We’re obviously running behind on our previews of each division for the 2013 season, but we’ll do our best to have them all out there before the end of this week. I’ve decided to take matters into my own hands for a few of them, starting with the Atlantic, which should be one of the most competitive divisions in the league this season.
New Jersey Devils
The Devils finished fourth in the division last season (sixth in the Eastern Conference), but followed that up with a surprising playoff run that culminated with a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. Unfortunately for them that was the end of their good luck as they then ran into the Kings, who had steamrolled everyone in the playoffs to that point and made quick work of New Jersey as well.
The offseason brought swift change to the Devils lineup as their star player and captain, Zach Parise, left for mega-bucks with the Minnesota Wild, while veteran wingers Alexei Ponikarovsky (signed with the Jets) and Petr Sykora were left to free agency (he remains unsigned). The Devils attempted to offset these losses by signing… oh, wait, they didn’t make any attempt to offset these losses, my bad. So now the Devils are left with a forward crop that’s noticeably worse than last season. To make matters worse, playoff hero and Calder Trophy nominee Adam Henrique underwent surgery in November to re-attach ligaments in his left thumb, making an already thin offense even worse until mid-February. On the bright side, Travis Zajac is fully recovered and should be around all season, so hopefully he’ll start producing at a level fitting of his new contract extension ASAP.
Thankfully New Jersey’s defense and goaltending remains largely intact, with the notable exception being that Adam Larsson has been a healthy scratch thus far. Eventually he’ll get back in there when injuries occur or someone’s play slips, but for now the defense looks good enough to have him sit. The key to the defense this season is that having Marek Zidlicky for the entire year should be a huge boost to the power play, though maybe that benefit has diminished somewhat with the losses up front. In goal, Martin Brodeur will provide his usual solid play and Johan Hedberg has proven to be a capable backup when the need arises.
Overall, despite the quality start to the season, I don’t see the Devils making any huge strides during this regular season compared to the last one. The loss of talent up front is simply too steep and eventually we’ll see the results reflect this. That being said, the last time there was a lockout the Devils managed to win the Stanley Cup after coming off a heartbreaking playoff finish the prior season, so maybe history will repeat itself.
New York Islanders
For five straight seasons the Islanders have missed the playoffs and finished in the basement of the Atlantic. This would normally be long enough for any well-managed team to recover and get back into the race, however, as we all know by now, the Islanders are far from being well-managed.
During the offseason the Islanders lost their third leading scorer, PA Parenteau, to free agency (signed with the Avalanche), though I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt on that one. They did sign Brad Boyes on the cheap, so improved production from him (he was terrible in Buffalo) and guys like Michael Grabner, Kyle Okposo, and David Ullstrom should be enough to make up for the loss of Parenteau. Also, in a bit of an odd move, the Islanders claimed Keith Aucoin off waivers. He’s a proven AHL veteran, one of the best players in the league on a regular basis, but he’s never been able to solidify himself a job at the NHL level. This year he’ll get that chance and he’s already racked up 3 goals and an assist in 5 games. Staying with odd moves for the moment, the Islanders didn’t give Nino Niederreiter an invite to training camp and appear as though they’ll be leaving him in the AHL all season. He was misused last season, but has been producing very well in the AHL this year and now it looks like he’s demanding a trade. Something to keep an eye on for sure.
On defense they still have a reliable top three of Mark Streit, Travis Hamonic, and Andrew MacDonald, but after that it gets ugly. They didn’t bother re-signing any of their mediocre veterans, while the trade for Lubomir Visnovsky is still a mess and who knows if he’ll ever report to Long Island. They did sign Matt Carkner, but he’s at best a sixth defenseman. Therefore, the Islanders claimed a trio of defensemen off waivers just so they could round out the lineup; Joe Finley, Thomas Hockey, and Brian Strait. Neither is exactly formidable, with only Strait seeing a worthwhile amount of ice time as the Islanders lean heavily on Streit, Hamonic, and MacDonald. Evgeni Nabokov remains #1 in goal, while Rick DiPietro is a solid backup so long as he can stay healthy. That’s a better combination than some teams, but a heavy workload due to the porous defense will likely make their numbers worse than they should be.
I can’t see the Islanders making much noise in the Atlantic, at least not until Visnovsky is in the picture, but even then the defense still looks to weak to make them competitive on a nightly basis. It appears as though Islanders fans will have to make due with yet another absence from the playoffs.
New York Rangers
Once again the Rangers will have high expectations after winning the division and finishing atop the Eastern Conference last season. However, they followed this up with yet another disappointing playoff performance. Sure, they made it to the Conference Finals, but they were lucky to make it out of the first round and even luckier to make it out of the second.
In July, the Rangers finally put an end to the Rick Nash saga by acquiring him for the princely some of bit parts and measly pieces. Adding Nash to a forward group that remains largely unchanged should result in a much improved offense and we’re already seeing this pay dividends as the line of Nash-Richards-Gaborik has combined for 19 points through 5 games. However, the Rangers will also need to secure production from their second and third lines, something they haven’t been able to do to this point. The pieces are there, as Callahan, Stepan, Hagelin, Kreider, and even Pyatt all have offensive capabilities, they just need to be mixed in a successful manner.
All of the same key defensemen return this season and they were more than capable last season. The top four of Michael Del Zotto, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, and Marc Staal is easily one of the best in the league and should be only better this season now that Staal has had plenty of extra time to rest and recover. In goal the Rangers have one of the best in the business, Henrik Lundqvist, so no worries there. They even have one of the leagues best backup goalies in Martin Biron.
The Rangers will once again compete for the Atlantic Division title, but regular season results are far from the priority in New York. They have a wealth of young talent, but the superstar veterans haven’t been brought in to help build the future. It’s time to win now and this year looks like their best opportunity yet.
The Flyers always have a win now attitude and while they did perform reasonably well in the regular season last year and knocked off Pittsburgh in the opening round of the playoffs, they were easily dispatched by the Devils in five games. This once again brought changes to the lineup, though not as drastic as one might expect from Philadelphia.
When Jaromir Jagr decided to take a more lucrative deal in Dallas it left a big hole up front, one which the Flyers are hoping they can fill simply by moving a variety of pieces up the depth chart. They lost one of those pieces in trading James van Riemsdyk for Luke Schenn, but if Wayne Simmonds or Jakub Voracek can produce more, along with expected growth from Matt Read, Sean Couturier, and Brayden Schenn, that could be enough to effectively replace Jagr. The Flyers also decided to bring in Ruslan Fedotenko as an insurance measure. However, bad news struck early in the season as Scott Hartnell went down with a broken foot and will miss four to eight weeks. That’s a huge blow to the offense, especially the first line, so much so that Philadelphia thought it was necessary to sign Mike Knuble, who hasn’t been effective since 2011.
However, the offense is the least of Philadelphia’s worries. The defense was hit hard during the offseason as Matthew Carle signed with the Lightning, numerous players suffered injuries, and Chris Pronger still can’t get out of bed. Andrej Meszaros, who would have missed the start of the season anyway had there been no lockout, will now miss at least a month with a shoulder injury. The Flyers still have an OK top four, but it’s not nearly as strong as it once was, which Ilya Bryzgalov can be none too pleased with. Bryzgalov struggled throughout much of last season and the playoffs, so he’ll need to play that much better now behind a weaker defense. The pressure for him just got worse and when you have lingering rumors of a trade for Roberto Luongo floating around you that doesn’t help matters.
If the Flyers can make it through the injury without too much suffering they may yet be able to compete for the division title. However, as it stands, they simply do not have the depth necessary to compete with the top teams in the Eastern Conference and may be in a fight just to make the playoffs.
The Penguins are once again the odds on favorites to win the Atlantic Division as having a 100% healthy Sidney Crosby tends to do that sort of thing. However, as shown in their brief playoff appearance last year, offense isn’t everything and they’ll need much better performances from their defenders and goaltenders in order to improve last season’s finish.
The biggest change for the Penguins is upfront as they traded Jordan Staal to the Hurricanes in a cost-cutting measure when it appeared unlikely they would be able to sign him to an extension. However, they did get Brandon Sutter in the deal, so at least they’ll have a capable third line center, though Sutter likely won’t be as good as Staal was when called upon for top six duty. The Penguins also lost Steve Sullivan to free agency, and while his best days are behind him, he did pitch in with 48 points last year. However, none of that matters to the Penguins as they’ll be banking on a rejuvenated Sidney Crosby making up for all that lost offense and then some. Still, you’d like to see the Penguins add something, especially another winger or two, but they’ll likely address that at the trade deadline as in years past.
Aside from trading Zbynek Michalek to the Coyotes in a cash dump, the Penguins defense remains practically the same as the year before, which isn’t a good sign if it plays like it did in the playoffs. More will be expected from Simon Despres, who helped to make Michalek expendable, and a full season from Kris Letang should help. Paul Martin is off to a good start this year and may finally prove himself worthy of the contract he signed two years ago. However, Matt Niskanen recently suffered an injury that will keep him out of the lineup for up to four weeks, so others, such as Ben Lovejoy, may also be forced to step up their game. Finally, we come to Marc-Andre Fleury, who was particularly awful in the playoffs last year. The Penguins sought to address this by acquiring Tomas Vokoun, which is a much better insurance plan than what they had last year. If Fleury falters again, expect to see Vokoun immediately, as he’s eager to help a contending team battle for the Stanley Cup.
The Penguins have the star power to stick among the best in the Eastern Conference, however there is definitely a lack of depth among the forwards as well as on defense, so they’re ill-equipped to deal with much injury trouble. They’ll certainly make the playoffs yet again, but how much damage they’ll do once they get there remains to be seen.
- New York Rangers
- Pittsburgh Penguins
- New Jersey Devils
- Philadelphia Flyers
- New York Islanders
I like the Rangers star power and depth enough to see them running away with the division eventually once everything gels, but the Penguins will try to keep pace for as long as they can. The Devils and Flyers will battle for third, but I see early season troubles being too much for the Flyers to overcome. The Islanders might be able to put up a better winning percentage, but that’s about it.