ATLANTIC

October 09, 2011

PITTSBURGH

PENGUINS

COACH Dan Bylsma (4th season)

LAST SEASON 49-25-8 (4th in East); lost in first round to Lightning

KEY ADDITIONS RW Steve Sullivan, D Jason Williams

KEY LOSSES RW Alex Kovalev, C Mike Rupp, C Max Talbot

THE PENGUINS ARE built down the middle, so losing one of their top three centers—Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal—for an extended period of time would be a significant blow. Losing all three, as they did last season, should have been absolutely devastating.

A broken right hand kept Staal sidelined until January, and both Crosby (concussion) and Malkin (knee) missed most of the second half of the season. Yet Pittsburgh still comfortably made the playoffs and even challenged Philadelphia for the division title, a testament to the adaptability of the team.

While the Penguins continue to monitor the progress of Crosby (page 58), they know at least one of their superstars will be healthy on opening night. Malkin, who tore his right ACL and MCL last February, has the sort of game-breaking abilities that separate great players from good ones. And after a seven-month layoff the 25-year-old center looks ready to return to the level at which he was playing in 2008--09, when he won the Art Ross Trophy with a 113-point season. In preseason action Malkin appeared fit and sharp, skating strongly and leading several goal-scoring breakaways.

But Pittsburgh does not live and die by offensive fireworks alone. The Penguins demonstrated that last season, winning tight, defensive games down the stretch behind the superb play of their blueliners, led by Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin. Though Pittsburgh scored just 77 goals after the All-Star break (good for only 23rd in the league), the club won 18 of its final 32 games. The Penguins' proven ability to win in a variety of ways—with either their offense or their defense—gives them the advantage on most nights. And after Crosby's eventual return—whenever that may be—Pittsburgh will once again be the team to beat in the East.

PHILADELPHIA

FLYERS

COACH Peter Laviolette (3rd season)

LAST SEASON 47-23-12 (2nd in East); lost in second round to Bruins

KEY ADDITIONS G Ilya Bryzgalov, RW Jaromir Jagr, C Max Talbot

KEY LOSSES C Jeff Carter, LW Ville Leino, C Mike Richards

AFTER WATCHING HIS team crumble in the postseason (yet again), largely because of uneasiness in net (yet again), the man upstairs finally made the call. "We are never going to go through the goalie issues we've gone through in the last couple of years again," Flyers owner Ed Snider told The Philadelphia Inquirer in May.

And with that, the Flyers went after goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, a 2010 Vezina finalist in Phoenix. But signing him to a nine-year, $51 million contract required some belt-tightening. So in two of the boldest moves of the NHL off-season, Philly traded a pair of centers, captain Mike Richards (to the Kings) and Jeff Carter (to the Blue Jackets), to free up cash. "We [were] a little bit overloaded in the middle of the ice," G.M. Paul Holmgren said. "We're a different team—much different—when you move those two guys, but I like our team."

In addition to the youngsters they received in dealing Richards and Carter, the Flyers picked up Jaromir Jagr and feisty center Max Talbot. With all the new faces, the forwards may take some time to develop chemistry, but a formidable defense in front of Bryzgalov, led by new captain Chris Pronger (left) and Kimmo Timonen, should have Philadelphia pushing for the top spot in the East.

NEW YORK

RANGERS

COACH John Tortorella (4th season)

LAST SEASON 44-33-5 (8th in East); lost in first round to Capitals

KEY ADDITIONS C Brad Richards, C Mike Rupp

KEY LOSSES C Chris Drury, D Bryan McCabe, LW Vinny Prospal

MARQUEE FREE AGENTS are drawn to the bright lights of Manhattan. Sometimes it works (see: Messier, Mark); other times, not so much (see: Redden, Wade). So what makes center Brad Richards, who signed a nine-year, $60 million contract in July, believe he'll avoid the latter distinction? For starters, there's the familiar face in the dressing room: coach John Tortorella, with whom Richards won a Stanley Cup with the Lightning in 2004.

"[It's important] to be comfortable with someone and know where you stand," Richards says. "I've changed teams [before]. It's not that easy. Coaches don't understand you. You don't understand coaches sometimes."

Richards will be playing alongside Marian Gaborik, a 2009 free-agent pickup. A lefthanded shot playing the right wing, Gaborik is just the kind of linemate with whom Richards has thrived in the past (most notably Martin St. Louis in Tampa). A consistent top line would relieve goalie Henrik Lundqvist from having to carry the team. The Rangers' biggest concern, though, is their defense, which is extremely young (none of the defensemen are older than 27) and untested. Having more scoring options is great, but if New York cannot find a way out of its own zone, the path to the postseason will be tough.

NEW JERSEY

DEVILS

COACH Peter DeBoer (1st season)

LAST SEASON 38-39-5 (11th in East)

KEY ADDITIONS LW Eric Boulton, RW Cam Janssen, D Adam Larsson

KEY LOSSES RW Brian Rolston, D Colin White

IT WAS A tale of two seasons in Newark. After a controversial off-season the Devils struggled early with injuries, a rookie coach and the fallout from Ilya Kovalchuk's free agency. Kovalchuk (below) ultimately re-signed, but only after the league rejected a previous deal for circumventing the salary cap, an infraction that cost New Jersey $3 million and draft picks. "There was a lot going on, and for whatever reason, we didn't handle it properly," says winger Zach Parise, who went down with a knee injury last November.

The Devils got off to their worst start in 27 years, but shortly after coach John MacLean was fired and Hall of Famer Jacques Lemaire was brought back, the club turned it around. New Jersey went 28-10-3 in the second half, creeping into the playoff picture in the final weeks and creating optimism for 2011--12.

This off-season was quieter than last year's, but another new coach and a thin defensive corps may mean a second straight sluggish start.

NEW YORK

ISLANDERS

COACH Jack Capuano (2nd season)

LAST SEASON 30-39-13 (14th in East)

KEY ADDITIONS G Evgeni Nabokov, C Marty Reasoner, RW Brian Rolston

KEY LOSSES RW Trent Hunter, D Radek Martinek, C Doug Weight

MONTHS OF FRUSTRATION finally boiled over last Feb. 11, when the Islanders hosted the Penguins. Nine days earlier Pittsburgh goaltender Brent Johnson floored New York counterpart Rick DiPietro with one punch in a fight-filled game. The rematch resembled Road House on ice, as the teams combined for 346 penalty minutes. It wasn't a shining moment for either club, but the Islanders felt they had made a point.

"It was a matter of people coming in and thinking they could push us around and do what they want," winger Michael Grabner says. "We were just showing them we're not going to take everything."

New York played better after the brawl (11-10-6), and it's not as if there's a shortage of talent on Long Island. "We had five 20-goal scorers last year, and that doesn't include Kyle Okposo [who had 19 goals but missed 44 games due to a torn labrum]," says center John Tavares, who led the team with 67 points.

Okposo will be back, but the biggest difference-maker will be defenseman Mark Streit, who sat out last season with a rotator-cuff injury. The new captain, a six-year veteran, plays in all situations and will be the blue line's offensive catalyst. While there is hope for the Islanders, their inconsistency and reliance on young players means that results are still another year or two off.

ON THE VERGE

NINO NIEDERREITER

The Islanders got a glimpse of the big (6'2", 205 pounds) 18-year-old winger last year when he played nine games. He was ultimately returned to the minors, where he scored 41 goals.

HOT SEAT

PETER DEBOER

If New Jersey's high expectations aren't met, there's plenty of evidence to suggest this marriage won't last long: DeBoer, the coach of the Panthers for the past three seasons, is the fourth man in the past four years to assume the spot behind the Devils' bench.

HIDDEN GEM

PAUL MARTIN

The Penguins' defenseman may not wow with his offensive numbers (24 points last season) or intimidate with his size (6'1", 200 pounds), but the 30-year-old is reliable in his own zone and has the ability to transition to offense, a trait that Pittsburgh's forwards appreciate.

PIERRE MCGUIRE

IN THE CREASE

One big question for the Flyers is whether the players they acquired in the trade that sent center Mike Richards to the Kings—forwards Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds—fit the up-tempo style of coach Peter Laviolette. They should: Both are terrific skaters... . Devils fans should be excited. The attacking style preferred by new coach Peter DeBoer will lead to more scoring, and it wouldn't be a surprise if Ilya Kovalchuk responded with a massive season. New Jersey's offense will also get a major boost from the return of winger Zach Parise, who played 13 games last season before tearing his ACL.

PHOTOANDY MARLIN/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (MALKIN)WELCOME BACK After a season of grinding out low-scoring wins, the Penguins will benefit from the return of big guns such as Malkin. PHOTOLOU CAPOZZOLA (PRONGER) PHOTOJEANINE LEECH/ICON SMI (NIEDERREITER) PHOTOLOU CAPOZZOLA (KOVALCHUK) PHOTOTOM SZCZERBOWSKI/US PRESSWIRE (SIMMONDS) FIVE PHOTOS

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