The toughest division just got tougher.
Not only does the Atlantic Division host the defending Stanley Cup champs, but offseason moves saw future hall-of-famer Chris Pronger and superstar scorer Marian Gaborik join this already tough division.
Oh yeah, and the best goaltender of all-time still roams the net in New Jersey.
Two straight years have seen the Atlantic send four teams to the playoffs, and we will see that again this season.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins
The Pittsburgh Penguins used their resilience all the way to a Stanley Cup championship.
To be five points out of a playoff spot with 25 games to play, to come back from 2-0 vs. both the Capitals and the Red Wings in a playoff series, and to win a tough Game Six and Game Seven to capture the franchise's first cup since 1992, is the epitome of resilience.
The Penguins were led offensively by their two superstars, Sidney Crosby (77GP, 33G-70A-103P) and Art Ross/Conn Smythe winner Evgeni Malkin (82GP, 35G-78A-113P). They also picked up a much-needed offensive boast with trade deadline acquisitions Bill Guerin (12 pts in 17 games) and Chris Kunitz (18 pts in 20 games).
The champions were led by rookie head coach Dan Bylsma, who replaced Michel Therrien, and his aggressive style led the team to an 18-3-4 record down the stretch.
D Jay Mckee (STL: 69GP, 185BkS), G Brent Johnson (WSH: 12-6-2, 2.81GAA, .908SV%), LW Mike Rupp (NJ: 72GP, 136PIM), RW Chris Conner (DAL: 38GP, 3G-10A-13P)
D Rob Scuderi (164BkS), D Hal Gill (78Hits), RW Petr Sykora (25G), RW Miroslav Satan 36P), D Philippe Boucher (+10), C Mike Zigomanis (63.0FO%), G Mathieu Garon (2W)
What Makes Them Tick
When a team has two of the top three scorers in their lineup, it’s hard not to point out the obvious: they are a team that is hard to match up against.
Both Crosby and Malkin followed up their successful regular seasons with even better postseasons, showing that these young stars were ready to take the next step in their development.
Also having a bounce back year was third-line center Jordan Staal, who followed his sophomore slump (12 goals, -5) with a productive year (22 goals, -5) as the shutdown center.
While his numbers weren’t even good for the top twenty in goaltending stats, former first overall pick Marc-Andre Fleury just continues to win when it matters the most, with a 31-18 career playoff record.
Defensively, the Penguins will get a boost now that Sergei Gonchar will be available to play from week one. It is no coincidence that the Penguins were a better team and made their surge when Gonchar returned from shoulder surgery. A top-line pairing for Gonchar and hit man Brooks Orpik, who was second in the league with 309 hits, is top notch.
What Could Make Them Go Boom
With 204 games in the past two seasons and their top players not only being asked to shoulder the load of the team, but also their entire countries in an Olympic year, could have an effect on this team.
We see it every year, the team that makes the Stanley Cup struggles to find a groove early. Just ask the Penguins from last year and they will admit they needed time to find their swagger.
Though this team has some youth on their side, it is bound to catch up to them at some point, especially with team leaders Crosby, Malkin, and Gonchar having to play big parts in their respective country’s bid for a gold medal.
Very rarely does a coach, with no prior head-coaching experience, step in with 25 games to play and go on to win a Stanley Cup. In fact, it has only happened one other time—when Al MacNeil in 1971 took over the Canadiens to win the Stanley Cup as a rookie midseason replacement.
So how the 39-year-old Bylsma will fair in a full season worth of game planning, balancing his ice time, and dealing with the stress of being a coach will be a key to this team success or downfall.
Player to Watch
With the injury to Gonchar last season, Kristopher Letang was forced into playing top-line minutes in only his second season in the league and flourished.
The 22-year-old defenseman scored 10 goals and assisted on 23 others. His development allowed the Penguins to trade highly-touted defenseman Ryan Whitney for much needed scoring.
The sky is the limit for this mobile, puck-moving defenseman, who also went on to contribute 13 points in the playoffs. Letang will be a restricted free agent next season and is off to prove he can be a top-line defenseman in this league.
Back-to-back championships are hard to come by, and there is a reason why it has not happened in the NHL since the Red Wings of 1997-'98, and any other sport since the Patriots did it back in 2003-04.
It is hard because every team now puts their best game against you and even makes offseason moves just to match up better to the formula used to win that championship.
The Penguins are the favorites to win this tough division because, let’s face it, when you are the Champs, you are that on paper until the puck drops. I would not be surprised to see them start out slow like last year, and GM Fred Shero has twice shown us that he can get creative at the trade deadline (Marian Hossa and Kunitz/Guerin) to give them the necessary push for the playoffs.
2. Philadelphia Flyers
The Philadelphia Flyers once again bowed out to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup playoffs; an interstate rivalry that is one of the best in the league.
The Flyers also once again battled inconsistency and injuries all season.
The orange and black were led by two young centers that seem ready to be added among the elite pivots in the league. Jeff Carter finished second in the NHL in goals (46) and first on the team in points (84).
Right behind him was captain Mike Richards, whose two-way, hard-nosed style reminded Flyers fans of the great Bobby Clarke. Among his 30 goals, seven were scored shorthanded, including two 5-on-3.
Speaking of shorthanded situations, the Flyers scored 16 total shorthanded goals, and didn't give up one until the last game of the season.
Rounding out a balanced scoring attack, the Flyers were the only team with six 25-goal scorers. Simon Gagne had a relatively healthy season playing in 79 games and scoring 34 goals, and rugged winger Scott Hartnell had a career high in goals (30) and points (60).
Injuries to the defensive core saw many players come in and out to round out the top six, but the core was veteran Kimmo Timonen (43 pts) and youthful Braydon Coburn (28 pts).
D Chris Pronger (ANH: 82GP, 11G-37A-48P), G Ray Emery (KHL: 36GP, 2.12GAA), C Ian Laperriere (COL: 74GP, 7G-12A-19, 163PIM), Brian Boucher (SJ: 12-6-3, 2.18GAA, .917SV%)
G Martin Biron (29W), RW Mike Knuble (11PPG), RW Joffrey Lupul (25G), G Antero Niittymaki (.912SV%), D Andrew Alberts (157Hits), D Luca Sbisa (7A)
What Makes Them Tick
On draft day this year, the Flyers went out and acquired Chris Pronger, the man many thought was born to wear the Orange and Black.
That acquisition sent a message to the team that even though they were knocked out by the one-two punch of Crosby and Malkin the last two postseasons, they are ready for them this time.
With the future Hall-of-Famer Pronger in the mix, the Flyers top-four defensemen rank as one of the top in the Eastern Conference. Combine that with a talented and balanced scoring attack and the Flyers are the sexy pick to represent the East in the Stanley Cup.
As I mentioned earlier, special teams once again will be an asset to this team that not only scores shorthanded, but ranked sixth in the league in both penalty kill (83 percent) and power play (22.5 percent).
What Could Make Them Boom
When we last saw Ray Emery playing in the NHL, he was beating up teammates, banished to the AHL, and then ultimately bought out of his new three-year contract from the Ottawa Senators.
Now, Razor will be looked at as the biggest question mark surrounding a team with so much talent.
People often forget that this is a goalie that has appeared in the Stanley Cup Final (Ottawa in 2007), which is one more than the two castoffs (Biron and Niittymaki) combined, and the coach that was fired (John Paddock) because of his antics was on board for this move.
The 26-year-old goalie with images of boxers on his helmet will be the ultimate high-risk, high-reward for this team, and most likely the key to which direction this season will head for the Flyers.
Player to Watch
Daniel Briere signed a huge eight-year contract and now, heading into his third year, it could be his biggest in the NHL.
Last year, the 31-year-old center played a career-low 29 games because of injuries to his abdomen and groin. Although the sample size was small, Briere still had an impact on the power play with 10 of his 25 points coming on special teams.
This former All-Star and five-time 25 or more goal scorer has done everything he can to prove in the offseason that he is healthy and ready to contribute to the team.
With the accelerated development of both Carter and Richards, Briere won’t be asked to be the go-to guy that he was thought of when brought here, but will still be asked to play major minutes on the top power-play unit and fill in for the goals lost this offseason (Knuble 27G, Lupul 25G).
The Quebec native had some end-of-the-season chemistry with talented center Claude Giroux. Coach John Stevens sees his lines as pairs and has already said that these two speedy players will be a pair.
Briere needs to have a healthy, productive season. If not, it will be tough for the Flyers to fit a new piece in his place or even to try to unload his hefty salary cap hit.
Emery is spectacular, Pronger lives up to the hype, and the team remains relatively healthy.
If two of these three things happen, the Flyers will be a lock for a playoff spot and a team to beat in the playoffs.
If two of three do not happen, it could be a long season for the Orange and Black.
Emery is the biggest question mark, but since he is only signed for one season, and there will be a few proven goalies (Nabokov, Turco, Giguere) on the market, don’t count the Flyers out to make a deadline push for a goalie.
Pronger should live up to the hype. He has shown no signs of slowing down and has led two teams to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season on the squad.
Health will be the biggest question mark for Gagne, considering he has already reported groin issues. Richard’s style of play leads to the chance of injury also, and Carter’s deadly wrist shot was not there in the playoffs due to an injury.
The Flyers will contend for the division crown and will be a good pick to represent the East in the Stanley Cup Final.
3. New Jersey Devils
The Devils played 51 games without all-world goalie Martin Brodeur, and still survived the storm to improbably win the Atlantic Division.
The season for the Devils, though, ended in devastating fashion in an Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Game Seven loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.
In a season that saw Brodeur break the all-time NHL record in regular-season wins by a goaltender, it was really the spectacular play from backup goalie Scott Clemmensen, who went 25-13-1 in 40 games with a 2.39GAA and .917SV percentage, that led the team to the playoffs.
Offensively, Zach Parise flourished in the up-tempo Brent Sutter style. The former first-round pick ranked fifth in the league in scoring (94 points), and was a legitimate Hart Trophy candidate with his 45 goals and +30 rating.
Parise also created some great chemistry with his top-line partners, Travis Zajac (82GP, 20G-42A-62P) and Jamie Langenbrunner (81GP, 29G-40A-69P).
The Devils always seem to find players that come out of nowhere to fit their defensive style of play and Johnny Oduya (82GP, 7G-22A-29P, +21) and Paul Martin (73GP, 5G-28A-33P, +21) seem to be the next crop of good defensive players to don the Red and Black.
G Yan Denis (NYI: 10-17-3, 2.86GAA, .910SV%), D Cory Murphy (FLA/TB: 32GP, 5G-11A-16P), C Rod Pelley (AHL: 75GP, 15G-23A-38P), RW Nicklas Bergfors (AHL: 66GP, 22G-29A-51P)
RW Brian Gionta (20G), C John Madden (23P), C Bobby Holik (62GP), G Scott Clemmensen (25W), RW Mike Rupp (136PIM)
What Makes Them Tick
Brodeur has been the face of the franchise for 16 NHL seasons.
Last year was the first since a lockout-shortened 1994-'95 season that he did not play at least 65 games (he had played 70 in 11 out of the last 12 seasons).
One could ask if he is wearing down at the age of 37, considering how he allowed four or more goals in three of the last four games of the first round loss to Carolina. However, he still went on to record five shutouts in his 31 games played.
Parise is the new franchise player up front and will again be relied on for big-time minutes along with his linemates Zajac and Langenbrunner. Langenbrunner, the 34-year-old captain of the team, had career highs in every offensive category including an amazing +25, and has to build or even match that kind of production for this team to be successful.
Returning behind the bench for the Devils is 1995 Stanley Cup Champion Jacques Lemaire’s defense-first attitude that will help the team maintain its identity, even though they finished fourth overall in team defense (2.52GAA) last season.
What Could Make Them Go Boom
I would normally say an injury to Brodeur in this section, but the organization showed me up, and brought in a capable backup again in former Islander Danis.
What could detract from this talented offensive team is a clash between the old styles and the new.
No one can argue that Sutter’s up-tempo, more wide open style of play allowed Parise, Zajac, Langenbrunner, and even Patrik Elias, to have career statistical years. We all know these players have the talent, but many times were asked to play defense first.
This will be the case on a Lemaire-coached team.
It will also be tough to supplant the loss of both long-time Devils Gionta and Madden. Gionta was not scoring at the same pace he was earlier in his career, but still notched 20 goals last season. And the same with Madden, who although some say lost a step (a career-worst -7 last season), was still was a big part of the penalty kill and third-line shutdown unit.
Player to Watch
It was a tough time deciding between free-agent disappointment Brian Rolston and former captain Elias in this category because both guys have a lot to prove in different ways this year.
I had to go with the Devils' all-time leading scorer. The 33-year-old Elias had his best goal-scoring season last year since the 2004-05 lockout, notching 31 goals. He was most dangerous on the power play, with a career-best 12 goals and 31 power-play points.
This season, the team leader will be asked to play primarily at center on a team that is thin down the middle. Coming off hip/groin surgery and recently saying he might not be ready for the start of the regular season, it will be important for this team to have Elias healthy and contributing.
The Devils want their young talent to step up, and not have to depend on the likes of Rolston, Shanahan, and Jay Pandolfo to score many goals.
In comes a new crop of fast and capable players hoping to make the team this year (Rod Pelley, Nicklas Bergfors, and Ilkka Pikkarainen). If they live up to their potential, the Devils will be a tough team to defend.
Brodeur needs to prove that last season was a fluke and not a look at what to expect from the aging future Hall-of-Fame goalie.
I believe Brodeur bounces back and Parise, once again, is a Hart Trophy contender. The one thing holding them back from winning this tough division depends on Rolston and Elias, who both are big question marks heading into the season.
4. New York Rangers
The Rangers finished strong under the new direction of fiery head coach John Tortorella, but were unable to hold a 3-1 lead against the Capitals in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, when they lost in unromantic fashion in Game Seven.
The backbone once again was Henrik Lundqvist, who for the third-straight season played at least 70 games, and for the fourth-straight year won at least 30.
The team also seemed to get its spark when they brought back prodigal son Sean Avery from the waiver heap. Dallas’ sloppy seconds was the Rangers gain as Avery collected 12 points in the 18 games he played with the Rangers.
RW Marian Gaborik (MIN: 17GP, 13G-10A-23P), LW Chris Higgins (MTL: 57GP, 12G-11A-23P), LW Ales Kotalik (BUF/EDM: 75GP, 20G-23A-43P), LW Donald Brashear (WSH: 63GP, 121PIM), C Brian Boyle (LAK: 28GP, 4G), RW Enver Lisin (PHX: 48GP, 13G-8A-21P), D Matt Gilroy (HE: 45GP, 8G-29A-37P), D Ryan McDonagh (WCHA: 36GP, 5G-11A-16P), C Vaclav Prospal (TB: 82GP, 19G-26A-45P), C Tyler Arnason (COL: 71GP, 5G-17A-22P)
C Scott Gomez (58P), D Paul Mara (76GP), D Derek Morris (4PPP), C Blair Betts (49.3FO%), LW Markus Naslund (24G), RW Nik Antropov (13P in 18GP), LW Fredrik Sjostrom (3SHP), RW Colton Orr (193PIM), LW Lauri Korpikoski (14P)
What Makes Them Tick
King Henrik has earned the nickname for his stellar play with the Rangers and pretty much being the only reason this team contends for a playoff spot instead of a lottery pick.
The Olympic Gold medal winner will have a difficult task this season balancing the amount of games he plays for the blue shirts and the important piece he plays in his country’s defense of its Olympic Gold.
The development of young players like RW Ryan Callahan (22 goals last season), C Brandon Dubinsky (13G-28A-41P), D Marc Staal (15P), and D Dan Girardi (22P) are encouraging for a team that usually relies on free-agent acquisitions.
These are all players you can build a team around and have shown that, when asked, can step into a prominent role.
What Could Make Them Go Boom
Another offseason full of changes for a team trying to find its identity post-Jaromir Jagr.
Out goes free-agent disappointment Gomez and in comes widely talented, but often injured, Gaborik. Since the lockout, the 27-year-old, two-time All-Star has averaged .59 goals per game, which ranks second only to Alexander Ovechkin.
The problem is that, in his eight-year career, he has averaged only 62.3 games played a season. So last year’s 17 games played brought his average down.
It also will be interesting to see how so many new faces and a fairly new head coach—with the knack of getting under his players' skin—mesh.
Defensively, they are still very thin, relying on liabilities like Wade Redden (-5 last season) and Michal Rozsival (-7 last season), and the unproven abilities of Hobey Baker-winner Gilroy, Bobby Sanguinetti, and/or Ryan McDonagh.
Player to Watch
Mark Messier is back as special assistant to Glen Sather. I would watch him to make a real impact on this club.
Haha, not really, but I had to throw that in there.
Higgins was not just a player brought in to save the team millions in cap hit so they can go out and acquire another front-line scorer.
Oh wait, yes he was.
But he still is going to be key to this team’s offensive woes. The Rangers ranked 28th in offense last season (2.44GPG) and addressed that need with Higgins.
The New York native has proven he can score in this league—he had three straight seasons of 20+ goals until last year’s injury-plagued 12-goal campaign. The former first-round pick of the Canadiens and All-American at Yale will be asked to show he is worth all those accolades, for the Rangers only signed him to a one-year deal.
This division will get four teams in the playoffs again with the Rangers being the fourth.
Lundqvist is one of the top goaltenders in the NHL, but if the Rangers are smart, they will give him more rest knowing the Olympics are looming for the Swede.
Gaborik will be a treat for the East Coast fans that did not get to see him play out West. Rangers’ fans remember him well, as he scored five goals against them in a game back in December of 2007. The health worries me like it does everyone else, but this team can’t score any less goals than they did last season.
Overall, the Rangers will float in the middle of the pack all season and should secure the eighth and final playoff spot.
5. New York Islanders
So the only thing that went well for the New York Islanders last season was that they won the NHL lottery with an NHL-worst 61 points, and earned the right to select franchise player John Tavares.
In a season that saw their starting goalie Rick DiPietro play only five games with a knee/hip injury, the Islanders shifted perennial minor leaguers Joey MacDonald and Yann Danis into the net.
The team’s struggle to score goals (2.42GPG) was showed by the fact they were led in points by defenseman Mark Streit.
The free-agent signee was one of the lone bright spots on the team. The All-Star’s 16 goals and 40 assists showed the league that he is not just a power-play specialist, but also—by managing to be a +6 with 25 minutes of ice time a game—is a steady two-way player.
C John Tavares (OHL: 56GP, 58 G-46A-104P) G Dwayne Roloson (EDM: 28-24-9, 2.77GAA, .915SV%), G Martin Biron (PHI: 29-19-5, 2.76GAA, .915SV%)
G Joey MacDonald (14W), G Yann Danis (10W), C Mike Sillinger (Class player), LW Andy Hilbert (11G), LW Dean McAmmond (16P)
What Makes Them Tick
Confetti fell to the floor of Nassau Coliseum when the Islanders drafted Tavares, thus shifting the franchise from oft-injured DiPietro to the fresh-faced 19-year-old scoring sensation.
The résumé of the 6'0'' center is long and full of awards, records, and prestige. He will be expected to be the savior both on and off the ice for this franchise that finished dead last in attendance.
Doug Weight, who is 38, returns as the much-needed veteran presence and did contribute 21 of his 38 points on the power play last year.
Adding a duo of goaltenders (Roloson and Biron) will also stabilize the team’s back line.
What Could Make Them Go Boom
When the owner comes out and says he regrets buying the team and then threatens to move the team in your offseason because of problems updating an old and outdated stadium, you cannot consider this a booming franchise.
Though it was nice to see 10,000 fans come out to watch the selection of Tavares, it is not a good sign that Charles Wang is playing a preseason game in Kansas City as the Lighthouse Project continues to battle on.
I mention all the off-ice issues with this team because it affects the on-ice talent.
With the uncertainty and financial woes of this team, they are forced to play young and inexpensive players. Tavares should help the offense, but now with the injury to Kyle Okposo, there is not much depth behind him.
Player to Watch
I think I have talked enough about Tavares in this preview, so let’s turn our focus toward another first-round pick that is going to play a prominent role on this team.
Okposo was selected seventh overall in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft and left school early to make an immediate scoring impact on the Islanders. The 21-year-old center/winger led the team with 18 goals last season and will be looked upon to improve on that number.
His season did not start on a good note as he was carted off the ice on a stretcher after receiving a devastating open-ice hit from Dion Phaneuf in a preseason game. He was diagnosed with a mild concussion and the Islanders organization hopes there are no lingering effects on a player that they are counting on so heavily this season.
Tavares will be “as advertised” for this team and, as long as Okposo’s injury does not linger, they will have to be better offensively.
Both goalies feel they have something to prove to the league that has told them they are not good enough to start for a contending team.
I could see the Islanders turning one or both goaltenders into draft picks at the trade deadline, but beyond hoarding more picks, and Tavares finally playing in the NHL, there is not much more to be excited about on Long Island.