There sure are a lot of questions floating in the Atlantic: Will the Penguins be as formidable after bleeding free agents all summer? Will Simon Gagne be healthy enough to put the Flyers over the top? Can the Devils win with a nondescript blueline corps? Can the Islanders win without scoring? Oh, yeah. The Rangers. Just about everyone except the goaltender should wear a question mark on his blueshirt rather than a number.
Amid all that uncertainty, here's my take on the division, with teams ranked in order of predicted finish:
2007-08 RECORD: 42-29-11 -- 95 points; fourth in Atlantic; lost conference finals to Pittsburgh
KEY ADDS:Arron Asham (New Jersey), Glen Metropolit (Boston), Steve Eminger (Washington), Ossi Vaananen (Colorado)
KEY LOSSES: R.J. Umberger (Columbus), Jason Smith (Ottawa), Derian Hatcher (injured reserve, likely retirement), Jesse Boulerice (free agent)
STRENGTHS: Forward depth
GM Paul Holmgren has done a magnificent job building what could emerge as the East's best offense. The deep and balanced group features an astonishing eight first-rounders, and while leading scorer Mike Richards couldn't crack the NHL's top 20 scoring list, he was one of seven Flyers with at least 20 goals. The Flyers averaged 2.99 per game last season (sixth overall), but should top that mark with the addition of Simon Gagne, the two-time 40-goal man who returns after missing most of last season with post-concussion syndrome.
Martin Biron brought stability to a position that doomed the Flyers to a last-place finish the prior season, but he was hardly a savior between the pipes. His numbers were middle of the road and, disturbingly, they worsened during the playoffs, a time when commitment to team defense usually improves a goalie's stats. The backup situation offers little reassurance, with Antero Niittymaki and third-string spare J-S Aubin both struggling with injuries. If the Flyers have a thermal exhaust port ready to be exploited, this is it.
MVP: Simon Gagne
Yeah, I'm a sucker for a great comeback story, and maybe that's coloring this call just a little bit. But Gagne, who returned to the ice last Saturday after eight months on the sidelines, has proven that he can be a special player, having scored 88 goals over his last two full seasons. If healthy, he'll not only be an elite sniper, but a force around which this team can rally.
ROOKIE TO WATCH: Claude Giroux
After netting 51 points in just 19 QMJHL playoff games last season, the shifty winger was considered a good bet to crack the Flyers lineup. But a late start to camp (the result of oral surgery) led to some lackluster play. Now Giroux is likely ticketed to start the season in the AHL. At some point though, he's bound to get a call-up. The eventual successor to Gagne, he'll be worth watching when he gets his chance.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Steve Downie
It's one thing to establish yourself as a physical presence. It's another thing entirely to go all Naomi Campbell. Downie earned a rep as a world-class nutjob -- and a 20-game suspension -- after delivering a flying elbow to the pumpkin of Dean McAmmond in preseason last year. That brain lapse essentially cost him his first NHL season, and while he eventually returned to play 32 games, he wasn't quite the same. To be a success, Downie has to skate a thin line. If he plays it just this side of the rule book, and makes the most of his offensive instincts, he could score 20 goals and become a significant part of this team.
BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: Last season's run to the conference finals has the Philly faithful believing that the Flyers can emerge as the East's top team. They might be right. This is a well-balanced, smartly-coached squad with more depth than primary rivals Pittsburgh and Montreal. That'll be the difference.
2007-08 RECORD: 47-27-8 --102 points, first in Atlantic; won Eastern conference; lost to Detroit in Stanley Cup Final
KEY ADDS: Miroslav Satan (NY Islanders), Ruslan Fedotenko (NY Islanders), Matt Cooke (Washington), Eric Godard (Calgary)
KEY LOSSES: Marian Hossa (Detroit), Ty Conklin (Detroit), Ryan Malone (Tampa Bay), Gary Roberts (Tampa Bay), Jarkko Ruutu (Ottawa), Georges Laraque (Montreal), Adam Hall (Tampa Bay)
STRENGTHS: The best 1-2 punch in hockey
In Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Pens arguably boast two of the top three forwards in the game. In 135 games last season, the pair combined for 71 goals and 178 points. Their comfort levels will be challenged by the loss of familiar wingers and a transition game that will struggle due to the injuries to Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney. But Crosby and Malkin are hockey's premier do-it-yourselfers, so 200 points from the pair is a conservative estimate.
WEAKNESSES: A decimated defense
Earlier this summer, it looked as though the loss of Hossa, Malone and Ruutu --their top three left wingers -- would be the biggest issue heading into the season. When you're counting on Islanders castoffs like Satan and Fedotenko to take their place, you can consider the bottom of the barrel duly scraped. But that situation pales next to the long-term loss of the Pens' top two blueliners. Gonchar is out four-six months after should surgery. Whitney was sidelined three months after foot surgery in August. That puts considerable pressure on a group led by Brooks Orpik, Hall Gill, Kris Letang and Mark Eaton that looks maybe a notch better than the result of an expansion draft.
MVP: Sidney Crosby
A new league advertising campaign centers on Crosby's disappointment over falling short in last spring's Cup Final. It's a novel approach, and one that should be taken at face value by the rest of the league. Sid enters the season highly motivated for redemption. You can pencil him in for his second scoring championship.
ROOKIE TO WATCH: Janne Pesonen
The leading scorer in the Finnish circuit last season, Pesonen brings some skill to the port side. At 26, he has the experience to step in immediately, although there are concerns about his lack of size reducing his effectiveness. He'll likely start out on a depth line, but could move up to a more prominent role as he becomes acclimated to life in the NHL.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Miroslav Satan
A 16-goal, 41-point season in a contract year rendered Satan a reclamation project rather than a coveted free agent. The Pens were in a bind, and so he not only got a generous deal, he won the Crosby sweepstakes. Lining up next to the kid, Satan's in line for a 30-goal, 75-point comeback campaign.
BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: The long-term absence of Gonchar and Whitney and the evaporated forward depth will cost the Pens precious points in the early going, preventing them from keeping up with the Flyers in the division race. When everyone's healthy, though, the playoffs will be another matter.
2007-08 RECORD: 46-29-7,-- 99 points; second in Atlantic; lost in first round to Rangers
KEY ADDS: Brian Rolston (Minnesota), Bobby Holik (Atlanta), Anssi Salmela (Finland)
KEY LOSSES: Sergei Brylin (Russia), Vitali Vishnevski (Russia), Karel Rachunek (Russia), Arron Asham (Philadelphia)
STRENGTHS: Devils hockey
If you've seen it, you know what it is. No matter what name is on the back of the sweater, the logo on the front ensures a total commitment to team defense. But these aren't your father's Devils. Sophomore coach Brent Sutter added his own twist last season, amping up the responsibilities of the blueliners to generate offense in transition. It wasn't an unqualified success -- the Devils scored eight fewer goals than the previous season -- but these things take time. And talent. He'll likely see better results this year thanks to the return of Rolston, part of New Jersey's 1995 Stanley Cup-winning team. He'll make an immediate impact by quarterbacking a power play that fizzled out at 15.6 percent last season, and he could help Zach Parise reach the 40-goal mark -- all while being responsible defensively, of course.
WEAKNESSES: Lackluster blueline
The presence of Martin Brodeur in net obscures a number of blemishes, primary among them the diminished capacity of the defense corps. Sutter doesn't have the luxury of tapping Scott Niedermayer, Scott Stevens or Brian Rafalski on the shoulder. Instead, he's forced to rely on the likes of Paul Martin, Johnny Oduya, Mike Mottau and Bryce Salvador. It's a competent bunch, but also one that struggles to keep up with faster opponents. That limits any real chance of playoff success. The organization has little in the cupboard. Even top prospect Matt Corrente, who may get a look this season, lacks star quality. Barring a trade, this is as good as it gets for a long while.
MVP: Martin Brodeur
With the fourth Vezina of his career still filling his den with that new trophy smell, Brodeur remains the heart and soul of this team. He's played at least 70 games in 11 of the past 12 seasons, and won at least 43 each of the last three. Barring injury, he'll break Patrick Roy's record of 551 career wins before Christmas, and he could smash Terry Sawchuk's mark of 103 career shutouts. When you've got a living legend in your net, you're in good hands.
ROOKIE TO WATCH: Anssi Salmela
The 23-year-old Finnish defender was signed as a free agent this summer, and he's caught the eye of the coaching staff with his skating, decision-making, and willingness to use the body. He scored 16 goals in 56 games with Tappara last season, so he might find his way into the power play rotation alongside Rolston.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Travis Zajac
After a solid 17-goal, 42-point rookie season, opponents gummed up Zajac's sophomore campaign by keying on his lack of strength. He comes into his third campaign more physically mature after a summer of intense workouts, and with a better understanding of what it takes to succeed after that rookie adrenaline wears off. Look for Zajac to post 50-55 points.
BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: The Devils always compete, and with Brodeur in net and the makings of a more potent offense, they'll be in the postseason derby once again.
2007-08 RECORD: 42-27-13 --97 points; third in Atlantic; Lost in second round to Pittsburgh
KEY ADDS: Nikolai Zherdev (Columbus), Dan Fritsche (Columbus), Markus Naslund (Vancouver), Wade Redden (Ottawa), Patrick Rissmiller (San Jose), Aaron Voros (Minnesota), Dmitri Kalinin (Buffalo)
KEY LOSSES: Jaromir Jagr (Russia), Martin Straka (Czech Republic), Sean Avery (Dallas), Fedor Tyutin (Columbus), Christian Backman (Columbus), Brendan Shanahan (free agent)
Henrik Lundqvist is the Rangers' answer to Winston Wolfe. He's capable of quickly covering up any messy problem. The Blueshirts struggle to score, ranking 25th in the NHL? No worries! You don't need to light the lamp often when your netminder paces the circuit with 10 shutouts and posts the sixth-best GAA (2.23). A Vezina finalist in each of his three seasons, Lundqvist not only gives New York a chance to win every night, he gives them goaltending that's capable of powering a deep playoff run.
WEAKNESSES: Team toughness
Say what you want about Sean Avery, but he made the Rangers a more miserable opponent to face every single night. His defection to the Stars will be felt on a team that simply doesn't have enough bite. GM Glen Sather tried to address the problem by importing Voros and Rissmiller, but neither has the chops to play significant minutes. And there's no skirting the issue when the most reliable banger on your blueline is Paul Mara. The absence of an intimidation factor correlates directly to the amount of time and space offered to your skill players. Don't expect much.
MVP: Henrik Lundqvist
To address their holes this summer, the Rangers gambled on players they hoped could rebound from off-years (Naslund, Redden) or suddenly discover consistency (Zherdev). But the risk element of that strategy is ameliorated by the reliable play and leadership of Lundqvist. With Jagr gone, this is clearly his team now.
ROOKIE TO WATCH: Lauri Korpikoski
The Rangers have a surplus of forwards on one-way deals, but the 22-year-old Finnish winger may have earned himself a spot on the roster anyway. Korpikoski scored 23 goals last season with Hartford, and he was lighting the lamp regularly in the preseason. Given his versatility (he can also play center) and defensive awareness, he might edge out one of the vets for a roster spot.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Marc Staal
The transition from juniors to the NHL is tricky even for a blue-chipper like Staal, but his game improved dramatically in the second half last season as he grew comfortable with the pace. He could emerge as the team's top defender by year's end.
BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: The Rangers might be the toughest team in the East to call. Best-case scenario: Naslund and Redden benefit from a change in locale and return to all-star form while Zherdev finally lives up to the responsibility of his immense physical gifts. In that case, the Rangers challenge for first in the division. The more likely outcome, though, is that they spin their wheels and struggle to build on last season. The playoffs may be out of the picture.
2007-08 RECORD: 35-38-9 -- 79 points, fifth in Atlantic; 13th in conference; missed playoffs
KEY ADDS: Coach Scott Gordon (Providence, AHL), Mark Streit (Montreal), Doug Weight (Anaheim), Thomas Pock (NY Rangers)
KEY LOSSES: Miroslav Satan (Pittsburgh), Ruslan Fedotenko (Pittsburgh), Josef Vasicek (Russia), Bryan Berard (free agent)
STRENGTHS: Underrated defense
You won't find any of these grizzled vets dating Hillary Duff, but then glamour isn't part of the game for this unit. Led by Brendan Witt, Andy Sutton and Radek Martinek, it employs an old-school approach, keeping things simple and nasty. Streit adds a skill element that was missing last season, especially on the power play. Chris Campoli brings a two-way game that is developing nicely. The key for this blueline is staying healthy. Their effectiveness was decimated by 171 man games on the IR in 2007-08.
WEAKNESSES: Popgun offense
Last year's team scored just 189 goals -- an average of 2.3 per game -- but that total might look like a bonanza to this season's crew. Their top returning weapon, Mike Comrie, had just 49 points. Veterans like Weight, Bill Guerin and Mike Sillinger don't have many bullets left in the chamber, and youngsters like Kyle Okposo and Blake Comeau are promising but unproven. Every goal should set off a massive celebration...you never know when the next one will come.
MVP: Rick DiPietro
In an effort to be respectful, let's put it this way: these Isles will struggle to compete with the rest of the conference. The one player who can keep the opposition in check is netminder DiPietro. If he's fully recovered from the hip surgery that ended his season last March, he's capable of stealing games on his own --something he'll have to do in light of the team's scoring deficiencies.
ROOKIE TO WATCH: Kyle Okposo
The best reason to watch the Isles this season may be to follow the progress of the team's top prospect. Okposo, the seventh overall pick from 2006, likely accelerated his development by leaving the University of Minnesota at midseason. He scored a couple goals and displayed a nasty physical edge in a nine-game cup of coffee, whetting fans' appetites for something bigger in his first full season. He'll be given every chance to make an instant impact with first-line minutes.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Sean Bergenheim
The 10 goals and 22 points he scored last season hardly look like the precursor to a breakout campaign, but Bergenheim will be handled differently by Gordon than he was by former coach Ted Nolan. Primarily a third-liner in his first full NHL season, the former first-rounder (22nd overall, 2002) will be given a chance to capture a spot on a scoring line. Expect him to make the most of it.
BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: With little hope for immediate improvement, the Isles finally have everyone on board with the youth movement. That makes for thoughts of a bright future, but there are going to be plenty of rough nights at Nassau Coliseum this season. The Isles are again destined for the bottom of the Atlantic.
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