NHL preview: Atlantic Division

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
2011-12 Record: 51-25-6 (4th place). Lost to Philadelphia (4-2) in conference quarterfinals.
Additions: F Brandon Sutter, F Tanner Glass, G Tomas Vokoun, D Dylan Reese
Subtractions: F Jordan Staal, F Steve Sullivan, D Zbynek Michalek, F Richard Park, F Arron Asham
Where We Last Left Off: Marc-Andre Fleury wilted in a first round, six-game playoff series loss to Philadelphia, allowing 26 goals. It was not a just ending to the season for Pittsburgh, a team that ended the year on a 30-8-2 run and finished one point behind the Rangers for first in the Atlantic Division (and the conference), yet were slotted into a Keystone State battle against a hungrier Philadelphia Flyers team.
2012-13 Outlook: Pittsburgh should be considered among the favorites to emerge from the East. Limited to 22 games, Sidney Crosby showed no ill effects of his various injuries upon his return last season and racked up 37 points to make up for lost time. He’s healthy (though fragile), but the game’s most skilled player should make sure the Hart Trophy remains in Pittsburgh. Reigning Hart Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin recorded 62 points in 36 KHL games with Mettalurg Magnitogorsk during the lockout. Brandon Sutter is an interesting third-line center and a player who should improve the Pens’ defensive play and improve an already-sturdy penalty kill. Defensively, Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik headline a physical top pairing, and there are some prospects to get excited about, including Simon Despres, Brian Dumoulin, and the creative offensive defenseman Joe Morrow, who nearly made the team as a 19-year-old last training camp. One of this group will need to make the leap, considering there are questions about the depth of the Penguins’ blue line after a season in which Paul Martin did little to stand out. In goal, Fleury should be better and will be pushed by Tomas Vokoun, whom GM Ray Shero signed as insurance. Winning the Atlantic must be a goal for Pittsburgh, a team that doesn’t want to fall any lower than fourth place in the Eastern Conference playoff seeding.

NEW YORK RANGERS
2011-12 Record: 54-21-7 (1st place). Defeated Ottawa (4-3) in conference quarterfinals, defeated Washington (4-3) in conference semifinals, lost to New Jersey (4-2) in conference final.
Additions: F Rick Nash, F Taylor Pyatt, F Arron Asham, F Jeff Halpern
Subtractions: F Brandon Dubinsky, F Artem Anisimov, D Tim Erixon, F Ruslan Fedotenko, F Brandon Prust
Where We Last Left Off: A potential Rangers dream season fell apart in a six-game loss to the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference Final, thus depriving Henrik Lundqvist a Stanley Cup to go along with his Vezina Trophy in the finest year of his career.
2012-13 Outlook: 2013 brings a much different set of circumstances for star center Rick Nash, who for the first time in his career will play for a team with lofty aspirations and mercifully has a supporting cast to ease his scoring burden. Marian Gaborik, who passed the 40-goal barrier for the third time in his career, had offseason shoulder surgery but should be at full speed for camp. Brad Richards has been a model of health in his career, missing only 48 games over 11 NHL seasons. His 82 games played a season ago marked the sixth time in his career (and first time since his Tampa Bay days) that he didn’t miss a game. A consistent scorer, Richards has 77 points in 83 career playoff games and won a Cup with the Bolts in 2004. There is heavy hype surrounding Chris Kreider, the 6-foot-3 Boston College prospect who celebrated his 21st birthday with an 18-game, 7-point playoff run. Carl Hagelin is one of the league’s best skaters and should be expected to strongly outperform his 38-point rookie campaign. Captain Ryan Callahan is a dependable center, Selke candidate and someone who embodies the Rangers’ two-way character and had a team-high 271 hits on a team that led the league in that category. There’s a lot to like about the way New York’s defensive corps plays in front of all-World goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. Ryan McDonagh took as big of a step forward as any defenseman in the league last year, racking up an impressive plus-25 rating in while averaging nearly 25 minutes of ice time a game. Unsigned RFA Michael Del Zotto provides some scoring punch (and some liability) from the blue line and should come to terms with the team soon, while Dan Girardi and Marc Staal excel as stay-at-home types. The status of Michael Sauer, sidelined since December 2011 from a concussion suffered on a Dion Phaenuf hit, is still up in the air. Though their penalty kill was among the best in the league a year ago, the power play can surely improve from its 23rd ranked 15.7 percent success rate. A team that has excellent goaltending, defense, special teams and plays well on the road, the Rangers are certainly capable of a long playoff run.

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
2011-12 Record: 47-26-9 (5th place). Defeated Pittsburgh (4-2) in conference quarterfinals, lost to New Jersey (4-1) in conference semifinals.
Additions: D Luke Schenn, F Ruslan Fedotenko, D Bruno Gervais
Subtractions: F Jaromir Jagr, F James van Riemsdyk, D Matt Carle, D Pavel Kubina, G Sergei Bobrovsky
Where We Last Left Off: After an epic six-game series win over rival Pittsburgh, Philadelphia fell flat in the second round against New Jersey, bowing out in five games.
2012-13 Outlook: Very few teams can boast such a dynamic crop of young forwards. Brayden Schenn, 21, Sean Couturier, 20, Wayne Simmonds, 24, Claude Giroux, 24, Jakub Voracek, 23 and Matt Read, 26, combined for 123 goals last year. Scott Hartnell finished second in the league with 16 power play goals and posted career highs of 37 goals, 30 assists and 67 points. It is clear that the Flyers, who ranked second in the league with 3.17 goals per game last year, can score. All the question marks for this talented team are on defense. Because of Chris Pronger’s concussion rehabilitation, Matt Carle’s departure for Tampa Bay, Andrej Meszaros’ Achilles surgery, Kimmo Timonen’s aging and the unsuccessful courtship of Shea Weber, the Flyers aren’t particularly loaded defensively. This is a problem for a team that pushes the tempo and does not have consistent goaltending. We’ve always loved the savvy Timonen, though the veteran who turns 38 in March referenced in September a loss of motivation should the NHL lockout drag on. Luke Schenn, Nicklas Grossman and Braydon Coburn are all rugged, stay-at-home types who will see a lot of minutes. There’s still plenty of improvement in Luke Schenn’s game after his time on ice dropped to a career-low 16:02 last season; he still finished with 270 hits, the seventh-most in the league. If he can anchor this defense, it will go a long way in making life easier for the mercurial Ilya Bryzgalov, who is a candidate to have his contract bought out next summer should his game in the net not improve. Bryzgalov is certainly capable of rebounding in 2013, though if his 2011-12 ups and downs continue, don’t be surprised to see Paul Holmgren take a long look at Los Angeles backup Jonathan Bernier. Roberto Luongo has also recently been linked to this team, something that could coincide with a Bryzgalov buyout.

NEW JERSEY DEVILS
2011-12 Record: 48-28-6 (6th place). Defeated Florida (4-3) in conference quarterfinals, defeated Philadelphia (4-1) in conference semifinals, defeated New York (4-2) in conference final, lost to Los Angeles (4-2) in Stanley Cup Final.
Additions: F Krys Barch, F Harri Pesonen
Subtractions: F Zach Parise, F Alexei Ponikarovsky, D Matt Taormina, F Eric Boulton
Where We Last Left Off: Martin Brodeur was proving there was still gas left in the tank, backstopping an offensively capable and traditionally stingy New Jersey Devils team all the way to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, a massive rebound that few had predicted after an 81-point 2010-11.
2012-13 Outlook: Goodbye, Zach Parise, and New Jersey’s likelihood of defending its Eastern Conference title. But there is Adam Henrique. Oh, how we love Henrique. The rookie winger displayed a steely, icy calm in developing into a reliable top-six forward by backing up his 51 regular season points with 13 in the playoffs, including overtime series-clinching tallies against Florida and the Rangers. The center, who will turn 23 two weeks into the season, can be expected to significantly add to his 16 goals from a season ago, potentially doubling that mark. Ilya Kovalchuk’s 37 goals and 83 points were welcome rebounds following a disappointing first full season in Newark and a points-per-game pace that he shouldn’t see much variation from. His 24:26 average ice time led all NHL forwards and finished a full 1:49 more than the next highest forward, Martin St. Louis of the Lightning. Patrik Elias enjoyed a career renaissance with a 78-point season as a 35-year-old, while David Clarkson emerged from his role as a depth forward to post his first career 30-goal season as a 27-year-old. Both will be challenged to replicate last year’s scoring pace. Adam Larsson will be the player to watch defensively. As a 19-year-old rookie, the fourth pick in the 2011 NHL Draft held his own as the season progressed before he was passed over by coach Peter DeBoer in favor of better options in the playoffs. He’ll enjoy more confidence in his sophomore season and is a candidate to lead the team in defensive scoring. Bryce Salvador – Bryce Salvador! – emerged as the most versatile of New Jersey’s defensemen in the playoffs, recording 14 points in 24 games, numbers that equaled or surpassed the point totals he recorded in nine of 10 full NHL seasons. Marek Zidlicky is the most offensively capable of all the defensemen but questionable in his own zone, while Anton Volchenkov is a compact, efficient hitter who squares up opponents well and blocks lots of shots. Brodeur turns 41 in May but signed a two-year contract extension in the offseason after being courted by several teams. He’ll rely on a stout defense in front of him, though should be expecting a few more one-goal games considering the offensive losses and potential regressions up front. Still, there’s a reason why there is a Devils blog titled “In Lou We Trust.” GM Lou Lamoriello has done more for his franchise than any other NHL executive over the last two decades, and for a team that cultivates and expects success every single year, any Devils drop-off in 2013 will be mitigated by his and DeBoer’s ability to continue to unearth, develop and get the most out of the franchise’s talent. Though it is concerning that assistant coaches Larry Robinson and Adam Oates left DeBoer’s side for other NHL jobs – Oates is now Washington’s head coach – this is a New Jersey team that shouldn’t fall heavily from grace and should still be able to navigate a way back into the playoff discussion.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS
2011-12 Record: 34-37-11 (14th place)
Additions: F Brad Boyes, F Eric Boulton, D Matt Carkner, D Lubomir Visnovsky (maybe)
Subtractions: F P.A. Parenteau, D Steve Staios, D Mark Eaton, D Milan Jurcina, G Al Montoya
Where We Last Left Off: The Isles scuffled to their 13th playoff omission in 17 seasons, finishing 28th in the league with a paltry 2.39 goals per game. They finished last in the Atlantic, missing the postseason by 13 points.
2012-13 Outlook: The shortened 2013 season should give us a better representation of the trajectory of the New York Islanders, a team that has not parlayed its favorable draft positioning into any recent success. Of their four first round picks between 2004 and 2008 (the team did not have a first round pick in 2007, having traded it along two former first round picks, Ryan O’Marra and Robert Nilsson for Ryan Smyth; Smyth left via free agency after playing in 18 games with the Islanders), the team has averaged the 11.75th pick of the draft. The four forwards taken – Petteri Nokelainen, O’Marra, Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey – have combined to average .41 points per game in their NHL careers, with Okposo doing much of the heavy lifting. It is still to be determined whether any of them can develop into a consistent first-line NHL forward, and Okposo’s success in making that leap may have some consequence on how the Islanders will fare this season. John Tavares, selected first overall in 2009, is entering his fourth season. The 22-year-old has seen his goals, assists and points rise in each of his first three NHL campaigns. He is a candidate to make the leap toward superstardom, and if he and Matt Moulson (97 goals his last three seasons) can weather the departure of P.A. Parenteau from their line, Tavares could be a darkhorse candidate for the Art Ross and Hart trophies. The jury is still out on all Islander draft picks since Tavares’ selection, with Nino Niederreiter (one goal in 55 games a season ago) needing to take a step forward in 2013. Oklahoman and 2010 US World Junior gold medalist Matt Donovan is likely to make the jump into heavy minutes on the Isles’ blue line after an encouraging AHL season a year ago. His well-rounded game contains some impressive offensive attributes, and with the potential addition of Lubomir Visnovsky to the back end, a power play that ranked eighth in the league a year ago should see continued success. Visnovsky, in a tug of war between the NHL and KHL, desires to remain in Slovakia. With versatile team captain Mark Streit eating up minutes as a 35-year-old, and the continued improvement of Travis Hamonic and Andrew MacDonald, barring much injury the Islanders should have a satisfactory top-four defensive pairing in front of Evgeni Nabokov. This is a team that should be ready to make some noise when they relocate to Brooklyn in 2015, but the offense is still too thin, and it would have to hit home runs on too many question marks to seriously challenge for any significant accomplishment this year. Battling for fourth place in the Atlantic against New Jersey appears to be Long Island’s immediate destiny.