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2009-10: 47-28-7, 101 points, second in the Atlantic
FRESH FACES:Zbynek Michalek (Phoenix), Paul Martin (New Jersey), Mike Comrie (Edmonton) Arron Asham (Pittsburgh), Ryan Craig (Tampa Bay)
OTHER PLACES: Sergei Gonchar (Ottawa), Bill Guerin (free agent), Alexei Ponikarovsky (Los Angeles), Ruslan Fedotenko (NY Rangers), Jordan Leopold (Buffalo), Mark Eaton (NY Islanders)
STORYLINE: Pittsburgh's fans might be a little preoccupied by the glitz of the new Consol Energy Center when the Pens host the Flyers on Thursday. It won't be long, though, before they recognize the team's most significant improvement is not the building but the blueline. When GM Ray Shero learned he would lose the veteran Gonchar, he responded quickly and with great imagination, signing Michalek and Martin to reshape his top four into a group that's deeper, smarter and far more dangerous than last year's unit. With this group backing that lethal offense, the Pens have to be considered a favorite to win the East.
MVP: Evgeni Malkin. Not to belittle the impact of Sidney Crosby, but it says here that Malkin is due to rebound from a down 2009-10 campaign and he, not The Kid, will prove to be Pittsburgh's most potent weapon. Remember, those career-low numbers (28 goals, 77 points, -6, 13 PPG, .104 shooting pct.) were the result of a lingering shoulder issue. With that problem now under control, Malkin is motivated to regain the form that saw him twice serve as the bridesmaid to an Alexander Ovechkin Hart Trophy win.
KID TO WATCH: Eric Tangradi. The Pens' top prospect -- acquired as a secondary aspect to the Ryan Whitney/Chris Kunitz deal -- is everything this team needs. He boasts a massive 6-4, 225-pound frame that could create a little extra space for Crosby or Malkin if he's given a chance to ride shotgun. Though his numbers in an injury-limited 2009-10 season didn't show it, he has solid offensive instincts and could become a Byfuglien-like force in front of the opposition's net.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Mike Comrie. For the Pens, it was a low-risk (one year, $500K) opportunity to fill an obvious talent gap in their top six. For the 30-year-old forward, it might be his last chance to show what he has to offer the NHL. So far, the deal looks like it could pay off for both sides. Not to overstate the value of preseason, but Comrie had a splendid September and displayed considerable chemistry with Malkin. With Jordan Staal sidelined indefinitely, there's a real chance for Comrie to set himself up for next season ... and maybe take care of those car payments.
BOTTOM LINE: Spurred on by the memories of last season's aborted repeat attempt, the Pens will be focused on regaining the prize. Winning the division will be just the first step.
2009-10: 41-35-6, 90 points
FRESH FACES:Nikolai Zherdev (Russia), Sergei Bobrovsky (Russia), Andrej Meszaros (Tampa Bay), Sean O'Donnell (Los Angeles), Jody Shelley (NY Rangers), Matt Walker (Tampa Bay)
OTHER PLACES: Simon Gagne (Tampa Bay), Ryan Parent (Vancouver), Ray Emery (free agent), Lukas Krajicek (Czech Republic), Arron Asham (Pittsburgh)
STORYLINE: It'd be nice to talk about how this is an emerging team poised to build on a surprising run to the Stanley Cup Final, or even about its struggles with salary cap compliance. But if it's Philadelphia, the top story has to be goaltending. After Emery failed as last season's solution, it looked as if the team would settle on Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher, the last-chance duo that took turns guiding the Flyers through the playoffs. But Leighton raised doubts after badly misplaying Patrick Kane's clincher in Game 6, then went down to start the season with back problems. That put the keys in the hands of Boucher and Russian import Sergei Bobrovsky ... and sent familiar shivers down the spines of Flyers fans.
MVP: Chris Pronger. It's no fluke that Pronger has led three different teams to the Cup final over the past five years. He was everything to the Flyers last season, leading the club in assists (45), blocked shots (189), plus/minus (+22), and a time on ice total (2,126) that was topped only by Chicago's Duncan Keith. There are questions about Pronger's health -- he's still working his way back following offseason knee surgery -- but not about his impact. There's plenty to like about this team, but it goes only as far as he carries it.
KIDS TO WATCH: James van Riemsdyk and Claude Giroux. The pair of first rounders were eased in slowly last season, but the Flyers will heap opportunity -- and higher expectations -- on both during their sophomore campaigns. Giroux's game emerged last season after he moved from the wing to center. He'll start in that role this season on the third line, flanked by a van Riemsdyk who has impressed in camp with his improved fitness. They won't see much power play time, but they'll also avoid the checking that will hound Philly's top six. With a little extra room to work, both should top last season's totals.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Nikolai Zherdev. The Flyers' decision to sign the enigmatic winger after a one-year sojourn in his homeland was shocking, but after five preseason goals (and a shootout winner), this gamble could pay off. He's found quick chemistry with Giroux, and could be the guy that replaces Gagne's goal scoring. Of course, the knock on Zherdev has been his inconsistency. Exhibition game highlights are nice, but he still needs to prove that he can be a reliable finisher when the games start to count.
BOTTOM LINE: The Flyers are deep (especially on the blueline) and physical, making them a nightmarish opponent come playoff time. But unless the goaltending proves it can meet the challenge, Philly is likely to linger near the middle of the pack.
2009-10: 48-27-7, 103 points, first in the Atlantic
FRESH FACES: Jason Arnott (Nashville), Henrik Tallinder (Buffalo), Anton Volchenkov (Ottawa), Johan Hedberg (Atlanta)
OTHER PLACES: Paul Martin (Pittsburgh), Rob Niedermayer (Buffalo), Mike Mottau (NY Islanders) Matt Halischuk (Nashville)
STORYLINE: Despite winning the division the last two seasons, the Devils have fizzled in the playoffs. In fact, they've been given the bum's rush in the first round each of the last three seasons. How does GM Lou Lamoriello address that? He bulks up the offense by repatriating Arnott and re-signing top free agent Ilya Kovalchuk. Lou (theoretically) lightens the load on Martin Brodeur by signing Hedberg, another vet who can carry the mail for an extended run. And he adds depth -- but limits mobility -- on his blueline by bringing in Volchenkov and Tallinder. Will this version of the formula help the Devils snap this streak of futility? Stay tuned, as they say.
MVP: Martin Brodeur. The grand old man has been a big part of the postseason problem, with his GAA rising more than half a goal compared to his regular season numbers over those last three campaigns. The typical refrain is that he has tired by the time spring rolls around from overuse during the regular season. The addition of Hedberg should address those symptoms, and set Brodeur up to elevate his play when it matters most.
KID TO WATCH: Alexander Urbom. The massive Swedish defenseman is on the verge of making the jump to the NHL after just one season in Brandon. Urbom was a revelation last season for the Memorial Cup hosts, and he's provided the same gritty, physical element in camp. With the similarly-styled Bryce Salvador on the sidelines with a concussion to start the season, Urbom's chance to impress could extend into the regular schedule.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Ilya Kovalchuk. All right, so now that the Devils finally have him under contract, what exactly are they going to do with him? A left winger by trade, Kovalchuk has been installed on the right side of New Jersey's top line that includes Travis Zajac and Zach Parise. That unit could emerge as one of the league's most potent, but it's just as likely to fizzle out given previously failed attempts to move the supremely gifted Russian to his off-wing. If this doesn't work, Kovalchuk will still get his ice time, but it'll be interesting to see how it is divvied up.
BOTTOM LINE: Deeper on offense, steadier on defense and fresher in net, the Devils should make another run at the division title. More important, they appear to have what it takes to break that first-round curse.
2009-10: 38-33-11, 87 points
FRESH FACES: Alexander Frolov (Los Angeles), Todd White (Atlanta), Martin Biron (NY Islanders), Derek Boogaard (Minnesota), Steve Eminger (Anaheim), Ruslan Fedotenko (Pittsburgh), Derek Stepan (draft)
OTHER PLACES: Olli Jokinen (Calgary), Aaron Voros (Anaheim), Jody Shelley (Philadelphia), Alex Auld (Montreal), Donald Brashear (free agent)
STORYLINE: How does GM Glen Sather address a team that stumbled out of the playoffs on the season's final shot? He allows one enigmatic forward (Jokinen) to walk and replaces him with a pair of equally frustrating talents in Frolov and Fedotenko. He dumps one benchwarming goon (Shelley) for another (Boogaard). And he does nothing about that gaping void down the middle. If progress has been made, it has yet to reveal itself.
MVP: Henrik Lundqvist. Like their Western New York rivals, the Rangers are too reliant on a spectacular goaltender to keep them in the mix most nights. Lundqvist seemed burdened by that load more often last season than ever before, so the arrival of Biron should keep him fresher and more effective down the stretch. Look for Lundqvist to return to Vezina-worthy form.
KID TO WATCH: Derek Stepan. The Rangers knew they had something special after watching Stepan lead the World Juniors in scoring (14 points in 10 games) and captain the Americans to gold at last year's event. Still, no one expected him to leap directly from the Wisconsin Badgers to center the Blueshirts' top line. Give the kid credit. When opportunity knocked (in the form of injuries to Chris Drury and Vinny Prospal), he answered with poised, creative play in camp. If he can ramp up his game for the regular season, he'll be in the Calder mix.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Alexander Frolov. Shown the door by a Kings franchise tired of his maddening inconsistency, Frolov was lucky to find NHL employment. He was even luckier to land with the Rangers, a team desperate for top-six help and willing to give him a chance with superstar Marian Gaborik. Based on talent alone, Frolov deserves the shot, but it'll be interesting to watch how much leash he's given by New York's notoriously short-tempered coach, John Tortorella. Frolov could either be the steal of the summer ... or cut adrift by Christmas.
BOTTOM LINE: Lundqvist and Gaborik bring enough to the table to make the Rangers worth watching, but this team doesn't have the center talent, the depth or the blueline to compete with the legitimate contenders in the East.
2009-10: 34-37-11, 79 points
FRESH FACES: Mark Eaton (Pittsburgh), Milan Jurcina (Columbus), Zenon Konopka (Tampa Bay), P.A. Parenteau (NY Rangers), James Wisniewski (Anaheim)
OTHER PLACES:Jeff Tambellini (Vancouver), Martin Biron (NY Rangers), Sean Bergenheim (Tampa Bay), Richard Park (Sweden)
STORYLINE: Recent history has shown that the best way to build a winner in this league is through years of lousy play. And the way things are going this fall, lousy play is something the Isles can count on for at least one more season. Already overly dependent on their kids, the loss of top defenseman Mark Streit (possibly for the entire season) and first line winger Kyle Okposo (indefinitely) will be too much for this young team to bear. That means they'll be in a prime spot to draft another piece of the puzzle next June. Time for Isles fans to start scouring for news on Adam Larsson and Sean Coutourier ...
MVP: John Tavares. A little over a year removed from the draft, the former top pick is clearly the class of the organization. His vision and anticipation are world class. Add in the maturity gained from a successful rookie campaign and the stage is set for a significant step forward this year. Granted, he doesn't have the supporting cast that Steven Stamkos benefitted from in Tampa last season, but Tavares' impact won't be judged on numbers alone. Look for him to step up as an on-ice leader as well.
KIDS TO WATCH: Nino Niederreiter and Calvin de Haan. Not that this teenage duo is set to Wally Pipp anyone, but doors were opened by the injuries to Okposo and Streit, giving each the chance to make an early impression. Niederreiter is the power forward: big bodied, clever and blessed with a wicked shot that he's not afraid to unleash from almost anywhere on the ice, while de Haan has power play skills and the panic point of a 10-year vet. Consider the appearances of both to be a preview of better seasons to come.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Rick DiPietro. Yeah, he's still hanging around, and this season he may do more than simply cash a fat check. His body, held together by twine and gum, survived training camp intact and appears up to the challenge of starting the season. Still, it's best not to expect more than a cameo appearance. If he lasts longer than, say, Bill Murray in Zombieland, then it'll give the Islanders a bit of hope for the future.
BOTTOM LINE: No secret that the Isles aren't spending much on this team. If they're smart, they'll move all their money into scouting. With the lottery pick they have coming, it's best to be well prepared.