Once again, Cory and I make our picks and defend them the best that we can. This week, we head east and start off with the Atlantic Division. Next up will be the Northeast and then last but not least, the Southeast. If you missed our previous picks, you can check out these links.
- New Jersey
- New York Rangers
- New York Islanders
- New Jersey
- New York Rangers
- New York Islanders
The Atlantic Division boasted four playoff teams in 2007-08, and outside of the woeful Islanders, those four all have aspirations of returning to the postseason this year. And other than the Isles serving as the cellar-dweller, any or all of these four teams could be playing into June.
It's hard to bet against Sid, Geno, Jordan, M-A and the Pens to win the division. Are there some glaring holes? Yes. Replacing Marian Hossa, Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts and Jarkko Ruutu (plus contributors Colby Armstrong and Erik Christensen, both dealt to get Hossa at the deadline last season) with Ruslan Fedotenko, Miro Satan and Matt Cooke isn't a recipe for success. Losing Ryan Whitney for a chunk of the beginning of the season to injury and seeing backup netminder Ty Conklin follow Hossa to Detroit doesn't help either. But at the end of the day, having Crosby, Malkin, Staal (if he stay at center) and Fleury down the middle of the ice makes an awful lot of wrong go right. With them only combining for 84 years on planet Earth (roughly how long Chris Chelios has been playing), one can't help but think the best is yet to come. Add in an elite offensive defenseman in Sergei Gonchar, a creep like Brooks Orpik and some role players (glue guys like Pascal Dupuis win you titles) and the Pens should be able to stay atop the Atlantic.
After a few years of shedding their talent due to salary troubles, the Devils dipped back into the free agent market this year and pulled out a time machine. Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik return to New Jersey — though to a new arena in a different city — to solidify New Jersey's forward corps. Having youngsters Brian Gionta, Zach Parise and Travis Zajac (I like this kid A LOT) coupled with aging — but effective — Patrik Elias, John Madden, Jamie Langenbrunner and Jay Pandolfo gives GM Lou Lamoriello one of the East's best forward groups. The problem is the defense is still mediocre at best, and the linchpin, Colin White, can't seem to shake the injury bug. Lucky for them, an elite but slowing Martin Brodeur still mans the net behind them.
The Flyers shocked the NHL by recovering from a long losing streak and riding their rebound all the way to the Eastern Conference finals. But this is a team that's not better, on paper, than it was a year ago. Deadline pickup Vaclav Prospal is back in Tampa Bay, while sturdy d-man Jason Smith, playoff superstar R.J. Umberger and the reliable Sami Kapanen are gone to Ottawa, Columbus and Finland, respectively. Mike Richards and Jeff Carter will get better with age, and if Simon Gagne can stay healthy he'll be a huge boost. But I'm not sold on Martin Biron as a money goaltender, and the defense is good but a little thin for my liking. I think a trip to the playoffs can be expected, but a return to the conference finals is shooting too high.
The Rangers overhauled their offense and defense this offseason. At forward, gone are Jaromir Jagr, Sean Avery, Martin Straka and Ryan Hollweg; in come Markus Naslund, Nikolai Zherdev and Patrick Rissmiller. On the blueline, Christian Backman and Fedor Tyutin were shipped out for Wade Redden and Dmitri Kalinin. On top of all that, the return of Brendan Shanahan is still in doubt. So make of that what you will. The Rangers won with Avery in the lineup and losing Jagr could be addition by subtraction, but if you go by his play in the playoffs last year, losing him is a big loss. Henrik Lundqvist will be solid in between the pipes, and Marc Staal and Michal Rozsival lead the returning defenders. A lot will ride on Scott Gomez and Chris Drury — if they can grab the team's leadership reins and guide the Blueshirts, the sky could be the limit.
I can't wait to watch Kyle Okposo each night. So ... ummm ... yeah. On to the negative: new coach; inexperience throughout the lineup; where there isn't inexperience, there are guys who are well past their prime. We could go on and on and on. I wouldn't be surprised to see big free-agent catch Mark Streit put up half the points he put up last year (62 in 2007-08 with Montreal). All fans on Long Island can hope is that Rick DiPietro stays healthy — good luck — and keeps the team in games every night. Otherwise, John Tavares and Victor Hedman will be at the top of their draft boards in Montreal at the 2009 Entry Draft — and probably also considering offers from the KHL so they can avoid the mess at Nassau.
Of course I have to go against the grain a bit with my picks, as usual. I agree with Cory that the Atlantic is one of the toughest divisions to pick, but I think that Pittsburgh took a step back while the Devils took a step up. And in my opinion, this division won't be as tough from top to bottom as it was last year. Four teams won't make the playoffs again this season from this group, bank on it.
The Devils picked up Brian Rolston. What more needs to be said? I admit that I have a soft-spot for Rolston because he's been an (under the radar) fantasy hockey favorite of mine for several years now. What's there not to like? He's good for 30 goals a season, can score short-handed or on the powerplay, and is tough as nails. He is the medicine that will cure the lack of scoring ills for the Devils. I also love the other forwards for the Devils, (Parise and Gionta), and agree with Cory that Travis Zajac could have a break out year this season. The blueliners aren't the best, but this group of forwards can play defense with the best in the league. Coach Brent Sutter's no nonsense style will have this team ready to play from the get-go. If Marty Brodeur has anything at all left in the tank, these guys win the division easily.
Pittsburgh took a couple of steps backward over the offseason. While departees Gary Roberts and Jarko Ruutu can be replaced, the loss of Marian Hossa and Ryan Malone will hurt them tremendously. Miro Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko are not even close as replacements. Forget about it. Eventually the Pens will mess around trying to move Jordan Staal from center to winger and it's not going to work. Although, Fleury should continue to impress in goal. Oh yeah, and they have a couple of guys named Malkin and Crosby. (nope, that's not a law firm). But do you see any Selke winners on this team? Don't get me wrong, the Penguins will still be tough to beat and will probably make the playoffs, but they won't be as good as they were last year and can't match up with the Devils.
The Flyers have a good team, but seem to be missing something. Again, I agree with Cory that Martin Biron doesn't strike me to be a legitimate answer in goal. Nittymaki is hurt again already, and training camp hasn't even started. Will Simon Gagne return to be the 40 goal scorer he's been in recent years? Umberger and Smith will be tough to replace, but Carter and Richards give this team a chance to win on any given night, along with Braydon Coburn, who is emerging to be the best young defenseman in the league. (ouch Don Waddell) I think this is a borderline playoff team who will be battling neck and neck with the Rangers for the last playoff spot down the stretch.
The NY Rangers chose not to re-sign their Czech captain which made room for Chris Drury to take over those duties. That's a step in the right direction. But they replaced one talented moody player for another, Nikolai Zherdev. Will it work? All signs point to no. Markus Naslund is over the hill, as is Brendan Shanahan, who will more than likely re-sign with this group. Sean Avery is a jerk, but the Rangers played better with him on the ice and now he's gone. Lundqvist is Lundqvist, so that means the Rangers will be competitive. Gomez and Drury are horses, but this team has a lot of question marks and chemistry issues. (sound familiar?) My guess is that they will just barely miss the playoffs as the Flyers beat them out in the last week.
The NY Islanders remind me of the Washington Capitals from a few years back. They are loaded with young talent and draft choices, it's just going to take time and patience for them to develop. In the meantime, it's not going to be pretty on the Island. Enjoy the little victories within the game Islander fans, because the wins will be few and far between.
I see one Selke winner on the Pens: Eric's little brother Jordan. I haven't seen a young player come into the league and be such a complete player at both ends of the ice as Staal in a long time. It's not a reach to say he could be a Selke contender this year. (Good news for Canes fans — I think Brandon Sutter may be a Jordan-level contributor defensively this season. These big hockey families have way of getting their latest and greatest prepared for life in the NHL.
Like I said previously, I like what the Devils have done, but Rolston and Holik — while good additions — aren't getting any younger. The team has also been fortunate that Brodeur is always healthy. Will that go on forever? If he goes down, ex-Cane Kevin Weekes is a suitable backup, but how rusty will he be? Someone needs to emerge from the blue line for Brent Sutter's boys to make a run at Pittsburgh. I just don't know who has the ability to do it. It will take all the right breaks for them to surpass a Pittsburgh team that is young enough to overcome the Cup Finals hangover — both physically because of their young legs and mentally because they don't know any better.
I think we're in agreement on Philly: they were overachievers last year and the subtractions are more than additions from the offseason. Also, while I like Coburn's game, it might be a stretch to call him the league's best young defenseman. I think Dion Phaneuf, Mike Green, Brent Burns and some others would have a long discussion with you over that. You are right on one point, though. That stinker of a playoff push deal by Waddell that sent Coburn to Philly for Alexei Zhitnik will go down as the GM's worst move.
The Rangers will certainly be in a cat fight for a playoff berth, but I think the acquisition of Zherdev was a good one. Is he unpredictable? Yes. But unlike Jagr, I don't think he sees himself as part of the leadership core at this time. Jagr's biggest issue, in my opinion, was he was looked to for leadership and failed miserably. If Zherdev can sit on the right wing and fire pucks in the net, any quirks will be quickly forgiven. Still, like the Flyers, there seems to me more negatives than positives about their offseason.
As for the Isles, I would argue they are miles behind the Caps of a couple years ago. They mortgaged so much talent in acquiring Ryan Smyth at the deadline two seasons ago that the prospect ranks are average at best. I like Okposo, and think Blake Comeau and Josh Bailey make for a solid base, but beyond that there isn't much in the way of sure-fire NHLers. They have DiPietro, and if he's healthy he can steal some games and make the young guys look better than maybe they are. But in the end the Islanders are in long-term rebuild mode.
When I said, "show me a Selke winner on the Pens", I meant this year, not someday in the future. Staal has a good shot down the road, but he's going to be so messed up trying to play wing this year that defense won't be first and foremost on his mind. No comment on Satan and Fedotenko? I didn't think so. They have been bounced around the league a bit for good reason. I don't envy Crosby or Malkin centering those two slackers.
So, you're saying that the names Johnny Oduya and Sheldon Brookbank don't exactly make you shake in your skates? I guess I understand. But come on now, Paul Martin is pretty good, and Colin White is a force when healthy. And you have to assume that Marty Brodeur is going to play 70 games, and play them well until he proves otherwise. I still like the Devils winning this division.
As you say, we seem in agreement about the Flyers. I'll change my wording about Coburn to being "one of the best", but I am high on that kid. How Don Waddell manages to keep his job is one of the NHL's most perplexing "unsolved mysteries". Nice guy, but...
Nikolai Zherdev is an enigma. The talent is there, but is the desire? Until I see it on a regular basis, he's still a question mark in my eyes. Maybe a change in scenery will do him good, but if one of the better coaches in the league, (Ken Hitchcock), can't get anything out of him, I doubt that Tom Renney will either.
I'll have to agree with you about the Islanders, they are behind where the Caps were. Regardless, this year will be a tough one. It will be a battle between Atlanta, LA, and them to see who wins the Johnny Tavares sweepstakes.