Friday, September 7, 2007

The Best Division In Hockey

Is it possible that all five teams in the Atlantic division make the playoffs this season? On paper, it’s certainly a possibility but the realities of playing 8 games against your own division rivals probably means that at least one of these teams will miss the postseason. But which one?

Three teams in particular have made some major renovations (New York Rangers, New York Islanders and the Philadelphia Flyers), one team has wisely held steady with their promising youth movement (Pittsburgh Penguins) and one team has made their biggest move off the ice (New Jersey Devils). Here’s my two cents on how these teams will stack up in order of expected finish:

1. Pittsburgh Penguins

It shouldn’t be too much to expect the Penguins to immediately jump into contender mode. Sidney Crosby is only going to get better and stronger this year with two solid veterans in Gary Roberts and Mark Rechhi to help the young captain manage the dressing room. Of course the Penguins will be praying that the sophomore jinx doesn’t grab a hold of Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal but these guys are too good to fall into that trap. The Pens also added some solid second tier scoring in Petr Sykora and have the toughness in Georges Laraque and pesky Jarkko Ruutu. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury looks like he has confidence again and the defense is mobile enough to scare any team. This should be the Pens real breakout season.

2. New Jersey Devils

Most of you are thinking I’m nuts for not putting the Rangers in second or first in this division but I’ll explain why when we get to them. The Devils on the other hand look a little weaker on paper after losing top players Scott Gomez and Brian Rafalski. Of course this is going to hurt, especially in the early going when the team tries to settle in with players in new roles. But leave it to coaching flavour of the day Brent Sutter to corral this team and push them into the playoffs with the help of Martin Brodeur who is conveniently playing some of the best hockey of his career right now. The forwards corps are full of character players with skill, both offensively and defensively and the rearguards are nameless but at least as good as what the Rangers have. Plus the Devils will be moving into a suitable building with some credible atmosphere which should give the long time Devils a boost in energy.

3. New York Rangers

Expect the Rangers to drop a bit this season due to unreasonable expectations and a shallow group of defenseman. It seems like a lot of people are picking the Rangers to dominate this season and even (gulp) win the Stanley Cup. I just don’t see it. When was the last time the Rangers made a splash in free agency and won anything? Gone is Jaromir Jagr’s favourite centreman Michael Nylander and replaced with the good but now overrated Scott Gomez. Chris Drury is a clutch performer but is miscast in New York where the fans will see his salary and expect him to score often. That’s just not Drury’s game. Brendan Shanahan is a year older and coming off a horrific concussion. Sean Avery was basically told by management in arbitration that he is detrimental to the team and the Rangers core of defenseman is slow and marginal. The saving grace of course is top tier netminder Henrik Lundqvist and the consistent excellence of Jaromir Jagr. Never mind that NHL pundits regularly rip into Jagr on a nightly basis for the sin of being European. Jagr does give it his all every game and has to deal with defenseman riding on his back and slashing his wrists 20 minutes a night.

4. New York Islanders

There is nothing on the Islanders roster that would give any opposing coach nightmares but it says here that they still make the playoffs. That’s how good a coach Ted Nolan is. Somehow he gets his usual gang of has been's to believe in what he’s saying and they go out and play hard for him. Like Brent Sutter in New Jersey, Ted Nolan alone makes up for some gaps in the roster. The good news is that goalie Rick Dipietro is playing like the pressure of a monster contract is not affecting him and the dour Alexei Yashin was bought out by the club and will play far away from Nassau, across the world in Russia. The bad news is that the forwards are made up of third and fourth liners and their two newest acquisitions Mike Comrie and Bill Guerin are probably more suited to a second line role but will be asked to lead the charge. The defense is even worse and a little on the small side despite having the gargantuan Andy Sutton and feisty vet Brendan Witt. Strangely enough, this rag tag group of miscasts are exactly the kinds of players that Ted Nolan can get the most out of.

5. Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers have done more to improve their team than any other organization in the NHL. They deserve kudos for that effort but they may have shot themselves in the foot at the same time with mega-rich deals to Daniel Briere and Kimmo Timmonen that will limit their precious cap space in the future. Both Briere and Timmonen are great players but probably not at the level that their salary would suggest. Regardless, they will provide an offensive boost and Scott Hartnell and Steve Downie will provide the muscle and grit. It will be up to goalie Martin Biron to prove that he can finally lead a team and young centre Jeff Carter will need to bounce back from a sub-par season. The one element I am not convinced about is their coach John Stevens. In my opinion, the Flyers need a proven commodity behind the bench to turn the team around and not a guy who got the job by default as Stevens did when Ken Hitchcock was let go. To be honest, Stevens looked like a deer in the headlights behind the bench and it’s astonishing that the Flyers didn’t upgrade that position along with everything else.

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