For the last three years, the Atlantic Division has been the most dominant division in all of hockey. The division consistently makes up half the teams in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The teams that make up the Atlantic have some of the most passionate fans in the NHL, and it would be difficult to find a time where there is more buzz around the division heading into a new season.
The Penguins recently won the Stanley Cup. The Flyers possibly made the biggest Draft Day splash, by acquiring Chris Pronger from Anaheim.
The Rangers didn't do too badly themselves, snatching Marian Gaborik in free agency. And then the Islanders brought in No. 1 overall pick John Tavares, to help the franchise reach the playoffs once more.
With other Eastern Conference teams potentially looking at down years, is it possible that every Atlantic Division team makes the playoffs? It's not incredibly likely, as the Islanders still look to have some work to do. But stranger things have happened.
Sometimes masked by intense physical play and fierce rivalries, the Atlantic Division is also home to some of the most gifted offensive players in the league.
The best American, Canadian, and Russian-born players call the Atlantic home for the 2009-10 season. So who are they? Let's take a look at the Atlantic's 12 most productive forwards.
Travis Zajac, New Jersey Devils, Center. Posted an incredible +33 in 2008-09.
Bill Guerin, Pittsburgh Penguins, Right Wing. The former Islanders captain made the jump to Pittsburgh in March and hasn't looked back. And playing with Sidney Crosby should nearly Guerin-tee a 60-point season for the veteran.
John Tavares, New York Islanders, Center. The No. 1 draft pick will look to impress in his first season. If all the scouts are correct, a 20 goal season is not entirely out of the question.
Jordan Staal, Pittsburgh Penguins, Center. Staal has continued to evolve as a player, despite only being 20 years old. One of the best penalty killers around.
To start it off, there is a healthy combination of young players and veterans, but all very talented hockey players nonetheless. But remember, they are only the tip of the iceberg.
12. Kyle Okposo, New York Islanders, Right Wing
6'0", 195 lbs., 2nd year
Strengths: Of all right wingers, Okposo lead the NHL in takeaways in 2008-09. He was also a force away from home, leaving him as one of the top rookies in points per game.
Weaknesses: Is not much of a physical presence. And he could use a linemate to take opponents' attention off him.
Why? While the talk on Long Island may revolve around 1st overall pick John Tavares, Kyle Okposo is the Islanders' most dangerous offensive threat. At only 21 years old, Oh-Poh-So lead the Isles in goals scored. And even yet, he missed 17 games too.
Okposo should almost certainly gain more ice time in his second full NHL season, giving him even more opportunities to flourish as a winger.
He should also be able to at least hit the 20-goal plateau, but even so, he will not be able to carry the Islanders by himself.
He could see his +/- rating fall however, if he continues to play multiple roles. Aside from the obvious 5-on-5 and powerplay time, he has been used to kill penalties too, averaging over 80 seconds of penalty killing time per game.
Let's just hope Scott Gordon only uses him in emergency situations for shootouts.
Projected Line: 24 goals, 31 assists, 85 takeaways.
Ceiling: 9, Floor: Not in Top 25
11. Chris Kunitz, Pittsburgh Penguins, Left Wing
6'0", 195 lbs., 6th year
Strengths: Don't be fooled. Kunitz may not be the largest player in the league, but as soon as he steps on the ice, his default setting is "Seek and Destroy." He will skewer anything that moves.
Weaknesses: Not a great finisher, and he can be slightly turnover-prone at times.
Why? Since making the jump from Anaheim to Pittsburgh, Kunitz has fit in perfectly with the style of hockey that Dan Bylsma wants to play.
An aggressive forechecker who knows his limitations. Although his goal scoring numbers were nothing special in the playoffs, he made things happen for players around him.
It's nearly a given that he will score at least 20 goals this season playing alongside Bill Guerin and Sidney Crosby. A 30-goal season is also possible, but much more unlikely. He found instant chemistry with his new team, but can build on that even more.
Although his playing time won't increase any, he will be a gigantic help to Crosby, as the Penguin captain has never played with the same linemates in consecutive seasons.
He can also jump in and win a faceoff from time to time, as he won 48 percent of the emergency draws he took in the 2008-09 campaign.
Projected Line: 25 goals, 44 assists, 234 hits.
Ceiling: 7, Floor: Top 20
10. Simon Gagne, Philadelphia Flyers, Left Wing
6'1", 195 lbs., 10th year
Strengths: Gagne is the textbook definition of a sniper. He delivers a powerful shot and is a terrific go-to guy on the powerplay. Normally good for 30-40 goals when healthy.
Weaknesses: He's a sniper. Aside from his goal scoring prowess, he doesn't bring much else to the ice. He doesn't hit anybody, takes a few too many penalties and turns the puck over a decent amount for a guy who normally is "shoot first, talk later."
Why? Gagne has played his entire career with Philadelphia, and consistently brings a scoring touch to the lineup. His defense has never been great, but he knows his role well enough by now.
Despite only playing 25 games in 2007-08, he returned to the lineup without missing a beat, coming in second in power play goals to Jeff Carter.
It's unlikely that Gagne sees much more ice time than last year, but he will see a heavy dosage of powerplay time, as usual. However, another 40-goal campaign is not entirely out of the question, especially if Carter drops off a bit from his production.
His health could possibly be problematic, as he has already missed considerable time due to injury in his career.
Projected Line: 36 goals, 35 assists, 266 shots on goal.
Ceiling: 6, Floor: Top 20
9. Ryan Callahan, New York Rangers, Right Wing
5'11", 185 lbs., 3rd year
Strengths: At 24 years old, Callahan may not be a master of many trades just yet, but he sure is a jack of them all. Anything that he needs to do, he is always more than willing.
Weaknesses: Although his production has increased in each of his NHL seasons, he is still not considered one of the top goal-scoring threats in the division. Yet. He can be excellent at times, but disappear at others.
Why? He has nowhere to go but up. As his playing time increases, so should his overall production. John Tortorella likes him a lot, and will try getting him on the ice as much as possible. Despite standing at only 5'11", Callahan can pack a punch too. His 265 hits last year was good for fourth in the league.
For a guy who had the puck more often than not, his nine giveaways all of last season was a truly astonishing feat. Is he likely to repeat that? Probably not, but there's always hope.
Although he thrived under the lights of Madison Square Garden, he did not have a whole ton of success against Atlantic Division foes. Not a good trend.
Will he explode for a 30-goal season? It's not incredibly likely, but with Scott Gomez gone, Callahan will certainly assume a larger role in the Rangers' offense.
Projected Line: 28 goals, 32 assists, 244 hits
Ceiling: 7, Floor: Top 10
Next up are many big name players pounding on the top echelon of players. They just aren't there yet. But any one of these stars can be major game-breakers for their respective teams in 2009-10.
8. Patrik Elias, New Jersey Devils, Left Wing
6'1", 195 lbs., 12th year
Strengths: Elias has been in the league for a long time and knows his limits. He is a very skilled offensive player who can still deliver 30 goals and 40 assists in his mid-30s.
Weaknesses: He has never been an overly physical force, nor does he have a clue how to win faceoffs. But that's why he's a winger.
Why? Elias is the oldest member of this list by a decent amount, but that sure won't slow him down. His 78 points last season was the most he had recorded since 2003.
He has also been a terrific puck manager on the Devils powerplay, tallying double-digit goals and assists with a man advantage.
Although he isn't getting a day younger, his versatility is very handy along with his stick.
So what more can he do this coming season? Just be himself.
Projected Line: 27 goals, 45 assists, +20 rating
Ceiling: 6, Floor: Top 20
7. Marian Gaborik, New York Rangers, Right Wing
6'1", 195 lbs., 9th year
Strengths: Gaborik is an absolutely electric skater who can score at will while he is hitting his mark. He has shown on several occasions that he is one of the best forwards in the game, and scoring 30 goals in under 50 games during the 2006-07 season is terrific proof of that.
Weaknesses: The injury bug has buzzed around Gaborik for the last several seasons. He can only be so effective when he can't even be on the ice half of the time. And he only played 17 games with Minnesota last year.
Why? For the Rangers, he could turn out to be the best signing of the Free Agency period. Or he could be a major bust that goes down to injury in the second week of the season and barely plays again.
But his upside is incredible, and could easily be higher on this list. Depending on who his new linemates are, Gaborik has the ability to take over a game at any time.
He can turn the puck over too much, but he can also create turnovers himself. Can he become familiar with the Rangers' system quickly enough?
Probably so. The Rangers are also a defense-first team and will look for the breakout pass to Gaborik when it's available. The improvements of Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky should only assists Gaborik and take some pressure off him.
Projected Line: (assuming he plays in at least 70 games) 33 goals, 26 assists, 212 shots on goal.
Ceiling: 3, Floor: Not in Top 25
6. Jeff Carter, Philadelphia Flyers, Center
6'3", 200 lbs., 5th year
Strengths: Carter easily lead the NHL in goals scored by a center last year, and wants to build upon his success. Not only has his shots and minutes played increased over the last couple years, he hasn't missed a game in over two seasons.
Weaknesses: Still hasn't fully figured out how to share the puck, as his goal totals have almost always been greater than his assists.
Why? Carter is only 24 years old and is already the most dominant home player in the division. For whatever reason, the Wachovia Center has been unusually kind to Carter, who accumulated over 60 percent of his points last year in the friendly confines.
But can he build on his success and be even better in 2009-10? It's quite possible. His sights will be set on reaching the 50-goal mark, which could work out to be a bad thing in the long run.
Trying too hard can lead to mistakes and can take your team out of a game. But if he makes the best of his chances, he will have a shot.
Carter still could use some work in the faceoff circle, but he should once again bear the bulk of draws alongside Mike Richards. Despite not being a physical force at 6'3", he tends to take a few extra minor penalties.
Projected Line: 40 goals, 39 assists, 312 shots on goal.
Ceiling: 4, Floor: Top 10
5. Brandon Dubinsky, New York Rangers, Center
6'1", 210 lbs., 3rd year
Strengths: Dubinsky is another player who will simply run anyone over who's in his way. The Alaskan collected over 250 hits on the season. He is also an excellent faceoff man, winning 53.6 percent of his draws.
Weaknesses: Advanced scoring touch.
Why? Dubinsky, 23, has nowhere to go but upwards. Heading into his third full season, he now has the maturity to turn in a very productive regular season.
No question he will be on the ice more than last year, as he looks to come close to 20 minutes per game of ice time. His shots on goal, will also eclipse 200 for the first time in his career.
His shooting percentage has never been fantastic (barely 7 percent for his career), but it should skyrocket this year, if he plays with Gaborik.
He's also good for at least 100 PIM in 2009-10, as he will fight a fair amount as well as running up a good deal of minor penalties.
This feared forechecker could ultimately make-or-break the Rangers season.
Projected Line: 22 goals, 42 assists, 228 hits
Ceiling: 5, Floor: Top 20
The cream of the crop. They are all All-Stars, and some of the best players in the entire league. Not only gifted goal scorers, these four can do it all. They are the guys you pay good money to see.
4. Zach Parise, New Jersey Devils, Left Wing
5'11", 190 lbs., 5th year
Strengths: His scoring touch is incredible. Everything he has touched in the last three years has turned to gold. He's also nothing shabby moving the puck either.
Weaknesses: He needs to be on the ice longer than he already is. Apart from that, it is very challenging to pick a major weakness out of his game. He is without much question, the best American-born player in the game today.
Why? Well, why not? He can absolutely light up the scoreboard again. The only thing that might slow him down from his 2008-09 pace is the presence of his own goaltender. When Martin Brodeur is in net, the Devils tend to play more defensive-minded hockey than when he's not.
Parise certainly was the beneficiary of Brodeur not being in net, but not the entire reason for his success. His 90-point season was no fluke. There just aren't many flaws to his game. He doesn't take many penalties. He doesn't turn the puck over. He's missed two games in his entire career.
Is another 40-goal season likely? There's a good chance. Is he slowly becoming the face of the Devils? Yes.
Projected Line: 41 goals, 43 assists, 14.5 shooting percent.
Ceiling: 3, Floor: Top 5
3. Mike Richards, Philadelphia Flyers, Center
5'11", 195 lbs., 5th year
Strengths: Hands down, the most dangerous penalty killer in the NHL. Richards led the league in short-handed goals with seven, and also tallied the most shorty points.
Weaknesses: He was five giveaways from reaching the 100 turnover mark.
Why? The 24-year-old Flyer Captain can do anything on the ice. Literally anything. He's a marked man any time he hits the frozen water, and for good reasons too.
He doesn't just score or set up goals either. He is more than willing to hit someone, block a shot or go up against another team's most gifted attacker.
Like Carter, he also benefits from playing at the Wachovia Center, but he's no couch potato away from it. He is a decent faceoff man, winning close to half of the draws. That should improve this coming season.
So what does he do for an encore? Just keep doing what he does best.
Projected Line: 34 goals, 58 assists, 12 short-handed goals.
Ceiling: 3, Floor: Top 5
2. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins, Center
5'11", 200 lbs., 5th year
Strengths: Art Ross Trophy, Hart Trophy, First-Team All-Star, Pearson Award, and Stanley Cup Champion. He's only 22 and already has a full trophy case.
Weaknesses: Now about those injury concerns...
Why? Crosby already knows how to win in the playoffs, that is obvious. But now it's a matter of doing it again, and continuing the successes. Going into the new season, Crosby has an new advantage: having the same linemates for the first time in his career. Having a full season alongside Guerin and Kunitz should only help his production.
Crosby has never been a big hitter, but he is very good in the faceoff circle, as his percentages have improved in each of the past few seasons. His results on draws can be extremely important to the Penguins, who are a puck possession team.
Chances are that Crosby won't see any additional playing time over his previous average, but he will see a major dose of powerplay time. When he plays a full season, he has never failed to bag anything less than 100 points. Look for more of the same this year.
Projected Line: 38 goals, 81 assists, 50 powerplay points.
Ceiling: 1, Floor: Top 5
1. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins, Center
6'3", 195 lbs., 4th year
Strengths: Which one first?
Weaknesses: The lack of his mother's home cooking.
Why? Malkin has seen substantial growth in each of his three previous NHL seasons, earning the Conn Smyth Trophy along with an Art Ross. In each following season to date, he has scored more points, taken more shots, and gained more ice time. That formula adds up to what could be an enormous season, even for his lofty standards.
Malkin can nearly make up a line by himself, but he has Ruslan Fedotenko for good measure. Not too shabby. The only part of his game that can be somewhat troubling is that he has found a new affinity for passing the puck...instead of taking shots himself.
He is a complete player in every definition, and the 2009 Playoffs brought the best out of him. He lead the entire league in takeaways last year and will also look to surpass the 100 hits mark. A downside to that is that he sometimes lets his emotions get to him, which leads to undisciplined penalties.
Projected Line: 41 goals, 74 assists, 303 shots on goal
Ceiling: 1, Floor: Top 2