With only two days before I go back to school at Fairfield University and things begin getting busy again, I believe a preview that I can put time and effort into is in order.
The Atlantic Division of the NHL has no doubt become the best division in the league. With names such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Chris Pronger, Marian Gaborik, Henrik Lundqvist, Martin Brodeur, Zach Parise, and Mark Streit the Atlantic division is absolutely stacked. From top to bottom the division is the strongest of the six divisions in the NHL.
The race for the division title has always been an interesting one. The rivalries in the Atlantic are intense and lead to playoff races that are as intense and nerve-wracking as any big rivalry in sports. With four of the five teams making it each of the last three years, the Atlantic has been able to be the powerhouse in the East.
In fact, dating back to 1979-1980, the Eastern Conference has won the Stanley Cup a total of 15 Stanley Cup championships. Of those fifteen championships, eleven of them have gone to a team in the Atlantic Division. Granted the Atlantic Division itself may not have actually existed for all of those championships but you can see that the Atlantic has been dominant. A breakdown plays out like this:
New York Islanders: 4 Cups
New Jersey Devils: 3 Cups
Pittsburgh Penguins: 3 Cups
New York Rangers: 1 Cup
Obviously the Rangers and Flyers have some catching up to do when it comes to championships but the fact is this division is tops in hockey right now.
So how will it play out? It is anyone's guess at this point but I will give it a crack. I mean who needs sleep at 2 AM right?
1. Pittsburgh Penguins
As much as I do not want to admit it, the Penguins will take the division. The reigning Stanley Cup champions have not changed much this offseason. They have added players like Jay McKee and Mike Rupp to their lineup. More importantly will be how they handle the loss of their big shutdown defensive pairing in Rob Scuderi who left for Los Angeles and Hal Gill who left for Montreal. Max Talbot will miss the beginning of the season after having shoulder surgery but with names like Crosby, Malkin, Staal, and Fleury leading the way, the Penguins should win the division title.
2. Philadelphia Flyers
This offseason has been a big one for the Flyers and they have let everyone know that they are gunning for the Stanley Cup now. Pronger was acquired by the Flyers from Anaheim in exchange for Joffrey Lupul, Luca Sbisa, two first round picks, and another conditional pick in 2010 or 2011. The Flyers are sacrificing their future to try and get another Stanley Cup and adding Pronger will certainly do that. Someone with his impact will make a huge difference on the blue line for the Flyers. However, the one weakness that has been a constant for the Flyers in recent history has been their goaltending. Martin Biron left for the Islanders and was replaced by a tandem of Ray Emery and Brian Boucher.
It is in the crease that the Flyers season will be made or broken. However, a tough defense and an offense that has Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Simon Gagne, and a healthy Daniel Briere will be enough to get them second in the division. If one of the goalies can become a number one man, the Flyers will be able to challenge for the division title.
3. New York Rangers
In any fantasy world, the Rangers would be at the top of this list. But when it comes to reality, the Rangers are right in the middle. As has been noted on this site and everywhere else in creation, the Rangers have a very different team from last season. With new faces like Marian Gaborik, Chris Higgins, Vaclav Prospal, Ales Kotalik, and many more to go with a coach who will have his first training camp with the Rangers in John Tortorella, no one knows what to expect from the New York Rangers this season. There are alot of IFs that need to go right for the Rangers to have success.
But being the optimistic little man I am, the Rangers will have a tough team to play against on any given night. With a high octane system combined with a focus on physical play, the Rangers will be a real pain in the behind for any team to play against, especially with someone like Sean Avery running around. Offense was a problem last season but general manager Glen Sather has done alot to try and address this.
The weakness is on defense as the Rangers only have four NHL defensemen on the roster. Young guns like Matt Gilroy, Bobby Sanguinetti, Ilkka Heikkinen, and Mike Sauer will have a shot at filling the bottom two spots. But with Henrik Lundqvist in net, the Ranger defense will be solid.
The Rangers probably are the most volatile team on this list, meaning if everything goes right they could end up at the top. If everything goes wrong, well it will be a very long season on Broadway.
4. New Jersey Devils
In all of my years of following hockey and the Rangers, the one constant has been the New Jersey Devils. No matter who they lost or who they gained, they were always in the mix and a team that had success in the playoffs. But honestly, how long can this go on?
This offseason has been one of loss for the Devils as Brian Gionta, John Madden, and Bobby Holik have all left the team while they have not been replaced. Brent Sutter left to be the head coach for Calgary and is replaced by defensive minded Jacques Lemaire. With the offensive power of the team being reduced with the loss of Gionta, the Devils will have to fall back on defensive play and the back of Martin Brodeur for salvation.
At this point I am not counting this Devils team out of the playoffs yet because, like I said, they always find a way to make it work. But how long can they keep it up?
5. New York Islanders
Last but not least is the New York Islanders. I will say right now that I do not expect them to make the playoffs unless Rick DiPietro magically gets a new body to work with and many players have crazy career years. That being said, the Islanders do have a bright future. John Tavares has Islander fans filled with excitement as he joins young players like Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen, Trent Hunter, and Josh Bailey. Throw in a mix of veterans like Doug Weight, Mark Streit, and Brendan Witt you have a team that is poised for success in the future.
The crease is where things get interesting for the Islanders. Rick DiPietro's injury problems have been nagging him for years now. With the uncertainty in DP, Garth Snow went out and grabbed Dwayne Roloson and Martin Biron to shore up the goaltending position for Long Island. A strong tandem, Roloson and Biron will be fighting for the number one spot after having that position at their previous employers.
The Islanders will have a better year than the last one, but the playoffs are probably another season or two away.
So for those of you who are lazy and were looking for the short short version of this:
3. New York Rangers
4. New Jersey Devils
5. New York Islanders
At this point predictions are completely a guess and who knows what is going to happen. There is still time in the offseason for more changes to be made that could affect these standings.
However with training camp right around the corner, hockey fans are starting to gather up those jerseys. Even as I sit out here at just before 3 AM, the winter cold is starting to creep back into the air. Its almost hockey time folks!