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Teams are listed in order of predicted finish.
*Denotes playoff pick
2010-11: 44-33-5, 93 points, third in Atlantic
FRESH FACES: Brad Richards (Dallas), Michael Rupp (Pittsburgh)
OTHER PLACES: Matt Gilroy (Tampa Bay), Vinny Prospal (Columbus)
STORYLINE: The Rangers landed coveted free agent center Brad Richards and this time around, the high priced, marquee signing makes sense. Richards is a premier playmaker with the innate ability to get pure goal scorers like Marian Gaborik the puck enough at precisely the right times. It should prove a potent enough tandem to lift the Rangers to the top of the division and maybe even remove the "enigmatic" tag from Gaborik's bio.
MVP: Henrik Lundqvist. The ace netminder makes the Rangers' aggressive up-ice approach stand up on the back end. Lundqvist is excellent in critical situations, including the penalty kill where he is truly a difference maker. The Rangers limit their shots-against, leaving him to deliver the crucial, timely, quality saves. He delivers better than anyone in the game right now.
KID TO WATCH: Ryan McDonagh. With Marc Staal's health (concussion) in question and the other half of last season's surprise rookie tandem, Michael Sauer, nursing a groin injury, backliner McDonagh could log over twenty-minutes a night right out of the gate. He came into the mix in the second half of the season, stepped in and played a calm, patient, heads-up game, posting a plus-16. He may make the move from "comfortably dependable" to "counted on deeply" and quickly.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Ryan Callahan. The newly named captain is determination personified and even with Broadway's bright lights and big names, Callahan's approach is what these Rangers are all about.
BOTTOM LINE: This is an emerging outfit built largely on an identity of hard work and being hard to play against on a nightly basis. If the Rangers can survive an October on the road and put up more wins at the under-construction Madison Square Garden -- like they did two seasons ago -- a top three seed in April is possible.
2010-11: 49-25-8, 106 points, second in Atlantic
FRESH FACES: Steve Sullivan (Nashville), Alexandre Picard (Montreal), Richard Park (HC Geneve-Servette-Swiss), Boris Valabik (Boston)
OTHER PLACES: Max Talbot (Flyers), Mike Rupp (Rangers), Eric Godard (Dallas)
STORYLINE: Unfortunately for the Penguins, it's a story that lingers as Sidney Crosby begins this season the way he ended the last -- on IR. The hope and promise of having Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal all healthy for this campaign is already on hold. Last season, Staal missed the first half and Crosby and Malkin (felled by a knee injury in February) were gone in the second half. The team performed admirably, as goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury played brilliantly to keep the Pens playoffs-viable. So, they, their fans and the hockey world sit and wait on Sid...
MVP: Marc-Andre Fleury. I still believe until Malkin gets at least half a season in game action after knee surgery and Crosby is back playing without trepidation, the Penguins will remain reliant on their starting goaltender, as they were during the second half last season. Fleury erased a horrible start a year ago with his play from mid-November on, but the Pens cannot afford another slow start. He is the team's marquee figure until the other stars re-align.
KID TO WATCH: None. With a veteran-laden group, the only one to watch in Pittsburgh is Sid the Kid, who is reduced now to a question mark.
KEEP AN EYE ON: James Neal. The winger, acquired at the trade deadline from Dallas, should be a good fit for any of the three centermen and a perennial 30-goal candidate. The thought originally was for Neal to ride shotgun on Crosby's left flank. That hasn't worked out on any level yet, as Neal struggled to score for the Pens and Crosby hasn't been in the lineup since his arrival.
BOTTOM LINE: With their vaunted 1-2-3 combination down the middle, the Penguins are an elite team. Without that strength in force, they fall into the ranks of the merely competitive.
2010-11: 47-23-12, 106 points, first in Atlantic
FRESH FACES: Ilya Bryzgalov (Phoenix), Jaromir Jagr (KHL), Max Talbot (Pittsburgh), Wayne Simmonds (Los Angeles), Jakob Voracek (Columbus), Andreas Lilja (Anaheim)
OTHER PLACES: Darroll Powe (Minnesota), Brian Boucher (Carolina), Ville Leino (Buffalo), Sean O'Donnell (Chicago), Dan Carcillo (Chicago), Nikolai Zherdev (KHL), Michael Ryan (Buffalo), Danny Syvret (St. Louis), Blair Betts (Montreal)
STORYLINE: Revamped once again after the bold trades of key personnel -- captain Mike Richards and center Jeff Carter -- the Flyers also solidified the goaltending position with the free agent signing of Ilya Bryzgalov. GM Paul Holmgren once again proved a master renovator as he was in 2007 after the Flyers missed the playoffs. He rid the team of restrictive long-term deals and brought in a proven world class goaltender in his prime. Sure, the price was high, but so are the stakes in Philly.
MVP: Ilya Bryzgalov. On one hand, it had better be Bryzgalov because of the expectations. On the other, the Flyers should be good enough that he doesn't need to be the team MVP. Early on, though, I think it would be good for all involved if Bryzgalov plays great immediately to ease the transition as this new group gets acclimated and to keep the Philly faithful from losing faith too early.
KID TO WATCH:Brayden Schenn. Part of the return on the trade that sent Richards to the LA Kings was prized center prospect Schenn. He was the fifth overall pick in 2009 and a Calder Trophy candidate coming into camp until a shoulder injury resulted in him being sent to the AHL. After he recovers, look for him to return to the big club.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Claude Giroux. With the core group altered, Giroux becomes the focal point of the offense in the middle. That opportunity could be a boon or a burden. Giroux is a fabulously talented player, but when dynamics change and a player's role expands, success is not always immediate. His production is certainly a pivotal storyline for the Flyers this season.
BOTTOM LINE: Are they better or just different? The hope in Philly is that being different in goal will make the Flyers better when it matters most.
2010-11: 38-39-5, 81 points, fourth in Atlantic
FRESH FACES: Pete DeBoer (coach), Cam Janssen (St. Louis), Petr Sykora (KHL), Stephane Veilleaux (Finland/Switzerland)
OTHER PLACES: Colin White (San Jose), Brian Rolston (NY Islanders), David Steckel (Toronto)
STORYLINE: In the moment, the story is that Zach Parise returns after missing all but 13 games last season due to a knee injury. He is one of the most dynamic players in the East and the Devils, with new coach Pete DeBoer behind the bench, should benefit from having him back in the fold. Without Parise, they scored the fewest goals in the NHL -- and that was with Ilya Kovalchuk on board after signing his $100M free agent deal. With both players available, the Devils should be much more productive all around.
MVP: Zach Parise. With him, the team's identity -- hard working in both directions -- seems, well, intact. Without him, the Devils searched for many things last season: goals, direction, wins. Without Parise, they lost their identity. The intrigue, though, will be Parise's contract status. He's on a one-year deal with unrestricted free agency looming. A trade scenario could develop.
KID TO WATCH: Adam Larsson. The Swedish defenseman is the blue chip prospect that GM Lou Lamoriello was looking for as a centerpiece in rebuilding New Jersey's blue line. Taken with the fourth overall pick this summer, Larsson is big, mobile and poised. He will play a lot and will certainly be prominent in the Calder conversation.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Martin Brodeur. The veteran workhorse goaltender, now 39, battled through a distressing season for him and the team. This could be the last hurrah for one of the best of all time. If so, enjoy the flashes of old form and look the other way on those nights when Father Time is in the building reminding us all of the inevitable.
BOTTOM LINE: The Devils will be part of the collective scratching and clawing to play in the postseason. They should get there if health is on their side. However, long-term, time is not an ally.
2010-11: 30-39-13, 73 points, fifth in Atlantic
FRESH FACES: Brian Rolston (New Jersey), Marty Reasoner (Florida), Evgeni Nabokov (KHL), Steve Staios (Calgary), Jay Pandolfo (Springfield AHL)
OTHER PLACES: Doug Weight (retired), Trent Hunter (Los Angeles), Radek Martinek (Columbus), Zenon Konopka (Ottawa), Bruno Gervais (Tampa Bay), Nathan Lawson (Montreal). Jack Hillen (Nashville)
STORYLINE: The Isles are developing a solid young core of players, but the franchise has issues away from the ice as the local business and political community refuses to give in to owner Charles Wang's desire to build a new sports complex. Subsequently, the Isles continue to operate near the salary floor in an obsolete arena and remain unattractive to veteran free agents who can help speed the team's improvement. This squad is far from complete and GM Garth Snow still has lots of holes to fill and lots of work to do.
MVP: John Tavares. He is the real deal. He continues to work at every aspect of his game. Down low, below the hash marks, he is already a force. If one of the goaltenders (Rick DiPietro, remember him? Evgeni Nabokov, remember him? And reclamation project Al Montoya) ever put together a season in which they were truly the most valuable member of the squad , the Isles could join the ranks of the playoff hopeful s playing meaningful games in March.
KID TO WATCH: Josh Bailey. The ninth overall pick in the 2008 draft was sent to the AHL for a spell last season and still played 70 games for the Islanders. In all, Bailey has 211 NHL games on his resume, and still there are questions surrounding his game at this level. I hope he doesn't become just another casualty case of a kid who was rushed to the NHL too soon by a desperate organization. That's why I'm pulling for Bailey to have a breakout season on Long Island.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Michael Grabner. He emerged from Vancouver as a former first-round pick via Florida waivers and scored 34 goals for the Isles. The speedy Grabner's unexpectedly great season made for an even better story, with the happy ending of his getting a long-term contract during the summer for his efforts. Now he has to produce when the expectations are in place.
BOTTOM LINE: The Isles continue to evolve around the maturation of John Tavares. He is legit and will continue to get better. But as a team, there is only so much development that can go on at this level while the club still expects to win. Compete? Yes, but not with consistent results and the Isles must avoid their customary in-season skid off the road to the playoffs.
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