By Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Atlantic Division led the Eastern Conference with four playoff entrants last spring and two of those teams -- the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils -- eventually battled each other for the conference title.
In this lockout-shortened season it's hard to say if the Atlantic will be as strong as it was in 2011-12 but there's a solid chance the division gets four teams into the postseason once again. According to recent history, of course, the team most likely to be the one on the outside looking in is the New York Islanders.
NEW YORK RANGERS
2011-12 - (1st place, 109 points); Projected Finish: 1st place
REVIEW: The Rangers entered the playoffs last spring as the top seed in the conference while picking up their first division title since 1993-94, which was also the club's last Stanley Cup championship season. New York and head coach John Tortorella have Stanley Cup hopes again this year after bowing out to the Devils in the 2012 Eastern Conference finals.
KEY ADDITION: With an excellent defensive corps and one of the world's best goaltenders in Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers wisely opted to add some offensive firepower by trading for power forward Rick Nash in the offseason. Having played his entire NHL career in Columbus, Nash has barely sniffed the playoffs but the 28-year-old is a bona fide scorer with 30 or more goals in each of his last five seasons. Nash adds serious offensive clout and his presence alone should take some pressure off guys like Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards.
X-FACTOR: A little over a week after helping Boston College to another NCAA championship, Chris Kreider made his NHL debut for the Rangers in the opening round of the playoffs. The speedy winger made an immediate impact for the Blueshirts, scoring five goals in 18 games while adding an explosive element to Tortorella's disciplined team. If Kreider can pick up where he left off last spring during his first NHL regular season, the Rangers stand to be a much-improved offensive team.
PROGNOSIS: Even though the Rangers were the top seed in the East, they went the distance against No. 8 Ottawa in the opening round before outlasting seventh-seeded Washington in seven games during the conference semis. The addition of Nash and the emergence of Kreider should make New York a more dangerous offensive club this season and that could be the missing piece that leads to the franchise's first championship parade since '94.
2011-12 - (2nd, 108 pts); Projected Finish - 2nd
REVIEW: Installed as the favorites to win it all heading into last year's postseason, Sidney Crosby and the Penguins were upset by the hated Philadelphia Flyers in the opening round. While the series was easily the most entertaining of the playoffs, featuring 56 goals in six games, it also raised some serious questions about Pittsburgh's ability to stop the puck from going in its own net.
KEY ADDITION: Over the last several seasons, Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal gave Pittsburgh a tremendous 1-2-3 punch down the middle, but Brandon Sutter will likely fill Staal's third centerman spot this season. The Pens acquired Sutter, defensive prospect Brian Dumoulin and the eighth overall pick (Derrick Pouliot) from Carolina for Staal. Like Staal before him, Sutter's key role is expected to be as a two-way player with an emphasis on the defensive aspects of the game. If he's effective as Staal was in that role it should leave the dynamic duo of Crosby and Malkin to focus more on putting the puck in the net.
X-FACTOR: While Pittsburgh put forth a horrid defensive effort as a team against the Flyers last spring, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury also shouldered plenty of the blame for Philadelphia scoring 30 times over six games. Fleury needs to return to the form he displayed while helping Pittsburgh win the Cup back in 2009 if the Pens expect to add another championship banner to the rafters this season. The Penguins added veteran Tomas Vokoun to serve as Fleury's backup this season. Having a proven performer like Vokoun in that role could push Fleury in the right direction or provide insurance should Pittsburgh's No. 1 netminder continue to struggle.
PROGNOSIS: Despite the first-round flameout last spring, the Penguins will be one of the favorites to win it all this season. Of course, Crosby avoiding the concussion issues that caused him to play in only 63 regular-season games over the last two campaigns is key for Pittsburgh. However, only slightly less important for the Pens is that the defensive corps, which is led by talented blueliner Kris Letang, figures out how to move on from last year's playoff debacle.
2011-12 - (3rd, 103 pts); Projected Finish - 3rd
REVIEW: Last season had to leave many Flyers fans with a bittersweet feeling. The six-game shellacking of the Pittsburgh Penguins was one of the most exciting first-round series in recent memory and the fact that Philadelphia made its hated rivals look like an absolute train wreck was the icing on the cake. The only problem was the Flyers went down quietly to the Devils in Round 2, making the thrilling win over the Penguins look like a mirage.
KEY ADDITION: The Flyers waved goodbye to some key pieces this offseason when Jaromir Jagr and Matt Carle left via free agency and James van Riemsdyk was dealt to Toronto. In return for van Riemsdyk, the Flyers received Maple Leafs defenseman Luke Schenn, the older brother of Philadelphia forward Brayden Schenn. The fifth overall pick in the 2008 draft, the 23-year-old Schenn already has 310 NHL games under his belt and Philadelphia hopes the stay-at- home defenseman is preparing to enter his prime. Considering his high draft status, Schenn has been called a disappointment but the Flyers don't need him to live up to being the fifth overall pick, they simply need him to be a steady performer in the middle of a defensive corps that is short on depth.
X-FACTOR: It's no secret that Ilya Bryzgalov had an up-and-down first season as Philadelphia's No. 1 goaltender last year and the Flyers will expect a more consistent effort from the eccentric netminder in 2012-13. Bryzgalov received a nine-year, $51 million contract from the Flyers prior to the 2011-12 campaign and he has some serious work to do to prove he was worth that price tag. With question marks all over the Flyers' defensive unit, Bryz need to be better if Philadelphia wants to compete for Eastern Conference supremacy this season.
PROGNOSIS: The Flyers are loaded with offensive talent thanks to guys like Claude Giroux, Danny Briere, Jakub Voracek and Scott Hartnell but the club's defensive issues prevent Philadelphia from being taken seriously as a Cup contender. A more focused Bryzgalov could help this team exceed expectations but the lack of depth at the back end (even with the recent signing of Kurtis Foster) could be too big of a problem to solve this season.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
2011-12 - (4th, 102 pts); Projected Finish - 4th
REVIEW: Even though the Devils were a 102-point team in 2011-12 it was still surprising to see them make a run to the Cup Finals before bowing out to the Los Angeles Kings. Peter DeBoer, who was in his first season as Jersey's head coach, deserves a great deal of credit for last spring's success but an encore performance could prove difficult without former captain Zach Parise in the fold. Parise opted to sign a lucrative 13-year contract with Minnesota in the offseason, leaving a big hole in New Jersey's offense. The Devils still have sniper Ilya Kovalchuk in tow, and although he's lingered in his native Russia to play in the KHL All-Star game, the dangerous winger is expected to be back in Jersey for the start of the season.
KEY ADDITION: After losing his captain, Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello said, "You don't replace a Zach Parise -- you just don't do that." Guess Lamoriello really believed that because New Jersey failed to pick up a significant player through free agency or a trade last summer. In addition to not adding an impact player on the ice, the Devils also lost assistant coaches Adam Oates and Larry Robinson. Oates took the head coaching job with the Washington Capitals, while Robinson will serve as an assistant in San Jose. New Jersey did bring in former Devil and Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Stevens as an assistant coach. Stevens won three Stanley Cups with Jersey so maybe his presence will keep the Devils moving in the right direction.
X-FACTOR: Since the franchise last won a Stanley Cup in 2003, Martin Brodeur's play in the postseason has been less than stellar, but the future Hall of Fame goaltender was tremendous last spring, posting a 2.12 goals-against average over 24 games. At 40 years of age, the Devils still rely heavily on Brodeur to be the team's best player and one of these year's that's going to be a serious problem. At least the Devils have a steady veteran backup on board in Johan Hedberg, who could step in and be the club's No. 1 if this happens to be the year the game passes Brodeur by.
PROGNOSIS: Even with the advanced age of Brodeur and the loss of Parise, the Devils have an excellent shot to return to the playoffs this season but it would be surprising to see them get back to the Cup Finals. It seems like there was more than a little magic involved in New Jersey's run last spring and De Boer will have a hard time getting his team to return to the NHL's biggest stage, especially without Parise.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
2011-12 - (5th, 79 pts); Projected Finish - 5th
REVIEW: The Islanders missed the playoffs for a fifth straight season in 2011-12, a campaign that also marked New York's fifth consecutive year at the bottom of the Atlantic Division standings. In the rare bit of positive news for the club, the Isles finally landed a home that isn't the Nassau Coliseum when they announced a few months ago that the franchise will move to Brooklyn for the 2015-16 season.
KEY ADDITION: Talented offensive defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky would be in this spot if not for the fact that he's been avoiding the Islanders like the plague since being traded to the team from Anaheim last summer. Visnovsky filed a grievance with the NHLPA to void the trade but an arbitrator upheld the deal. Currently, Visnovsky is playing in the KHL and said he plans to stay there for the remainder of the season. It's an ongoing saga, but there remains a glimmer of hope that Visnovsky will skate with the Islanders this season. In the absence of Visnovsky, forward Brad Boyes could be New York's most significant offseason addition. A 43-goal scorer in 2007-08, Boyes has only posted 39 total goals over the last four seasons, but Isles GM Garth Snow hopes New York's top centerman John Tavares and his supreme playmaking skills can get the former sniper back on track.
X-FACTOR: The Isles don't have much offense to speak of outside of Tavares and Matt Moulson, so they are desperate for another forward to step up this season. Michael Grabner is a prime candidate considering he scored 34 goals as a rookie in 2010-11 before falling off to 20 tallies last season. If Grabner is even able to split the difference between those two campaigns he'd help New York improve its scoring depth tremendously.
PROGNOSIS: There's a good chance New York will improve this season but playing in the extremely competitive Atlantic Division really hampers the Isles chances of getting back to the postseason for only the second time since the 2004-05 lockout.
01/15 12:32:32 ET
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