2010-11 NHL Preview: Atlantic Division

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It’s that time of year again!!! The air is getting colder, and the sweaters are coming out.  The hockey sweaters that is.  From now until Opening Day of the NHL 2010 season, look out for new division previews, new in depth team outlooks, and big predictions and prognostications of the glorious season to come.  Today, we take a look at the Atlantic Division, and what to expect this season.

By Bryan Vickroy

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1. Philadelphia Flyers

2009-10 Record:  41-35-6       2009-10 Leading Scorer:  Mike Richards, C (31-31-62)

Offense

The Flyers are deep, physical, and surprisingly skilled with the puck.  They want to fly into the offensive zone and make the other team uncomfortable.  This team can play with anyone even strength, short handed, and most definitely with the man advantage.  They will score a lot of goals, but they come in bursts.  Must find reliable scorers beyond the top line to change the outcome this year.

Defense

One of the top units in the league, with size and experience to match.  While they won’t put up huge point totals, they aren’t afraid to jump into a play and push it at the offensive end.  They don’t play passively in their own end, and some added depth this year will take some of the wear and tear off of veterans like Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen.

Goalies

Michael Leighton sort of stumbled into the job of hero last spring, and proceeded to milk his playoff run into a new contract.  While he may be making some more money now, he isn’t guaranteed to be the starter for sure.  Brian Boucher is still on the team, and seems to get hot whenever he gets a chance.  They were able to get into the playoffs with their patch working last year, so the Flyers will roll the dice once more and hope for at least the same outcome.

Top Player:  Chris Pronger, D. The best defenseman in the game, hands down.  Pronger will get huge minutes every night, and flat out deny the other teams best players.  A deadly shot while even strength and on the power play.  Look for him to be in the discussion for yet another Norris Trophy.  The man may play forever, and still be worth the paycheck.  He was brought in to win a Stanley Cup, and he looks to make good on his promise.

Breakout Star:  Claude Giroux, C.  Giroux made his presence known last year on the Flyers playoff run to the Cup Finals. Expect him to make another leap this season.  While I was listening to the Wild play Philly the other day, the Flyers’ broadcaster mentioned that Giroux was looking more like Peter Forsberg every day.  I tweeted Star Tribune and Wild guru Michael Russo this statement, thinking the man had lost it.  Russo tweeted back (hell and yes to me!) that he would indeed be a star.  Case closed in my book

Outlook

Last season was quite the roller coaster for the Broad Street Bullies.  From underachiever to sneaking into the playoffs to the goaltending carousel to the Stanley Cup Finals left this team worn out by the end.  Look for them to be more stable this season, as long as they can keep a goalie healthy and in net.  Best case scenario has the Flyers showing the dominance of late spring all season long, and taking another crack at Lord Stanley’s Cup.  Worst case has the injuries and uninspired play catch up to them, holding them out of the dance this go round.

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2. Pittsburgh Penguins

2009-10 Record:  47-28-7       2009-10 Leading Scorer:  Sidney Crosby, C (51-58-109)

Offense

The offensive unit brings back just about everyone up top.  But this team will live and die by Crosby and Malkin.  Malkin looks to return to form now that he’s healthy.  While the rest of the group isn’t all that flashy, this team will play both ways and still finish top 5 in goals per game.  Possibly the most scary situation in the NHL is the Penguins stacking their two superstars on one line when it matters.

Defense

The Pens were never known for their elite blueliners, but winning a Cup gives veteran experience that other teams coveted.  So out with the old and in with the new free agents.  Pittsburgh brought in a few veterans like Paul Martin, players who haven’t won a ring yet and seek the glory, and will plug them into the top spots.  They will be stronger defensively, which is good after giving up the third most goals per game.  However, don’t expect a lot of offensive production from these guys.

Goalies

Marc Andre Fleury has established himself as a Cup champion and a proven winner.  However, he still has a bad habit of giving up early goals, falling behind, and getting yanked.  Or giving up fluff goals.  Brent Johnson is the man who will get relief duty, and around 20 starts throughout the year.  If Flower has his head in the game from the start, things are all good in Steeltown.

Top Player:  Sidney Crosby, C.  Despite my despising of his whining, his lack of true artistry with the puck, and the fact that the league has pushed him down our throats like the second coming of the Great One. Or at least the Messiah.  Check that, the Messier.  Despite all that, Crosby managed to step his game up in terms of scoring, and no one can doubt the magical past 16 months Sid the Kid has enjoyed.

Breakout Star:  Alex Goligoski, D.  A product of the State of Hockey, Goligoski will get a chance to show his skills with all the turnover at the back end.  Quick and a deft passer, he may even get a chance to quarterback the power play.

Outlook

After something of a hangover season, Pittsburgh can finally understand what has happened to them.  They won another championship, secured their superstars of the future, and finally got the new arena that’s been needed since the Igloo suffered all that damage in Sudden Death at the hands of Van Damme.  It’s been a wild ride, and looks to continue to stay good this winter in Pittsburgh with both the Steelers and Penguins.  Best case has them back in the chase for the Cup to christen Consol Energy Center.  Worst case has their defense faltering again, the offense unable to keep pace, and a tumble down the playoff seedings.

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3. New York Rangers

2009-10 Record:  38-33-11     2009-10 Leading Scorer:  Marian Gaborik, RW (42-44-86)

Offense

New York has finally begun developing some of its own scoring power from within, and it’s paid dividends in terms of having to pay scoring stars.  But the Dolans continue to be ridiculous and spend just to spend.  Your welcome Gabby and Boogaard.  If Gaborik can stay healthy, he will net 50.  Youngsters like Ryan Callahan are grinding out goals.  This group has the skill to score a lot; it just has to stay healthy, focused, and interested.

Defense

The defenseman for the Rangers are nothing to write home about, or write about in general.  Matt Gilroy slumped, and the young talent doesn’t exist in the pipeline.  With Henrik Lundqvist behind them, they don’t have to work as hard as some other teams.  But they also aren’t much of a threat to add anything in the way of points.

Goalies

Henrik Lundqvist is the workhorse for the Blueshirts, and will continue to do so this year.  Whether his heavy work load has weighed on him at the end of the year or not, he won’t have to do quite so much work in the regular season.  Look for Martin Biron to get more starts so that Lundqvist will be fresh come April.

Top Player:  Marian Gaborik, RW.  Gabby did the two things he’s known best for his first year on Broadway; score goals and get injured.  Gaborik still managed to lead the team at the end of the year, and if he can stay healthy is a near certain 50 goal scorer.

Breakout Star:  Derek Stepan, C.  It took until mid summer for Stepan to finally decide to sign with the Rangers and forgo the rest of his Badger career.  So far it looks like a good move.  He has been strong in the preseason, and if he doesn’t make the team going into the season, he will be a quick call up who will bring instant offense and a gift for the power play.

4. New Jersey Devils

2009-10 Record:  48-27-7       2009-10 Leading Scorer:  Ilya Kovalchuk, LW (41-44-85)

Offense

After finally getting a contract that everyone could agree on, Ilya Kovalchuk will be in Jersey for a full season, and many years beyond.  While the results weren’t quite ideal last spring, Ilya is one of the most feared scorers in the game, and allows the team to throw out two scoring lines that will actually score.

Defense

This is a group who has been schooled for years in the trap and protecting your own end before all else.  With the team looking to push the gas a little more on the offensive end, expect occasional breakdowns and breakaways while they settle into form.  Otherwise, a sturdy unit who always has a brick wall behind it to rely on. The top group of Tallinder and Volchenkov have been imported to give experience to the back end.

Goalies

All time leader in everything Martin Brodeur will turn 39 this year.  The last few years have finally seen injuries catching up with him.  If he still has his old form, this team will contend like always.  If he begins to falter or breaks down again, Johan Hedberg has been imported to back things up.

Top Player:  Zach Parise, LW.  While Kovalchuk may get all the headlines and dollar bills, Parise is by far the more complete player, with just as much offensive ability.  He works the puck with ease, and can rush end to end, breaking up odd man rushes, and leading breakouts to goals.

Breakout Star:  David Clarkson, RW.  While no longer a relative youngster, this big forward has a mean streak to him, and some skill to match.  He will be paired up with one of the superstars, providing both protection and production.

Outlook

This team has plenty of firepower, and will be a threat to win every game.  There are plenty of questions though.  Can Martin Brodeur continue to play and stay healthy all year?  Will Ilya Kovalchuk fit in over a full season without disruption?  Best case scenario has the Devils fighting for the division title, and overall top spot in the East.  Worst case has injuries or age catching up to Marty, a system change that doesn’t quite catch on, or an unhappy, rich Russian sniper and fail to even make it to the postseason.

5. New York Islanders

2009-10 Record:  34-37-11     2009-10 Leading Scorer:  John Tavares, C (24-30-54)

Offense

John Tavares had a remarkable rookie season after being the #1 pick in 2009.  The key to this team will be if he hits a sophomore slump or continues on to becoming a 50 goal scorer.  If he keeps up his scoring touch, it will be up to the other top ten picks in the lineup.  Kyle Okposo is already out indefinitely following shoulder surgery.  These players must mature and find a consistent scoring touch in order to get back into the playoff picture.

Defense

Mark Streit has proven himself to be one of the elite blueliners in the game.  Beyond Streit, this group is mostly young and unproven.  The Isles like to attack at the offensive end, so this group might be face with quite a few odd man rushes throughout the season.

Goalies

Rick DiPietro was the first of the now questionable “lifetime” contracts handed out in the NHL.  The Islanders sadly haven’t gotten the production that they will continue to pay for.  DiPietro has yet to stay completely healthy, and that will be a question mark that will constantly lurk for this team. If DiPietro finds himself on the sideline, look for Dwayne Roloson to step in and defend.

Top Player:  John Tavares, C. Breakout Star:  Blake Comeau, RW

Outlook

This team has the talent up and down the roster to be special.  Without the threat of the team moving for a couple years, the fans have a chance to come out and see this team bud.  In terms of this year, the best thing they have going for them is that they play in the Eastern Conference.  Best case scenario has them squeaking into the playoffs and staying healthy.  Worst case has them continuing to struggle with their growth and remaining at the top of the 2011 Draft.

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Bryan Vickroy has an addiction to hockey, and is willing to partake in all its forms.  He is skating extra shifts this season, covering the Minnesota Wild, the NHL, and NCAA hockey all year long.  Look for new articles throughout the week.  He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bryanvickroy/ If you’d prefer to speak in more than 140 characters at a time to him, he can be reached at bryan.vickroy@gmail.com

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