NHL Atlantic Division Preview

Greg CaggianoSenior Writer ISeptember 9, 2008

When one looks at all the divisions in the National Hockey League, the Atlantic stands out amongst all others.

The reason for that is simple—this division is perhaps the only division that could feature four teams going to the playoffs and each of those teams winning forty games and finishing with at least ninety-five points.

In this article, there will be a short breakdown of each of the five Atlantic Division teams, and above that, a final standings projection. With each team breakdown, there will also be player stat projections for the top three point scorers and number-one goalie for each team.


Final Standings Projection

1. New York Rangers (47-25-10; 104 points)
2. Pittsburgh Penguins (46-28-8; 100 points)
3. Philadelphia Flyers (44-28-10; 98 points)
4. New Jersey Devils (42-29-11; 95 points)
5. New York Islanders (31-43-8; 70 points)


Team Breakdowns

1. New York Rangers

As soon as fans realized the direction this team was heading in after the free agency period came to an end, they either loved it or hated it. Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka, and Sean Avery were let go, and fans were quick to jump down Glen Sather's throat. They argued that without Jagr, Straka, Avery—and possibly Shanahan—that there is no way for this team to succeed.

Well, the same reasons that people give for the team's imminent failure, I use as a reason for success. No longer is this team centered around Jagr and his style of play, and no longer do they have to put up with locker-room cancer Sean Avery and his antics off the ice. There are no more egos, but rather a solid crop of players hungry to win.

Without Jagr and Shanahan, all of the major Cup-winning experience is gone, but by bringing in players that have immense skill but have never won a Cup, it makes the situation all the more interesting.

The two biggest moves by the Rangers were bringing in Markus Naslund and Nikolai Zherdev, players both hungry for a Stanley Cup. It is also a contract year for Zherdev, and he'll be eager to prove his worth in New York. Pair those wingers with centers Chris Drury and Scott Gomez, and this team has all the pieces of the championship puzzle.

Will they win the Stanley Cup this season? Probably not, but they will get closer to it then they have in the last twelve seasons.

Another player that will bring them closer is Wade Redden. Although his tenure in Ottawa didn't end happily, he becomes the first real power play quarterback the franchise has had since Brian Leetch—and that says a lot. His contract may be enormous and un-economical, but he is the type of player this team will need in the long run, as the power play was awful last season.

Michal Rozsival is also coming off a huge contract signing, and without Jagr calling for the puck every time he has it, he will shoot more and score more goals (keep in mind his goal scoring total has increased in each of his three seasons with the Rangers). Also adding to the defense are youngsters Dan Girardi and Marc Staal and experienced blue liners Paul Mara and Dmitri Kalinin. The Rangers' defensive corps has been and will be one of the best in the league, and if you get passed them, there's always Henrik Lundqvist to bail them out. Nothing else needs to be said about "The King."

Rangers Players Stat Projections

1. C-Scott Gomez (18 G, 71 A, 89 P)
2. LW-Markus Nalsund (39 G, 40 A, 79 P)
3. LW-Nikolai Zherdev (36 G, 31 A, 67 P)
4. G-Henrik Lundqvist (41-22-9)


2. Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins won the Atlantic Division last season.  Say what you want about Marian Hossa's role in that, but he was still a big factor. A perennial forty-goal scorer, Hossa helped the team not only win the division, but go to the Stanley Cup Finals—and now he is no longer with the team.

His replacement could very well be the two ex-Islanders the Penguins brought in—Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedetenko. The two of them could each score twenty goals or more and make up for the loss of Hossa, but they don't add the intimidation factor.

I will not dwell on that, though, because the Penguins still have the second- and third-best players in the league, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Both players will add thirty goals or more and near one hundred points. Add to them complementary players like Petr Sykora and Jordan Staal, and the offense is set for the boys in Steel Town.

The Penguins also lost agitator Jarrko Ruutu, but may see a replacement in the young Matt Cooke, who came over from Vancouver. Not only does Cooke have the ability to get under the skin of opponents, but he can also put the puck in the net.

As for the rest of the forwards, they have a solid four lines, but they are missing just one thing—an enforcer. With Georges Laraque on the move to Montreal, the Penguins will either have to acquire a fighter or hope they can find someone in the system.

On defense, their corps is solid for the most part, even though they will miss Ryan Whitney for most of the season. Sergei Gonchar will lead the blue line offensively with his Norris-caliber play, while Brooks Orpik will continue to add bone-crunching hits and clear the crease. Darryl Sydor will also add veteran leadership to this still very young team.

In goal, Marc-Andre Fleury will be the number one—and although very skilled, he has yet to impress me. Maybe it's because of his offensive support.  With an offense like Pittsburgh's, his play can slip heavily and he would still win games.

Penguins Players Stat Projections

1. C-Sidney Crosby (30 G, 64 A, 94 P)
2. C-Evgeni Malkin (50 G, 38 A, 88 P)
3. RW-Petr Sykora (31 G, 34 A, 65 P)
4. G-Marc Andre Fleury (40-26-6)


3. Philadelphia Flyers

In just one offseason, the Flyers went from a last-place finish and league embarrassment to recording ninety-five points and fourty-two wins.  They stormed to the conference finals before ultimately losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

During that stretch, they proved they could compete with the best of teams—and with virtually the same roster this season, there is no reason to believe the team will be worse off.  Their young players are hitting their prime and their older, more experienced veterans aren't ancient.

With that said, they have a solid crop that can score and play defense. Led by Daniel Briere, Jeff Carter, and Mike Richards on offense, they will always find clutch scoring, as Briere will be much better in his second season in Philadelphia. Simon Gagne is also rumored to be healthy and he could very well add another thirty goals.

Also adding to the forwards is my favorite Flyer, Scott Hartnell. Not only can he score goals, but he can also agitate and fight. He is like a fantasy hockey player's dream—he will fill up all three major stat categories, as long as the dumb penalties stay to a low level. The Flyers also added grinding veterans like Arron Asham and Glen Metropolit to shore up the bottom two lines.

The defense is led the steady and dangerous Derian Hatcher, who is always ready to make a big hit. He may be slower then in years past, but that doesn't take away from the fear he puts into opponents. When he's out on the ice, the forwards better have their heads up.

Also adding to the veteran defense is Kimmo Timmonen, who is very good at working the power play. Other blue liners worth noting are Braydon Coburn—who could be a future Eric Desjardin—and Randy Jones.

The only problem I really have with this team is goaltending. Even though he led the team to the conference finals, Biron has yet to impress me. His goaltending has been shaky at times but he seems to get the job done. His backup is Antero Nittymaki, a solid goaltender—but one I wouldn't want to have as my number one if Biron got injured.

Flyers Players Stat Projections

1. Daniel Briere (39 G, 43 A, 82 P)
2. Mike Richards (30 G, 49 A, 79 P)
3. LW-Simon Gagne (36 G, 30 A, 66 P)
4. G-Martin Biron (34-22-8)


4. New Jersey Devils

As a Ranger fan, it kills me to praise a team such as the Devils—but I'm generally an honest person, and I give credit where credit is due. The only pieces this team was missing last season to make a legitimate run were another goal scorer and a grinding, defensive forward. They accomplished both of those by acquiring my favorite non-Ranger, Brian Rolston, and former Devil Bobby Holik.

By adding Rolston, they added the complete package—goal scoring, playmaking, speed, forechecking, backchecking, penalty killing, power-play quarterbacking, and veteran leadership. It's almost impossible for one player to possess all of these attributes, but Rolston in fact does.

Last season, the Devils finally decided to use Jay Pandolfo and John Madden in a more offensively-oriented role—and by doing that, they no longer had a solid defensive forward to "shadow" the opposing team's best players. By bringing back Holik, they no longer have to worry.

The Devils' offense won't be the best in the league, but they will see a vast improvement from last season and sport a solid top six—including Patrik Elias, Zach Parise, Brian Gionta, and the other three players already mentioned.

On defense, Paul Martin and Johnny Oduya are a far cry from Scott Niedermayer and Scott Stevens of just five years ago, but they will lead the way of this "no-name defense."  Because of the system Brent Sutter institutes, it allows for their blue line to not have any stars and still succeed.

Finally, in goal comes the second-greatest goal tender in the history of hockey, Martin Brodeur. As he nears closer to Patrick Roy's wins record and Terry Sawchuk's shutouts record, he will want to play every day—and that will ultimately be the Devils' downfall yet again.

Brodeur is always burnt out by season's end.  If Sutter know's what's best for the team, he will make "Marty" rest, and play their more-than-reliable backup Kevin Weekes more often.

Devils' Player Stat Projections

1. Brian Rolston (37 G, 35 A, 72 P)
2. Zach Parise (36 G, 36 A, 72 P)
3. Patrik Elias (29 G, 32 A, 61 P)
4. Martin Brodeur (40-28-9)


5. New York Islanders

As a Ranger fan, people think that I picked the Islanders to finish in dead last in both the Atlantic Division and the entire league because of bias. Let me tell you flat out—just use common sense and you will know that isn't true.

The team struggled mightily last season, and didn't improve in any facet of their game this offseason. Their leading point scorers will be one of the three following players—Doug Weight, Bill Guerin, and Mike Comrie. To the fans out on the Island, yes, it's that bad.

The team will struggle to score goals, although their power play may see a slight improvement with the addition of Mark Streit. But what boggles my mind is adding Doug Weight, a 37-year-old center. For a team that should be rebuilding, that spot should belong to a young player, not to someone headed to retirement.

As I look up and down that lineup, nowhere do I see a 30-goal scorer, unless Kyle Okposo has a breakout season—and that shows just how bad this team will be. Last season, the only thing that kept them from finishing in dead last was the coaching of Ted Nolan, who got every ounce out of his players.  Now Nolan is gone, with rookie coach Scott Gordon at the helm.

On defense, there is no shortage of grit with players like Brendan Witt and Andy Sutton, but there is an immense shortage of offense. With the exception of Streit, no D-man on this team will score more then ten goals or record more then twenty five points.

Now to goaltending—Rick DiPietro is one of the more talented goal tenders in the league, and he has proven it even with a shaky defense in front of him. But these last two seasons have ended with DiPietro on the injured reserve, and that is a huge problem. After signing the enormous 15-year deal just two seasons ago, he has yet to stay healthy, and gives me no reason to assume he will play a full season this year.

But the last two seasons the Islanders' backup, Wade Dubielwiecz, has come up big—first by leading the team to the playoffs in 2007, then by playing well down the stretch and beating the Rangers' in their final home game last season.

However, Dubielwiecz is no longer with the team and it makes me cringe—or smile, depending on which way to look at it—when I see the possible backup goalie candidates. With guys like Joey Macdonald, Mike Mole, or Mike Morrison coming up, I would be on my hands and knees praying for DiPietro to stay healthy if I was an Islanders' fan right now.

Islanders' Player Stat Projections

1. RW-Bill Guerin (19 G, 33 A, 52 P)
2. C-Mike Comrie (21 G, 22 A, 43 P)
3. RW-Trent Hunter (18 G, 25 A, 43 P)
4. G-Rick DiPietro (24-35-5)


If you would like to read by full Eastern Conference preview, please click here. To listen to the last radio broadcast of NHL 2Day, my radio show co-hosted with Alan Bass, then click here and go to the archives and find episode 1.7.


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