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Atlantic Division Preview

Atlantic Division Preview

Atlantic Division Preview
By Judd Hall

The Atlantic Division was arguably the toughest division to traverse in the Eastern Conference as four of the five clubs finished with a regular season of .570 or better. Those four clubs also made the playoffs, with the Penguins qualifying for the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 17 years. This group will be just as difficult for the 2008-2009 season.

Pittsburgh Penguins

No team grew on the ice more than the Penguins last season. This talented young club was able to weather the losses of forward Sidney Crosby and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury for extended periods of time, while making the gutsy move in trading for scoring winger Marian Hossa. While Pittsburgh fell in six games to the Red Wings in the Finals, the 07-08 season has to be considered a success.

Michel Therrien’s duty this year will be to find a way to replace both Hossa (now in Detroit) and Ryan Malone (signed with Tampa Bay) on the attack. General Manager Ray Shero is banking on former Islanders Ruslan Fedotenko and Miroslav Satan to regain their scoring touch along side of Crosby and pivot Evgeni Malkin. It isn’t too hard to drink this Kool-Aid considering how well Petr Sykora performed for the Pens last season.

Bettors are getting behind Pittsburgh to win the Cup this season at 8/1, but some folks are a little apprehensive. The reason for the worry here is the same as we’ve seen in the NFL: teams that lose in the championship round suffering some sort of hangover the following year. Since the lockout, two of the last three Stanley Cup Final losers were out in the first round, while the other missed April hockey altogether. That slump should affect this squad as they’re easily the class of the Eastern Conference.

Philadelphia Flyers

It’s amazing what people forget when your team makes a deep playoff run. The Flyers were able to catch lightning in a bottle during the postseason by making the Eastern Conference Finals. But that same team was also guilty of nearly missing the playoffs by being woefully inconsistent…you shouldn’t expect to make the postseason when you lose 10 straight while your longest winning streak was five games.

Philadelphia was relatively quiet when it comes to off-season moves due to being right on the salary cap. That meant the Flyers had to part with playoff darling R.J. Umberger and scoring threat Vaclav Prospal. Philly will now be expecting Lexus quality at Wal-Mart prices from Glen Metropolit, Ossi Vaananen and Arron Asham.

The Flyers will be a playoff team this year, but their seeding will be directly related to how Daniel Briere performs on the ice. Briere put up 95 points in his final season in Buffalo. Last year, he accumulated just 72 points. If this Quebecois can return to the same form he had with the Sabres, Philly will be the No. 4 seed in the East. If not, then they’re going to be a low seed once more.

New York Rangers

The Blueshirts have changed their attitude completely during the offseason. Gone is Jaromir Jagr (swimming in Rubles) and Sean Avery (pissing people off in Dallas)…replaced by Vancouver stalwart Markus Naslund and Wayne Redden. Naslund knows how to find the back of the net, but languished the past few seasons with a Canucks squad that was near the bottom of the league in terms of goals scored. Redden should prove his worth by anchoring a blue line that already was the fourth best in the NHL.

Now that Jagr is out of the picture, Chris Drury and Scott Gomez must take the reins of this club. Drury’s leadership will be especially needed with Nikolai Zherdev. The young winger has plenty of talent, scoring 61 points last season, but has never shown a sense of urgency to go for the puck or use his body to defend his goal. If the former Blue Jacket puts up lesser number compared to ’07-’08, but puts forth more effort to winning the puck, then the gamble was worth it.

The Rangers have the pieces to be considered one of the best in the league. However, they need to make sure the newest players fit in immediately. The pains will most likely show at the start of the year, but will give way to a very confident club before the New Year.

New Jersey Devils

New Jersey has used the formula of good defense, no offense and a whole lot of Martin Brodeur to make the playoffs for the last few seasons. That equation also includes an unceremonious exit in the postseason. Devils GM Lou Lamoriello went out during the offseason to change all that by bringing wingers Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik back to the family. Holik will keep an already stout defense at its peak. Rolston, on the other hand, will improve an offense that averaged just 2.37 goals per game last season.

The Devils’ success will predictably fall upon the shoulders of 36 year old netminder Martin Brodeur. You can’t knock the three Stanley Cups he has won or the four Vezina Trophies he has as the league’s top goalie. What I can say is that Lamoriello didn’t get a satisfactory backup to Brodeur.

New York Islanders

I’d like to tell you that the Islanders will be a good team this season…I really would. The only problem with saying that is that it would be an out and out lie. New York GM Garth Snow ran Ted Nolan out from behind the bench after realizing the coach was a man of independent thought. New to the rebuilding process is longtime AHL coach Scott Gordon. This could be a good hire considering how the club is going the youth route. Gordon will do wonders for his job security by making sure that he handles Rick DiPietro between the pipes.

New York did a little to help its league worst offensive attack by bringing in gritty veteran Doug Weight from the Ducks. And the signing of Mark Streit is bound to help out on special teams.

It’s going to be a rough season for the boys from Long Island…especially if they don’t stay healthy.

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