Last season, the Atlantic Division was perhaps the toughest division in all of hockey, sending 4 teams to the playoffs all with over 100 points. The division gave us a Penguins-Flyers playoff series so epic that it may have actually registered on the Richter scale. And the excitement certainly didn’t stop there, as the off-season has brought several mega-deals that have reshaped the landscape of the entire Eastern Conference. When (hopefully) the season resumes, will we see a changing of the guard at the top? Or will experience prevail?
New York Rangers: 2011-12 Division Champs
The Rangers made perhaps the biggest splash of the off-season with their acquisition of Rick Nash from the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky, Tim Erixon along with a first-round draft pick. Anisimov is the biggest loss of the three, but the fact that the Rangers were able to pull this deal off without giving up Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan or Chris Kreider is a testament to the guile of Rangers GM Glen Sather. Whether or not the Rangers will repeat as division champs will hinge significantly on the ability of the big three (Nash, Marion Gaborik and Brad Richards) to mesh together. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist, along with their stellar defensive core will ensure that the Rangers will remain a very difficult team to play against offensively.
2012-13 Prediction: Division Winners once again.
Pittsburgh Penguins: 2011-12- Second Place
After an ignominious first-round playoff exit, this promised to be a summer of biblical proportions for Penguins GM Ray Shero. It surely started off that way, with the draft day trading of veteran center Jordan Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes. If you’re anything like me, the sight of Staal in another uniform will make you want to swan dive off the Smithfield Street Bridge. However, the Pens were able to get a massive haul in return, namely new third-line center Brandon Sutter who will surely replace the grit and penalty killing ability that Staal leaves behind.
But for Pens fans, that’s about where the fun ended. After being heavily rumored to be in the running for UFA stars Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, the Pens went out with a whimper, as Parise and Suter bolted for Minnesota. Never the less, anytime you wake up with the two best players in the world on your team, things can’t be so bad, right?
2012-13 Prediction: Third Place
Philadelphia Flyers: 2011-12- Third Place
The 2011-12 season was a case study in insanity for the Flyers. When former Cabbage Patch Doll Scott Hartnell scores like a billion goals, you know that normalcy wasn’t even in the building. The world became friends with goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov via HBO’s masterfully done Road to the Winter Classic documentary series, as he opined about the minutia of human problems in relation to the universe in such a comical way that you couldn’t help but fall in love with him. Unless you were a Flyer fan who watched him give up almost 3.5 goals a game in the playoffs. Ouch.
Regardless, the Flyers enter this season with a solid young core of forwards, headlined by Claude Giroux, who cemented himself as a legit NHL star last year. Throw in players like Hartnell, Danny Briere, Jakub Voracek and you’ve got yourself a formidable offense. If anything will stop the Flyers, it will undeniably be their lack of defensive depth. Chris Pronger is a couple years away from getting his AARP card in the mail, and his season remains in doubt due to post-concussion syndrome. The season of defensive stalwart Andrej Meszaros is also in jeopardy due to a ruptured Achilles tendon. If the Flyers are going to contend, Bryzgalov will have to return to the form he showed in prior years with the Coyotes. The smart money says he’ll do just that.
2012-13 Prediction: Second Place
New Jersey Devils: 2011-12- Fourth Place
Ok seriously, raise your hand if you had the Devils representing the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup. Against all odds, the most boring team in the history of the NHL, led by Zach Parise and 40 year-old goalie Martin Brodeur, managed to weave their way through the goliaths of the East en route to their first Stanley Cup appearance since their 2002-03 championship. Surprisingly, the Devils still have two players from that team on their current roster (Patrik Elias and Brodeur).
The 2012-13 squad will not be lead by Parise, as the captain signed with Minnesota after what seemed like an eternity. Brodeur will again be between the pipes this season, but the bigger question is will there be anyone on the ice capable of scoring goals? Ilya Kovalchuk says yes, I say no.
2012-13 Prediction: Fifth Place
New York Islanders: 2011-12- Fifth Place
Am I the only one that feels bad for the Islanders at this point? Probably the most poorly run team in the NHL not named the Blue Jackets, the Isles posted another disappointing year, finishing 20+ points behind the pack in the division, and were basically out of playoff contention by Thanksgiving. Oh who am I kidding? They barely made it to Halloween.
This season is not likely to be materially different. The Isles lost dynamic goal scorer P.A. Parenteau, but were able to nab defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky, so long as the trade holds up (Currently, Visnovsky has filed a grievance with the league saying that the trade violates his contract). The Isles still have one of the best young players in the NHL in John Tavares, who has the chance to enter MVP chatter at his rate of improvement. Based on Tavares alone, I’ll still say they finish better than the Devils.
2012-13 Prediction: Fourth Place
Naturally, this preview is totally predicated on the fact that we’ll even have an NHL season this year. Nothing is more frustrating to fans than millionaires fighting with billionaires, but that’s a different article for a different time. Until then, all we can do is watch, wait and hope that cooler heads prevail.
Photo Credits: Getty Images