Spezza (34 goals, 50 assists), Milan Michalek (35 goals, 25 assists) and Daniel Alfredsson (27 goals, 32 assists) leading the charge. Leading the way in goal is Craig Anderson (33-22-6, 2.83 GAA), with either prospect Robin Lehner or Ben Bishop backing him out; the team spent the moments before Saturday's season-opener trying to shop one of the netminders.
The Senators have enough scoring to stay in most games, but Alfredsson is 40 and likely won't hold up in a rigorous 58-game schedule played over 96 days. They took the top-seeded Rangers to seven games in the first round last postseason, but that seems to be their ceiling. And they are one of four Northeast teams that could play its way into the basement (only Boston seems immune to such a fate).
Tim Connolly is still playing in Toronto – but not with the Maple Leafs. The much-maligned former Sabre has been sent down to the AHL only one season after being acquired. That, combined with the firing of longtime GM Brian Burke last week and a stunning lack of experience in goal will probably extend the Leafs' playoff drought one more season.
Sharing duties in net will be James Reimer (71 career games; 14-14-4 last season) and Ben Scrivens (12 career games; 4-5-2 last season), which has left the Leafs combing through the league for a more seasoned goalie. They are two of 17 Leafs on the roster who are 27 years old or younger, as the Leafs are going with a youth movement in lieu of recycling more worn-out, overpriced veterans.
Key to any noise the Leafs might make is Phil Kessel, who led Toronto in every major offensive category with 37 goals and 45 assists for 82 points. Joffrey Lupul (25), Mikhail Grabovski (23) and former Sabre Clarke MacArthur (20) were the only other Leafs to break 20 goals.
With so much youth in the lineup, mistakes will be made. That isn't good new for Toronto fans, who will once again be staring at a squad that's much closer to last place than first.
Last season was an unmitigated disaster for Les Habitants, who fired their coach partway through the season and never contended despite having All-Star Carey Price in goal.
The team will do without Scott Gomez, who was bought out after scoring only two goals in 38 games season. That was one of many disappointments for the Canadiens, who only had two players (Erik Cole, 35, and Max Pacioretty, 33) score more than 17 goals. Like the Sabres with Mikhail Grigorenko, the Habs have a top draft pick who earned his way into the lineup right out of juniors in Alex Galchenyuk, a winger who will start on the second line.
That probably won't be enough for new coach Michel Therrien, though, to recapture the magic he has with Pittsburgh four years ago in winning a Stanley Cup. This team has too many holes and a dearth of talent and isn't likely to make a serious run.
Here is a look at last season's final Northeast Division standings:
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