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Here's how I see tme shaking out, in predicted order of finish:
2008-09 RECORD: 44-27-11, 99 points, third in Atlantic
FRESH FACES:Chris Pronger (Anaheim), Ray Emery (Russia), Brian Boucher (San Jose), Ian Laperriere (Colorado), Ole-Kristian Tollefsen (Columbus), Jason Ward (Tampa Bay)
OTHER PLACES:Mike Knuble (Washington), Joffrey Lupul (Anaheim), Luca Sbisa (Anaheim), Martin Biron (NY Islanders), Antero Niittymaki (Tampa Bay), Derian Hatcher (retired)
STORYLINE: The rich get richer and the mean get meaner. You may not like the Flyers, but you have to respect the courage of their convictions. They've defined the style they want to play and they pursue athletes who fit the mold. Pronger, the prize in the summer's biggest blockbuster, has always played as though he were wearing orange and black. Still a miserable S.O.B at 35, he brings his patented blend of skill and menace to what should be the best blueline in the East. Depth additions Laperierre and Tollefsen have no aversion to getting their knuckles bloody, and Emery may be the most willing pugilist to mind the twine since Philly legend Ron Hextall. Of course, he's being paid to repel scoring chances, not encroaching forwards, and there's little margin for error. After expelling both Biron and Niittymaki over the summer, the Flyers put their Cup dreams in the hands of the volatile Emery and Boucher, a fair backup but not someone who can carry a team for an extended period when the No. 1 goes down. It's a risky move that could backfire, but you can bet the Flyers won't go down without a fight.
MVP: Mike Richards. Years ago, Russian coaching legend Anatoli Tarasov called Bob Gainey the best all-around player in the world. If Tarasov were alive today, he might bestow the same honor on Richards. After a breakthrough season that saw him score 30 goals among 80 points, Richards offers a proven blend of offensive creativity, disciplined physical play and defensive awareness that can't be matched.
KID TO WATCH: James van Riemsdyk. "You have to hand it to the kid," a scout told SI.com. "There was a roster that looked like it had no room and he just forced his way onto it. They've really got a player there." JVR earned his spot, likely on the third line, with his willingness to battle for possession and a knack for finishing chances in tight. He still has to work on his play away from the puck, but his apparent desire to make the effort has won the trust of the coaching staff.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Ray Emery. Literally. You never know what this guy's going to do. After burning bridges in Ottawa, the netminder spent a season in exile in the KHL where he excelled on the ice (22-8, 2.12 GAA), but added new chapters to his legacy of troubles. Physically, there's little doubt he can carry the load for a contender. Emotionally? That's the gray area in which Philly's Cup dreams will live or die.
BOTTOM LINE: On paper, they Flyers boast what could be the league's most balanced and talented team, top to bottom. Anything less than a trip to the conference final would be a grim failure.
2008-09 RECORD: 51-27-4, 106 points, first in Atlantic
FRESH FACES: Coach Jacques Lemaire, Rob Niedermayer (Anaheim), Yann Danis (NY Islanders), Ben Walter (NY Islanders), Andrew Peters (Buffalo), Cory Murphy (Florida)
OTHER PLACES: Brent Sutter (Calgary), Brian Gionta (Montreal), John Madden (Chicago), Bobby Holik (retired), Scott Clemmensen (Florida), Michael Rupp (Pittsburgh), Barry Tallackson (St. Louis), Kevin Weekes (retired), Niclas Havelid (Sweden), Brendan Shanahan (released)
STORYLINE: Does the return of Lemaire signal a rebirth of the dreaded Trappist Wonks (tip of the cap to Kevin Dupont)? Don't count on it. The new/old coach swears he's reformed and while this group obviously lacks the firepower to run and gun, Lemaire promises they won't spend the season in a defensive shell. Instead, he's looking for consistent intensity, appropriate aggression and a mindfulness of defense. What's that mean exactly? We'll see when New Jersey hits the ice. Just do yourself a favor: don't pigeon-hole Lemaire and do not underestimate the Devils.
MVP: Zach Parise. The Devils proved last season that they could win without Martin Brodeur between the pipes, but it's hard to imagine them generating enough offense to compete without the wily Parise leading the charge. If he takes a step back from the 45 goals and 94 points he registered in 2008-09, New Jersey will be hard pressed to compensate for the loss of Gionta and an extended shelving of Patrik Elias (groin surgery).
KID TO WATCH: Nicklas Bergfors. After four years of doing nothing to prove himself worthy of being a first-round pick (23rd overall, 2005), Bergfors may finally have earned a job in New Jersey with a strong finish to camp. The undersized winger has yet to display the scoring touch that first caught the eye of Devils' scouts, but he's developed into a reliable two-way player who can be a presence along the boards despite an obvious lack of size.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Martin Brodeur. He's three shutouts away from breaking Terry Sawchuk's all-time mark (103) and out for a little redemption after last spring's shocking playoff meltdown against Carolina. At 37, will age and mileage take its toll or will he again be the Vezina-caliber difference for the Devils between making some noise and again being an early also-ran?
BOTTOM LINE: Every year the critics line up ... and every year the Devils make sport of their disbelief. If this team could overcome leaving Brodeur on the sidelines for 51 games and still win the Atlantic, maybe it's time to simply give them the benefit of the doubt. Count on them punching a ticket to the playoffs. Actually winning a round? That's still TBD.
2008-09 RECORD: 45-28-9, 99 points, second in Atlantic
FRESH FACES: Jay McKee (St. Louis), Michael Rupp (New Jersey), Brent Johnson (Washington), Chris Conner (Dallas)
OTHER PLACES: Hal Gill (Montreal), Rob Scuderi (Los Angeles), Petr Sykora (Minnesota), Mathieu Garon (Columbus), Miroslav Satan (free agent), Philippe Boucher (retired)
STORYLINE: As far as challenges go, battling a Stanley Cup hangover is one most teams would be happy to face, but that doesn't diminish its significance as the most dangerous adversary the defending champs will face this season. Two consecutive trips to the Cup final and a well-deserved summer of celebration conspire to wear a body down. Add in the heavy toll the Olympics will take on key players, and Dan Byslma will have to find a way to lighten the load during the season in order to keep his team fresh for its bid to repeat.
MVP: Sidney Crosby. Though Evgeni Malkin may outscore him -- again -- Crosby remains the straw that stirs the Penguins' drink. The sore groin he suffered in camp has to be a concern, though. While his convalescence won't extend past the season opener, it's the sort of injury that has a way of lingering. The Pens would be smart to rest him early and often.
KID TO WATCH: Alex Goligoski. The defections of Gill and Scuderi opened up slots on the blueline, but last season's part-timer took nothing for granted. Instead, Goligoski's play ranked as the most pleasant surprise of camp. Already comfortable with his offensive game, he looked considerably more poised and confident in his own zone. Although he can still be outmuscled by bigger forwards, the Pens have confidence that he can handle an upgrade in responsibilities.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Tyler Kennedy. With gritty forward Max Talbot sidelined for a couple more months after shoulder surgery, the feisty Kennedy has slid seamlessly into his spot alongside Malkin and Ruslan Fedotenko. He certainly looks more comfortable on that line than he does doing the weather.
BOTTOM LINE: Despite the loss of their shutdown pairing, this year's edition of the Pens looks no less formidable than the last. Mental and physical fatigue (especially after the Olympics) may lead to a few hiccups along the way, but this team is battle-tested and capable of a repeat.
2008-09 RECORD: 43-30-9, 95 points, fourth in Atlantic
FRESH FACES: Marian Gaborik (Minnesota), Chris Higgins (Montreal), Ales Kotalik (Edmonton), Enver Lisin (Phoenix), Donald Brashear (Washington), Alexei Semenov (San Jose), Brian Boyle (Los Angeles), Vaclav Prospal (Tampa Bay)
OTHER PLACES: Scott Gomez (Montreal), Nikolai Antropov (Atlanta), Nikolai Zherdev (Russia), Markus Naslund (retired), Blair Betts (Philadelphia), Derek Morris (Boston), Paul Mara (Montreal), Lauri Korpikoski (Phoenix), Colton Orr (Toronto), Fredrik Sjostrom (Calgary)
STORYLINE: Recognizing his team's playoff berth as a smoke-and-mirrors miracle, GM Glen Sather turned the club upside down and started shaking. The result was a significant egress of salary and another carte blanche spending spree. The jury's still out on what he accomplished. The flashy signing of Gaborik gives the Rangers a game-changing talent on the wing and a marquee name to help sell the brand, but a team that finished bottom three in total offense and power play probably needed more reliable help than a wonky-groined winger and the likes of Higgins, Prospal and Lisin. That's even more true given the sad state of a blueline led by the hair-pullingly bad duo of Michal Rozsival and Wade Redden. Dan Girardi's aimless play in camp doesn't bode well, either. If Henrik Lundqvist manages to keep the pack in sight, he might make a case for being the league's most valuable player.
MVP: Henrik Lundqvist. What more can you say about a goalie who has averaged 36 wins and been a Vezina finalist three times in four seasons, despite an embarrassing lack of support? Without King Henrik, the Rangers are battling the Islanders to see who can crawl up off the conference floor first.
KID TO WATCH: Artem Anisimov. The buzz in New York is that the marvelously skilled rookie has made the team, likely as the fourth-line center. At 21, Anisimov lacks the experience of some of the players ahead of him on the depth chart, but as he demonstrated last season in Hartford (37-44-81), he brings a dynamic offensive game that would be miscast in a depth role. Look for the Rangers to figure that out quickly and bump him to the second line where he can maximize his impact, or return him to Hartford to continue his development on a top line.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Marian Gaborik. The signing of the perennially IR-bound Gaborik was a bold experiment in faith, an eyes-to-the-heavens prayer that he'd be the player who scored 10 goals and 18 points in his final 11 games with the Wild, and not the guy who wore an arse groove in his press box seat. If he's spotted more often in a jersey than a suit, Gaborik could single-handedly reverse the image of the Rangers as a group of offensive plodders with his breathtaking speed and uncanny knack for the net.
BOTTOM LINE: If Gaborik stays healthy and Lundqvist gets some support and Marc Staal continues his rapid maturation into a legitimate shutdown defender and if...well, you get the picture. The Rangers look to be a playoff bubble team. A few bounces go their way, they're in. If those bounces don't go their way...
2008-09 RECORD: 26-47-9, 61 points, fifth in Atlantic
FRESH FACES: Dwayne Roloson (Edmonton), Martin Biron (Philadelphia), Matt Moulson (Los Angeles)
OTHER PLACES: Yann Danis (New Jersey), Dean McAmmond (free agent), Andy Hilbert (Minnesota), Mike Sillinger (retired), Ben Walter (New Jersey)
STORYLINE: The arrival of John Tavares tosses a life preserver to a fan base that has struggled for years just to tread water, but actual rescue from the league's deep waters remains a long ways off. Granted, the pace of Garth Snow's rebuilding program picked up when he added the first-overall pick to a youthful core that also includes Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey and Blake Comeau, but this season will be another 82-game slate of lessons cleverly disguised as butt-kickings. Give Snow credit for trying to soften the blows by importing veteran stoppers Roloson and Biron. With the fra-gee-lay Rick DiPietro starting the season on IR, the duo can be counted on to provide some durability in net. And if The Rick ever gets his game back on course, one (or both) can be cashed in at the deadline for another piece of the puzzle.
MVP: Doug Weight. The veteran center is in the winter of his career, but his importance to the club can't be overstated. Weight's success will be judged not on his production, but his ability to impart the wisdom he's gained over 20 years in the league to Tavares and Bailey, the two pivots around which the team is building. It would be a bonus if he plays well enough to create some demand on the trade market in March...but that would leave Tavares without a landlord.
KID TO WATCH: John Tavares. Expectations are running unfairly high that the OHL scoring sensation will emerge as the Isles' answer to Sidney Crosby. He's not that guy, but Tavares can be an impact player, perhaps as soon as this season. He'll have to adjust to the faster pace and larger opponents, but his hockey sense -- and uncanny ability to get to the seam just as it opens up --should serve him well. He may not win the Calder, but as long as he shows progression this will be a successful season for the top pick.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Josh Bailey. Snow's decision to keep him with the team last season cost the young center his shot at a Memorial Cup, but looks to have been the right decision for his development. The numbers weren't dazzling (7-18-25), but the confidence he gained as the season wore on showed up as he started to shoot more often and look more comfortable in the circle. With continued improvement in both areas, he could top 45 points this season.
BOTTOM LINE: The future's getting brighter for the Isles, but the present looks to be as dim as the recent past. Another lottery pick is a foregone conclusion. The only question is whether they can escape the Eastern cellar.
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