NHL Power Rankings 2011-2012: The Atlantic Division
The Devils have been lost since Scott Niedermayer left.
The Flyers destroyed their team.
The Islanders are still rebuilding.
The Penguins don't have the depth to win.
The Rangers overpaid for another overhyped Free Agent.
Despite all of the negative headlines, someone still needs to win one of the NHL's most competitive divisions. Who will it be?
As always, comments are welcome and appreciated.
#5: The New York Islanders
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The Islanders are one of the NHL's most frustrating teams to predict.
On paper, they have a tremendous young core featuring John Tavares, Michael Grabner, Blake Comeau, Andrew MacDonald, Travis Hamonic, Nino Niederreiter and Ryan Strome. They have solid veterans Matt Moulson, PA Parenteau, and Marty Reasoner. And they have a solid, if oft-injured netminder in Rick DiPietro.
But on the ice, this is a team that just can't seem to get it right. Part of the problem is veteran leadership, part of the problem is a young and inexperienced defense, and part of the problem is inconsistent goaltending. At best, the club addressed one of those areas of concern—veteran leadership—with the signing of Reasoner.
To remain competitive in a division with as much offensive firepower as the Atlantic, it helps to have defense and goaltending. The Islanders have neither. And that's why, for all of the talent on the Islanders payroll, they will still finish last in the Atlantic. Again.
#4: The New Jersey Devils
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The most significant loss for the New Jersey Devils this offseason was head coach Jacques Lemaire, who officially announced his retirement from the NHL on April 20, 2010. Under Lemaire, the 2010-2011 Devils played inspired hockey, finishing 29-17-3 in their final 49 games after starting the season 9-22-2 under previous coach John MacLean.
Consider the difference between MacLean's Devils and Lemaire's Devils at even strength:
Goals Per Game: MacLean: 1.09; Lemaire: 1.80
Goals Allowed Per Game: MacLean: 2.33; Lemaire: 1.49
The difference between the two coaches is simply astounding, and it goes well beyond just this superficial analysis. The Lemaire Devils simply controlled all aspects of the game to a better degree than the MacLean Devils. The proof is in the pudding.
In terms of actual roster moves, the Devils did draft the best skating defenseman the franchise has seen since Scott Niedermayer in Adam Larsson, who should be able to contribute immediately (he signed an EL deal with the club in July). New Jersey also traded away one of its more consistent forwards in Brian Rolston for the talented but inconsistent Trent Hunter. The club re-signed elite scoring forward Zach Parise, who missed most of the 2010-2011 season due to a knee injury. Parise should provide the Devils with another top-line scoring option alongside Ilya Kovalchuk.
On the defensive end, Larsson should develop into an All-Star blueliner in a few seasons. The rest of the Devils blueline is solid, if not spectacular. But for right now, Martin Brodeur is a year older and is no longer a dominant force in net.
All in all, the 2011-2012 Devils should be fairly competitive, but not nearly as dangerous as the 2010-2011 club under Lemaire. Coaching is one of the most under-rated aspects of a hockey team, and the Devils took a major step backward in that department. Peter DeBoer has had some success at the NHL level (despite never making the playoffs), but he is not Jacques Lemaire, plain and simple. A healthy Parise will certainly help, but in the end, the Devils will still finish fourth in the division and out of the playoff race.
#3: The New York Rangers
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The New York Rangers are nothing if not predictable. Yet again, Rangers GM Glen Sather manages to land the crown jewel of the free agency crop. This time, it was All-Star and former Conn Smythe-winning center Brad Richards, who is expected to anchor the Rangers first line between Marian Gaborik and Brandon Dubinsky. The contract itself was actually reasonable, paying Richards $60 million over nine years ($6.6M AAV)—market price for a centerman of Richards' caliber.
The Rangers also re-signed key RFAs Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky while parting ways with captain Chris Drury, defenseman Brian McCabe, centers Vinny Prospal and Alex Frolov, and LW Matt Gilroy. The loss of Drury's leadership should be filled by presumptive captain Ryan Callahan; the loss of Prospal and Frolov should be negated by the signing of Richards.
On the defensive end, the Rangers have a talented but inexperienced defense corps, led by Marc Staal and Dan Girardi. Up-and-coming young blueliners Michael Del Zotto, Mike Sauer, and Ryan McDonagh all figure to receive significant playing time in the #3-#5 defensive roles. The problem is that the oldest member of the unit is the 27-year-old Girardi. Without a solid veteran presence and another powerplay quarterback, I don't see this unit as more than above average. There are simply too many question marks and too many inexperienced players to think otherwise. The talent is there, to be sure. But right now, the Rangers desperately need some experience and another puck-mover on the backend.
In goal, the Rangers are anchored by franchise netminder Henrik Lundqvist. Lundqvist is among the best in the NHL and he gives the team a chance to win every time he's between the pipes. However, because of that, his workload over the past six seasons is staggering. For King Henrik to remain effective all season, he will need a healthy and effective Martin Biron to provide him some much-needed rest.
All in all, the Rangers should be a playoff team again in 2011-2012. The addition of Richards could help re-awaken Marian Gaborik's scoring touch, and the continued development of the young but talented Ranger blueline should provide some stability. However, there are simply too many question marks—especially on the blueline—to think the Rangers will be dramatically improved from last season. That being said, if the team can remain healthy into the playoffs, they play a physical brand of hockey that could allow them to do some damage. I'd expect the Rangers to finish as either a six or seven seed in the East.
#2: The Philadelphia Flyers
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The Flyers shocked the hockey world when the traded captain and perennial Selke contender Mike Richards to LA and leading goal scorer Jeff Carter to the Blue Jackets for a haul of extremely talented but young forwards. With the cap space created by the Richards and Carter trades, the Flyers inked former Vezina finalists Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year pact worth over $50 million.
The team also parted ways with talented but inconsistent winger Ville Leino, disappointing mid-season acquisition Kris Versteeg, and fan favorites Dan Carcillo, Darroll Powe, Sean O'Donnell, and Brian Boucher. In their place, the team added extremely talented youngsters Wayne Simmonds, Sean Couturier, Jakub Voracek, and Brayden Schenn, veterans Andreas Lilja and Max Talbot, and future Hall of Fame RW Jaromir Jagr.
Despite the trades of Richards and Carter, the Flyers still boast an impressive offensive core, led by emerging superstar Claude Giroux and playmaker Danny Briere. Winger James van Reimsdyk had (what many believe to be) his coming out party in the 2011 playoffs, recording an unheard-of 70 shots and 7 goals in just 11 games against two of the best defensive teams in the league (Boston and Buffalo). The Flyers hope that JVR will continue his development and finally emerge as the 40-goal-scorer scouts predicted he would be when he was taken with the #2 overall pick in the 2007 NHL Draft. For those worried about scoring, you can find a breakdown of the Flyers offseason moves here: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/782500-nhl-philadelphia-flyers-projected-impacts-of-the-teams-new-acquisitions.
On the backend, the Flyers boast one of the most complete defense corps in the NHL. Veteran All-Stars Kimmo Timonen and Chris Pronger provide shut-down ability and leadership, while emerging talents Braydon Coburn, Matt Carle, and Andrej Meszaros provide excellent two-way skill and physicality. Youngster Oskars Bartulis figures to receive significant playing time, as does smooth-skating prospect Erik Gustafsson.
In net, the Flyers are set with veteran Bryzgalov and youngster Sergei Bobrovsky, who had an impressive rookie season in 2010-2011. The Russian tandem should give the Flyers one of the best goaltending duos in the NHL.
All in all, the Flyers look to be one of the deepest offensive and defensive teams in the NHL. The roster currently has at least seven forwards capable of scoring 20+ goals, and their defense is stacked with good two-way blueliners. And the team finally has a franchise goaltender. The biggest question for the team is the health of presumptive Captain Chris Pronger. By all indications, his off-season surgery was successful and his rehab is progressing, albeit at a slower pace than originally anticipated. Pronger has already said he believes he'll miss part of training camp, but figures to be ready for the regular season. The Flyers should finish second in the Atlantic and challenge for a #4 seed in the East. If Pittsburgh falters or the Flyers young talent develops more quickly than anticipated, the Flyers could win the division for a second consecutive year.
#1: The Pittsburgh Penguins
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For better or worse, the fate of the Pittsburgh Penguins 2011-2012 season will again rest on the shoulders of Sidney Crosby. If Sid the Kid is fully recovered from his bout with post-concussion syndrome and able to avoid another serious concussion while still performing at an elite level offensively, the Penguins could be flat-out scary. If not, the Penguins' status as the class of the Atlantic Division could be in jeopardy.
Evgeni Malkin figures to return with a vengence in 2011-2012, coming off a serious knee injury that prematurely ended his 2010-2011 season. In recent weeks, Geno has looked like a man possessed, which is great news for Penguins fans.
The Penguins will also need center Jordan Staal to take the next step in his development. Staal has established himself as an exceptional two-way center, providing grit, leadership, and face-off wins as well as offensive production. But for the Penguins to re-establish themselves as a force in the East, Staal needs to take the next step. He has the talent—there is no question about that.
The other major question for the Penguins is how the team will deal with the departure of locker-room leader and jack-of-all-trades Max Talbot. The addition of talented but oft-injured veteran Steve Sullivan should help, but the Penguins are probably going to need another player to step up in the locker room as a "glue guy".
On the defensive end, the Penguins have a number of solid blueliners led by Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang. Pittsburgh has a defensive corps that can contribute offensively while shutting down opponent's top lines on a regular basis.And in net, Marc-Andre Fleury should provide yet another year of stability.
All in all, the Penguins figure to have regain their position as the cream of the Atlantic division crop, provided Sid the Kid is healthy and productive. If Crosby suffers another concussion or struggles to regain his pre-injury form, the Penguins will be in trouble. But barring that, the team should contend for a top seed in the East and make a strong push in the 2012 playoffs.