Most of the excitement on and around July 1st happened in the Western Conference.
It’s difficult to get fired up about anything that happened in the East. The Toronto Maple Leafs did what amounts to nothing. They let Jay McClement leave for the Carolina Hurricanes and Nikolai Kulemin bolt for the New York Islanders along with former Leaf and more recently Washington Capital Mikhail Grabovski. Ottawa lost two of its best players — Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky — to the Dallas Stars in the West. There’s plenty more ho-hum where that came from. And, other than Mike Cammalleri heading to New Jersey, most of it isn’t worth mentioning.
The only more than mildly intriguing Eastern Conference story lines come from Pittsburgh and Buffalo. The Pens added Steve Downie, who said exactly what he should have said after signing a 1-year, $1 million deal:
The Pens also added Christian Ehrhoff on defense, while losing Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik to the Caps. There’s more work to do in Pittsburgh, but based on what I’ve heard from new GM Jim Rutherford, he’s up to the task. And it’s nice to see him address protection for Crosby and Malkin. But we know Pittsburgh will be in the thick of things in the East. They always are. So while it’s a story line, it’s not necessarily a story.
The most compelling narrative emanates from Buffalo where the Sabres, seemingly out of nowhere, stacked their lineup. Just to name a few, Buffalo added Matt Moulson, Brian Gionta, Cody McCormick and Josh Gorges via a trade with the Montreal Canadiens. Yes, the same Josh Gorges who vetoed a trade to the Maple Leafs to play in Buffalo. When Don Cherry or, say, you and me look over this Sabres roster, chock full of character Canadian and American players, we have to think — wouldn’t they love to have this roster north of the border in Toronto?
Under Ted Nolan, Buffalo will not only be exciting to watch, but there’s a better than decent chance they make the playoffs.
Consider the balance of power in the East. A small handful of teams will settle in as the cream of the crop next to Pittsburgh and Boston. Another two to three will disappoint. I vote for Philadelphia, Washington and/or Detroit. From there, not much more than a couple to a few points will separate 2nd and 3rd in each division from the two wildcard teams. After the Rangers, the Canadiens and maybe Tampa Bay and Columbus do you really think any of the remaining franchises are that much better than Buffalo?
The biggest question mark in Buffalo comes in goal, which is why I have to think the Sabres could be a frontrunner for Martin Brodeur. He would be an ideal fit. Buffalo could have him split time with Jonas Enroth or, better yet, make Marty the starter and mentor for Matt Hackett.
With or without goaltending, the Sabres will play exciting, hard-nosed hockey. This group of players will play hard for one another and for Nolan. Next to Jim Nill in Dallas, you have to credit Tim Murray for making the biggest difference — at least on paper — in a very short period of time.