In the 2007-2008 season the constant battling between the teams in the Atlantic division made for a very interesting Eastern Conference playoff race and caused much jockeying for positions one through eight.
After 82 games, 50 percent of the playoff-bound teams in the East were from the Atlantic division. It appears that with the changes made by the four playoff teams that all four should be back in the playoffs again.
However, I believe this season the standings may look a tad different in the Atlantic division than they did last season. In 2008 Pittsburgh led the Atlantic with 102 points, followed by the Devils (99), Rangers (97), and Flyers (95).
Here is my prediction for what the Atlantic division standings will look like come April 2009:
1st—New York Rangers—101 Points
The "Broadway Blueshirts" lost Jagr to the Kontinental Hockey League and Martin Straka to the Czech League. To many these may look like huge losses. The reality, however, is that they aren't.
The last couple of seasons, Glen Sather and Tom Renney have tried to bring more of a team concept to the Rangers, as opposed to the "Jagr and a bunch of other guys" strategy. Although Jagr performed well for the most part, there were many occasions over the last few seasons where he didn't look totally pleased with what was going on around him.
The Rangers have some very solid young forwards in Brandon Dubinsky and Nigel Dawes, and on the back-end Daniel Girardi and Marc Staal should be even better than they were last year.
The additions of Wade Redden and Dmitri Kalinin will give the Rangers further stability on defense. They already had one of the top goalies in the league between the pipes in Henrik Lundqvist.
Although Scott Gomez and Chris Drury had respectable seasons, I expect an improvement upon last year.
Markus Naslund was acquired from Vancouver and even while struggling the last couple of seasons on a rather weak Canucks squad he has hit the 20+ goal mark. Naslund will rebound nicely with the Rangers. He required a change of scenery and New York may be a perfect fit for the slick Swede.
Nikolai Zherdev could turn out to be one of the best trades of the offseason. He registered 26 goals and 61 points for a bad Columbus team under one of the most difficult coaches for offensive players to play for in Ken Hitchcock.
Zherdev, who has the ability to score from anywhere in the offensive zone should get a plethora of chances to do so if lined up on the wing with Scott Gomez.
2nd—Pittsburgh Penguins—99 Points
The Pens won't look much different than they did up until the NHL trade deadline in February, when they added Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis. Dupuis remains in Pittsburgh, and Hossa has since bolted for the Motor City.
Roberts and Malone are both in Tampa Bay, and Laraque has moved back to his hometown of Montreal. Added were Miroslav Satan, Ruslan Fedotenko, Matt Cooke, and Eric Goddard.
All in all Pittsburgh shouldn't miss a beat. The Pens still have the best and youngest core of centres in the league with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal, all a year older, wiser, and (while it's scary to think about) probably better.
The emergence of Marc-Andre Fleury as a true game-stealer is the reason why the Penguins only drop to second place in the Atlantic.
3rd—Philadelphia Flyers—97 Points
The two biggest issues for the Flyers in 2007-2008 were injuries and inconsistency, which usually go hand in hand. The lost of Simon Gagne early in the season, who was limited to 25 games in the entire year, caused John Stevens to shuffle his lines to try and find the right combination with Danny Briere.
Joffrey Lupul, who only played 56 games and was one of the hottest goal-scorers in the league when he was obliterated by Derian Hatcher. Hatcher was trying to deck Alex Steen of the Maple Leafs.
Being so close to the cap ceiling GM Paul Holmgren was not able to do very much in the offseason. A few minor deals and signings were all the Flyers were able to do. Although minor, these transactions could prove to be more major than they first appear.
Steve Eminger, Ossi Vanaanen, and Ryan Parent should give the Flyers far more mobility in the back-end than they enjoyed last season. This was a major contributor to their inconsistency.
Glen Metropolit and Aaron Asham were signed to pick up where Sami Kapanen and Jim Dowd left off. "Metro" is among the best faceoff men and penalty killers in the East and is a personal friend of mine, so I'm very happy to see him don the orange, black, and white.
If Steve Downie can progress and Claude Giroux is able to provide some more offense (assuming he makes the big club), the Flyers should be able to solve their consistency issues and finish third in the Atlantic.
4th—New Jersey Devils—92 Points
The Devils are a model of consistency. Year in and year out they seem to exceed expectations. Never a major player in the UFA market, Lou Lamoriello is able to keep his team not only competitive, but dangerous as well.
New Jersey will have a chance to win every night with a goalie like Martin Brodeur. Brodeur is the straw that stirs that drink, and that's a pretty important straw.
During the offseason the Devils brought back a couple of old faces in Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik. These two players will fit beautifully into what is going on in New Jersey.
Rolston will add some scoring, and if used at the point on the power play like he was in Minnesota, should help improve that aspect of their game. Holik will be yet another tough player for the opponent's stars to play against.
Goals will again be an area that New Jersey will struggle with. Could this be the season it catches up to them? Patrik Elias no longer scores at the pace he once did. Brian Gionta showed some serious signs of missing Gomez and may not get back to the 40-goal mark again.
Zach Parise will surely become "Mr. Everything" in the swamp and that's not a bad thing for Devils fans, but it may not be enough. Brodeur's age will start to show and New Jersey, once again, will not provide the offensive support he could use on a lot of nights.
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