2010 NHL Preview: The Atlantic Division

09/29/2010 10:32 AM -  Steven Ives

Ilya Kovalchuk

NEW JERSEY DEVILS

The Good News: Ilya Kovalchuk is a Devil for a long time, no matter how badly Gary Bettman wanted him to go back to Russia so that he could move the franchise from their beautiful new arena in Newark to Lima, Peru (think of the untapped TV market!) Kovy’s been moved to the top line to play alongside the absolutely sublime Zach Parise and the painfully underrated Travis Zajac. This new line could become the best in the NHL, as put together by new head coach John MacLean, taking over for the deservingly departed Jacques (“goals? I hate goals!”) Lemaire. Human wrecking ball Anton Volchenkov and the uber-smooth Henrik Tallinder bolster a defense-corps which was often overmatched last year in the rugged Atlantic Division. LW Patrik Elias and the seemingly super-human Martin Brodeur really, really want another cup ring before they enter the NHL Hall of Fame.

The Bad News: Andy Greene is solid, but taking over for the departed Paul Martin as the best puck mover on the blueline may be a lot for him to handle. The Devils sorely need free agent re-acquisition Jason Arnott to have something left in the tank and fill the gaping hole the Devils had last year at second-line center. Gary Bettman penalized the Devils multiple draft picks for signing Kovalchuk to a similar contract to many in the NHL (Pronger, Luongo, Hossa, etc etc), probably because he’s still mad that they didn’t relocate to Nashville like he wanted them to after the 1994-95 season. This further depletes the Devils’ prospect pipeline, and they really need youngsters like Jacob Josefson, Mattias Tedenby and Alexander Urbom to step up and make the team out of training camp. 

Fantasy Focus: Travis Zajac has seen his point totals rise in the past three seasons from 34 to 62 to 67. Playing on a line with a pair of 50-goal threats in Kovalchuk and Parise, the young two-way pivot could see his totals skyrocket over 80 points. Move him up in your center rankings to the second tier, right behind the superstars.

Fearless Forecast: GM Lou Lamoriello is determined to win another Stanley Cup in the Martin Brodeur-era. After three consecutive seasons of early playoff exits, expect the Devils to approach former heights and battle the Caps and the Pens for the right to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals, where Gary Bettman will punish Ilya Kovalchuk and try to disallow him from playing by sending him to his room without supper.
Atlantic Division: 1st place
Eastern Conference: 2nd place  

NEW YORK ISLANDERS

The Good News: GM Garth Snow is building this team up from the rubble left by ex-GM Mike Milbury the right way, by letting the kids play no matter how much they struggle, and then amassing high draft picks and using them wisely. C John Tavares is one of the bright young stars in the NHL. As an 18-year old rookie in 2009-10, he scored 24-30-54 and has the talent to at least double those totals in the future. C Josh Bailey is just turning 21 the week of the season opener, and has the potential to become a 60-point two-way pivot behind Tavares on the second line. The Isles’ 5th overall pick in the 2010 draft was LW Nino Niederreiter, a player I absolutely love. “El Nino” tore up the WJC tournament last year, almost single-handedly upsetting Russia. He has a blindingly bright future as a two-way, first-line power forward. Snow also scored in this year’s draft with C Brock Nelson (30th overall) and RW Kirill Kabanov (65th overall), a mercurial head-case who just might have been the most talented player in the entire 2010 draft.

The Bad News: The perennially rebuilding Islanders weren’t expected to be very competitive coming out of training camp, and then were buried in a deluge of bad news before training camp even ended. First, their best defenseman and best player, D Mark Streit went down for the season with a serious shoulder injury. Adding metaphorical insult to literal injury, first-line future-star RW Kyle Okposo went down later the same week, and he is expected to also miss much of the 2010-11 campaign. With those two players, the Isles had problems. Without them and in perhaps the toughest division in the NHL, it’s going to be a long year on the island apparently named after that.

Fantasy Focus: The loss of Okposo for a great deal of time improves the odds of Nino Niederreiter making the big squad for the Isles. In a seasonal league, temper your expectations. The Isles are going to have to traverse a bumpy road, so 40 points and an unbecoming +/- rating is an optimistic wish. In a keeper league however, make sure you nab this kid. He had blown past expectations at every level, and when the Isles’ core of Tavares-Okposo-Bailey-Kabanov gains two or three years of experience, El Nino will be on the top line as a dominant power forward.

Fearless Forecast: I’ve never believed it’s better to be lucky than good. Conversely, it might be better to be bad than unlucky. And if you’re an Islander fan on Long Island, you have to watch a terrible team in an atrocious arena. That’s unlucky, and we’re not even taking into account the Long Island Expressway, which the revised version of Dante’s Inferno is including as the tenth through thirteenth levels of Hades.
Atlantic Division: 5th place
Eastern Conference:  14th place 

NEW YORK RANGERS

The Good News: In a star-driven town, the Rangers have a star-driven team. G Henrik Lundqvist is a top-5 goaltender on the planet earth. When he’s on, he has an aura of invincibility as if you couldn’t even fire a bullet past him. RW Marian Gaborik, when healthy, is one of the most electric goal-scoring talents around, and even without a decent center he posted all-star numbers of 42-44-86 in 2009-10. D Marc Staal is becoming a shut-down specialist on an otherwise troublesome blueline, where the Rangers struggled all of last season despite his superior efforts and a very good rookie campaign by the offensively-gifted Michael Del Zotto.

The Bad News: Outside of Staal and Del Zotto, the blueline was embarrassing last season. Now released, Wade Redden at 6-years and almost $40 million may have been the worst contract signing in NHL history. Michal Roszival also was a washout on the blueline, and GM Glen Sather somehow signed D Dan Girardi to 4 years at $13 million when his most memorable moment of last season was standing two feet away watching while Flyers’ goon Dan Carcillo used Ranger meal-ticket Marian Gaborik as his personal punching bag. The Rangers are also painfully thin at center, and if Erik Christensen is once again forced to pivot the top line, the Rangers will be outside looking in as the playoffs begin once again.

Fantasy Focus: As thin as the Rangers are up the middle, it has looked more and more in training camp as if 20-year old rookie Derek Stepan is the best pivot on the team. The captain and leading scorer of the USA team in the WJCs which shocked Canada, Russia and Sweden by taking the gold, Stepan’s smarts, advanced maturity and leadership qualities echo Jonathan Toews. Although he does not quite possess Toews’ physical gifts, Stepan is one of those character kids it’s foolish to bet against. I am betting he beats the odds again to center the Rangers’ first line between Gaborik and Alexander Frolov, in which case a 20-40-60 line and a run at the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year are not out of the question.

Fearless Forecast: Sometimes, and I swear this is true, I stay up nights in my Brooklyn apartment wondering how Glen Sather has a job as Rangers’ general manager and I don’t.
Atlantic Division: 4th place
Eastern Conference: 11th place 

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

The Good News: The Flyers have to be energized by their thrilling run all the way to the Cup-finals after being ten minutes away from missing the playoffs last year before they even started. D Chris Pronger may be the player you hate the most in the NHL, but he proves over and over again each year why one day he’ll be the player you hate the most in the NHL Hall of Fame. Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Danny Briere give Philly one of the most potent center combos in the league. On the wings the Flyers mow teams over with both young goal-scoring talent (Claude Giroux, James Van Riemsdyk) and grit (Scott Hartnell, Ian Laperriere). New additions Bill Guerin and Nikolai Zherdev give them an overabundance of skill up front.

The Bad News: What is it about the Flyers that they hate going into a season with anything in goal except question marks? The journeyman combo of Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton will give them a league-leading total of frequent-flyer mileage, not save percentage. To compound matters, Leighton will likely miss the first month of the season with back spasms, leaving youngsters Johan Backlund and Sergei Bobrovsky to compete for the backup job behind Boucher. With their plethora of talent on the blueline and forward lines, I thought for sure that GM Paul Holmgren would spend the off-season trying to acquire a young stud net minder like Jonathan Bernier (blocked in L.A. by Jonathan Quick) or Vancouver’s Cory Schneider (blocked through eternity itself by Roberto Luongo), but he did nothing of the sort. In Holmgren’s defense, I still consider him much smarter than myself, which makes him much, much smarter than Glen Sather.

Fantasy Focus: Two of my favorite sleepers for 2010-11 are skating in Philly, with Claude Giroux and James Van Riemsdyk skating on the wings. In his first full season last year, Giroux posted a line of 16-31-47 before an absolute sparking playoff run of 10-11-21 in 23 games. Giroux can be had after the 10th round of most drafts, and should be in line for 65 to 75 points this year. Van Riemsdyk is a year younger than Giroux, and tallied 15-20-35 as a rookie last year. He should get up around 25 goals and 50 points as a soph at the very least, and lasted in two of my fantasy drafts after the 15th round making him a bigger bargain out of Philly than Geno’s Cheesesteaks.

Fearless Forecast: The Flyers are an elite team, and they won’t struggle in the regular season this year like they did last year. However, they also won’t likely have a Cinderella team like Montreal knocking Washington and Pittsburgh out of the playoffs for them. Expect a 100-point season, but without a bona fide goaltender, don’t expect another Stanley Cup appearance.
Atlantic Division: 3rd place
Eastern Conference: 5th place 

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

The Good News: Love him or hate him, Sidney Crosby is the real deal. He’s won a Cup and an Olympic gold, and is quite simply one of the most dominant athletes in the world. C Evgeni Malkin was slowed by injuries last year, but another 100-point season in 2010-11 is in the cards for a guy who would be the meal ticket for any team in the NHL not headlined by Sid the Kid or Alexander Ovechkin. Jordan Staal is another huge, talented player up the middle, where the Pens might be as strong as any team in NHL history. Off-season additions of two-way force Paul Martin and shot-blocking machine Zbynek Michalek solidify a blueline already patrolled by physical force Brooks Orpik and emerging power play wizard Alex Goligoski. Often maligned by the media, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury oozes talent and came up with all the huge saves two years prior when the Pens won the Stanley Cup.

The Bad News: With all of their great centers, who is playing the wing in Steel Town? Outside of LW Chris Kunitz, the Pens lack anyone with the pedigree to skate with top-end talent. Top prospect LW Eric Tangradi looks ready to step in this year, but what kind of output can really be expected of him, much less grinders like Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke, Tyler Kennedy and Max Talbot? Don’t forget about the Staal foot injury, which will keep him sidelined for at least the first couple weeks of the regular season.

Fantasy Focus: D Alex Goligoski scored 37 points in just 69 games last year, playing power play second fiddle for most of it behind Sergei Gonchar. Well, now Gonchar is now gone-char and Goligoski is first fiddle. It would not be surprising to see the talented young rearguard amass 50 to 60 points. Also keep an eye on free agent signee Paul Martin, a 30+ point guy in New Jersey who could see that go up by at least 10 to 15 points on the high-flying Penguins.

Fearless Forecast: These Penguins really can fly. Cup-winners two years ago before a disappointing playoff loss to Montreal last year, Crosby and Malkin should be men possessed come the start of the season. Come springtime, two things are for certain in Pittsburgh: the Pens will be making a long playoff run, and Ben Roethlisberger will be in trouble again and blaming it on how she was dressed.
Atlantic Division: 2nd place
Eastern Conference: 4th place

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