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:
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.
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.
It's one thing to establish yourself as a physical presence. It's another thing entirely to go all
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
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.
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.
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.
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
The presence of
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
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.
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.
Say what you want about
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.
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.
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.
You won't find any of these grizzled vets dating
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,
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.
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.
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