The Atlantic Division will be strong again this year, as in years past. Will they continue to provide four teams to the post-season dance is the question? With a little luck, they just might be able to do just that.
Pittsburgh Penguins - What can they do for an encore? I guess win it all. Not saying that is going to happen, but they would have to be considered a favorite to repeat as Eastern Conference Champions. Although they did lose some key pieces in Marian Hossa, and Ty Conklin. Just having Ty Conklin and key piece in the same sentence seems a little odd, but he came in and performed better than anyone thought he could for the Pens.
Forwards - The loss of Hossa gives some new comers a chance to play with world-class linemates. Imagine Fedotenko’s luck going from having Mike Comrie as his centre to Crosby or Malkin. That is by no means meant to be a knock on Comrie. Any team that boasts Crosby and Malkin up the middle will be fine. Look for Jordan Staal to make up move up the depth chart, and play the wing with either Crosby or Malkin.
Defense - The Penguins did get some bad news on the blue line to start the year. Ryan Malone will be out until after Christmas. As long as he is ready for the post season, all will be fine in the Igloo on defense. Look for Alex Goligoski to get a long look on the PP to start the season.
In Goal - For a time over parts of the past two seasons, people were beginning to wonder when or if Marc-Andre Fleury would become the goalie he was projected to become after leaving the Screaming Eagles of Cape Breton. Well, almost losing the starters job to Ty Conklin was exactly what Mr. Fleury needed to be pushed in the right direction. No one is questioning his ability now (maybe it was the canary-yellow goal pads).
Prognosis – 1st in Division, and 2nd in Conference
Philadelphia Flyers – This team has the potential to take hold of the East, and represent them in the Stanley Cup Finals as well. They lost R.J. Umberger, a quality depth scorer. So who do they have waiting to fill his shoes? Claude Giroux is my pick to take a full time NHL role.
Forwards - Any team that is this deep at Centre (Jeff Carter as your third option?) has to be considered a favorite. With Mike Richards, Daniel Briere, and a healthy Simon Gagne, they have the talent to fill three scoring lines.
Defense - Look for more scoring from the point this year. Braydon Coburn is the real deal. With Coburn and Timonen on the point on the Power Play, they should really light things up.
In Goal - Finally, Mathieu Biron answered any and all of his critics in the playoffs last year, proving to his nay sayers that he is in fact a starting goalie in this league. With some quality starts from Antero Niittymaki to allow Biron some rest, the Flyers seems set in goal.
Prognosis – 2nd in Division and 4th in Conference
New YorkRangers – Any team with a goalie like Henrik Lundquist would have to be even money to win every game they are in. So assuming that they have some decent forwards and defensemen around (which they do), look for them to make it to the post season as well.
Forwards - They were able to lure Markus Naslund away from the Canucks, but how effective is a 35 year old Naslund? How effective does he have to be is the better question. With top-line talent the likes of Chris Drury and Scott Gomez, Naslund can be a steady presence in the locker room, and add some depth scoring. Also, look for big things from Nikolai Zherdev this year. Assuming he comes ready to play every night, he should be approaching the point-per-game mark this season. Also look for Nigel Dawes and Brandon Dubinsky to increase their production. All this and I didn’t mention number 68’s departure. I don’t think he will be missed as much as some people seem to think.
Defense - They are young and solid. The oldest projected starter (wade Redden) was 31 in June. And the emergence of Marc Staal as a real solid shut-down defenseman at the age of 21 is great news for the Rangers.
In Goal - Did I mention they have a world-class goalie? Although it has become quite acceptable for goalies to play 70+ games, I think a reduction in playing time would be the potion for success. If Stephen Valiquette is able to get into 20 games for the Rangers, look for King Henrik to potentially dominate the playoffs. Lundquist is young (26), and still is not in his prime. Kind of a scary thought for the rest of the NHL.
Prognosis – 3rd in Conference and 6th in Division
New Jersey Devils – This is where the luck comes into play. They are still a solid team, with the greatest goalie to ever come out of Quebec in net (sorry Mr. Roy). Do they have enough in the other areas to make the playoffs is the question.
Forwards - The focus will be on Zach Parise. He will continue to push toward the point-per game mark this year. He is not the biggest guy, but has proven to be quite durable having only missed two games in the past three years. Outside of Parise and Patrik Elias, who will score for this team? Brian Gionta doesn’t seem to quite fit into what Brent Sutter is looking for, and Travis Zajac took a real step back in his second full year in the NHL. If Zajac and others can find their scoring, the Devils may squeak into the playoffs as the eighth seed.
Defense - The Devils have a serviceable group with no big names that grab your attention. They are good 1-6, not great. Look for a break out from Johnny Oduya this season on the power play.
In goal - When is Martin Brodeur going to show his age? He is still in the top five in the NHL for goalies at the age of 36. I expect him to continue to be there this year as well. The team would fair better if they had more faith in their backup to win some games for them, but until that happens look for Marty to play 70+ games, and keep them in the playoff race until the final week. Will it be enough?
Prognosis – Will be in the playoff race until the final week, but will finish just out in 9th, and 4th in the division
New YorkIslanders – From Captain Highliner uniforms to a crook for an owner to dismissing the GM after six weeks in office to…who knows. The focus with this team for so long has been off the ice, and not on the ice. Sadly, that continued this past off-season with the dismissal of Ted Nolan after the entry draft. If you want to go in a new direction with your coach, fine, but make the move after the season, and before the draft, it only makes sense.
Forwards - The Islanders have a full-on youth movement. Their lines to start the season will look a lot like the line up from Bridgeport last year. Not to say that is necessarily a bad thing. They have some proven NHL scorers whose best years are behind them in Doug Weight and Bill Guerin. This is the year for players like Sean Bergenheim, Jeff Tambelini and Jon Sim to prove they really do belong. They will all have time on the top line this year, as the Islanders do not have top line talent. This will be the year to see if they have some prospects with top line potential as well. This would include Kyle Okposo, Blake Comeau, Frans Nielsen, Ben Walter, and Mike Iggulden. All of these players should see some time with the big club.
Defense - The blueline actually looks solid on the Island. The only thing that could upset their blueline is the injury bug which wreaked havoc with this group last year. But with the addition of Mark Streit, the group has a proven quarterback for their powerplay. You add Radek Martinek, Brendan Witt, and Andy Sutton to the mix; you have a solid group of veteran blueliners. The only question that remains is where Chris Campoli and Bruno Gervais fit into the mix, as they both proved last year that they belong.
In Goal - 12 more years. That is what the Islander team has for a goalie. I am not sure there is a goalie in the world regardless of sport with more self confidence, which is a good thing when you sign a 15 year contract. Assuming his now bionic legs are fine, the Islanders should be good in goal, but need to find a backup who can take some of the pressure off Rick Dipietro.
Prognosis – will be competitive most nights, but the best they can hope for is the tough choice, Victor Hedman or John Tavares.
The long and the short of it, the Atlantic Division should again see the finalist from the East coming from their division. They have three teams with a legitimate shot at getting to the final series. Is it the best division in hockey? The argument could be made, with the Pacific Division being right there with them. I will go with the division that boasts Crosby, Malkin, Lundquist, Briere, and Brodeur, thank you.