Monday, August 22, 2011

Making The Case For New York Rangers As Favorites In Atlantic Division

When looking at the Atlantic Division heading into the past few seasons the Penguins, Flyers and Devils have all been looked at as teams capable of winning the division while the New York Rangers were seen as a team that hoping to challenge for a playoff spot.  In looking ahead to the 2011-12 season that formula might be changing.  The combination of changes made or not made by each team and concerns about the health of key players for Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New Jersey, the New York Rangers might head into the season as the favorites in the division.  The Rangers are not without their own series of questions heading into the season, but at this point in the offseason they might have the fewest roster questions of any team in the division.  In projecting the division today, the Atlantic might shape out something like this…

New York Rangers:
The Rangers are not the most talented team in the division, but they might be the most complete in all three areas of the roster.  Boasting one of the NHL’s elite goaltenders in Henrik Lundqvist, a burgeoning defensive core filled with young talent coming into their own and an offense that added Brad Richards to help the offensive talent level and consistency there are less holes in the Rangers path to a division than the others in the Atlantic.  There are still plenty of question marks concerning how the forward units will shape out, chemistry questions, whether many of the players on the team can repeat last season’s performance and if others can rebound, but the depth the Rangers have might be their savior in those questions.  With Gaborik, Richards, Dubinsky, Callahan, Stepan, and Boyle the Rangers have six different players who scored 20+ goals last season along with Anisimov who had 18.  The balance they could have in goal production along with their system which has everyone playing defensively responsible hockey should allow the team to avoid lulls that turn into losing streaks during the year, if healthy.

New York squeaked into the playoffs last season despite a down year from their best offensive player Marian Gaborik, despite being without Ryan Callahan for 22 games and all the other injuries they faced.  A rebound season from Gaborik, health from Callahan and typical Brad Richards production and the Rangers offense will no longer be their concern.  Combine that with the steady presence they get from Lundqvist, Staal and Girardi in their own end and it could be a dangerous combination.  The biggest question left might be about the defense corps where Michael Sauer and Ryan McDonagh had excellent rookie campaigns and need to repeat while Michael Del Zotto attempts to get back him form and Tim Erixon looks to win a job as a rookie.

For most of the summer Pittsburgh should have been considered the favorite in the division considering what Dan Bylsma managed to get out of his team without stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the lineup for much of the year.  However, last week the Penguins admitted that Crosby is still having symptoms from his concussion and while he is still training the fact that he is still having symptoms from his January concussion(s) and so close to training camp has to be seen as a red-flag in expectations for his performance and availability this season.  Malkin coming off a reconstructed knee is no guarantee either, but that has a much cleaner track record than concussions.  Questions about those two and what they will produce for the Penguins this season will put pressure on Marc-Andre Fleury to carry them as he did for long stretches last season.

The Flyers dismantling of what was once seen as the core of their team leaves serious question marks as to what they are going to do this season.  Brayden Schenn is the best prospect in hockey, but that does not mean he is ready to step in and fill Mike Richards production in their lineup.  Neither is Jakub Voracek for Jeff Carter.  The addition of Jaromir Jagr is interesting to see what he has left, but relying on him as a top line player at this stage in his career is probably unfair to Jagr.  There are also questions about the health of Chris Pronger who missed significant stretches last season.  The Flyers improved in goal with Bryzgalov, but the level of improvement between the pipes is not offset by what they lost, short term, offensively.  In order for them to contend in the division they will need huge seasons from Briere and Giroux who are both capable of them, and James Van Riemsdyk is going to have to take his playoff performance and translate it to a huge third season.

New Jersey:
The New Jersey Devils are not as bad as they were at the low points last season and not nearly as good as the tremendous hot streak they went on to build playoff hopes.  The achilles injury to Travis Zajac last week certainly does not help a team that was already thin down the middle.  A motivated Ilya Kovalchuk, and Zach Parise looking to prove he is healthy and worth a huge contract next summer are dangerous quantities to have on your roster, but it is not enough to put the Devils into serious contention for the division as an aging Brodeur looks to prove there is something left in the tank.

New York Islanders:
Each season it seems that the Islanders are expected to take another step back to respectability and then something goes horrifically wrong and they fail again.  This season their young core is going to get even more young talent added to it in hopes of getting back into contention for a playoff birth.  Likely adding at least Nino Niederreiter and Calvin DeHaan to John Tavares, Matt Moulson, Michael Grabner, Kyle Okposo, Mark Streit and Travis Hamonic gives the Islanders reason for optimism about the upcoming season.  Questions remain around their goaltending and whether the young players will transition more like Tavares did or more like Josh Bailey who was rushed and has yet to reach that potential.  Things are looking up, but not nearly enough to contend in the division.