After months of endless bickering and getting no where, the NHL has finally figured their stuff out and we will be getting some regular season hockey within the week. Lost in shuffle after the lockout took all the coverage was the teams themselves and the changes they made coming into the season. Some teams look poised to enter the top echelon of teams with bold off-season acquisitions, while some others seem to have taken a step back. Here is a division by division look at how I see the new season shaping up, and where each team should finish when the sprint to the end of the 48 game season is over.
#1 New York Rangers
Last Season: 51-24-7; 1st in Atlantic; 1st in Eastern Conference
Playoffs: Lost third round (4-2) v. New Jersey Devils
Goals For: 226 (13th in NHL)
Goals Against: 187 (3rd in NHL)
Coach: John Tortorella (384-322-63)
Top Scorers: F Marion Gaborik (41-35-76); F Brad Richards (25-41-66)
Starting Goaltender: G Henrik Lundqvist (39-18-5; 1.97 GAA; .930 SV%; 8 SO)
Key Acquisitions: F Rick Nash (Trade), F Aaron Asham (Free Agent), D Matt Gilroy (Free Agent)
Key Losses: F Brandon Dubinsky (Trade), F Artem Anisimov (Trade), F Brandon Prust (Free Agent)
The 2013 New York Rangers squad is "all-in" so to speak. The move to add Rick Nash, an elite goal scorer in this league, proves that this team is ready and poised to be an NHL power for the next little while. Anything short of a Stanley Cup win will be a disappointment for a team that has taken slow but steady steps to getting where they are now, one of the best and most complete teams in the NHL.
This forward group has lost some depth. There was a price to picking up Nash, giving up Dubinsky and Anisimov in the process and losing Prust is an underrated loss. He was a respected member of the group, and played an important checking role. None of this changes how lethal this teams top group can be. Gaborik and Richards combine with Nash to make what could be the best and scariest first line in all of hockey to have to defend. Richards has shown an ability to distribute the puck at an elite level, and with Nash and Gaborik to give it too they will score a lot of goals. Chris Kreider will make his much anticipated debut on the second line with captain Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan, and it'll be interesting to see how much secondary scoring they can produce. The rest of the forwards are a grittier group that you know Tortorella loves, so that second lines output will be key.
Glen Sather finally got Michael Del Zotto locked up, and that was huge. A top pairing of Marc Staal and Dan Girardi gives you a group you know you can stick on the Sidney Crosby's and Evgeni Malkin's of the world and do as good a job as possible. Del Zotto and Ryan McDonagh make up a second pairing that is above average, and can play at both ends of the rink wile Michael Sauer and Anton Stralman round out a group that should be solid at both ends of the rink.
Their best player plays in the crease, there is no debating it. Lundqvist has always been on the outside of that "who's the best goaltender in the league" talk, but has now reached his rightful place as the best. His 1.97 goals against average almost doesn't make sense, and he gives your team a very good shot to win night in and night out.
X-Factor: F Chris Kreider, F Derek Stepan, F Ryan Callahan
This line is huge for this team. They will need to score and score enough just to support the top line. You know they will prevent goals well with Lundqvist and coach Tortorella, but you still need more then one line who can score. Kreider is especially interesting, as he has been hyped up and his expectations are fairly high in a media crazy market. If they can produce like a second line should, the Rangers are probably my pick to raise the cup this spring.
This team is great in all the right places. Elite options to score up front? Check. A solid blue line that protects their net and can move the puck up the ice? Check. An elite goaltender that it seems every team who wants to win the Cup will need? Check. A coach that has done it before? Check. There are a lot of reasons to believe they could win this thing, and not a whole lot to tell you they shouldn't.
Projected Record: 31-11-6 (68 Points); 1st in Eastern Conference
#2 Pittsburgh Penguins
Last Season: 51-25-6; 2nd in Atlantic; 4th in Eastern Conference
Playoffs: Lost first round (4-2) v. Philadelphia Flyers
Goals For: 282 (1st in NHL)
Goals Against: 221 (12th in NHL)
Coach: Dan Bylsma (165-81-25)
Top Scorers: F Evgeni Malkin (50-59-109); F James Neal (40-41-81)
Starting Goaltender: G Marc-Andre Fleury (42-17-4; 2.36 GAA; .913% SV%; 3 SO)
Key Acquisitions: F Brandon Sutter (Trade), F Tanner Glass (Free Agent)
Key Losses: F Jordan Staal (Trade), D Zbynek Mihalek (Trade), F Aaron Asham (Free Agent)
Anytime you can boast the best two players in the game, you are a legitimate contender. Sidney Crosby and reigning MVP Malkin give this team the best one-two punch this league as seen since the Penguins trotted out Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr night in and night out. Losing Staal will hurt less on the ice then on paper, cause he was always stuck in a role that didn't fit his talents. They will score tons, and with a goaltender like Fleury and a solid blue line, they will contend for everything all year long.
Again, up front, you just can't go wrong when your top two lines are centered by the worlds top two players. Crosby is slated to get back with Chris Kunitz and Neil while Malkin will centre Pascal Dupuis and Eric Tangradi. The centers alone make both these lines lethal and you can only send your top pairing out against one of them. Pick your poison. Sutter was a nice pick-up because it gives them a more traditional third line center. Instead of giving Staal the big pay-day he got in Carolina to be their third line center, they wisely moved him and got a pretty good deal in return. Good role players such as Matt Cooke and Tim Kennedy round out a very solid, deep and balanced group of forwards that led the league in goals scored last season.
The blue line does feature one of the best in the league in Kris Letang, whose ability to move the puck and quarterback a power play is at an elite level. They fill the rest out with quite a bit of NHL talent, but who steps up and takes those first line minutes with Letang will be a question. They have no shortage of options however, as one of Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen should be able to do it. I'd go with Orpik, a reliable and responsible guy who can be that steady force for 20+ minutes a game.
There are some questions about Fleury after last year's playoff debacle, but I'm not buying it. He had an underrated season last year, winning 41 games and playing at an elite level. I just think he was tired, and him playing 67 games isn't something I see happening again. Picking up proven veteran Tomas Vokoun was a very shrewd move by GM Ray Shero, and will pay huge dividends in keeping Fleury fresh during a shortened season.
X-Factor: G Tomas Vokoun
It's telling how complete this team is, when I can't think of much else other then the back-up goaltender. He will be key though, as again, keeping Fleury fresh come playoff time will be crucial to their post-season chances. I was actually kind of surprised he picked a team where he is entrenched as the back-up, but for a guy who has been on a lot of poor teams in front of him, this will be a good chance to be part of a winner. He just needs to give this team a chance to win when his number is called, and he should be able to just do that.
This is an elite team, not just in the Eastern Conference but in the entire NHL. It should be a dog fight with the Rangers from start to finish for who gets that #1 seed as opposed to the #4, and it's tough to decide who's got the upper hand. I think the Lundqvist factor may push the Rangers just a point or two further but this is a very serious threat to take the Cup for the second time in the Crosby era.
Projected Record: 32-13-3 (67 Points); 4th in Eastern Conference
#3 Philadelphia Flyers
Last Season: 47-26-9; 3rd in Atlantic; 5th in Eastern Conference
Playoffs: Lost second round (4-1) v. New Jersey Devils
Goals For: 264 (3rd in NHL)
Goals Against: 232 (21st in NHL)
Coach: Peter Laviolette (366-257-60)
Top Scorers: F Claude Giroux (28-65-93); F Scott Hartnell (37-30-67)
Starting Goaltender: G Ilya Bryzgalov (33-16-7; 2.48 GAA; .909 SV%; 6 SO)
Key Acquisitions: D Luke Schenn (Trade), F Ruslan Fedotenko (Free Agent), D Kurtis Foster (Free Agent)
Key Losses: F James Van Riemsdyk (Trade), G Sergei Bobrovski (Trade), F Jaromir Jagr (Free Agent), D Jason Carle (Free Agent), D Pavel Kubina (Free Agent)
A team with a good mix of skill, grit and veteran leadership, the Flyers come into the season with lofty expectations. They got guys who can score up front, with Giroux, Hartnell and veteran Danny Briere leading an offense that finished in the top 3 in the NHL in goals scored last year. What looks like a career ending concussion will rob the Flyers of the services of long elite defenseman Chris Pronger, and that could hurt both on and off the ice, but this team has enough veteran leadership to withstand what seems to be the certain loss of a hall of fame defenseman.
Up front, the Flyers have found their superstar in Giroux and have surrounded him with a variety of different options. Hartnell had a career year last year, and has Giroux to thank but will get the benefit of playing with him again this year. Young kids like Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn, Sean Couturier and Matt Read are finding their way as NHL players and can all add some offensive production to round out a very balanced squad that can score on all four lines. What's better is guys like Hartnell, Fedotenko and Maxime Talbot add that grit and tough guy mentality that every team needs. Its a great group of forwards that can play with any in the NHL.
On the back-end, although they still haven't really replaced the presence of a Chris Pronger, they have compiled a decent amount of NHL talent. Kimmo Timonen is one of the leagues true professionals, and his consistency and responsible play with the puck is something that most teams dream of having. Braydon Coburn, Andrej Mezaros and Nicklas Grossman return to fill out the pairings nicely and with guys who know what it's like to live the day-to-day grind of playing in the NHL. Picking up Luke Schenn from Toronto was a nice move by Holmgren. Although he's definitely no Chris Pronger, he brings that same tough as nails mentality and makes for a tough night on most forwards.
Probably the biggest question mark for this team comes in goal. Bryzgalov has proven he can be a very good NHL goaltender, and it's that form he showed in Phoenix that earned him the big contract in Philadelphia. But last year, we saw a less consistent Bryzgalov and an apparent loss of confidence played a major role in a rollercoaster season for the eccentric Russian. Let's hope he can get his mojo back and give this team the goaltender they've been looking for.
X-Factor: Young Forwards
Guys like the aforementioned Simmonds, Read, Couturier, Schenn and even Jakob Voracek all have immense upside. How well each can reach that potential now will be a key factor to whether this team is a true Stanley Cup contender. We know the Flyers think they can be those guys, and with guys like Schenn, Simmonds and Voracek expecting to get top six minutes they will get a chance to see if their right. I'm not sure it all comes together for them this year, but this group is only getting better and should make this group a scary one for years.
This is a team that I would call very good, but I'm just not sure it's elite. They can do everything and are good everywhere but just don't have the feel of a New York Rangers or Pittsburgh Penguins. They are more then capable of making some noise in the East though, and it'll be interesting to see how much they can build on last years second round exit.
Projected Record: 28-16-4 (60 Points); 5th in Eastern Conference
#4 New Jersey Devils
Last Season: 48-28-6; 4th in Atlantic; 6th in Eastern Conference
Playoffs: Lost finals (4-2) v. Los Angeles Kings
Goals For: 228 (11th in NHL)
Goals Against: 209 (8th in NHL)
Coach: Peter DeBoer (151-135-42)
Top Scorers: F Ilya Kovalchuk (37-46-83); F Patrick Elias (26-52-78)
Starting Goaltender: G Martin Brodeur (31-21-4; 2.41 GAA; .908 SV%; 3 SO)
Key Acquisitions: N/A
Key Losses: F Alexei Ponikarovsky (Free Agent), F Zach Parise (Free Agent)
A team fresh off a Stanley Cup finals appearance brings back basically the same squad, minus their captain and best overall player Zach Parise. How much of an impact that has remains to be seen, and offense will have to come from a central group of guys. They still got a decent team however, and play their system perfectly. Not an elite group of talent but they really weren't last year either. If they get hot at the right time, they've done it before and experience won't be an issue.
Up front, there is now one true leader of this team and that is Kovalchuk. He stayed busy in Russia over the break and played spectacular hockey. Some seem a bit concerned he doesn't appear to be excited to be back, but he'll be fine. Elias will be counted upon heavily offensively, along with youngster Adam Henrique, Travis Zajac and thirty goal scorer David Clarkson. Elias is getting old, but if he can't replicate his 70+ point season mixed with the loss of Parise they could be in trouble. After that it is a collection of either journeymen forwards (Steve Bernier, Dainius Zubrus) or unproven guys such as Ryan Carter, Mattias Tedenby and Stephen Gionta.
The blue line for this team isn't bad. They do lack that solid number one, steady defenseman and they are somewhat limited offensively but this is defiantly the strength of this team. They retained Bryce Salvador, and he will probably see some time with Marek Zidlicky on the top pairing. After that, proven guys such as Andy Greene, Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder and former high pick Adam Larsson fill out what is a nice core of defensemen.
In net, what's there more to say about Martin Brodeur. Sure he's old, but he proved last year he can still play goaltender for a Stanley Cup caliber team and not hold them back. As long as he can stay healthy, he should be plenty rested, they should be fine in the crease. The one worry here is that with backup Johan Hedburg also near the end of his career who's gonna fill his shoes? Maybe they'll give Ottawa a call.
X-Factor: Where does Parise's production come from?
Losing a guy like Parise will hurt a team both on and off the ice, and where his offensive production is going to be replaced is now a big question. Elias shouldn't even be counted on to match last years total, so you can't get it from him, and the rest of the guys you could see scoring some goals you can't see really doing all much better then they did last year. I'm not really sure where it's coming from, so if they want to make another run another top six guy up front must be their first priority.
Even without Parise, this team should still see some playoff hockey this year. I don't think they have the firepower to hang with the big boys in the East, and a playoff series win would probably register as a surprise, but they'll win some games playing disciplined and smart hockey. Replacing Parise will be an issue they will need to address long term however.
Projected Record: 23-19-6 (52 Points); 8th in Eastern Conference
#5 New York Islanders
Last Season: 34-37-11; 5th in Atlantic; 14th in Eastern Conference
Playoffs: Did Not Qualify
Goals For: 203 (25th in NHL)
Goals Against: 255 (27th in NHL)
Coach: Jack Capuano (60-66-21)
Top Scorers: F John Taveras (31-50-81); F Matt Moulson (36-33-69)
Starting Goaltender: G Evgeni Nabokov (19-18-3; 2.55 GAA; .914 SV%; 2 SO)
Key Acquisitions: F Brad Boyes (Free Agent), D Matt Carkner (Free Agent), D Lubomir Visnovsky
Key Losses: F P.A. Parenteau (Free Agent), G Al Montoya (Free Agent)
To start, this is a young team and a young team that isn't a contending team at this point. Some nice pieces are in place, and Taveras seems to be a legit franchise cornerstone and Moulson has proven he can score and score a lot. After that, it is a team chalk full of youngsters that need to prove themselves at an NHL level. This should be another year in a long string of them dedicated to rebuilding and retooling for the future.
The forwards on this team have a ton of promise, of that much we can be certain. Taveras is still just 22 and growing and its scary the potential this kids got. After him and Moulson though things get murky, at least concerning this season. Frans Nielson, Kyle Okposo, Michael Grabner, Ryan Strome, Matt Martin and Nino Niederreiter form a young nucleus that they can really build around, but expecting them all to show up this year enough to get this team enough wins to contend in this division is a foolish expectation. Just got to be patient and let a group like this grow and they'll be dangerous in a couple years.
They have compiled a ton of talent up front, but the back end is a slightly different story. Mark Streit is a solid defenseman and one who can play in any situation but there really isn't much help after that. Travis Hamonic is someone you hear about as a guy who could grow into a top pairing guy but we'll have to see if that's true. Also, Lubomir Visnovsky deciding to stay home is a slap in the face to a team who invested a 2nd round pick to get him, but it sounds like the KHL will honor their agreement with the NHL and he wont get to stay so we'll see how that situation plays out.
In net, this team has been a disaster. They thought Rick Dipietro was the guy (if you don't believe me check the contract) but he clearly can't stay healthy enough or be consistent enough to be a true number one goaltender. They gave up on the Al Montoya project and let him go in free agency so Evgeni Nabokov enters the season as the number one goalie. His best years are behind him and he certainly isn't a long term option so they best start looking for a goalie of the future.
X-Factor: Can they lose enough?
They are a talented team, but not one that can compete with the best of the NHL. If I'm an Islanders fan, I'm really hoping they don't pull off an extra win or two in this short season and get a lower draft pick then expected. They've had to get worse to get better, and the formula is a proven winner so them losing now could mean a huge jump in their wins later. Another top pick to add to their defense will go a long way in getting those wins sooner rather then later.
Truthfully, this is a bad team. The worst in the east if you ask me so this could be a rough year to be an Islanders fan. They can score some but definitely not enough to make up for the amount of goals that they are most likely going to allow. But again just stay patient and it'll all pay off when you're the next Edmonton Oilers of the NHL.
Projected Record: 18-27-3 (39 Points); 16th in Eastern Conference
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Written by Jordan Adduono