Saturday, August 11, 2007

Pre-Season Predictions: Atlantic Division

I think that the Atlantic Division will be one of the more exciting divisions to watch this season.

First off, the New Jersey Devils. Losing Brian Rafalski and Scott Gomez to free agency was like being kicked in the stomach, but all’s not lost. Jersey’s known as one of the best defensive teams in the League, and I think that they will still make the playoffs this year, although they won’t repeat as divisional champs. The EGG line may not be intact, but there’s still an EG in the likes of Elias and Gionta – and perhaps a “Z” with Zubrus? Who can argue about the strength of the Devils’ checking line? And then there’s still the youngsters – look for Parise and Zajac to really pick things up. Questions about goal? Didn’t think so, since you can’t get any more stable than Brodeur.

It should be interesting to see how Brent Sutter makes out as the new head coach in Jersey. Sutter has had a lot of success in Juniors, with his own Red Deer team and with the national team. Here’s the question mark: he’s used to doing things his own way, controlling everything – how will he adjust in “Lou” Jersey?

It’s hard to deny that the Pittsburgh Penguins have something truly special. They crawled around the basement of the NHL, collected their high draft picks in the process, and selected a group of kids who are turning out to be the face of the NHL. The sky seems to be the limit for this group, and a lot of people are comparing the Pens to the Oiler dynasty of the 1980’s. Pens fans around the world are ecstatic at what might be around the corner – especially after last season’s showing.

Fleury is quickly developing into everything the Pens hoped him to be, but he’ll be expected to be even better next year as he gets more comfortable on the NHL stage. I’m thinking along the same lines as Pierre McGuire in that Fleury might soon belong on the same page as Luongo and Brodeur. It’s a lot to ask for a 22 year old goalie, but considering how good his teammates are, he doesn’t want to be the weak link that jeopardizes a run for the Cup.

It’s clear that the Pens are strongest up front, and who wouldn’t be with Crosby, Malkin and Staal. Thankfully, Shero resigned Recchi and Roberts, as many of the younger players look up to these guys. The addition of Sykora was good, given that he put up a fair number of points on the disaster team that was Edmonton. It’s also great to see Armstrong staying with the team, as his energy and work ethic will be valued (and perhaps he’ll regain his scoring touch…perhaps?).

Will the Pens have the defensive skills to carry them to the Holy Grail? That’s still a bit up in the air, for now, but I am honestly not that worried. If Whitney can keep doing what he’s doing, and Gonchar can stay consistent, things won’t be too bad. Hopefully Eaton can stay healthy to really show us what he’s all about, and I’m counting on Letang to make a big splash this year and show the world what he’s got up his sleeve. Sydor was a great addition this summer, as he can be a mentor to the kids the same way that Roberts is to the young forwards.

I am a huge fan of the Penguins, so I acknowledge that I am biased, but I am truly excited for this coming season. We all know that the core of this team is basically a bunch of uber-talented kids, but I think that Shero has turned this group into a future Cup contender. The team has more grit than it did last summer, and the kids are now surrounded by a group of talented veterans who are Stanley Cup Champions. Crosby may be the captain, but they will all follow the lead of the veterans who know what it takes to win it all. I get the impression that this group wants to improve on last year’s playoff performance, and I would not be shocked to see them make it to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The team that made the second biggest splash in the free agent pool this summer was the New York Rangers. They were a really good group before July 1st, and now with Drury and Gomez, they are downright scary. Resigning Shanny was a really smart move, since he works harder than most players. Jagr looked to have regained some of his interest in the game towards the end of last season, and he should retain that enthusiasm if he sees the potential in this team.

The Rangers’ defense isn’t looking too bad, especially with Lundqvist in net. If Lundqvist can stay sharp, he’s almost unbeatable. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see the introduction of Marc Staal to the NHL.

One big question mark over the Rangers regards the Sean Avery factor. Will his mouth get him (and his team) in trouble? We already know that the Rangers feel as though Avery is a detriment to the team because his mouth and his style of play. He has never played for a Cup contender before (and I think that the Rangers could make it to the Finals in 2008), so he will have to tone things down if he wants to see ice time. The team will not put up with Avery’s needless penalties if it hurts their chances, and I don’t think that Avery’s biggest fans in New York will put up with it either.

The New York Islanders squeaked into the playoffs last year, but the same fate will not greet them this year. I don’t think that Ted Nolan will have that much to work with this season, and it certainly doesn’t help that they are playing in a division that should be very tough.

DiPietro is a very good goalie, but I wouldn’t put him in the same class as Luongo or Brodeur, and he doesn’t have the defense in front of him to give him much help. Bergeron played fairly well for the Islanders after he was traded from Edmonton late last season, and hopefully he will get better. Hopefully Guerin will show the consistency and leadership that will be required of him, but I still think that the Islanders will find themselves near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings come April.

Speaking of the bottom of the standings, there’s the Philadelphia Flyers. Without a doubt, the Flyers take the prize for making the biggest off-season splash, and considering last season’s embarrassing performance, it’s no surprise. Philly has been blowing up their team since the trade deadline. Everybody seems to be getting rich in Philly (hello Briere, Timonen and Hartnell), and hopefully it will pay off.

Considering the seemingly endless talent that has been brought into the Flyers’ organization, you’d think that they’d take the cake this year. I think that the team will certainly do better this year, and I think that they might make the playoffs, but I’m not sure how good they will be. The big question mark with the Flyers concerns their team chemistry: can a team develop into a cohesive unit when half of the players are new? It is certainly possible, but nothing is certain just yet. After all, you can assemble a team with the greatest hockey players in the world, but it doesn’t mean that the team will win.

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