by PuckStopsHere on 10/03/09 at 02:12 PM ET
The season is barely underway and I continue with my pre-season predictions. Here are my Northeast Division predictions and here are my West Conference Predictions. Today I proceed to the Atlantic Division.
Here is my predicted order of finish in the Atlantic Division:
1. Pittsburgh Penguins The Penguins got off to a bad start last year and recovered well with a Stanley Cup victory. The keys to their recovery appeared to be the return of defenceman Sergei Gonchar from injury and the hiring of Dan Bylsma as coach. I don’t expect as poor a start as last season and I also don’t expect as strong a finish. The Penguins are one of the better teams in the league, but they are not as strong a Stanley Cup champion as many would expect. In goal, Marc-Andre Fleury returns. He is young enough that he may still improve, but did not put up the great year one might expect from a Stanley Cup winner. He will be expected to carry the load this year, with his backup Brent Johnson seeing spot duty. Gonchar anchors the defence along with Kris Letang, Alex Goligoski and Brooks Orpik. This is a solid group, but it is not spectacular. The key to the Penguins success is their two offensive stars in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. No other team offers two players of their level. Either winning the Art Ross or Hart Trophy this year would not be a surprise. Depth is provided by Jordan Staal, Chris Kunitz, Bill Guerin and Ruslan Fedotenko. It is a solid supporting cast, but again unspectacular. Again this team will rely on Crosby and Malkin and those two are good enough to lead them to a lot of success, but I think repeating as Stanley Cup champions is more than should be expected.
2. New Jersey Devils I think the most significant move the Devils made is bringing in coach Jacques Lemaire. He has been the best coach in the NHL in the last 15 years or so. There was nothing wrong with Brent Sutter’s coaching last year, but I expect Lemaire can get more out a team than anyone. Goaltending in New Jersey is the domain of Martin Brodeur. He is 37 and coming off injury, but still arguably the best goalie in the game. Yann Danis will be his backup - Devil fans hope he is seldom used as Brodeur carries the load - though he is capable. Their defence is a workmanlike group that should excel under Lemaire. Paul Martin, Colin White, Johnny Oduya, Bryce Salvador and Mike Mottau are the kind of players who should anonymously excel in a Lemaire system. At forward there is some scoring talent in Zach Parise, Patrik Elias, Jamie Langenbrunner and Travis Zajac. They also have some reliable checkers in Brian Rolston, Jay Pandolfo and Rob Niedermayer. This team will look a lot like the Minnesota Wild last year, but with a better goalie and more scoring. As such they should contend.
3. Philadelphia Flyers If only this team had a goaltender. Salary cap issues have forced the Flyers to go with Ray Emery and Brian Boucher as their goaltending pair. Both come with significant question marks. Goaltending should be enough to keep this team from the top of the standings. Their defence looks good. Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle are a very good top four. At forward, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter are the best young pair of two-way forwards that any team in the league has and they are joined by Daniel Briere, Simon Gagne, Scott Hartnell and Claude Giroux. This gives the Flyers a very dangerous looking offence. As usual, the Flyers should be tough. Pronger, Hartnell and Daniel Carcillo are among the players who will make the Flyers an intimidating team. The Flyers will be talented and tough, but a porous pair of goalies will keep them from the top of the standings.
4. New York Rangers The big question is who will score on the Rangers. Four of the five highest scorers on the team last year are not returning (Nikolai Zherdev, Scott Gomez, Nik Antropov and Markus Naslund are all gone). This makes Chris Drury the top scoring remaining forward. Marian Gaborik will help solve the problem if he can remain healthy. Otherwise, Brandon Dubinsky, Vinny Prospal, Chris Higgins and Ales Kotalik are the best offensive answers the Rangers can offer. On defence, Michal Rozsival, Wade Redden, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal should be the top four. Redden and Rozsival were scapegoats for defensive failures last year (and in some cases deserving ones). If they can bounce back into form, the Rangers should have a very good defence, but they cannot rely on that occurring. The strength of the Rangers is in goal. Henrik Lundqvist is one of the best in the league. He will frequently be asked to stand on his head to keep the Rangers in the game. If he can handle that job, the Rangers should be okay, but when he fails they will not look good.
5. New York Islanders The New York Islanders finished last in the NHL last season. It was an injury-filled year, but they are not a talented cup. The injuries will likely not be as bad, but the talent level cannot be fixed in one summer. In goal, Dwayne Roloson and Martin Biron are both solid goalies who will carry the load at least until Rick DiPietro returns to his health. Mark Streit is a very valuable defenceman for the team, but he has little support. Bruno Gervais, Brendan Witt and Radek Martinek are top candidates to fill out their defence and they are not good enough to be top four defenceman on a good team. At forward a lot is expected from first overall pick John Tavares, but he is a rookie and should face some growing pains as his career gets started. None of the Islanders forwards managed 40 points last season. Doug Weight, Kyle Okposo, Trent Hunter and Frans Nielsen are some of their better forwards. This team is still a ways from contention and should finish near the bottom of the league again.
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