Remember last season when two of these teams fought it out for 65 minutes on the last day of the regular season for a playoff spot? Something tells me both the Rangers and Flyers are going to shoot for a little more wiggle room this year. On that note, I’m sure the Penguins would like to get back to the form that had them in back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals, the Devils would like to just start playing again, and the Islanders would like to be about three years further along in their rebuilding process.
But don’t just take my word for it. Here are five bloggers that live the Atlantic Division all year long to help break down the 2010-11 season.
Carlos Figueiredo from Speaking Of The Devils (Devils)
Michael Schuerlein from Isles Blogger (Islanders)
Puck Central brings us Rangers knowledge
Travis Hughes from Broad Street Hockey (Flyers)
Damian Romano from Pens Universe (Penguins)
1. Tell us why your team will be better this season than they were last.
Carlos (Devils): Well, last season I had a better season from Brian Rolston and a full season from Brendan Shanahan as to why the Devils would be better than the previous season. That prediction didn’t work out too well.
This year, I’ll stick to some more obvious reasons: A much improved defense.
With the signings of Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder, two of the better FA defensemen available this off-season, the Devils defense will be much better than last season.
The Devils are a defense-first team to begin with and the additions of Volckenkov, a shot-blocking machine, and Tallinder will only help them shut down opposing teams.
The addition of Johan Hedberg will also give the Devils a real opportunity to rest Martin Brodeur a little more than usual, keeping him fresh for a (longer than recent seasons) playoff run.
Mike (Islanders): First and foremost, every young player will be another year stronger and more experienced. Just look at the strides Bailey and Okposo have made the previous years and put Tavares in the same category. He’s spent the offseason working out, building muscle, and even gotten himself involved with the NHLPA side of the business. I think we will see a more confident player and he’ll be doing a lot of things differently this season.
Then you have to factor in the addition of new defensemen – Wisniewski, Eaton, and Jurcina. All bring size and experience to the Islanders back-end. The power play gets a formidable duo in Streit and Wisniewski should they be paired together. Every Isles fan knows we need scoring and help on the power play the last few years so that’s a nice change.
If players like Niedderiter or Petrov make the club – even more bluechip type players to watch mature and contribute to a winning attitude on Long Island. That’s the best thing about following this team. Garth Snow has been meticulously building a contender from the ground up.
Puck Central (Rangers): Unfortunately, I’m not 100% positive that they’ll be any better than they were last season. We won’t know what the lineup is really even going to look like until after training camp. There’s the whole Marc Staal situation, the possibility of the Rangers waiving Wade Redden, the uncertainty about who will start the season in New York on the blue line, and then trying to figure out what exactly the Rangers plan on doing with their forward lines.
Sather and Tortorella have claimed that they want to give the younger players a lot of ice time. Will Todd White make the big club out of camp? If so, will he be given a prominent role? Who will center the number one line? It’s pretty much certain that Gaborik, Callahan, Drury, Dubinsky, Christensen, Frolov, Anisimov and Prospal will all be on the opening night roster. But, who will get the remaining spots. You have to assume that Avery and Prust are already penciled in on the third or fourth lines and that Derek Boogaard is going to play at least every couple of games.
There are so many uncertainties that it’s impossible to say one way or the other whether the Rangers have actually improved. In one respect, adding a player of Frolov’s caliber has to be an improvement, as too does adding a solid veteran backup goalie in Marty Biron. But, if the Rangers do decide to give younger players like Grachev, McDonagh, Zuccarello-Aasen, Stepan or Weise prominent roles on the team, will there be repercussions for the short term?
Once again, the one decisive factor is Henrik Lundqvist. The game plan heading into the season has to be to start Lundqvist less than he has in years past. There’s no point heading into the final three weeks of the season battling for the final playoff berth and relying on Lundqvist to play night in and night out. The problem with that is, even if they do manage to scrape by, if Lundqvist is burnt out, then it’s going to be an early exit from postseason action.
Travis (Flyers): What if I think they’ll be worse? No, just kidding. Look at the improvements on defense. They’re the best unit in the NHL. Period, end of discussion. Plus, the major problem that they had during the regular season last year was that their heads were in the clouds. They were never on the same page. They never had “what it takes to win,” and other crap like that. I think last year’s playoff run proved that that’s all out the window.
Damian (Penguins): Two reason, defense and grit. GM Ray Shero recognized that the biggest problem with the Penguins last year wasn’t their offensive production. Rather he saw a ton of deficiencies on the defensive aspect of the game, mainly due to the inexperience of guys like Letang and Goligoski. Likewise veteran blueliner Sergei Gonchar showed some signs of aging. With that, he realized that he needed some skillful d-men who weren’t new to the NHL. His answer: Paul Martin and Zybnek Michalek. Martin was one of the Devils top 4 defenseman and is known for his smooth skating, puck movement, and stick checking. Michalek is just the opposite. He’s your classic, stay-at-home defenseman who can shut down top forwards and block shots. He’s also not afraid to hit a player or two, thus adding some grit to his repertoire.
But the grit I speak of isn’t from the defensive side. Shero also recognized a need for some toughness on the offensive end. Sure guys like Matt Cooke and Mike Rupp did their part, but the opposition usually shows greater intensity when you have guys like Crosby and Malkin. Enter Arron Asham, to the third line. He’s built a solid reputation of being an in-your-face tenacious skater as well as an underrated scorer. After this season he’ll have played for every team except for the Rangers in the Atlantic, so he’s also quite familiar with the territory.
2. What part of your team are you concerned about this season?
Carlos (Devils): Brodeur’s age could be a concern, but watching him last season, he didn’t show many signs of slowing down and the improved defense will only help.
One thing that will be interesting to see is how the rest of the team will react to the (eventual…did it happen yet? Again?) signing of Ilya Kovalchuk.
The Devils have always been a “team first” organization, but with the attention given and the focus being on Kovalchuk this off-season, there could be a few players who are rubbed the wrong way by that… especially if Kovy doesn’t get off to a big start.
Mike (Islanders): Goaltending and offense
The goaltending situation goes without saying. Roloson has been outstanding, but the whole DiPietro situation is getting old. All we can do is hope that he’s been able to put these injures behind him and contribute on a regular basis.
Offensively the Islanders have come a long way, they scored more last season then the previous season – but still lack a pure goal scorer. Last season Matt Moulson led the Islanders in goals, followed by Tavares and Okposo. We need more players to get into the 30-40 goal range in order to make it out of the Atlantic Division basement.
Puck Central (Rangers): Without a doubt once again the Rangers biggest concern heading into the new season is whether they have the fire power up front to win on a regular basis. Last season apart from Marian Gaborik, no other Ranger put the puck in the net on a consistent basis. The Rangers hope that the addition of Frolov will add at least another 30 goals. But, the team seriously lacks a legitimate number one line center. Christensen may start the season playing on the top line with Gaborik but Christensen has become a journeyman at the NHL level, he definitely has shown glimpses of his talent but he has never been consistent enough to be considered anything close to a number one center.
Defensively the Rangers look like they are going to start the season with a rather young defense core. I still believe that the Rangers will sign Marc Staal and will send Redden to Hartford. That leaves the Rangers with a top six of Staal, Rozsival, Girardi, Del Zotto, Gilroy and all signs pointing to McDonagh. Leaving Eminger as the rotating seventh defenseman. But, with Sather in charge, anything is a possibility.
Travis (Flyers): The goaltending, but it’s been like that since I was about negative-two years old, so I mean, what else is new? I’m worried that Leighton just had a good few months last year. I’m worried that he’s not the goalie he was in the playoffs. I’m worried that the math is correct and he’s going to regress to the mean.
I’m praying that he’s finally realizing his NHL potential, that he’s just a late-bloomer and that he’s going to be even better this year.
Damian (Penguins): While the sixth defensive roster spot is still open, I would have to say the bigger concern for the Penguins this year is who will be skating on the wings of the top two lines. As I write this there are debates everywhere as to who will skate alongside Sid, and if Geno is going to move to the wing of either he or Staal. With the Penguins eliminating Bill Guerin from the mix, that currently leaves one spot free in the top six. This assumes the following scenarios: 1) Kunitz-Crosby-Dupuis, 2) OPEN-Staal-Malkin –or- 1) Dupuis-Crosby-Malkin, 2) OPEN-Staal-Kunitz. While talk of a possible Marek Svatos signing has been the latest buzz, the two current players vying for this spot would be Tyler Kennedy and Max Talbot. Assuming the Penguins stay put, you might also see newly acquired forward Arron Asham find some time up there, possibly even Mike Rupp, as we saw last season. It’s unlikely that one of the WB/S Penguins would secure a stop in the top six, but not entirely out of the realm of possibility.
This is likely the biggest question-mark heading into the season and will likely be something that takes on many forms before the season comes to a close. Resolving this situation isn’t something that happens overnight. With players such as Dupuis, Rupp, Talbot, and Kennedy all UFA’s next off season, its likely Shero will position himself for another trade deadline deal for another stretch run.
3. Each year there are players who break onto the scene as all-stars or even superstars. Sometimes it’s a rookie who is already expected to be great, sometimes it’s a rookie who shocks the world, and sometimes it’s a younger player who simply comes into their own. Which player on your team should we expect to have a breakout season?
Carlos (Devils): This is a tough question. The Devils will be an interesting mix of veterans and young players this season. With younger players like Niclas Bergfors and Matt Halischuk traded away, there really aren’t any second-year guys who are ready to break out.
To take the easy way out on this question, I’ll go with a Swedish rookie being a possible surprise for the team this year. I just won’t pick one between forwards Jacob Josefson and Mattias Tedenby and defenseman Alex Urbom, who could all see time with the team this season.
Mike (Islanders): John Tavares, Kyle Okposo and James Wisniewski
As I mentioned previously, another year to bulk up and in Tavares’s case mature – provide both of those players the chance to build on career seasons. Okposo hasn’t by any means hit his plateau and Tavares is only going into his second season so he has a long way to go as well.
Wisniewski’s situation is different. Like Moulson last season, he finds himself in a situation where he NEEDS to prove himself. Snow will give him prime playing time and Wiz knows he’s playing for his next contract. I’m hoping he’s matured as a player and stays away from the controversial plays that caused him to be cast off by the Ducks.
Puck Central (Rangers): Like I said, with all the uncertainties there are several young players who could either make the team or spend the entire year in the AHL. If I had to guess this could be a big year for Artem Anisimov. Anismov spent the majority of last season on the fourth line but could be thrust into a much more important role this season with the Rangers having no specific top center man. Not that I expect Anisimov to play on the first line, but he could be expected to play top-six minutes this season.
But, the player to really watch out for in my opinion is Michael Del Zotto. In the first half of his rookie season Del Zotto was clearly one of the best Rangers defenseman and in my opinion, easily the best passer on the blue line. Hopefully having one full professional season under his belt has helped Del Zotto and his sophomore season will result in a much more complete game, rather than the common sophomore slump. Look for Del Zotto to have a much more consistent season and show much more of what he did in the first half of last season.
Travis (Flyers): Good question. There could be a few players. James van Riemsdyk will have a better season. I don’t know about breakout, but he’s going to be better. Last year was the first year he played a full professional schedule, which is clearly a big jump from the college grind. He’ll be better. Nikolai Zherdev should have a solid year, too.
I hope Leighton has a breakout year, but we can’t expect that.
I expect Claude Giroux to have a gigantic year this season, though. He’s in his third NHL season now and he has all the talent in the world. If he gets to work with the right line mates, he’ll be making Flyers fans drool in wonder every single night. Oh, and he’s in a contract year.
Damian (Penguins): I posed this question myself on Pens Universe not too long ago. The majority vote selected Jordan Staal to have the “breakout” season. While I have some reservations about Staal’s offensive potential, I don’t entirely disagree. Incidentally I chose Jordan Staal to this category last year. However this year much will depend on where he finds himself in the lineup. If he indeed remains in the top 6 with Geno on his wing, there’s no question his point production will go up. But it stands to reason, is that a breakout year for Jordan, an increase in point production? As one commenter on PensU put it, how do you have a breakout year after you were nominated for the Selke award? I think that’s a fair assessment. Though I’m of the opinion that if Jordan does put up 65+ points, he indeed broke out.
But to be honest I don’t think anyone will have a year that completely shocks anyone. I think a player like Kunitz, if he stays healthy, has the potential of putting up career numbers, especially if he stays on Crosby’s wing. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see players like Asham or Talbot to put up 15+ goals in the right circumstances. As usual the Crosby and Malkin will assume the majority of the points and the rest of the team will fill in the gaps.
4. We all know that watching a team for 82 games allows us to appreciate things casual fans won’t necessarily recognize. Which guy on your bench doesn’t get nearly the respect he deserves?
Carlos (Devils): I’m going to pick the same guy I picked last year: David Clarkson.
He got off to a great start last season, scoring seven goals and adding eight assists in 19 games to start the season. He added 31 penalty minutes, and two if his goals were on the power-play.
At the end of November, he fractured a bone just above his ankle, and missed 13 games. He returned for two games, then missed another 23 games with a “lower body injury.”
Clarkson ended the season having played in only 46 games. After his early season outburst, he finished with only 24 points and threw in 85 PIM for good measure.
While the start he got off to last season might not be something to expect for a full season, it is definitely something that he’s capable of. He’s a Devils fan favorite for a reason. Even if your eyesight is poor, and you can’t read the name or number on the back of a player’s jersey, you know when Clarkson is on the ice. He skates hard, hits hard, and never seems to take a shift off.
If he can get a full season in, with some time on the power-play, he will be a player that not only leads the team in penalty minutes, but contributes 15-20 goals and can reach 50 points. That would certainly get him some more, well-deserved attention around the league.
Mike (Islanders): League wide it would be Franz Nielsen. He is one of the Islanders best defensive forwards and makes the right play or pass almost every time. He’s also pretty good offensively, making a nice steal or move to earn his space. Try watching him a game or two you’ll see what I mean.
Puck Central (Rangers): Unfortunately for this Rangers team, there are no classic unsung heroes. In recent years the Rangers have had players like Blair Betts and Jed Ortmeyer who played their heart out every game and got very little recognition for their effort around the league. Now, the closest the Rangers have to that is probably Ryan Callahan. But, as an alternate captain and a member of the 2010 USA Olympic Team, it’s very hard to say that Callahan isn’t appreciated or recognized for what he does. Callahan is a heart and soul type player; gives it all on every shift, throws the body like he’s twice the size that he is and gives up his body all night long to block shots.
Travis (Flyers): There are a ton of them. Dan Carcillo to an extent, as he’s more than just the scumbag everybody thinks he is. I think Kimmo Timonen has to be included on any list like that as well. He doesn’t get nearly enough credit from fans around the league as an elite NHL defenseman. Blair Betts is a great penalty killer, faceoff man, etc.
Damian (Penguins): I spent the majority of this offseason writing player profiles listing their strengths, weaknesses, and outlooks for next season. The guy I enjoyed writing about the most but received the least amount of site visits for was Mike Rupp. That of course was before he graced the grid of twitter. I just felt his addition to the team last year was a pleasant surprise. While many wrote his acquisition off as initially needless, he stood tall and tallied a career high 13 goals and his first career hat trick. Not bad for a guy who spent most of his time on the fourth line.
5. The Moment of Truth: I understand that everyone is an expert BEFORE the season starts; so as bloggers, it’s important to throw up your pre-season predictions so everyone can mock you later. If your credibility was on the line, how would you rank the final standings of the Atlantic Division? More importantly, which teams do you think will make the playoffs from the Atlantic?
Carlos (Devils): May I remind everyone of my division standings prediction from last years post?:
1. Devils (playoffs)
2. Pittsburgh (playoffs)
3. Philadelphia (playoffs)
4. The Rags (playoffs….barely)
The only thing I was wrong about (and I can’t say I’m upset about it) is that the team that wears blue shirts didn’t make the playoffs. Did I mention how much I like the shootout? I was the only one to pick the Devils to finish first (shocking), but I also had a lot of Devils fans telling me they thought I was crazy for picking them to finish first.
This year, more of the same. Every team in the division has improved, but there is no reason to believe that the order of finish will change too much.
1. Devils – 104 points (playoffs)
Their defense is much improved, and the (eventual) addition of Kovalchuk will only improve their offense, also.
2. Penguins – 104 points (playoffs)
The Pens defense is also improved, and they got a bit tougher. No way the Devils sweep the season series again, but the head-to-head matchups may decide who wins the division.
3. Flyers – 90 points (playoffs)
Not sure if the rumor that the Flyers plan on starting 4 defenseman is true or not, but the team no better or worse than last season. The goalie issues keep them from moving up.
4. The Rags – 89 points (playoffs… barely)
New year, same philosophy: Sign random players, hope they play well together. Frolov may be a nice addition… but the defense is still pretty weak.
5 Islanders – 84 points
Another team with goalie issues, but they have become a very tough team, and will be difficult to play against (see: last season’s Flyers). They’re still a couple of years away, but they will stay in the playoff hunt until the final weeks.
The Atlantic remains the toughest division to play in, in my opinion, and the improvements made by each team this year just makes it a bit tougher. The standings, however, remain the same
Mike (Islanders): The Atlantic is tough because some years all five teams can make it. With the turnover some teams have experienced it makes it even tougher to predict. But here goes:
Puck Central (Rangers): Credibility? What credibility? All joking aside I think that in the Atlantic there is a real possibility that four of the five teams make it into the playoffs. Even if the Devils don’t end up signing Kovalchuk, which is still expected, you have to think that they are good enough to clinch another playoff spot this season. The Penguins with Crosby and Malkin leading the way have to be penciled in as a possible contender to win the Eastern Conference.
After getting to the Stanley Cup Finals this past summer, it’s hard to think that the Flyers wouldn’t make it into the final 16 come April. The Flyers may still have some questions marks between the pipes but they certainly have one of the better blue lines in the league and several prolific forwards.
That brings us to the Rangers and Islanders. It would take a real stretch of the imagination to see the Islanders finishing amongst the top eight in the East. Chances are Garth Snow’s Islanders will be battling it out with Florida at the bottom of the Conference. That leaves us with the Rangers, the team that missed out on last year’s playoffs in the last game of the season when they lost in the shootout to the Flyers. It would be hard to predict that the Rangers would bring it down to the wire like that again, but having game #82 mean something is a real possibility. I think that the Rangers will be battling it out for one of the final playoff spots in the East, finishing between 7th and 10th in the Conference. Anything better would be surprising and anything less would be a major disappointment.
I’d like to thank Matt from ViewFromMySeats for approaching me about taking part in their blogger roundtable. Let the season begin!
Travis (Flyers): I’ll say: 1) Pittsburgh 2) Philadelphia 3) New Jersey 4) NY Islanders 5) NY Rangers
Yeah, the Rangers suck. I think Pittsburgh improved a hell of a lot this offseason, especially on defense, and they’re going to be scary good. The Flyers should be right there with them, but there are too many variables to consider them as good as the Pens at this point. The Devils are going to be up there as well, and obviously we don’t know what will happen with Kovalchuk, but I’m of the opinion that they might be better off without him. The New Yorkers will bring up the rear, and the Islanders keep getting better each year. They’ll be ahead of the Blueshirts in April.
The top three teams will make the playoffs — Pitt, Philly and the Newark Devils
1. Y- Pittsburgh Penguins – 102 pts
2. X- New Jersey Devils -99 pts
3. X- Philadelphia Flyers -96 pts
4. New York Rangers – 84 pts
5. New York Islanders – 79 pts
The next division up in our Blogger Roundtable Preview series will be the Southeast on Friday, September, 10. If you want to take a look at the entire schedule, you can check it out here—or if you want to make sure you don’t miss anything, you can subscribe to VFMS (via email or RSS) for the next couple of weeks. If there are any writers you found interesting here, I urge you to go check out their sites. Each and every writer who participated has an extremely good site and pump out great content year-round!