It took the New York Rangers 80 games last season to win the Atlantic Division and top seed in the Eastern Conference. Four of the five teams in the Atlantic finished within seven points of each other as the Rangers, Penguins, Flyers and Devils all ended with 100+ point seasons. The Boston Bruins were the only other team to finish the season with over 100 points in the Eastern Conference.
I.E. the Atlantic Division is tough.
And while the New Jersey Devils look to fall out of playoff contention following their Stanley Cup Finals appearance a year ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers will still be slugging it out once again. Sorry to write off the Devils so quickly but when you lose Zach Parise, your other top goal scorer doesn't want to come back, and your goalie is 50 years old, it doesn't look good.
Interestingly enough, this three way battle has worked out like rock-paper-scissors in the past. Last season the Penguins went 4-2 against the Rangers who went 6-0 against the Flyers, who went 8-4 (counting the playoffs) against the Penguins. These type of match ups could make a difference in the standings since a shortened season may have some teams playing each other more than others. TSN's Bob McKenzie tweeted some details on the NHL lockout-shortened schedule:
"Each team plays: 4 games vs. two Divisional opponents (8); 5 games vs. two divisional opponents (10); 3 games vs 10 Conference rivals (30)."- (McKenzie)
If the Flyers play the Rangers one more time than the Penguins, it could mean the difference between first place and third.
Of the three teams, the New York Rangers definitely made the biggest splash. They acquired Rick Nash, although it came at a heavy cost losing Artem Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky. Still, with Henrik Lundqvist, three All-Star forwards, and one of the best blue lines in the league, the Rangers are going to be tough to stop. Remember, they were the top seed in the playoffs and lost in the Eastern Conference Finals because they couldn't score goals. A power play featuring Rick Nash, Marian Gaborik, and Brandon Richards is going to be tough to stop.
The Philadelphia Flyers traded former second overall pick James Van Riemsdyk to Toronto for Brayden Schenn's brother, Luke. They lost Matt Carle to the Tampa Bay Lightning and Jaromir Jagr to the Dallas Stars. It almost didn't matter as the Flyers were close to signing Shea Weber away from Nashville, but Weber decided to take the same offer and stay at Tennessee.
The Flyers are still a very young team, one that gave the Penguins fits last season. Sean Couturier played exceptional against Evgeni Malkin's line, and Brayden Schenn did a serviceable job on the third line. Philadelphia has been excellent at Consol Energy Center since its opening two seasons ago, but with a thin defensive core, the Flyers might have a tougher time stopping the Penguins and the Rangers.
After getting run out of their own building by the Flyers four times last season, revenge has to be on the minds of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, two all-world players, were shut down by the Flyers en route to their first round exit in the playoffs.
GM Ray Shero dealt Jordan Staal to Carolina for the number eight pick, Brian Dumoulin, and Brandon Sutter. Of those three players, Sutter will be the only one to start in the NHL this season. He will likely center the third line and see significant time on the first penalty kill. Sutter may not have the same amount of talent as Jordan Staal, but his role on the team fits better.
The Penguins are still without a top six winger for Sidney Crosby, but that could change at the trade deadline in April since the Penguins have several defensive prospects and nine million dollars in cap space.
Ironically, the biggest question mark for Pittsburgh lay at the position where they have the most depth: defense. Kris Letang has to reign in his emotions, Brooks Orpik needs a bounce-back year, and Paul Martin needs to prove he belongs on a winning team. If the defense plays disciplined and smart, the Penguins will have an excellent chance to not only win the Atlantic, but win the Cup.
As for the New York Islanders, they will likely finish in fifth place again. It is entirely possible for them to jump ahead of the Devils and grab the fourth spot in the Atlantic. However, they are not good enough on the back end to be a major threat. Rick Dipietro is too fragile and the blue line is too sparse. Fourth overall pick Griffin Reinhart could go right to the NHL but it's hard to tell at this point. Currently, the Islanders list four defensemen on their roster with one of those being Lubomir Vishnovsky, who has stated he will stay in Slovakia. Either the Islanders website is not updated, or the Islanders are not prepared to enter the season.
I think it's a little of both.