Obviously, the main theme amongst these three Atlantic Division rivals is a solid above .500 season that always results in an early playoff exit for the same and different reasons. You could sit here and blame the referees, one player, or injuries, but good teams play through instances like that and overcome the adversity such obstacles present.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are the last team of the four Atlantic Division teams that remain in the playoffs for the second year in a row. The difference between this year and last year is that three out of the four Atlantic Division teams that made the playoffs never made it past the first round. In my opinion, I think the Atlantic Division is the most skilled, diverse, and successful division in the National Hockey League since the lockout...in the regular season. I give Pittsburgh a lot of credit for their success in the past two seasons. They're a skilled team up front, on the blue line, and in net, with a core of young players that aren't going anywhere anytime soon. As the Penguins look to be entering an age of glory and prosperity, the Rangers, Devils, and Flyers, all teams capable of going deeper into the playoffs seem to be taking a step back and appear on the decline. The commonalities amongst the alleged issues these three teams face stand out.
First, all three teams have weaknesses at some part in their game, which were exploited in the playoffs and during the regular season that may have held them back from achieving the success they were capable of. Despite having the likes of Scott Gomez, Chris Drury, Marcus Naslund, and Nik Antropov, the Rangers failed to generate any consistent offense this year especially on the power play, relying on their goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to bail them out. Of course, this could be a result of the team's inability to get any chemistry going on their lines, which resulted in a lot of 1, 2, or 3 goal games by the Rangers, and constant line shuffling.
While seeming solid when they were "hot" in December and January, particularly when Brodeur was injured, the Devils medicore defense returned to Earth, and their lack of a legitimate number one defenseman, or their inability to produce offense from their blueline resulted in many defensive breakdowns at the season's end, particularly during an unpleasant six game losing streak. How they still won the division is a mystery to me. You cannot call your defensive corps good if your alleged best defenseman is a second pair defensemen at best on a better team.
Marty Biron looked solid in the post season, and bailed out the Flyers at points. One can argue the Flyers lack of skilled netminders has been the team's ex-factor in the post-lockout era. I guarantee if you put a goaltender like Henrik Lundvquist in net, and put a high scoring Flyers team in front of him, that is a cup winning team. You cannot say that the Flyers have not tried to address the problem since the issue has risen, and I'm sure more efforts will be made to fix it again this summer, especially since Biron's contract expires this coming July 1st.
All three teams also have a couple of questionable contracts of players that are getting ice time or roles they don't deserve. One of these instances that comes to mind first is the Zubrus or as I like to call him, Zubust contract he was awarded in 2007. With four years left, Zubrus will be making almost $4 million. Although he started with a fourth line role at the beginning of the year, he was promoted to centering Elias and Gionta when Rolston went down with an injury in October. Zubrus stayed in between these two, and as a result, his limited offensive abilities and his inability to produce plays in the offensive zone, ultimately held back the potential skill of Patrik Elias and Brian Gionta, which did not make Zubrus' line a considerable offensive threat against other teams.
The gross contract the Rangers signed Wade Redden to is a classic example. Redden only scored three goals and got 26 points, and had an unpleasant minus 5 for the year. Glenn Sather brought Redden in with hopes of him being a power play quarterback, and because Redden needed a "change of scenery". In the end, the Rangers finished in the bottom 10 in power play ranks, and Redden became the subject of a downpour of boos and obscenities whenever he came near the puck at Madison Square Garden.
Danny Briere has six years left on an eight-year contract he signed with the Flyers. Briere was out with injuries for the majority of the 2008-2009 season, and during that time, the Flyers managed to get some good chemistry going and produce some good offense that got them into the playoffs. When Briere returned, his intervention into the lineup was inevitable, and I remember one myhockeybuzz blog that deemed Briere as the ex-factor for the Flyers as they went into the playoffs. With Jeff Carter and Mike Richards emerging as top stars, along with longtime Flyer Simon Gagne, there did not seem to be any room or need for Briere to be placed into the humming Flyer offensive lineup. Easy as it may seem, it makes the coach and GM look bad if a known NHL all-star with six years and millions of dollars remaining on his current tenure with the team, sits in the press box, no matter how good the team has done without him. This is another instance as to why and how long term injuries to important players on a team can ultimately make or break a team when they return.
All three teams have attempted to make moves to improve their teams, but made them in the wrong places, or in places where it wasn't necessary. Last summer was the perfect example. Lou Lamoriello said in a Star Ledger article that he was going to add one or two more defenseman on the Devils blue line for next year, when instead, he goes out and salvages his remaining cap space (after re-signing Pandolfo, Clarkson, and Salvador) to signing Brian Rolston to a long term deal, and giving Bobby Holik another stint with the Devils.
Going back to the Wade Redden deal...not only was the contract a gross overpayment over a period of six years, my question is, why would you sign a near aging defenseman such as Wade Redden to that kind of contract, when you have a prospect pool loaded with promising skilled defensemen? The Rangers have the likes of Sanguetti, Del Zotto, and others that are not even a year or two away from cracking the Ranger line up, ready to make an impact. Although the abundance of youth on the blueline, may have resulted in the Rangers taking a step back, the Rangers defensive corps would be promising for years to come as they develop.
While the last big splashes the Flyers have made were the Briere signing and getting Vaclav Prospal at the trade deadline in 2008, the have made minor and moderate tweaks on their roster since, mainly as a result of lack of cap space. Their goaltending situation has remained static since, so my question is, why have they not focused on trying to sign or trade for a legitimate No. 1 goaltender when they had the chance to get one, instead of tweaking their offense and defensive corps all this time?
I hope these points made sense. As a fan in the area, it's frustrating to see not just the Devils prosper from October to April, and not even get past the first round year in and year out, but to see the other local teams do the same, when all three possess so much potential makes the situation even more teeth grinding. A lot of the observations and questions I just asked have been stated constantly by fans of all three teams not on this site, but on many others. Why such issues have not been addressed, and why such moves that are later questioned or regretted are made remains a mystery to me.