NHL season preview – Atlantic division

 

If the Central division isn’t the best division in hockey, this one is.  The Rangers were 1st the East last season and now have added Rick Nash.  The Pens won the cup just 4 seasons ago and could actually have a full season of Crosby and Malkin.  The Flyers are always a top end team and just were in the final 3 seasons ago.  The Devils went to the final last season, although they took a devestating blow in the off season.  The Islanders are also in this division, and the odd time they even win a game.

 

1. 0726S3_Nashsmall_60pNew York Rangers – Brad Richards may not have put up the point per game numbers that he had the 2 previous seasons, but it is no coincidence that with the addition of him the Rangers went from 8th in the conference to 1st.  A 1st line centre can change a ton of things, and it’s a luxery that power foward Rick Nash has never had in the NHL…until now.  Big things are expected out of the duo as the Rangers look to improve on an amazing season.

This is perhaps the most complete team in the league.  After Richards down the middle you have Derek Stepan who had a 51 point campaign and I personally see a lot of Chris Drury in his game.  I wouldn’t say he’s a great 2 way player, but he will get there.  Great intangibles, and a RH shot to boot!  Centering the 3rd line is big Brian Boyle.  The former 1st round pick is 6’7, 240 and can skate pretty good for such a big man.  He has learned how to use his size and while he won’t produce a lot of offense, he will wear out opposing centre’s throughout the game.  Hell they even brought in Jeff Halpern who is a good veteran 4th line centre that can still win a ton of draws (56.7% last season) and won’t hurt them defensively.

On the wings obviously Rick Nash is the big addition but I’m guessing Ranger fans are just as excited to see what Chris Kreider can do in his first full season.  The kid has great size, great wheels, great hands, I’ve heard him compared to Bill Guerin and definitely saw that in last years playoffs.  Marian Gaborik doesn’t have to snipe 41 goals again this season, they just need him to give them a consistent 30 now with Nash in the fold.  Ryan Callahan is a coaches dream, he puts team 1st, 2nd and 3rd.  He doesn’t do anything great but he does everything good.  Carl Hagelin, Mike Rupp, Taylor Pyatt, Aaron Asham, all the pieces just fit perfectly up front.

They might not fit as well on defense as they don’t have that elite number 1 horse back there.  But Marc Staal to me really is a number 1 guy.  He doesn’t bring a ton of offense but he is a shutdown guy that can log 25 minutes a night.  Last year’s numbers may not show him as this guy, but he was coming back off a serious concussion.  Dan Girardi is maybe the most underrated d-man in the league.  This guy has developed into a top pairing guy and like Staal he does nothing flashy but he’s extremely effective.

Ryan McDonagh got a chance to step up last season while Staal was getting healthy and then getting his game back and he took full advantage of it.  He looks as though he could develop into that number 1 guy down the line.  I found him to be erratic in the playoffs last year, but he was matched up against the opposing teams best lines every night.  I doubt Michael Del Zotto will ever be great defensively, but he is their PP QB.  He had 41 points last season and I expect him to keep improving on those numbers (per game this season of course since he’ll only have 48 games).

Then they have one of the best in net with Henrik Lundqvist.  He almost tends net as good as he dresses!  Dude easily has the best threads in the league.  Year in, year out since he arrived in the 05/06 season he has simply been among the elite goaltenders in the game and has earned the moniker “King Henrik”.  If you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere, well he’s made it in New York.

As you can tell I’m very high on this team.  I don’t see a flaw, but like any team they could stand to upgrade in some area’s.  A 2nd or 3rd line centre pushing Halpern to the press box would make them even better down the middle for example.  But they don’t have to do much and you know John Tortorella will push them to get the most out of this team.  They are just now starting to get recognized as one of the best drafting and developing teams in the league as well.  Pre salary cap this team just spent like morons.  The cap system forced them to draft and develop which was the way Glen Sather was much more comfortable building a team.  The team is young, the system is loaded (although they don’t have their 1st round pick this season) and they’ve really become one of the model franchises in the game.

 

2. 20071108pd_penguins1107f_500Pittsburgh Penguins – Last year’s end to the season was not anything close to what the Pens or NHL fans in general had in mind.  They went into the playoffs as the hottest team in the league, Sid was just getting his legs under him, they had the MVP, experience all over, the best team in the league down the middle, great coaching, and they completely imploaded.  Marc-Andre Fleury was horrific, the defense wasn’t much better, and before they knew it the Pens were bounced in 6.  It will be interesting to see if any affects from that loss linger this season.

I almost expect that to happen off the start, if not for any other reason than nobody thinks it’s possible.  I don’t love this blueline.  I’m a big Kris Letang fan, but he’s not the number 1 guy he gets made out to be.  I wouldn’t feel comfortable matching him up with another teams top line night in night out.  The worry with a shutdown guy like Brooks Orpik is that the wear and tear of his style of game is starting to slow him down a bit.  Paul Martin sucks….yeah I said it.  This guy was a product of New Jersey’s system and parlayed it into a big contract.  How many guys leave New Jersey and look like trash elsewhere?  Other than Scott Niedermayer, I can’t think of another guy.

Ray Shero knows how bad his blueline is, so he’s invested every draft pick he could get his hands on in the last 2 seasons into defensemen.  While that’s an overstatement, he has stockpiled them high in the draft the last 2 years and with 4 of his last 5 1st round picks.  Joe Morrow, Scott Harrington, Derrick Pouliot, and Olli Maatta the last 2 seasons, Simon Despres in 2009.  I’m going to guess he is going to flip at least 1 of these kids in a package at this years deadline in an attempt to upgrade that D, it’s just too thin.

Nothing wrong with the forward group though!  The pieces fit up front a lot better than they have.  I was big on the Pens getting exactly what they got from the Hurricanes for Jordan Staal, I thought it was a perfect trade for both teams and even said in a prior mock draft that the asking price from the Pens should be Sutter, a 1st, and a prospect.  Sutter just fits perfectly into that 3rd line centre spot for the Pens.  He isn’t as good as Jordan Staal obviously, but he has some offense, he’s more physical than Staal, and he’s a RH shot which the Pens haven’t had down the middle.

Shero finally made a play to go get this team a big talented winger in 2011 and he hit a homerun with James Neal.  With Dupuis and Kunitz flanking Sid, Geno and Neal can continue to dominate the way they did much of last season.  Maybe he doesn’t snipe 40 again, but I bet he isn’t far off that number.  The kid has it all and is only 25.

All that is great.  The forward group is awesome, the defense is thin but they have the trade chips and cap space to upgrade it, but the big key for the Pens is Marc-Andre Fleury bouncing back.  I like bringing in Tomas Vokoun to give Flower more breaks than he’s had the last few seasons, but Dan Bylsma needs to take advantage of that.  We’ve seen before where coaches will get a quality backup brought in to take pressure off their starter and they basically ignore it and ride their horse.  I’m betting Fleury does come back strong, he’s faced adversity like this before (04 WJC) and come back strong.  They’ll need him to because they won’t win a cup without him doing so.

Everyone is sky high on this team, and don’t get me wrong I love them.  But there are holes that the Rangers don’t have.  In the regular season I believe the Rags will be the better team, but as I’ve said Ray Shero has a lot of ammo to load up at the trade deadline to make another cup run.

 

3. 2012 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic - Practice SessionsPhiladelphia Flyers – The defending Stanley Cup champs I’m certain are still on cloud 9 after their amazing 6 game win against the Pens last season.  It was amazing when the buzzer went and they had defeated the Pens 5-1, Gary Bettman came out and presented them with the cup, truely an inspiring scene in Philly that day.  Of course that’s just how it played out in the Flyers minds, not reality.  This can be a great team that could make a deep run if they can get past comparing themselves to the Pens and instead just focus on the Flyers.

It starts in net with wack job Ilya Bryzgalov.  I hate to say I told you so EVERYBODY….BUT…..yeah.  He’s a great quote, I get why so many in the media pull for the guy, but he’s a joke.  It was very clear if anyone was paying attention to Phoenix, paying attention to goaltenders numbers with and without Dave Tippett behind the bench, it was obvious this was an Ed Snider move because if it was Paul Holmgren I’m certain their pro scouts would have urged not to give this guy big money.  Now, he can be better than he was last season…that shouldn’t be hard at all!  But he isn’t the answer they’ve been looking for since Bernie Parent.  I expect him to be bought out after the season and I’m sure if they had any kind of replacement right now they would have bought him out this week.

I like what their running down the middle going forward with Giroux, Couturier and Brayden Schenn.  Might be a bit too young right now, which is why Briere will play a lot in the middle moving Schenn to the wing, but in time they’ll be one of the best in the league.  They’re loaded on the wings too.  The wildcard to me is Jake Voracek (I’m well aware his real name is Jakub, thanks).  This kid is so talented and now he’ll get his chance on their top line with Giroux and Hartnell.  He has the talent to be a 1st line winger, but now it’s time to realize that potential.  If he can, they look scary good up front.

The blueline is obviously still hurting a lot without Chris Pronger who’s all but retired.  They do have some talent there, I like the move of JVR for Luke Schenn.  Schenn really needed to get out of Toronto who had a lot of big ego guys that were toxic in that room.  Philly by all acounts has a great dressing room, and he won’t be under the microscope quite as much in Philly.  Sure, it’s a tough market as well.  But he’s not coming in there as the saviour.  Pierre McGuire wasn’t on TV yelling to Philly fans “let the rebuild begin!!!” as Luke put on a Flyers uni for the first time.  He can go there and keep it simple and when Luke Schenn is keeping his game simple he is very effective.  He’s only 23 so he is still growing.

Kimmo Timmonen always gets overlooked for his quiet yet very effective game.  He is just very smooth out on the ice and never seems to get caught out of position.  It reminds me a lot of Sergei Zubov.  Not that Timmonen is THAT good, but Zubov was always overlooked as one of the games top d-men during his time, yet he was phenomenal at both ends of the ice on one of the league’s top teams.  Nobody ever talks about Timmonen, but he is still putting up good numbers and not hurting the Flyers at the other end.

They don’t have great depth in the organization on defense so I would expect Holmgren as he usually does to upgrade it before the trade deadline, but he’s running out of bullets to make big deadline deals.  The system is very depleated in Philly.  They’ve drafted well, but teams want those kids that have been picked high in the draft.  Unless they want to move a kid like Couturier or Schenn, they’ll be able to get a d-man but I kind of doubt it would be the type of guy they really need.

I don’t like some the antics from this team from time to time.  They have a bit of “Vancouver” in their game.  But I do really respect how aggressive the organization is, and it’s not like this is an old team.  They’re very young in a lot of key positions.  If I were Peter Laviolette (who I think gets underrated as a coach), I would really be focused on tightening up defensively.  With Bryz in net and a thin blueline I believe it’s the only way they can offset those flaws, but it’s always tough getting a talented group to buy in.  But I don’t see them going very deep in the playoffs without making a change of that ilk.

 

4. brodeurNew Jersey Devils – For an organization that had gone to the Stanley Cup final 4 times in the previous 16 seasons (won 3 of them), it was a pretty unbelievable run for the Devils last spring.  It looked bleek as they faced elimination going into O.T. of game 6.  They survived that, survived double O.T. in game 7 on the road, and then went on a great run only to be run out of the rink in game 6 of the final against L.A.  Things didn’t get better in the off season as they lost their heart and soul, captain Zach Parise.  They look to bounce back from both, not an easy task.

For me (and I’m sure my buddies are sick of me saying this), Travis Zajac is one of the most underrated players in the league.  The Jon Gruden way I would describe him is “let me tell ya, this Travis Zajac is just a hockey player man there is nothin that guy won’t do out there”.  Now of course Gruden wouldn’t break down his game, mainly because he probably knows nothing about the sport, so let me do it quickly.  Great size, good skater, 200 foot game, great in the dot, good vision.  He is healthy and it’s a contract year so I expect a big season out of him.

He has a very talented winger to play with….from Russia with love.  Of course the love is for Russia, very much for Russia.  I’m sure Kovalchuk will be fine, and his teammates are saying all the right things but I’m sure him wanting to stay in the KHL isn’t sitting well in the room.  They’ll get over it if he comes out storming and they’ll need him to without Parise there.

Another guy they’ll need to keep developing is Adam Henrique.  I wasn’t a believer during the regular season as he was flanked by Parise and Kovalchuk but he made a believer out of me in the playoffs last year, he was as clutch as an rookie has ever been on that stage.  With Henrique and Zajac they look good down the middle.  Patrik Elias had an unreal season last year, but they can’t expect him to come close to those numbers again (26/52/78).  If he can, it’ll be huge but he’s now 36.  Same goes for David Clarkson.  30 goals far exceeded expectations for him but if he can keep that kind of pace perhaps the Devils won’t miss Parise at least when it comes to production.

A lot of people like their blueline more than I do.  They’re deep, but I have no clue how a team got to the Stanley Cup final with guys like Bryce Salvador and Marek Zidlicky leading the way.  I guess it’s a situation where the whole is great than the sum of its parts, but that is very much so the exception to the rule rather than the rule.  Adam Larsson is the guy that could be the horse, but he’s only 20 years old and its not the “New Jersey way” to let a kid jump up the depth chart that fast.  Having watched Lamoriello operate over the years, I honestly wouldn’t be shocked to see Lou deal Larsson for a package of players if he could get the right guys in the deal.  He is thinking TEAM first, second and third and has some holes that need to be filled on this roster and that’s the best trade chip he has if he wants to use it.  I wouldn’t, but Lou would.

And then of course we have old man Brodeur between the pipes.  JUST when so many people (very much so myself) thought he was done, he had a great playoff run where he just kept getting better and better and better.  Remember in game 3 against the Panthers he was yanked and really didn’t look good all series.  He has a brand new 2 year/9 million dollar contract and I’m sure Lou wouldn’t have gave him 2 years unless he knew Marty would live up to it.  Johan Hedberg is still a quality backup and I would guess he gets in 12-15 games this season.

The loss of Parise will be felt, but this team always finds a way to replace big losses and stay competitive.  They’ll be hard pressed to get in the playoffs this season in such a tough division, but at worse they’ll be in the hunt right until game 48.  And expect some them to be busy on the trade front, they have a lot of holes and this franchise bleeds money at the best of times (like last season) so from an ownership perspective the playoffs are a MUST.

 

5. tavares_john640_640New York Islanders – This team is just such a freakin’ mess!  How have they been THIS bad for THIS long and still not look like they’re going anywhere?!  I mean I know how, Charles Wong is the worst owner in the league.  But with how many high picks they’ve had it is mind boggling that they haven’t even produced a competitive team by accident in the last 5 years.  I can’t see things changing this season, but maybe hanging out with Jay-Z in Brooklyn will help their street cred?

1 thing they have got right was John Tavares.  I laughed for a few years there when people who were desperate to see the Islanders get it wrong talk about how great Matt Duchene was.  Tavares was only had 1 less point on a much worse team in his rookie season, and the same amount of points in 1 less game on a much worse team in his 2nd season.  Last season officially shut those people up.  It’s nothing against Duchene, but Tavares is great, but the unfortnate thing for him is that he is trying to carry this franchise all on his own.

Matt Moulson has put up big numbers playing with Tavares, but he’s a 1 dimensional guy.  Kyle Okposo had a decent season with 24 goals last season but still much more is expected of the 2006 7th overall pick.  When he was drafted he was compared by many to Shane Doan, but he hasn’t come close to that.  Frans Nielson is playing behind Tavares and he’s ok, but he’s not a legit 2nd line centre.  47 points is nice, but he was only 45% in the dot and while he’s not a liability defensively he doesn’t have a great 200 foot game.  They competely ruined Josh Bailey.  The best thing they could do for that kid is to trade him and at least let him have a fresh start with a competent franchise.

Garth Snow finally took a d-man with a high pick in last year’s draft taking Griffin Reinhart.  My worry is that they’ll rush him.  Reinhart needs another year in the WHL in my opinion.  Huge upside there, but he needs to be brought along slowly.  At least they’ll have the Lub they bought in the off season….HEY-O.  Visnovsky will report, but I’m still skeptical about him bringing his A game to the team.  I would guess it’s more about putting up with them to get his money.  Mark Streit is one bright spot on the blueline that is currently on the roster.  He’s played very hard for them since signing there and been a solid captain, but he’s got absolutely zero help.  I like Travis Hamonic a lot, but I don’t know if his upside is more than just a nice, physical 3/4 type.

Evgeni Nabokov played well for them in net last season, but he is now 37 years old and has played a lot of games since entering the league in 2002.  He definitely isn’t a guy that could lift this franchise out of their rut.  And isn’t it amazing that I’ve ripped on this organization as much as I have without 1 mention of the Rick DiPietro contract (or the Yashin deal for that matter).  That’s saying something isn’t it, that I can easily pick apart how bad they’ve been without even brining that up.

They’re an embarrassement.  I think Charles Wong cares a lot, but he is just a fan and doesn’t have any clue how to run the team.  1 publication had the Islanders finishing 6th in the East before the lockout.  That is well beyond ridiculous.  Maybe they’ll exceed my expectations, but they will not be a playoff team and I wouldn’t be shocked if Tavares snapped one of these days and demanded a trade.

 

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