As a follow-up on my recent predictions of the Northeast division, I'll be weighing in today with my thoughts on possibly the best division in hockey. The Atlantic Division contained 4 playoff teams last year, or the number produced by the Southeast and Northeast divisions combined. The fact that the Eastern final was between two Atlantic teams, and didn't feature perenial contenders Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, is indicative of the strength of the Atlantic. So how will all these teams place in the coming season? Let's take a look.
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1. New York Rangers
The Rangers are perhaps the best team on paper going into this season. Last year's squad, which placed 1st in the conference, will welcome bona fide first-line scorer Rick Nash into the fold. Glen Sather and his brilliant tactics of essentially shipping spare parts to Columbus for the former 1st-overall pick are to thank for this. He'll likely play with Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards, two already capable offensive players. The deep forward crop includes heart-and-soul captain Ryan Callahan and youngsters Carl Hangelin and Derek Stepan. Their D is rock solid, with Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh (Gainey!) and Michael Del Zotto playing important minutes in front of Vezina winner and All-Star Henrik Lundqvist. This team has talent and depth from the net out, and is already considered a Stanley Cup favourite.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
Last year the Penguins matched the Rangers every step of the way before falling just short of the Atlantic division title. They'll be in a similar position this year, and will give Tortorella's team a run for its money. Malkin ran the show last year when Crosby was recovering from multiple concussions, as evidenced by his league-leading 109 points. Malkin found a lot of chemistry playing with James Neal, who managed his first 40-goal season last year. Te two will be looking to continue the same production. Their defense has offensive catalyst Kris Letang, but lacks depth after him. The back end might get help from the farm, with both Joe Morrow and Simon Despres looking to make the team full-time this season. Marc-Andre Fleury has to prove that last year's playoffs were a fluke by re-establishing himself as an elite goalie. As good as the lineup looks for this team, they still have to face the pressure of silencing the skeptics. Their playoff success depends on if they thrive on it, or buckle under it.
3. Philadelphia Flyers
Pittsburgh's state rivals, the Flyers are looking to build on a season in which they thrived despite having shipped away Mike Richards and Jeff Carter the offseason prior to training camp. They finished 5th in the Eastern Conference despite having the 3rd best record and drew the unfortunate first-round opponent of the aforementioned Penguins. The Flyers managed to dispatch the Pens will surprising ease, ruining several playoff brackets in the process. Claude Giroux is ridiculous, and has already cemented his reputation as one of, if not the best, playmakers in the game. Giroux will continue to pile up points, no matter his linemates. The Flyers are also blessed with offensive depth, with Hartnell, Simmonds, Voracek, Briere, Read, Schenn and Couturier all ready to be top-6 players. The Flyers weakness is the D. With Pronger's career possibly over, the Flyers received more bad news when Matthew Carle signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The depleted D can't rely too heavily on goaltender-turned-astronomer Ilya Bryzgalov, who had a weak statistical season. Philadelphia will be good, but not better than the Rangers or the Penguins.
4. New Jersey Devils
In any other division, the Devils would have been ranked a lot higher. In fact, the Devils had equal or better point totals the 3/5 winners of the other divisions. This is a team that finished fourth in the Atlantic last year. The Devils lost captain and franchise player Zach Parise to free agency this past Canada Day, and that will have a huge impact on their point total. New Jersey will have to rely even more heavily on players like Ilya Kovalchuk, Adam Henrique, Patrik Elias and Travis Zajac. There are plenty of questions on the other side of the puck though. The Devils will start the season with a total age of 80 between their two goalies. That doesn't bode well for the future, but New Jersey may be able to squeeze out abother productive season or two from Marty Brodeur. The Devils are a team that should make the playoffs, but might slip out of the picture if things don't go well.
5. New York Islanders
It must be tough being an Islanders fan. The Toronto Blue Jays of hockey, the Isles are a sub-par team in an impossible division. The team that once was a dynasty is now a stalwart at the bottom of the Eastern conference. Despite an impressive output from franchise player John Tavares last season, the Islanders still drafted in the top 5. It seems the Isles are making strides, though. Matt Moulson has established himself as a consistent 30-35 goal scorer. Frans Nielsen, Kyle Okposo and Michael Grabner can provide secondary scoring. Unfortunately, the Isles lack difference makers at either end of the rink on defense beyond Mark Streit and Travis Hamonic. Evgeni Nabokov didn't play terrible last year. Rick Dipietro is still the butt end of many jokes around the NHL. The silver lining on a period of futlity is an impressive farm system. Ryan Strome, Nino Niederreiter, Griffin Reinhart and Calvin de Haan will provide much needed support sometime in the near future. Sadly for fans on Long Island, the optimism of a good prospect pool is for the future. In the meantime, the Isles will likely finish at the bottom of the Atlantic division.
Next blog will be to predict the Southeast division.
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