by PuckStopsHere on 10/04/11 at 03:18 PM ET
1. Pittsburgh Penguins - They tied for the point lead in the division last year despite losing their top two scorers to injury for significant periods of time. Evgeni Malkin is back and should be healthy. Sidney Crosby has yet to fully recover from his concussion but should be ready for more than 41 games this year. James Neal, Chris Kunitz and Jordan Staal are some of the top depth forwards. On defence, Kris Letang had a breakout year last season. Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek and Brooks Orpik provide some solid play in their own zone. Marc-Andre Fleury is a good goalie, but he is a tier below the top in the game. If the Penguins stars are healthy they will have little trouble winning the division. The biggest question is Sidney Crosby’s health.
2. New York Rangers - Henrik Lundqvist is a top goalie and he will keep this team in the race. Offensively things should be improved with the addition of Brad Richards and with Marian Gaborik providing more than the 48 points he had last season. Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, Derek Stepan and Artem Anisimov are a young supporting crew and each of them might take a step forward. On defence, Marc Staal might be the most underrated player in hockey. He is a valuable leader on defence. Dan Girardi and Michael Del Zotto provide some depth. The Rangers should be a solid playoff team this year.
3. New Jersey Devils - The Devils had a very disjointed season last year. Under coach John MacLean they were the worst team in the league and under coach Jacques Lemaire they almost made the playoffs. How will Peter DeBoer do as coach? I expect somewhere between the two extremes. Zach Parise is back and should play a full season. Ilya Kovalchuk had a tough transition to New Jersey, but things seemed to get better by year’s end and should continue in that direction. Patrik Elias, Dainius Zubrus and Mattais Tedenby provide some depth. The injury to Travis Zajac will hurt, but last year was played without Parise and he is more important. The defence lacks any big name talents but is usually good for a solid performance with a disciplined system. Andy Greene and Henrik Tallinder are some of the busier players on defence. Martin Brodeur is on the downside of a great career but he is still a solid goaltender. I think this team will be pretty solid this year after and up and down last season, but it will be interesting to see how they adapt to a new coach.
4. Philadelphia Flyers - I am well aware that this prediction has the Flyers ranked well below where most people are picking them. I just don’t see what is so great about the Flyers. In 2009/10 they barely qualified for the playoffs and then had a miracle playoff run under goalie Michael Leighton, who has been unable to keep an NHL job. The same roster won the Atlantic Division last season, but I don’t see that they have the talent to back it up. In goal they will go with Ilya Bryzgalov, who is an improvement from last season but one they overpaid for. Out are Mike Richards and Jeff Carter who were their two top offensive players. This leaves Claude Giroux and Danny Briere to lead the offence. They are solid though I wonder if Giroux can repeat last year’s 76 point performance. Jaromir Jagr is a high profile addition but it isn’t clear how much he has left. Scott Hartnell and James Van Riemsdyk will provide depth. The two most important defencemen in Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen are aging. They are both 36 years old and have seen better days. Matt Carle, Andrej Meszaros and Braydon Coburn provide depth. I see the Flyers as a team that significantly overachieved to win the division and then promptly weakened themselves in the off season and may have defensive issues if their top defencemen are hurt or show their age. I don’t see the Flyers as a top team.
5. New York Islanders - John Tavares, Michael Grabner and Frans Nielsen provide the Isles with a good young core of forwards. Depth comes from Kyle Okposo, Matt Moulson and Blake Comeau. This is the best group of forwards the islanders have had in a few years, but that is faint praise because the team has not been very good lately. Mark Streit returns from a missed year due to injury to lead the defence. He needs to be strong because the depth of Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic is young and inexperienced and does not inspire confidence. Goaltending should be interesting. If Evgeni Nabokov makes a strong return to the NHL, they may be solid here, but if they turn to Al Montoya and Rick DiPietro there will be problems. The Islanders forwards are ready to take a step forward, but the team might have trouble keeping the puck out of their net and that will keep them out of contention.
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