NHL Season Preview: An In-Depth Look at the Atlantic Division

Nicholas Goss@@NicholasGoss35Correspondent IJanuary 15, 2013

April 3, 2012; Philadelphia, PA USA; Philadelphia Flyers center Claude Giroux (28) and New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27) stand in front of Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (30) during the third period at the Wells Fargo Center. The Rangers defeated the Flyers, 5-3. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The most competitive division in the NHL is the Atlantic, and with two top Stanley Cup contenders and five teams that have a chance to make the playoffs, this division should be the class of the league in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.

The New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils are all talented teams and form some of the best rivalries in the NHL.

Four Atlantic division teams finished with over 100 points last season, and the only other division to match that was the Central. The Atlantic sent four teams to the Eastern Conference playoffs in 2011-12, which was two more than the Northeast and Southeast divisions.

Here is an in-depth preview of the best division in hockey.


2011-12 Standings

New York Rangers 51 24 7 109
Pittsburgh Penguins 51 25 6 108
Philadelphia Flyers 47 26 9 103
New Jersey Devils 48 28 6 102
New York Islanders 34 37 11 79


Projected Order of Finish for 2012-13

  1. New York Rangers
  2. Pittsburgh Penguins
  3. Philadelphia Flyers
  4. New York Islanders
  5. New Jersey Devils


New York Rangers

The Rangers were two wins away from the Stanley Cup Finals last season when they were defeated in overtime of Game 6 in the Eastern Conference Finals to the rival New Jersey Devils.

That loss and the summer acquisition of superstar forward Rick Nash have given the Rangers all the motivation they need to reach the Cup Final for the first time since 1994.

The Rangers have very few weaknesses. General manager Glen Sather has built a roster with plenty of depth at both ends of the ice, and a fantastic goal-tending duo with Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist and veteran Martin Biron.

The Rangers were one of six teams to finish in the top-11 in goals scored and goals against last season.

No team has more talent than the Rangers entering the 2012-13 season. They are the favorites to finish atop the Eastern Conference standings for a second-straight season.


Player to Watch: Marc Staal

Marc Staal wasn't healthy to begin last season, and didn't play until the Winter Classic in January.

The 26-year-old star is one of the best two-way defensemen in the league, and if he can stay healthy, the Rangers will have arguably the two best defense pairings in the NHL.

Staal will also help the power-play and give head coach John Tortorella another defenseman who can shut down the opposing team's best forwards each game.


Player Under the Most Pressure: Rick Nash

For the first time in his career, Nash is heading into a season being expected to perform at a high level on one of the elite teams in the league.

The Rangers needed another top goal-scorer last season and weren't able to make a move for one at the trade deadline.

Not having this kind of player doomed them in the playoffs, but with Nash in the fold, the Rangers should have enough scoring to reach the Cup Final.

Nash will be under pressure all season, and when the playoffs arrive, the expectations of him will be higher than they have ever been in his career. If Nash handles them well and plays like the superstar he's capable of being, the Rangers will be happy they traded for him.

Biggest Weakness: Bottom-Six Scoring Depth

If the Rangers' top-6 forward group struggles to score or has to deal with injuries to players such as Marian Gaborik, they would have to rely on a bottom-six with no top-tier offensive talent to provide depth.

Tortorella's third and fourth lines have plenty of toughness and penalty killing ability, but goal scoring is not something he can expect these players to provide on a consistent basis.


Expectation: Win the Stanley Cup

Anything less than a Stanley Cup championship will be a failure for the New York Rangers. The team was so close to reaching the final stage of the playoffs last season, and after improving their roster in the offseason, there's only one goal for the team to achieve in 2013.


Pittsburgh Penguins

The Pittsburgh Penguins will be a top-contender in the Eastern Conference this season, and if their big stars like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin stay healthy, this team's chances of winning the Stanley Cup will be just as good as any other club.

General manager Ray Shero wisely bolstered the talent and depth of his goaltending in the offseason by acquiring veteran Tomas Vokoun from the Washington Capitals via trade.

One of the keys to success for the Penguins this season will be continuing their dominance on special teams. They had the third-best penalty killing percentage last season and had the fifth-best power play unit.

If starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury plays well, it's going to be tough to beat the Penguins because they will score plenty of goals this season.


Player to Watch: Sidney Crosby

A healthy Crosby will bolster the league's No. 1 scoring offense from a season ago and give the Penguins a huge advantage on the power-play. 

Crosby was phenomenal in his return from injury last season and also played well in the team's first round playoff loss to the Philadelphia Flyers.

Will he be able to play a full season without suffering any injuries, while also playing at an MVP level? That is the biggest question to be answered this season for Pittsburgh.


Player Under the Most Pressure: Marc-Andre Fleury

Marc-Andre Fleury is a top-tier goaltender, but his playoff performances have been sub-par over the last three seasons.

His save percentage has been below .900 in each of the last three postseasons, and his playoff record in that time is just 12-14.

Fleury has to perform at a high level of consistently in the playoffs for the Penguins to reach another Stanley Cup Final.


Biggest Weakness: Defensive Depth

If veteran defenseman Paul Martin doesn't improve his defensive play, the Penguins blue line could be in trouble.

Brooks Orpik is the only reliable defensive player on the Penguins blue line, while Kris Letang is the only elite offensive presence.

The Penguins have a few elite defensive prospects in their system, and none of them are ready to play an important role at the NHL level yet.

If there is one area of the team that Shero needs to improve before the trade deadline, it's defensive depth. The Penguins need another pure defensive defenseman who can provide some more toughness to the lineup.


Expectation: Win the Stanley Cup

A team with the offensive and goaltending talent that the Penguins have will be expected to compete for the Stanley Cup.

Having the two most talented offensive players in the NHL is a huge advantage for Pittsburgh, and if Fleury plays like a No. 1 goalie, there is no reason why the Penguins should fail to win their second championship in five years.


Philadelphia Flyers

The Philadelphia Flyers are once again a top-contender in the Eastern Conference, and the team's success will be determined by their goaltending and defense.

Injuries to a few of the team's best defensemen and the inability of No. 1 goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to perform at a high level consistently will be two things to watch this season in Philadelphia.

In addition to the team goals that head coach Peter Laviolette and his players will try to achieve this season, the continued development of young players such as Brayden Schenn, Matt Read, Jakub Voracek and Claude Giroux will also be very important for the Flyers.


Player to Watch: Luke Schenn

Luke Schenn was acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs in the summer and should be in a much more comfortable situation in Philadelphia than he was in Toronto.

He will be able to see his brother Brayden every day since they will be teammates, and the expectations of him shouldn't be as high as they were in Toronto.

His durability is going to be very important to a Flyers blue line that has been hurt by injuries in recent seasons. The 23-year-old defenseman has not missed more than three games in each of the last three seasons.

Schenn's toughness and shot blocking will help the Flyers' blue line tremendously. If he doesn't turn the puck over too often and plays responsibly in his own end, Schenn will have a great impact on the success of the team's defense this season.


Player Under the Most Pressure: Ilya Bryzgalov

No player in the NHL will be under more pressure to perform this season than Bryzgalov. There is no chance that the Flyers will have playoff success if he struggles this season.

Bryzgalov has a record of 5-10 with a .883 save percentage and a 3.91 GAA in his last 15 playoff games.

If Bryzgalov doesn't improve his playoff performances, the Flyers will be knocked out in the first or second round. Teams cannot rely on their offense to bail out a goaltender playing well below expectations in the postseason.


Biggest Weakness: Defensive Depth

Injuries to Andrej Meszaros and Erik Gustafsson, in addition to Kimmo Timonen's durability should have Laviolette worried.

If his team doesn't have enough defensive depth to win games against a division that has several high-powered offenses, then general manager Paul Holmgren will have to make a trade for a defenseman.

The Flyers don't have enough defensive depth to win the Stanley Cup at the moment.


Expectation: Advance to Eastern Conference Finals

Two straight Eastern Conference semifinals losses were disappointing ends to the Flyers' last two seasons, but for a team this talented, advancing to the Eastern Conference finals is a fair expectation.

If Bryzgalov plays like a No. 1 goalie and there aren't too many injuries on the blue line, the Flyers will be tough to beat in the playoffs because of their high-scoring offense and physical style of play.


New York Islanders

The New York Islanders haven't earned a playoff spot since the 2006-07 season, but the lockout-shortened season has given hope to fans who are expecting a much better performance from their team in 2013.

The future core of the team could play together for the first time this season. This includes established star John Tavares and top prospects Ryan Strome and Griffin Reinhart.

These are three immensely talented players who the Islanders expect to play major roles in the team's future success.

The biggest keys for the Islanders this season are to improve defensively and kill penalties better. Only the Columbus Blue Jackets (-60) had a worse goal differential than the Islanders (-52) last season.

New York finished 22nd in penalty killing last season. Good special teams would help the team improve enough to compete for a playoff spot.


Player to Watch: Matt Moulson

Matt Moulson is one of the most underrated players in the NHL. He has scored 30-plus goals in three straight seasons, including a career-high 36 last season.

His goals, assists and points number have all improved in each of the last two seasons, and he hasn't missed a game in his Islanders career.

Not only is Moulson a consistent offensive player, he's also very durable. His continued success will be a big part of the Islanders' offense this season.


Player Under the Most Pressure: Michael Grabner

Michael Grabner has to be more productive at right wing for the Islanders this season after playing well below expectations in 2011-12.

He scored 14 less goals and had 20 less points last season than he did in 2010-11. Grabner also needs to play better defensively, especially if he struggles to score goals again.


Biggest Weakness: Scoring

Scoring goals cannot be a weakness when you play in a division with teams that have high-scoring offenses and quality goaltending.

The Islanders ranked 28th in goals scored last season, but were the sixth-best power play team. They need to play better at even strength to win more games than last season.

The addition of Strome should give the Islanders another reliable goal-scorer and a player who can make his teammates more productive with his playmaking ability.


Expectation: Compete for a Playoff Spot

Making the playoffs isn't an impossible goal for the Islanders this season, but since they are such a young and inexperienced team, expecting a playoff berth would be a bit unfair.

The main goal for the Islanders is for their young players to keep improving. If that happens, it will have been a successful season.


New Jersey Devils

One year after losing to the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Final, the New Jersey Devils could find it difficult to compete for a playoff spot in 2013.

Losing the face of the franchise and captain Zach Parise to free agency last summer was a humongous loss for the team.

To return to the Cup Final, the Devils will need career years from many of their players, but as we learned in last season's playoffs, New Jersey is one team that will never give up.

Despite losing some key players in the summer, the Devils still have a lot of playoff experience on the roster.


Player to Watch: David Clarkson

After finishing 15th in goals scored last season—and then losing a player like Parise in free agency—the Devils need David Clarkson to perform at a high level offensively for the second straight season.

Clarkson scored a career-high 30 goals last season after never scoring more than 17 throughout his NHL career. 

He's also an unrestricted free agent at the end of 2012-13, so Clarkson has plenty of motivation to have another great season. If he plays well in 2012-13, Clarkson could make a lot of money in the summer.


Player Under the Most Pressure: Ilya Kovalchuk

Ilya Kovalchuk is the Devils' only elite forward now that Parise has left, and for the team to compete for a playoff spot, the 29-year-old star needs to have a career season.

He had his best season as a member of the Devils in 2011-12 with 37 goals and 83 points in 77 games.

Kovalchuk has to play a point-per-game rate this season for New Jersey to not finish fifth in the division. 


Biggest Weakness: Scoring Depth

The Devils lost three of their top eight scorers from last season when Parise, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Petr Sykora were not re-signed.

These players combined for 59 goals, or about 27.3 of the team's amount of goals scored in 2011-12.

New Jersey didn't add any top-6 caliber forwards in the offseason, which could be an issue for the team in 2012-13. The Devils cannot rely on their blue line to provide a lot of offense on a nightly basis.


Expectation: Contend for a Playoff Spot

It's going to be tough for the Devils to make the playoffs this season, but they do have a top goaltender in veteran Martin Brodeur.

The success of this team will be determined by the performances of Brodeur and the defensemen in front of him.

If the Devils continue to play well defensively and kill penalties, they will have a chance to finish among the top-8 teams in the Eastern Conference.


Nicholas Goss is an NHL Columnist at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.


    GEICO SportsNite: Rangers aim to end season on high note

    New York Rangers logo
    New York Rangers

    GEICO SportsNite: Rangers aim to end season on high note

    via SNY

    Blue Jackets pull even with Flyers in points

    Philadelphia Flyers logo
    Philadelphia Flyers

    Blue Jackets pull even with Flyers in points

    NBC Sports Philadelphia
    via NBC Sports Philadelphia

    Live coverage: Penguins vs. Islanders, 7:08 p.m.

    Pittsburgh Penguins logo
    Pittsburgh Penguins

    Live coverage: Penguins vs. Islanders, 7:08 p.m.

    Chris Bradford
    via DKPittsburghSports.com

    Jesper Fast gets his big Rangers chance and doesn’t disappoint

    New York Rangers logo
    New York Rangers

    Jesper Fast gets his big Rangers chance and doesn’t disappoint

    New York Post
    via New York Post