With hockey returning and the start of the season quickly approaching, I will be previewing each division followed by each conference as a whole before the season start date, which is looking like it will be Jan. 19.
The Atlantic Division
1. The Pittsburgh Penguins – Despite falling one point short of the New York Rangers for first place in the Easter Conference last season, the Penguins are in a great spot to finishing atop the division this season. Nothing supports this notion more than the return of superstar Sidney Crosby. Crosby is the life of this team, and as fans have seen before, pairing Crosby with fellow superstar Evgeni Malkin should produce incredible results. The biggest question mark surrounding the Penguins (aside from Crosby’s health) is their defensive unit behind Kris Letang. A key departure is center Jordan Staal, who was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes. Despite the unknowns, the Penguins boast an incredible amount of offensive firepower from Crosby, Malkin, James Neal, and newly acquired Brandon Sutter. Pair that with above-average goaltending from Marc-Andre Fluery and backup Tomas Vokoun and the Penguins should be able to finish first in the division in 2013.
2. The New York Rangers – The Rangers were a pleasant surprise of the NHL last season, displaying an unorthodox defensive style of blocking shots under the direction of coach John Tortorella. The grinding style of play came back to hurt the Rangers, however, as back-to-back seven game series in the playoffs showed their wear and tear. They lost to the Devils in the Eastern Conference Finals and just looked outmatched and outskated. The shortened season will only help the Rangers because of the lack of games. In addition, defending Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist will have to play fewer games, and star winger Marian Gaborik is fully healed from offseason shoulder surgery. The hype surrounding the deal of Rick Nash is still prevalent, and fans and players alike cannot wait to see what he can do on a line with Brad Richards or Chris Kreider. Look for the Rangers to play stronger than ever with a short schedule, which allows their key players to play more minutes, while the gritty style will take less of a toll in the long run.
3. The Philadelphia Flyers – A season of promise was ultimately met with disappointment as the Flyers were eliminated by the Devils in the second round of the playoffs last year. The Flyers should be rather impressive this year, but their weakness still lies in their defensive unit and goaltending. The Flyers made an offer sheet to Shea Weber, but his RFA status allowed Nashville to match, and they did just that to keep their captain. The Flyers defense is now composed of Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, and Andrej Meszaros. The rest of the unit is full of question marks. The Flyers could have a huge boost from Chris Pronger, if his post-concussion symptoms ever subside, but the likelihood of him returning this year is waning each and every day. The health of superstar center Claude Giroux is also a key worry for the Flyers organization. Assuming his neck is ready to go in two weeks, the Flyers should have no trouble scoring goals. Preventing them is going to be the struggle.
4. The New York Islanders – For once, the Islanders may not finish in last in the division based on the play of one key man – John Tavares. The former number one overall pick has shined during his time on Long Island, and there is so much hype surrounding this Islanders team due to the upcoming move to Brooklyn. Led by defenseman Mark Streit, the Islanders should be a below-average team this season. Their cohesion should be a plus, however. With no major alterations to their top units, the Islanders know how to play well together. For a borderline team such as the Islanders, however, a losing streak of four or five games could spell disaster, especially with a shortened season with much less time to make up ground in the standings. The Islanders do have continuity in their roster and could turn some heads with quality play this year. Still, it is hard to imagine them finishing ahead of the top three in this division – perks of playing in the Atlantic Divison.
via the score
5. The New Jersey Devils – How could a team go from runners-up to the Cup in 2012 to last place in the Atlantic Division the next year? The loss of Zach Parise and the continued aging of Marty Brodeur. Parise was not only the heart and soul of this team, but also the captain. He had been with the Devils for what felt like forever, and not having him there is going to hurt the production of everybody, especially role-players like Travis Zajac, Adam Henrique, and Dainius Zubrus. The Devils have really no room to adjust to life without Parise with a shortened Training Camp and no preseason. Look for them to struggle out the gate and put themselves in a hole that they cannot climb out of with a short season. Marty Brodeur is still aging, too, and the 40-year-old goaltender is seeing a decline in production. He has played more than 60 games only once in the last four seasons. Look for Johan Hedberg to get more playing time, though the short season will help the aging goaltender in the long run.
Photo Credit: RON ANTONELLI/NEW YORK DAILY NEWS