Season Preview: Atlantic Division

Jack Hillen celebrates scoring on Henrik Lundqvist. (Getty Images)
The Atlantic Division is often the most competitive of the three divisions making up the Eastern conference. Comprised of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, and the New Jersey Devils, the division is unique in that every single member has won the Stanley Cup. In fact, the five teams have won a total of 16 Stanley Cups. Every team in the division is hard to play against, every team has a mostly winning history, and every team has had it’s share of stars in their time, from players like Mario Lemiuex with the Pens and Mark Messier with the Rangers, to players like Bobby Clarke with the Flyers and Mike Bossy with the Isles, to the great Martin Brodeur in net for the Devils.

Next season looks to have much of the Atlantic Division looking to make the playoffs, with the Pens, Flyers, Rangers, and Devils easily among the teams that have a good shot at the post season, with the Islanders having a decent chance as well depending on how the young guys develop and mature. Overall, any of the five Atlantic Division teams making the playoffs wouldn’t be surprising, though the Islanders making it might raise some eyebrows. Who knows? Maybe this is the season Rick DiPietro lives up to the expectations of being a #1 draft pick back in the 2000 draft.

Last season was rather interesting for the Atlantic, as both the Isles and Devils switched coaches midway through the season due to horrible starts. Both had fairly strong 2nd-halves to their seasons (especially the Devils) but both failed to qualify for the playoffs. The Flyers were leading the conference for a while until they faltered late, allowing the Capitals to grab the #1 seed for the playoffs. The Penguins were going great until they lost both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for most of the 2nd half of the season, making them claw there way to nearly each and every win they got - they managed to get the 4th seed for the playoffs regardless. The Rangers made the playoffs on the last day of the season, but were dispatched by the Caps in the 1st round in 5 games. Here’s a rundown of the player changes the teams have made this off-season, in order of division standings from last season...

Philadelphia Flyers, 2nd in the East, 47-23-12 record, 106 points
IN: Jaromír Jágr (RW), Andreas Lilja (D), Maxime Talbot (C), Ilya Bryzgalov (G), Jakub Voracek (RW), Brayden Schenn (C), Wayne Simmonds (RW),
OUT: Sean O’Donnell (D), Brian Boucher (G), Ville Leino (LW), Daniel Carcillo (LW), Jeff Carter (C), Mike Richards (C), Darroll Powe (LW), Kris Versteeg (RW)
OUTLOOK: The Flyers management decided to, for whatever reason, change the outlook of the roster this off season. Out went high scoring centers Jeff Carter and Mike Richards (two players signed for long term deals who were in the primes of their careers) and in came Jakub Voracek, Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, and some picks. Also arriving via trade were the rights to UFA goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, who was promptly signed to a 9-year, $51 million deal. This team is definitely different (and younger at the forward positions), but was it the right move? That will be a question that will be asked for a long, long time.
SEASON PREDICTION: The Flyers new-look roster has an interesting juxtaposition: young forwards (lead by the 23-year-old Claude Giroux) combined with mid-aged goaltending (Ilya Bryzgalov, age 31) and a veteran blueline (lead by the pairing of Kimmo Timonen and Chris Pronger, both age 36). The Flyers could be just as good as last season, if Giroux and Daniel Briere can once again lead the offense, but the loss of high-scoring forwards such as Richards and Carter will hurt. The signing of Jaromír Jágr is interesting, as he has the potential to be incredible or merely average. The Flyers will have to prove this season that blowing up the core of the team was the right move - but competing for a Cup maybe be ever so slightly out of their reach for next season.

Pittsburgh Penguins, 4th in the East, 49-25-8 record, 106 points
IN: Steve Sullivan (LW), Colin McDonald (RW), Boris Valábik (D), Alexandre Picard (D)
OUT: Maxime Talbot (C), Michael Rupp (LW), Brett Sterling (LW)
OUTLOOK: The Penguins are an extremely strong team, assuming that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are both healthy and return to their pre-injury levels of performance. If that happens, the Pens are among the elite in the NHL.
SEASON PREDICTION: Assuming that Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby are back and performing as well as they normally do, the Pens will once again be a powerhouse. Along with the Capitals and the Bruins, they are likely the favorites to represent the Eastern conference in the Stanley Cup Finals. I expect the Penguins to win their division, and perform like the elite team they are all season long.

New York Rangers, 8th in the East, 44-33-5 record, 93 points
IN: Michael Rupp (LW), Brad Richards (C), Andreas Thuresson (RW)
OUT: Matt Gilroy (D), Justin Soryal (LW), Evgeny Grachev (C), Brodie Dupont (C)
OUTLOOK: As long as NY signs all of their RFAs, they look to be in pretty good shape for next season. What NYR fans really need to hope now is that Marion Gaborik can find his 40+ goal form again playing with Brad Richards, and that all the young guys continue their development well. Oh, and that Henrik Lundqvist continues to be stellar in net, as he has been for a while.
SEASON PREDICTION: With the signing of star UFA Brad Richards, the Rangers hope they have solved their first line center woes. Assuming that they have (finally), the Rangers should be a pretty good hockey team next season. They aren’t quite “elite”, and a Cup is unlikely, but they should have a much easier time of making the playoffs this season than they have in years past.

New Jersey Devils, 11th in the East, 38-39-5 record, 81 points
IN: Maxin Norreau (D)
OUTLOOK: This team is going to depend entirely on how the coach that Lou Lamoriello hires. Will this team perform as badly as they did under John MacLean, or as well as they performed under Jacques Lemaire? Time will tell.
SEASON PREDICTION: This team has the potential to perform well. They aren’t quite elite, but they’re close. If they can get themselves to perform as well as they can (considering most of the roster is comprised of well-payed veterans), they can easily make the playoffs. They might even have an outside shot at winning the division, though I think Pittsburgh still has a lock on that. Regardless, next season will be interesting to watch the Devils; hopefully, it isn’t quite as interesting a season as last year was!

New York Islanders, 14th in the East, 30-39-13 record, 73 points
IN: Marty Reasoner (C),
OUT: Bruno Gervais (D), Doug Weight (C), Zenon Konopka (C), Nathan Lawson (G), Radek Martínek (D)
OUTLOOK: The Isles are letting the young guys adjust to the NHL without too much interference, and that’s probably the right thing to do. The group of young players will likely have benefited from another season of experience, meaning this team will only be getting better and better.
SEASON PREDICTION: The Islanders are still one of the worst teams in the Eastern conference, by the looks of it, but could in theory make the playoffs - assuming, of course, that the young players (John Tavares, Michal Grabner, Matt Moulson, Kyle Okposto, etc.) all have great seasons that propel the team. It’s possible, but not likely. However, the Isles will probably be difficult to play against once again this season, meaning that, regardless of their position in the standings, they won’t be pushovers come game time.

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