Can the Flyers Buy the Division (Atlantic Division Preview)

The Atlantic Division is one of the up and downs as teams have been dominant at one point and less than so other years. Last year the dominance continued to shift to Pennsylvania and far away from the New York area. Last year the battle continued between the in state rivals in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The Pens and Flyers battled it out to a tie at the end of the season that gave the Flyers the division and the Penguins the 4 spot in the Eastern Conference. While the Pens and Flyers battled it out on top, the New York had a bit of a struggle. The New York Rangers barely made the playoffs as they to the end with the Carolina Hurricanes and the Toronto Maple Leafs. The New York Islanders meanwhile suffered yet again as they were put to the bottom of the conference only beating the Florida Panthers. Close by the New Jersey Devils had a terrible start to the year after they met some salary issues that caused them to dress only 15 players and suffering some big injuries. The Devils finished in 4th place and out of the playoffs after a bad start that turned around near the end of the season. This year the Pennsylvanians will look to continue their dominance over the New York/Jersey teams. With some big moves this offseason by many of the teams it could be a very entertaining year in the Atlantic and you might be able to find a champion among these teams.

New York Islanders

The Islanders have been the bottom of the league for a long time and the rumours of them moving do not help the fan turnout. Last year the Isles did not have a good season as usual even with their young superstar John Tavares. As the losses piled up the rumours swirled as fans of the defunct Quebec Nordiques piled into a bus and bought more seats than true Islanders fans for a game. This was their way of telling the NHL that Quebec City was ready for another franchise and that they wouldn’t mind taking the struggling Islanders. Of course this did not happen as the Islanders remained in New York even with a low fan base. They could not get much going last year but after the All-Star break they did show some signs of life. The second half saw the Islanders surge and began to make a run at the playoffs. Unfortunately injuries hampered their hopes and the Islanders limped into the offseason finishing second last in the conference. The injuries that the Isles suffered were the most in the NHL as they lost 586 man-games to injuries down the stretch. As the Islanders limped into the offseason again as a loser but gave their fans some hope for the future.

This year the Islanders will take a very young team into the Atlantic Division race as they look to take their youth into the playoffs. This may be a bit of a stretch for the Isles as they look to get better but will most likely miss the playoffs again. The Islanders will take their strong finish last year into this season and start off with a bang. They will be looking toward their superstar John Tavares who just signed a long-term contract extension to stay with the team. Tavares has not been as dominant as the Islanders had hoped but he is easily their best player and one of the top young players in the game. Along with Tavares the youth movement will be helped by Kyle Okposo on the top line as well as last year’s top pick Nino Niederreiter will most likely crack the roster. Some of the hopefuls that will look to crack the roster along with Niederreiter will be Casey Cizikas and Calvin De Haan. The Islanders offence looks to improve with Tavares and Okposo on the top line and Niederreiter joining up with Michael Grabner on the second line. The bottom two lines are not good enough to provide a lot of offence but with the additions of Marty Reasoner and Brian Rolston through free agency they look to be improving. On defence the Isles will be bolstered by the return of Mark Streit from injuries and Mark Eaton. Meanwhile the injuries of last year gave rise to two young defensemen in Andrew MacDonald and Travis Homonic. They may be adding some more youth to their defence later in the year as a promising young defender in Calvin De Haan will be looking to crack the roster. The Goaltending for the Isles is their weakest spot as they will need to employ the Aebischer defence, block as many shots as you can to limit the damage by the goalie. With Al Montoya and Rick DiPeitro in the net the Islanders do not have a true #1 and both will compete for time throughout the season. If one of these goalies can get hot the Islanders will be alright but they will need to have less injuries than last year if they hope to be a better team in 2011-12. The Islanders will not be the joke of the league anymore and an easy win. Expect the Islanders to fight it out in every game and be a tough out for a lot of teams. They will be much improved but it still seems that they will miss the playoffs again this year.

New York Rangers

Last year the Rangers were a decent team but they did not knock anyone’s lights out with their performances. The rangers have always been a big market rich team that loves the free agent market and tries to use it to the best of their ability. The Rangers had a middle of the road season that ended with a big battle in the last month with the Carolina Hurricanes and the Toronto Maple Leafs for the last spot in the playoffs. The Rangers came out on top taking the 8th spot in the Eastern Conference. This meant that they would be facing the best team in the conference in Washington. They showed that they were scrappy taking the first game into OT but ended it with a loss. The Rangers only managed one win in the series as they were beat by the Capitals in 5 games. The Rangers have been in the a bad spot for years as they continue to make the playoffs but cannot seem to make it that far which makes them in a bad spot for the draft. This has forced them to dip into the free agent pool in order to improve their team and the 2011 offseason was no different.

The Rangers are looking to finally get into the playoffs comfortably and make an impact in the postseason. The first step this year was the biggest signing in the free agent market as the Rangers outbid almost every team in the NHL to land Brad Richards. With the addition of Richards the Rangers will be able to replace the now retired Chris Drury in the top line with a much better player. Richards will anchor their offence if he lives up to his billing and will have some skill supporting him in Marion Gaborik and Brandon Dubinsky. The rest of the forwards are not lights out but all have the ability to provide that secondary scoring including Wojtek Wolski, Ruslan Fedotenko, Artem Anisimov, and Derek Stepan. There is no question that the top line will produce the Rangers offence but for the Rangers to be successful the rest of the offence will need to produce under John Tortorella’s pressing offence. The Rangers defence will have two solid pairs but have a number of questions in their third. Marc Staal and Dan Girardi will be the Rangers shutdown pair as the Rangers hope that Ryan McDonagh and Michael Sauer will improve on their play last year. McDonagh and Sauer had a great performance last year but the rookies slowed down at the end of the year and the Rangers are hoping that with one year under their belt they will be a good compliment to their top line. The third pairing is the weak spot on the Rangers as Michael De Zotto and Tim Erixon will make up the pair. Erixon is a question mark as he can be very good but will he perform up to his potential after the Rangers grabbed him from the Flames. Meanwhile Del Zotto was one of the more exciting players for the Rangers after a great first year but last year he began his sophomore slump and ended his season in the AHL. If Del Zotto can return to his performance in his rookie year and Erixon can play the way he can the Rangers will be strong on defence. Behind these defencemen will be King Henrik who was one of the best goalies last year. Henrik Lundqvist is a true #1 and will be the rock for the Rangers in the net as he will also have Martin Biron to replace him when needed. There are a lot of questions for the Rangers as they will be looking to see if their bottom lines can pick up some slack on offence and if their defence can be solid enough with all six players. Expect more of the same for the Rangers as they may just make the playoffs in the last spots but will not be good enough to win the division.

New Jersey Devils

The Devils are in trouble or at least that is what the reports are saying as the Devils have seen rumours of their financial issues. Last year these financial issues were the centre of attention in the NHL. At the start of the season the Devils could only dress 13 skaters and two goalies at points due to contractual and financial issues. This led to a terrible start to the season as the Devils seemed to be an easy win. This included the contract debacle with Ilya Kovalchuk in which the NHL denied the first attempt to create a contract because it overloaded the back-end of the contract. With this weighing over the heads of the Devils they got out to a bad start but the return of their longtime coach, Jacques Lemaire, from retirement seemed to turn things around.the Devils finished well but could not undo the damage that was already done. They missed the playoffs for the first time since 1996 and are hoping not to repeat this performance in 2011-12.

The Devils will be trying to move on once more from the shadow of Jacques Lemaire who left his interim title after the season and went back into retirement. They will move on with Pete DeBoer who will take over the reigns of a falling team with some financial woes. The Devils offence was the worst in the NHL last year as they only scored 171 goals all year. This was completely unexpected as they had just given their superstar Ilya Kovalchuk a big new contract. Kovalchuk was the biggest disappointment in the league last year as he seemed to try too hard to make everything happen by himself. This year Kovalchuk will have some of his help back that will hopefully make him realize he is not the only player on the team. With Zach Parise back from injury the second line will have a true scorer to provide the first line with some support. Added to the third line will be Mattias Tedenby who will try to be a contributor on the offence if he can play to his potential. The rest of the offence will be iffy, as role players like Travis Zajac, David Steckel, and Eric Boulton will fill their needs but may not provide the offence needed. On defence the Devils are generally unchanged but will have one key addition. Their top draft pick was one of the most wanted players in the draft as they took Swedish defenceman Adam Larsson with their fourth pick. Larsson will crack the roster mainly due to the lack of a better option. It will not be a bad thing however as Larsson is sure to make an impact this year on the second pairing with Anton Volchenkov and could even move up. Henrik Tallinder and Andy Greene will make up their top pairing. The Devils defence is in a transfer phase as the young defenceman, save Larsson, are not yet ready for the NHL but the current players do not seem to have the shutdown impact that they will need. The defence is not that strong but with the addition of Larsson will help the blueliners out tremendously. Behind these defencemen has been one of the most consistently good goalies in the league. Martin Brodeur is always a good chance to be the best goalie in the league but as he begins to get older his dominance in the net. Last year Brodeur missed games last year because of injury. This year may be Brodeur’s final year and it could go different ways. He could either go out with a bang and have another great season or his body will give out again and he will be a below average team. The Devils will be in trouble this year as they try to produce some goals and bide their time on the defensive side of the ice with an aging goalie and a defence that is in the middle of a transitional phase. The Devils will struggle again this year and if they get some key injuries expect a sharp fall if they can stay healthy they may slightly improve from last year but don’t expect them to make the playoffs this year.

Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers have always been a tough team from the time of the Broad Street Bullies until now but they have recently added some good skill players to go along with their attitude. The Flyers battled to the end with the Pittsburgh Penguins ending with a tie but taking the division championships. With the title the Flyers went into the first round and got through. The lack of a true #1 goalie hurt them in the next round as they lost to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins. The Flyers were swept by the Bruins in four games in the second round unable to meet their expectations. The Flyer faithful were hoping that the year before would be another step towards the Stanley Cup but they came up short once again. After the season the Flyers’ management made some shocking moves in order to change the culture of the team.

This year the Flyers were one of the most active teams in the NHL in the free agent market and that including releasing their two superstars. The Flyers have been built around Jeff Carter and Mike Richards but during the offseason both of these forwards were let go in order to make room for a brand new team. The offence for the Flyers will see a number of new faces that they are hoping will jumpstart the offence that was not firing on all cylinders last year. Brought in to help out is an entirely new Right Wing staff including Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, Maxime Talbot, and an old face in Jaromir Jagr who has returned to the NHL this year. Along with these changes they will also be looking to Brayden Schenn on their second line. Of course the Flyers will still have Danny Briere, Claude Giroux, Scotty Hartnell, and James van Riemsdyk. The long list of all-stars on the team should bring a lot of scoring to the Flyers and create one of the best offences in the league. That is of course if all of these players are able to perform up to their abilities. The Offence did not only add goal scorers but the additions also include a number of scrappers that can keep a physicality to the Flyers. On defence the Flyers are generally unchanged with one of the best defencemen in the game in Chris Pronger. Along with Kimmo Timmonen and Braydon Coburn the blueline will be solid. The addition of Andreas Lilja to their third line will shore up the top six defencemen. Meanwhile the biggest issue that the Flyers have had in the past few years has been their goaltending as they have not had a true #1 goalie that has led to some poor playoff performances.  They made sure to address this as their biggest signing of the year was that of the most sought after goalie in the market. Ilya Bryzgalov will take over the position and will be their goalie for the forseeable future. The biggest question will be whether or not Bryzgalov will take the big contract and be a dud. If Bryzgalov plays up to his talents the Flyers have finally found that goaltender that could take them very far. The Flyers are the “Dream Team” of the NHL, although nobody has said that, as they have decided to buy a championship. Of course the saying goes that you cannot buy a championship but the Flyers are hoping to debunk this theory. If all of the new additions can work together, and there is no reason why they wouldn’t, then the Flyers could go far and may even repeat as division champions.

Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins have always been a team that reaches success with a superstar player that has carried them. At first it was Mario Lemieux who carried the team to successes in the 1990s and then came back to the team after purchasing them to save them from leaving. Lemieux has been the fixture in Pittsburgh as he has been able to save the team multiple times. This included the 2005 season when the Penguins and Lemieux drafted Sidney Crosby. Crosby has been the team since entering the league as he has been labeled the next one. Last year his importance was seen all too much. After the first half the Penguins looked good enough to win another Cup but then Crosby was hit hard twice and suffered a concussion. With Crosby out and Evgeni Malkin missing game the Pens offence struggled. With both stars out the Pens limped into the playoffs and took on the Tampa Bay Lightning. The playoffs ended with them losing 4 games to 3 against the Lightning. The Pens are hoping that they can return to their greatness this year but obstacles remain from last year.

This year the Penguins will need one thing if they hope to make it back to the Stanley Cup this year and that is their superstar. Without Crosby the Pens are not a terrible team and can make the playoffs but with him they are a Stanley Cup favorite. This is the biggest challenge for Pittsburgh this year as Crosby remains out with post concussion syndrome. There is no timetable for Crosby to return and this means big trouble for the Pens. With Crosby gone for an extended period of time Malkin will take over the top centre spot and will do quite well in the spot. The problems will continue to flow down as Jordan Staal will take over the second line and the Pens will have to find more fillers for their third and fourth lines with the loss of Maxime Talbot. The Pens tried to add a few more pieces but none seem to be of any impact except Steve Sullivan who will try to add some presence on the second line. The offence will not be the same without Crosby but they will be looking to James Neal, Steve Sullivan, and Tyler Kennedy to fill the void. The defence has remained unchanged which is a good thing for the Penguins as they are a good defensive team. With Paul Martin and Kris Letang leading the defence the Penguins are not in much trouble. Throughout the defence the Pens are solid and will not have issues stopping the scoring. In net the Penguins have a very good goaltender in Marc-Andre Fleury who will be able to keep the Pens in games if the defence does break down. With Brent Johnson as the backup the Pens should have no issues in the net. The Penguins will be a solid team again but their biggest issue will be whether or not Sidney Crosby can return sooner rather than later. Without Crosby Pittsburgh has an average offence that will be able to hold their own for the time being but with Crosby they are different. If Crosby returns earlier in the season the Penguins should have no problems but if he remains out expect them to fall in the standings. The biggest question needs to be answered for the Pens but they are still good enough to make the playoffs and compete for the division title.

Prediction:

1. Philadelphia Flyers

2. Pittsburgh Penguins

3. New York Rangers

4. New Jersey Devils

5. New York Islanders

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