by PuckStopsHere on 10/06/08 at 01:31 PM ET
I continue onward with pre-season predictions. I have already done the West Conference and the Northeast Division. I continue to march onward through the East Conference by looking at the Atlantic Division. The Atlantic Division is usually one of the stronger East Conference divisions. In both of the last two years, four teams from this division have qualified for the playoffs.
1. New Jersey Devils The Devils are always a strong team as long as Martin Brodeur is in goal. He has been the best goalie in the NHL for the last several years and should provide topnotch goaltending this season. Their defence no longer has any stars, but Paul Martin and Johnny Oduya are very solid, although unlikely to generate many points. Offensively they have a very deep, defensively responsible group. Although no one player is likely to be among the league scoring leaders, several scoring threats to exist including Zach Parise, Patrik Elias, Brian Gionta, Jamie Langenbrunner and newcomers Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik. The Devils should have a low goals against thanks to Brodeur and enough scoring to win some games.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins After last year’s Stanley Cup final run this team looked ready to dominate in the future but injuries have taken a big hit on their defence. Both Ryan Whitney and Sergei Gonchar will be out for several months. This makes Hal Gill the highest scorer last year among healthy defencemen. Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang will be expected to play significant minutes in order to make up for the new loss of defensive depth. The Penguins offence is outstanding. They arte built around young stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Depth is provided by Jordan Staal, Miroslav Satan and Petr Sykora. This should be one of the best offences in the NHL. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury might be proving himself as a number one goalie, but he has had problems doing so in the past. It is possible goaltending could be a weakness if Fleury falters. It will be hard for Pittsburgh to follow up last year’s success without their two top defencemen. I don’t think they will do as well, but they should be one of the better teams in the league.
3. New York Rangers A lot is made of the change to the Rangers offensive units made in the off-season. Gone are Jaromir Jagr, Brendan Shanahan and Martin Straka. They are replaced in part by Markus Naslund and Nikolai Zherdev and talented offensive players in Scott Gomez and Chris Drury remain. It wasn’t offence that made the Rangers a solid team last year and their current offence will not be significantly better or worse than last year’s team. The key to the Rangers success is limiting goals against. With a talented goalie like Henrik Lundqvist this should be done again this year. The defence is good adding Wade Redden to the existing Michal Rozsival, Paul Mara and Marc Staal. The Rangers should once again be one of the hardest teams to score against and once again won’t have a dominant offence either, but it should be enough to keep them in the playoffs.
4. Philadelphia Flyers The Flyers made a huge improvement last year jumping from last place to the semi-finals of the playoffs. That playoff success makes their improvement look better than it was, as the Flyers were one of the weaker regular season teams to make the playoffs. A large part of their improvement came from goaltending. Martin Biron gave the Flyers a very good season. It is unlikely that he has the ability to repeat at that level, because he has not done so consistently in the past. A dropoff in goal should hurt the Flyers climbs in the standings. On defence, Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn lead a solid bunch. Their forward unit should be bolstered by the return of Simon Gagne from a season where he was limited to 25 games due to concussion issues. He joins Mike Richards, Daniel Briere, Jeff Carter and Joffrey Lupul in a good offence. One of the maxims that sabermetrics has learned about sports is that teams that make a big leap in one season usually regress a bit the next (although the common tendency is to predict the leap forward in the standings continues). I think this will happen to the Flyers as goaltending fails to measure up to its success of last season.
5. New York Islanders The Islanders are a team in bad shape. The only strength is goaltender Rick DiPietro, who will feel like he is in a shooting gallery as he plays behind a defence where Mark Streit, Brendan Witt and Chris Campoli are supposed to be their top talents. At forward, Mike Comrie “led” the offence with 49 points last year (the lowest total of any team’s top scorer in the league). If he gets help from anywhere it will be aging veterans Bill Guerin and Doug Weight or possibly Trent Hunter. This team does not have any position players who one might be able to argue are among the stars of the game today. It’s a group of castoffs and prospects. It should be a long season on Long Island, but with any luck they might win the John Tavares sweepstakes.
The Atlantic Division and the Northeast Division are the better divisions in the East Conference. Although, it is close between them, I think the Atlantic is the stronger of the two. Like the Northeast (Toronto), the division has a weak team in the New York Islanders, but the remainder of the teams are strong enough that they could qualify for playoffs and will likely remain in the playoff race until the very end if they do not.
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