With the announcement of a tentative agreement between the NHL and the NHLPA, hockey fans will finally get to see their team back on the ice in a little more than a week. For the Penguins, the new season is a chance to erase the bitter, eight month memory of being humiliated in the first round of the playoffs by the hated Philadelphia Flyers.
That being said, the Penguins still put together a very successful season in 2011-12. Evgeni Malkin won league MVP and led the league in scoring. James Neal emerged as one the league’s best snipers, and the team won 50 games for the first time since 1992-93. They also managed to do all that within the Atlantic division, one of the toughest if not the toughest division in the NHL.
The Atlantic won’t get any easier this season, as the shortened season will put more emphasis on divisional games, along with the fact that neither team changed too much in the offseason. Here is a look at how each team stacks up heading into 2012-13.
New York Rangers
The biggest move the Rangers made was the acquisition of winger Rick Nash from Columbus for Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov. Nash, along with Ryan Callahan, Brad Richards and Marion Gaborik, give the Rangers one of the more potent offensive attacks in hockey. Nash has topped the 30 goal plateau seven times in his career, and has hit 40 goals twice.
The Rangers also added more grit to their lineup with the additions of Arron Asham and Jeff Halpern. Halpern and Asham, teamed with Mike Rupp, should also give the Rangers a very strong checking line.
Although, the Rangers success begins and ends with their defense. Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh proved to be the best shutdown pairing last season with the absence of Marc Staal early on. They are led by arguably the best goaltender in the league, Henrik Lundqvist, who went 39-18-5 last year and was a Hart trophy candidate.
Perhaps the most dangerous thing about the Flyers is the fact that the core of their team is still very young. Claude Giroux, who had 93 points last season, is only 24. Wayne Simmonds had a career high 28 goals and is also just 24. Sean Couturier is 20, Brayden Schenn is 21 and Jacob Voracek, who completely shut down Malkin and Neal in the playoffs, is just 23.
There is also the veteran presence of guys like Scott Hartnell, who scored 37 goals in 2011-12, with 16 of those on the poweplay, and Daniel Briere, who is one of the best big game players in NHL history.
The Flyers also added Luke Schenn from Toronto in a trade for James van Riemsdyk. Schenn should be a perfect fit for Philly, as he is a physical player who led all defenseman in hits last season with 270.
The biggest concern surrounding the Flyers, as it is every year, is their goaltending. If Ilya Bryzgalov can live up to the giant contract the team gave him last year, than the Flyers are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
There’s no doubt the Penguins can score with any team in the league. They had five players score 25 or more goals last season, and return four of them (Malkin, Neal, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis).
Although, the Penguins’ Achilles heel last season was their defense, which forced them to pick two defenseman in the first round of the draft. Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek also struggled for most of the year, which led to Michalek being traded to Phoenix. Maybe this is the year Simon Despres can step in and be a regular on the Penguins’ blue line.
What will be interesting to watch this season will be how the Sutter-Staal trade turns out, along with seeing if the Penguins can stay healthy throughout the season, something they haven’t been able to do in the past. Injuries killed the Penguins in the regular season last year, as Sidney Crosby missed 60 games, Kris Letang 31, and Tyler Kennedy 22.
New Jersey Devils
The defending Eastern Conference champions will have to deal with the loss of their captain Zach Parise, who left in free agency and signed with Minnesota. Parise scored 31 goals and had 69 points for the Devils last season.
Age could also be a big factor for New Jersey, as they have only three players under the age of 25, with most of their roster over the age of 30.
However, the more things change, the more they stay the same and that saying rings true with the Devils. Martin Broduer, Patrick Elias and Petr Sykora, who all seem to have been playing forever, are returning along with David Clarkson, who had a breakout year in 2011-12. They also still have one of the league’s best sharpshooters in Ilya Kovalchuk, who scored 37 last year.
If there were any team that would be in for a letdown in 2013, it would be the Devils. Don’t count on it though.
New York Islanders
The Islanders have been the doormat of the Atlantic for the past five years, but this is a talented, young team who are on the rise. John Tavares, Michael Grabner, Josh Bailey and Kyle Okposo are all 24 years old or younger. They also have one of the better offensive defenseman in hockey in Marc Streit.
If the Islanders are going to be successful, though, they are going to need a healthy Rick Dipietro in net. Dipietro is a talented goaltender, but his career has been riddled with injuries. He hasn’t played more than 26 games in a season since 2007-08.
Also, the announcement that the team will be moving to Brooklyn in 2015 could help re-vitalize a franchise that has annually been one of the league’s worst. Look for the other team from New York to take a big step forward this season.
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