Instead of working on a team-by-team preview for the entire league, I wanted to zoom in a little closer, to the division I'm most familiar with. Arguably the most (if not second most) competitive division in hockey, the Atlantic Division enters 2008-09 with lots of unanswered questions, which I will now attempt to answer. I went through the teams in the reverse order of where I expect them to place in the final standings this year. So naturally the first team up is the...
5. New York Islanders
IN: Mark Streit, Doug Weight
OUT: Miroslav Satan, Ruslan Fedotenko, Josef Vasicek, Wade Dubielewicz
Forget the summer, this season could not end fast enough if you're an Islanders fan. One needs only to look at the players lost and compare that to who's left to know that the worst scoring team in the NHL last season actually has LESS scoring help this year. Fear not, skeptics, even Islander fans will agree with you this year. The most optimistic of predictions has this team finishing in the deadest of last places. Doug Weight may prove a good signing, but you can bet it won't be for his goal scoring ability. Adding Mark Streit certainly upgrades the blueline, but combine the sheer atrocity that is the Isles' forward corps with Rick DiPietro starting this season on the shelf and you have a team whose highlight of the season will be the day they draw the balls for the draft lottery.
4. New York Rangers
IN: Wade Redden, Markus Naslund, Nikolai Zherdev, Dan Fritsche, Dmitri Kalinin, Aaron Voros, Patrick Rissmiller
OUT: Jaromir Jagr, Sean Avery, Martin Straka, Brendan Shanahan, Fedor Tyutin, Ryan Hollweg, Christian Backman
The sheer amount of change in the Rangers roster in the course of one offseason can either produce one of two results: either all of the new faces work out exactly as planned and the Rangers turn out even better than last year; or what I feel is the more likely situation, that all that team chemistry that was built by the end of last year is now lost, and will have to be rebuilt from the bottom up. That doesn't mean this is a bad hockey club, but it didn't take 3/4 of last season to build true team chemistry with three new additions for no reason. This year, the Blueshirts need to accomodate 7 new faces. Will they be a better team for all these moves, or will the firesale backfire? Truth is, as long as they have Henrik Lundqvist, anything is possible. The success or failure of the Rangers depends on him, but more importantly it depends on how quickly each player builds complete trust and chemistry with the 19 other players in the locker room. It will happen, but how long it takes will be the true defining factor in how the Rangers finish this season.
3. New Jersey Devils
IN: Brian Rolston, Bobby Holik, Fedor Fedorov
OUT: Sergei Brylin, Karel Rachunek, Arron Asham
Don't take this third place business the wrong way...I'm doing my best to keep objective about the team I love, and it's not easy. I have full confidence that the Devils will make the playoffs. While hockey critics will continue to predict each year that the Devils will finally fall out of the playoff picture for the first time since 1996, it continues to not be a smart pick. Say what you want about the defense, but replacing Sergei Brylin and Arron Asham with Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik is most certainly an offensive upgrade. The true test for the Devils this year, however, is not their new additions, but the players around them. Brian Gionta, Patrik Elias, Jamie Langenbrunner and others will need to score goals the way they are capable of for the additions of Rolston and Holik to have any impact at all. In addition, the defense which many say "overplayed" their own skill level last season will need to have another stellar year, as the club focused their offseason on improving the offense. Martin Brodeur will always keep this team in games, so it's up to those under-producing forwards to really carry this team over the edge.
2. Philadelphia Flyers
IN: Glen Metropolit, Steve Eminger, Arron Asham, Ossi Vaananen, Tim Ramholt, Jean-Sebastien Aubin
OUT: Jason Smith, R.J. Umberger, Sami Kapanen, Jaroslav Modry, Patrick Thoresen, Stefan Ruzicka
The Flyers made it all the way to the Conference Finals last season, and in order to do so again, a few unknown factors will need to work themselves out. Their defense, for example, took a considerable hit when Jason Smith departed for Ottawa. Ossi Vaananen is not exactly a valid replacement for Smith, but the emergence of young Ryan Parent, as well as the continued development of Braydon Coburn makes this Flyer defense younger and quicker, and that can only work to their advantage. The already physical Flyers added an extra dose of sandpaper by bringing in Steve Eminger and Arron Asham, while Glen Metropolit--easily the best offseason addition--brings a considerable dose of skill to an already skilled group of forwards. The Flyers are a bit of a tough read this year. Does the extra grit make them better? Did they really need it? Are we returning to the glory days, when Philly was a perennial conference powerhouse? I believe we are.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins
IN: Miroslav Satan, Ruslan Fedotenko, Matt Cooke, Eric Godard, Danny Richmond
OUT: Marian Hossa, Ryan Malone, Georges Laraque, Ty Conklin
Marian Hossa, a definite factor in the playoffs last year, crossed conference lines to the team that defeated his Penguins, the defending champion Red Wings. Ryan Malone "bolted" (sorry) for the Tampa Bay Lightning, taking Gary Roberts with him. Despite this exodus, is it possible that the defending Eastern Conference champions got better this offseason? Among the other substitutions, Montreal-bound enforcer Georges Laraque was replaced by Matt Cooke, and a pair of Islanders--Ruslan Fedotenko and Miroslav Satan--were brought aboard to alleviate the departed offensive skill of Hossa and Malone. Ty Conklin, the goalie who carried this team during Marc-Andre Fleury's high-ankle sprain, joined Hossa in jumping ship for Detroit. Small loss here, though, as capable backup Dany Sabourin remains. Despite a few key players departing the Steel City, the Pens still appear to be the best team in the division, and with Crosby and Malkin still developing their already legendary careers, are likely to remain so for the forseeable future.