Atlantic Division Preview: Puck Drops As NHL Season Begins
With the NHL season beginning this week, teams have completed their final cut downs, and fans can finally get a look at what their team's roster looks like as they begin their trek towards Lord Stanley's Cup.
Although that goal will only be reached by one team, it is certain that many teams this season will make the competition better than last year, while others will likely continue to stay cellar-dwellers in their division or conference.
Yet no matter the positioning of their teams this season, each has their own bright spots and problems that they will work on to contend for a championship.
Since the Cup traveled to Pittsburgh last year that is where the analysis will begin, where the champions will face a much improved Atlantic Division. Until they are defeated, however, the Penguins will be the team to beat in the NHL.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Anytime someone is speaking about the Pittsburgh Penguins that conversation usually begins with Sidney Crosby and ends with Evgeni Malkin. Both players had over 100 points that season and should repeat that feat again this year.
Few teams can match the talent and grit that Crosby and Malkin have as undoubtedly the most dangerous combination in the league. The frightening thing about these two players has been that they have shown the capability of playing well together despite playing the same position. If they continue to grow, these young stars will, clearly, become Hall of Famers.
Following Malkin and Crosby is Jordan Staal. Staal is an amazing talent and one of the many Staal brothers in the NHL. As the third wheel in Pittsburgh, Staal will likely be limited to under 50 points, but on any other team would be making a push for 70.
Tyler Kennedy should also help Pittsburgh maintain their title as he develops into not only a complementary player, but someone who eventually could reach the 50-point plateau if given the opportunity.
Winger Ruslan Fedotenko seems to work well with the young Penguins and provides them with a gritty player who knows his role on the team.
Young right winger, Matt Cooke, adds toughness and 30-point potential too, while the 6'4'' Eric Godard brings even more toughness that will send him to the penalty box plenty of times this season. Accompanying Godard should be new acquisition, and former New Jersey Devil, Mike Rupp, who is now a veteran among many young, but talented players.
On the defensive side of the puck, defensive stalwart Sergei Gonchar is trying to get back on track after being injured last season and playing in less than a third of Pittsburgh's title run.
Young, 22 year old, Kris Letang will do his best to not only help Gonchar, but also make a run at 40 points this season. Brooks Orpik and Mark Eaton will continue to fill their complementary roles on the defensive side.
Not showing much by way of offense, and concentrating on keeping the puck out of their zone is exactly these little recognized defenseman fit the team so well.
Anchoring the defense as always will be Marc-Andre Fleury, who proved to the nation that he can be the No. 1 goaltender in the NHL.
Ranking in the top 10 in every category, Fleury should return to full form once the season starts. The Atlantic division should stay in Pittsburgh's hands if Fleury and their two stars stay healthy.
New Jersey Devils: Somehow the Devils always manage to launch themselves into the playoffs despite not having any proclaimed superstar outside of Martin Brodeur. The closest thing to Brodeur, however, is 25-year-old Zach Parise. A rising star, Parise should manage to break the 100-point barrier this year and possibly garner a balanced 50 points and 50 assists to do it.
Jamie Langenbrunner will play second fiddle to Parise as he makes a push towards a 60-point season. Langenbrunner will probably never get the recognition he deserves, but he epitomizes what it means to be a New Jersey Devil, and plays with the passion that helps them succeed.
At age 36, right winger Brian Rolston will try to return to the form that helped him score 60 points a season ago, but his leadership is what the Devils will value as their young forwards develop.
One of those forwards, center Travis Zajac, had a breakout season last year and will try to repeat that performance. Danius Zubrus will try to repeat his 40-point total last year as one of the many underrated free agent signings New Jersey has pulled off in the past few years. The big winner this year should be right winger David Clarkson.
With Brendan Shannahan gone, Clarkson will get more minutes to produce and take the next step that the Devils are waiting for. A 40-to-50-point season should be reasonable for Clarkson this year.
The Devils defense is full of complete players. John Oduya was, arguably, New Jersey's best defenseman after playing all 82 games last season, while Paul Martin should continue to be the veteran anchor that the Devils rely on all season.
Andy Greene should be the player to improve the most after last season, while Mike Mottau and Colin White continue their gritty play that kept them on the top lines for parts of last season. Providing toughness and a boatload of penalty minutes, Bryce Salvador will come back and give New Jersey a player other teams should watch out for.
With little worry for anything else, the Devils should keep tabs on Martin Brodeur. His age should keep his starts and minutes limited to keep him at his best and most dominant. If Brodeur stays healthy, New Jersey will be competing for the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference crowns once again.
Philadelphia Flyers: With possibly the most proven and overall complete players, the Flyers have an arsenal of scorers. Captain Daniel Briere is trying to come back from a lost season to injury and reach the 70-point plateau as he did the year before.
Young center Jeff Carter should also reach that plateau as he loses some scoring chances to Briere, despite having a breakout season last year.
Left wing, Simon Gagne and Scottie Hartnell will come up short in their point leap towards Briere and Carter, but provide the Flyers with possibly the best pair of left wings in the league.
The big story this year could possibly be the progression of Dan Carcillo who came to Philadelphia in the Scottie Upshall trade. Carcillo could eventually turn the Flyers' dominant pair of left wings into a trio. Captain Mike Richard will not only center the first line, but also reach the 75-point mark again this year as he proves to the Flyers that he is a 90-point scorer in the making.
With such a strong offense, Philadelphia's defense will be under much scrutiny this year. New acquisition and former Anaheim Duck, Chris Pronger, will give the Flyers a force that few forwards can or will want to come face to face with as he has little fear of physical contact, or the penalty box.
Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle should take the next step in a young defensive foundation for the Devils, while Ryan Parent should take a huge step in gaining the confidence of his teammates, despite his lack of experience. Kimmo Timonen will likely be the big scorer for the defense as a 50-point season is not too far out of his reach.
Yet despite their improved defensemen, the Flyers main concern will be new starter and former Ottawa Senator goalie, Ray Emery. Emery struggled last year, barely winning over 50 percent of his games, and will be under the most scrutiny early in the season.
If Emery can find a way to turn that 50 percent into a 65 percent, the Flyers' offense will probably be able to outplay most of the other NHL teams' defenses, and give them a shot at one of the top three seeds in the conference. If not, they should see themselves at the bottom of the playoff picture.
New York Islanders: One team that shouldn't be seeing the playoff picture closely will be the New York Islanders. If they are seeing that picture they probably need to have their eyes checked at season's end. The Islanders have one of the youngest and most inexperienced teams in the NHL.
The No. 1 overall pick in this year's draft, John Tavares, has made the team and the future of the franchise lies in his hands. Known as a prolific scorer, Tavares will team with another young center, Josh Bailey, to begin a rebuilding phase that the Islanders will be experiencing for the next few years.
They may not be Crosby and Malkin, but if Bailey can play all 82 games and make the jump to 40 or 50 points this season, the Isles have something to look forward to. At the wings, the Isles have Blake Comeau and and Kyle Okposo, both of whom are looking for breakout seasons. Comeau should be in store for a 15 goal, 25 assist year, while Okposo should split his point totals with a 50-point season.
If Comeau and Okposo can show that they play well with Bailey and Tavares, it will only make the future much brighter for a dim franchise. Captain Richard Park is slowly becoming a role player, but should still garner a 40-point season with better center play beside him.
Defensively, the Islanders don't have much, but they do have Mart Streit. Streit should be their best defenseman this season and score 50 to 60 points to show enough value that could make him a valuable trade acquisition for a team looking for a veteran that can score.
Outside of Streit, Bruno Gervais and Jack Hillen give the Islanders some building blocks for a team looking to play defense before offense and improve on their miserable penalty killing from last year.
Despite a young and inexperienced defense, the Islanders do have goalie Rick DiPietro. DiPietro has much to prove after signing a contract for over 12 years and 100 million dollars only a season ago. He has the talent to come close to that value, but if he can't stay healthy as he failed to do so last year, the Islanders will be in for an even longer season that will leave them with possibly the worst record in the league once again.
If Tavares and Bailey can give some life to the franchise, the Islander faithful will at least be entertained as they look forward to the future.
New York Rangers: The Rangers are probably the hardest team to project in the Eastern Conference, let alone the Atlantic Division.
The newest, possibly overpaid free agent signing, Marian Gaborik, will dictate the Rangers season. Gaborik has proven that he can be an 80 point per season player that few defenseman can stop. He has proven that he can be a leader and an amazing puck handler. Yet he has also proven that he can hurt his groin playing hacky sack (yes, the childhood game that I thought never required stretching before playing).
Playing Robin to Gaborik's batman, Chris Drury will also attempt to prove himself worthy of the major contract General Manager Glen Sather dished out a couple of seasons ago.
At 33, Drury will be trying to reach a 60-point mark that he has yet to reach as a Ranger. Behind Drury and Gaborik lies centers Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky. Dubinsky showed flashes of outstanding play last year and should build on that as he anchors the second line. Callahan should be able to build on last season, and along with Dubinsky, aim for the 50-to-60-point mark.
New addition and former Montreal Canadian, Christopher Higgins, could easily reach 25 goals and 25 assists, while quickly becoming the Rangers best winger.
Ales Kotalik and Vinny Prospal will likely give the Rangers some extra scoring punch this season as both provide veteran leadership that can stabilize the Rangers' third line.
Sean Avery, and new acquisition Donald Brashear should quickly become New York's most penalized duo as both are known for their aggressive play, rather than scoring prowess (although Avery may soon be known for his designer clothing).
The Rangers' very young defense could be excellent depending on the progression of defenseman Marc Staal. Staal has the ability to take any one scorer out of the game and can physically manhandle other team's top players. However, to truly become elite, Staal will have to take the next step and work on both his puck handling and passing this season.
Helping Staal on the first line will be the little known Dan Girardi. Most New Yorkers hear Girardi and think Yankee manager Joe Girardi. Yet Dan has cemented himself as the No. 2 defenseman in New York, and Rangers fans should get accustomed to him. He may not be the flashiest defenseman, but he is one of the smartest, and mistakes are hard to come by in Girardi's case.
New York's most scrutinized line this year will be the duo of Wade Redden and Michael Roszival. Both clearly overpaid, Redden and Roszival have more to prove than any other Ranger players. Roszival proved to be solid last year and willing to do the dirty work required to stay in New York, but he must do more than that to remain beyond this season.
Redden, once seen as an up-and-coming star, had a terrible season for the Rangers in 2008. Playing more like a fourth-line player than a second-line player, he was slow and could not keep up with forwards skating down the ice. His contract may be difficult to move, but if he can prove some value, the Rangers would be wise to let go of Redden if one of their young prospects plays well.
Playing on the Rangers third-line are two of those young prospects, Matt Gilroy and Michael Del Zotto. Both players proved to coach John Tortorella that they deserved roster spots to open the season and could prove to be the eventual successors of Redden and Roszival if both play well during the first half of the season.
An analysis of the Rangers could not be complete without speaking about Henrik Lundqvist. Lundqvist was worn out last season after being one of the most dominant goaltenders in the NHL. Using backup Steve Valiquette should help the Rangers, as Valiquette proved to be one of the best backups in the NHL last season.
Loved by nearly all Rangers fans, King Henrik has the opportunity to become the best goaltender in the NHL once that goalie across the water in New Jersey decides to hang up his skates.
If Lundqvist can continue his dominance, and Gaborik can stay healthy, the Rangers can compete with the best teams in the Eastern Conference and Atlantic Division. If not, you can expect Glen Sather to be like so many other New Yorkers and looking for a job, while the Rangers compete for the eighth and final spot in the playoffs.
No matter what happens during the season, the Atlantic Division should be, at the very least, entertaining. With so many ifs surrounding teams other than the Penguins, Pittsburgh still has the upper hand. Yet, with the improbability of teams keeping their key players healthy and reaching the Stanley Cup Finals three seasons in a row, Pittsburgh should be well aware of the competition they will face this upcoming season.
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