There are a few things that make the Atlantic so difficult to predict.
Second, the division also features not only the Stanley Cup champion, but last year's owner of the first overall selection, the New York Islanders.
With such a variety, even though one team may have an upper hand, it's still wide open once the season starts.
2008/09 Record: 45-28-9, 99 points, fourth in East—Won Stanley Cup in seven games over Detroit Red Wings.
Additions: Brent Johnson—G (2 years/$2 mil.), Jay McKee—D (1 year/$800 K), Michael Rupp—F (2 years/$1.65 mil), Wade Brookbank—F (FA).
Subtractions: Rob Scuderi—D (FA), Hal Gill—D (FA), Mathieu Garon—G (FA), Philippe Boucher—D (Retired), Petr Sykora—F (FA), Miroslav Satan—F (FA).
The Pittsburgh Penguins have finally taken the first step along that path that many expected them to in winning the Stanley Cup last season.
Now, despite the off-season losses, the Pens are eyeing a third straight trip to the finals, and the making of a dynasty that the NHL hasn’t seen since the Edmonton Oilers.
Sid the Kid, Gino Malkin, and Staal the Second…
Simply put, Pittsburgh’s big three are what make them tick.
Sidney Crosby has the most pure talent out of any NHLer right now, but depending on who you are, he’s either the model NHL Citizen or he’s an immature child, not fit to be a leader.
Either way, the guy is damn talented.
Then the Pens feature a man considered by many to be more dangerous than Crosby, Evgeni Malkin.
Oh, and they also have the most talented and mis-cast (but that's thanks to the other two) third-line center in the league in Jordan Staal, whose huge frame and two-way ability have teams drooling in hopes they can one day acquire him.
The scary thing is that these guys combined for the following line last year: 90 goals and 175 assists for 265 points. Scary considering that Staal hasn’t even harnessed all his tools as a power center.
Looking to other places up front, however, the Penguins do have some pieces down the sides.
Granted, there’s a very noticeable drop-off talent-wise, but Chris Kunitz has the gumption to get into the scoring lanes and put home some rebounds, as well as the moves and toughness that go beyond his size.
Despite losing his goal-scoring mojo in the playoffs (one goal the entire run), Kunitz seemed to find his niche in Pittsburgh and could feasibly return to the realm of 60 points this season.
From there, although the offense is fewer in numbers, the experience goes way up.
Bill Guerin was supposed to have capped his career with another Stanley Cup ring. Now however, he seems to be rejuvenated for another season in Pittsburgh, which may see him top 50 points one last time in shooting for that third Stanley Cup ring.
Along with him, Ruslan Fedotenko brings two Cup rings worth of experience and a nose for the front of the net that can benefit any of those talented Penguins by drawing in the attention from the defense or wreaking havoc on the netminder when he’s left alone.
Although he was just a throw-in in the Marian Hossa trade, Pascal Dupuis did what Hossa didn’t and stuck around long enough to be a champion in the Steel City.
Dupuis, Craig Adams, Eric Godard, Tyler Kennedy, Matt Cooke, Dustin Jeffery (who showed some good awareness and strength at the Rookie Tournament), and Mike Rupp will provide critical depth, while Maxime Talbot may have earned a slightly larger role with such a big-ticket playoff performance.
From there, the Pens have a handful of youngsters who could step up and provide the auxiliary scoring that’s really lost down the wings.
Eric Tangradi was a big-time goal-scorer for the Bellville Bulls, and even a team like the Penguins can never have enough offense. Tangradi always seems to be around the puck and he's a very swift skater, benefited by the fact that his passes seem to have eyes.
Luca Caputi is another name Pens fans are familiar with and should see on their starting lineups come October, as Caputi may be ready to try and transition his power game to the NHL.
Caputi may have to break the habit of occasionally cherry-picking, but if the Pens get a solid defensive effort out of Caputi, they'll also be blessed with a player who skates hard, drives to the net well, and plays with a bit of an edge.
It’s Back…Way Back…and It’s Gon-Char…
While many are wringing their hands over the fact that Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi have parted ways with Pittsburgh, it’s far from the end of the world.
While Gill provided a solid, yet slow-footed, defensive presence and Scuderi was one of the most underrated penalty killers in the league last year, the Pens have replacements.
For one, they’re going to have Sergei Gonchar back for an entire season. Granted Gonchar’s defensive reputation is far less than that of his offensive one, but a leader returning is a leader returning—something the Penguins lacked for 56 games last year.
As Gonchar looks to find his way into the 55-60 point neighborhood once again, he’ll have a new student to tutor.
With the ice time opened up by the aforementioned Gill and Scuderi, as well as last season’s trade deadline dumping of Ryan Whitney, Alex Goligoski will be able to make use of his brand new contract.
Goligoski’s skating ability and his vision helped him thrive in a time where the Penguins’ defense had really lost its way, missing two of its key components. While 20 points in 45 games isn’t earth-shattering, it is certainly a great start for a fresh-faced defender eager to prove the Pens’ faith right.
Much like the forwards, although Kris Letang offers some offense after the fall-off (33 points last year) while playing a very smooth game, the roster turns into smart, responsible, and experienced players.
Jay McKee brings exactly what the Penguins need to the table in a strong, smart, and physical package. The added bonus is that, while his offense comes in spurts few and far between, his last three goals have been game-winners.
I don’t get it either.
Brooks Orpik brings a big, bad, physical presence as well some leadership to the board, leading in ways other than offensively for the Penguins.
Mark Eaton, Alex Grant, and Nathan Guenin will also be providing the Penguins with depth, while Kitchener Ranger Robert Bortuzzo has a shot to at least make it to the AHL this year.
If he stars there, Bortuzzo could spell someone during an injury, which is useful as the big man has the sense to jump into the open hole on the ice on the power play.
A Fleury of Activity…
After the last two games of the Detroit series, it’s very hard to doubt Marc-Andre Fleury.
Fleury held the Detroit Red Wings to just two goals in the final two games of the Finals last year, while also limiting his goals-against to just six total in all four Pittsburgh wins.
To go along with that, Fleury posted his second 35-plus win season, bouncing back from a 2007-'08 season marred by an ankle injury.
His agility and quickness in the crease are up to snuff with the best goalies in the league and when he’s on his game and playing behind a team truly clicking on all cylinders, there’s no stopping him.
If he’s matured past some of his shakier moments, then Fleury is all the more dangerous.
Buoying that is the fact that Pittsburgh added a very capable backup in Brent Johnson.
Another former St. Louis Blues starter turned backup, Johnson was fairly solid over his Washington Capitals career, but really solidified over the past two seasons, settling into a backup role of about 20 games per year.
Because of Johnson, Fleury should be able to stay in the 60-65 game range, preserving him for an extended Penguins’ playoff run.
So What’s It All Mean?
The Penguins have the three best offensive weapons of any team in the league, while sporting one of the most talked about young goalies as well.
The big thing for them this season is their defense, which many people think will hinder them.
The differences between them and the Flyers defensively (the Flyers are leaps and bounds better) are certainly evident, but the battle for division supremacy will come down to who is between the pipes and how they're playing.
Ray Emery vs. Marc-Andre Fleury—whom would you take?
A question I never thought I’d ask, and one I hoped I’d never have to answer.
Without seeing Emery step on the ice yet this season, however, the edge goes to Fleury.
Prediction: First in Atlantic.
Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and an NHL Community Leader for Bleacher Report. If you want to get in contact with Bryan, you can do so through his profile, or email him at email@example.com. Also be sure to check out all of his previous work in his archives.