I know it may come as a surprise to everyone, but ESPN does indeed care about hockey—or at least, they're pretending to this summer.
Scott Burnside released his NHL Summer Power Rankings on Friday, and the Pittsburgh Penguins sat atop the list of Eastern Conference teams.
Burnside calls the Penguins' lineup for next season the "most formidable lineup down the middle of any team in the NHL."
While this seems like a bold statement, I'd be hard-pressed to find another team in the league with two more offensively talented centermen than Crosby and Malkin. Throw the defensive-minded, big-bodied, penalty-killing specialist Jordan Staal into the mix, and you have a very solid corps of centermen.
I'd even go as far as saying that Maxime Talbot is among the top three fourth-line centers in the NHL heading into next season.
The Penguins have replaced the players they lost to free agency this summer rather well—Satan and Fedotenko for Malone and Roberts, Cooke for Ruutu, and Godard for Laraque.
It will be these role players, along with the continued development of youngsters such as Tyler Kennedy, Kris Letang, and Marc-Andre Fleury that will determine if the Penguins can repeat as Atlantic Division Champs in 2008-09.
Looking solely at the Atlantic Division, Burnside has the Flyers ranked third, followed in fourth by the Rangers, and the New Jersey Devils sitting in the sixth slot in the East. There is another team, based out of Long Island, that also competes in the Atlantic Division—but we just won't go there, for the sake of common courtesy.
According to Burnside, the Atlantic Division will once again fill four out of the available eight playoff seeds in the Eastern Conference.
By now you all know I'm not one to make predictions, but this seems like a pretty logical wager.
With the loss of Jagr, Straka, and possibly Shanahan, the Rangers will have a much more youthful look to their lineup next season—but not necessarily a better one.
They have bolstered their defensive corps by adding Zherdev and Kalinin, and overpaying for Redden. Henrik Lundqvist is still, in my opinion, the best goalie in the Eastern Conference. If the Rangers can ride King Henry's coattails all season long, I don't see why they will finish below the top five.
The New Jersey Devils have Martin Brodeur—therefore, they will make the playoffs. The Devils are one of those teams that is always better than you think they will be. They play their defensive system extremely well—and with the addition of Rolston, they should pack a little more offensive punch next year.
Burnside has the Flyers sitting in third place in the East. While I would like to say that the Flyers will finish dead last in the NHL standings, that simply isn't going to happen. It took a true team effort to earn the Flyers a place in the Eastern Conference Finals last season, but I don't look for them to repeat as the second-best team in the East next year.
Martin Biron still seems too inconsistent—especially competing with such talent as Brodeur, Lundqvist, and Fleury within the division—to allow the Flyers to finish any higher than fifth place.
The Penguins' hopes to repeat as Atlantic Division Champions and regain the title of Eastern Conference Champions next season will depend on two major factors:
First, we've seen that the Penguins can win with their big guns out of the lineup. But will the new Penguins, such as Satan, Fedotenko, Pesonen, and Cooke, be able to pick up where their role-playing counterparts of Malone, Roberts, Hall, Laraque, and Ruutu left off last season?
Secondly, consistency is a must. The Penguins started out last season a bit too rocky. They didn't get rolling on all cylinders until late in November—Thanksgiving night to be exact. That can't happen this season.
I understand that it will take time for the new players to mesh with the guys who have played in the Penguins system already, but it can't be too slow of a process if the Penguins hope to regain the Eastern Conference crown.
Marc-Andre Fleury proved in the playoffs that he has blossomed into a top-tier goaltender, and with the increased inter-Conference play next season, Fleury will be tested on a nightly basis.
The talent is there. Now all that's left to do is play the games.
Let's Go Pens.
Source: ESPN Summer Power Rankings
Article posted in full at: Experiencing the Evolution.