With the four best teams in the conference last year, the Atlantic division was a battle right until the end. The Rangers were the surprise champions but the Devils ended up having the last laugh in the playoffs. This is what I see happening this year:
New Jersey Devils
In - Krystofer Barch
Out - Zach Parise, Alexi Ponikarovsky
The Devils were THE surprise team from last season. If someone told you the Kings would win the Cup last offseason, it would have been plausible. If someone told you the Devils would be within 2 games of the Stanley Cup, you would have called them insane. New Jersey has been ignoring media expectations for years and has been able to continuously ice a competitive team even after the lockout - but I think next year will be a down one for the Devils. They lost their heart and soul (and captain) in Zach Parise, and have done nothing to get it back. Yes, they still have high end talent up front in Elias and Kovalchuk to go with a young, exciting and apparently clutch player in Adam Henrique. A healthy Zajac will also do wonders to replacing Parise's production, but none of these players can replace the drive and passion he brings to the game.
Not only did the Devils strike out in acquiring offensive talent this offseason, but they also have not done anything to stabilize their net presence. Brodeur had a fantastic year last season and I am the first to admit I did not see it coming, but with the oldest goaltending tandem in the league these net minders are on their last legs. If Brodeur returns to his 2011 form they are in trouble. With some nice defenders in Zidlicky, Volchenkov, Greene and the promising Larsson, the Devils are in good shape on the blue line if they can stay healthy. However, in a strong division with the amount of question marks they have, I see the Devils on the outside looking in by a small margin next year.
Why they'll make it - Great goaltending, someone on offense (I'm looking at you, Mattias Tedenby) steps up
Why they'll miss - Parise left too big a hole, aging core comes up short
New York Islanders
In - Lumbomir Visnovsky (pending), Brad Boyes, Matt Carkner
Out - P.A. Parenteau, Milan Jurcina, Al Montoya, Jay Pandolfo
The Islanders are one of my dark horse teams in the East. If their players perform to their potential they have a chance to make some noise next year, but I feel their tough division will keep them out of the playoffs. Look for John Tavares to break out, finishing in the top 5 for scoring. He will carry the team offensively, but they will also need big years out of underachievers like Okposo and Bailey, as well as continued production from Grabner and Moulson if they want to strike fear in the opposition up front.
Garth Snow legitimized the defense when he traded for Lubomir Visnovsky, although the move is still pending and could fall through. The also have a mini Shea Weber in Travis Hamonic and the experienced Mark Streit to shoulder the load. Calvin De Haan should compete for a position this year after being picked 12th overall with his buddy Tavares in 2009. It is always an adventure in goal on the Island, but Nabokov is still a good goaltender and should be a sufficient stop gap until DiPietro gets healthy or they fix the problem in another way. For now, the Islanders are a good young team with some nice pieces, but I just don't see them getting over the hump quite yet.
Why they'll make it - Stay healthy and players play up to their potential.
Why they'll miss - Too many green players playing prominent roles.
New York Rangers
In - Rick Nash, Arron Asham, Jeff Halpern, Taylor Pyatt
Out - Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Ruslan Fedotenko, Brandon Prust, John Mitchell
The Rangers made one of the biggest splashes in the league when they traded for Rick Nash in late July. Glen Sather worked his magic again when he landed the star winger for Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov and Tim Erixon. It's always nice as a GM when you can trade depth for elite talent. Without losing any impact player on their lineup, Sather seems to have made a 1st place team even better. Nash joins an impressive list of forwards in Ryan Callahan, Marian Gaborik, and Brad Richards, complimented with talented youngsters like Derek Stepan, Carl Hagelin and Chris Kreider. The signings of Pyatt, Halpern and Asham really solidify the team's bottom 6 and should fill the void of any lost presence left by the Anisimov and Dubinsky departures.
The Ranger blue line remains in tact, and one of the deepest in the league. Staal, McDonagh, Girardi and Del Zotto all play their role to perfection and are still improving. I know Bickel isn't the best option as a #6 defenseman, but if that is my biggest weakness on paper, I'm a happy camper. Add these already big names to a team led by the best goaltender in the world (well, top 2 with Rinne at least) in Henrik Lundqvist and you have a team built for success. Needless to say, I like this Ranger team top to bottom, including their coaching staff and front office. I would emulate a lot of their philosophies on the game if I were to run a team (it also helps when you have all the cash in the world). They fooled me once when they were a first place team last year, and I do not get fooled twice. I have the Rangers once again in tops of the conference, and if I were a Ranger fan anything less than a Stanley Cup final appearance would be a let down with the amount of talent on paper. Stranger things have happened though.
Why they'll make it - 1st place team last year that only improved
Why they'll miss - Injury bug takes out at least 3 star players
In - Luke Schenn, Ruslan Fedotenko, Bruno Gervais
Out - Jaromir Jagr, James VanRiemsdyk, Matt Carle, Pavel Kubina
After being a part of one of the most exciting series (with the least amount of defense) in last year's playoffs, I'm not sure that either Pennsylvanian team improved this offseason. The Flyers watched as veteran star Jaromir Jagr signed in Dallas and Matt Carle followed the money to Tampa, and have done little to mend these holes. They also traded former 2nd overall pick James VanRiemsdyk to the Leafs for Luke Schenn and lost more offense in the process. I'm not convinced that Luke Schenn will be able to have a complete 180 in his play immediately next season especially under the offensive system Laviolette employs. I think a full year under Randy Carlyle would have done much more for Schenn's development, though I still think he will have a much better year in his new environment (plus playing with his brother should help).
The Flyers still boast one of the best lineups in the East, led by the immensely talented Claude Giroux. For a little man, he shoulders a lot of pressure as the leader of this team and only knows how to thrive under it. Though they lost some size up front, they still have enough sand paper in Wayne Simmonds and Scott Hartnell. Look for Jakub Voracek to replace Jagr on the top line and have a break out season. On the back end, it is more than likely (especially after the Schenn trade) that they will have to go without their captain Chris Pronger as his career is likely - and sadly - over. Timonen is still a very underrated force and a great #2 Dman; amd with Cobourn, Mezaros and Grossman they should be fine on the back end even if it isn't their strength. Bryzgalov is the X factor for this team and they need him to regain his form and stay consistent if they want to see success. As of now, I have the Flyers finishing right around where they did last season, anywhere from 4-6.
Why they'll make it - Talent throughout their lineup, have one of the top players in the game in Giroux
Why they'll miss - Recurring concussions continue to haunt them, forcing young players like Schenn and Couturier to step up, poor goaltending
In- Brandon Sutter, Benn Ferriero, Tomas Vokoun
Out - Jordan Staal, Steve Sullivan, Zbynek Michalek, Arron Asham, Brent Johnson
As I mentioned in the Flyers section, the Penguins seem like another team that have downgraded heading into next year. They had their hands tied with the Staal situation and I certainly don't blame them for getting something for him now rather than losing him for nothing next offseason. I like Brandon Sutter, but he is slightly behind Staal defensively and cannot replace his presence on the ice or his offensive creativity. The move I found bizarre was shipping out Zbynek Michalek for a draft pick. The Pens have probably the best crop of defensive prospects in the league, but it remains to be seen if anyone is ready for full time action in the big league. For a team that has the ability to make noise and win now, it was a downgrade in a position that was already the squad's biggest weakness (and it showed up in the playoffs). Paul Martin will have to rebound and Letang stay healthy if the team wants to prevent pucks from going in their net.
Sidney Crosby starting the season healthy will obviously provide a boost for the club, as it would for any team that had the best player in the game. The addition of Vokoun was an interesting one as it showed Ray Shero's faith (or lack thereof) in goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, and provides them with a very nice backup option in case he falters. The Pens will have no problem scoring goals and should have a successful year, finishing right around where they did last year with Philly in the middle of the pack (but perhaps the 2nd or 3rd best team in the conference). With their question marks regarding team defense, I don't expect them to make much noise in the playoffs.
Why they'll make it - High end talent, with 2 of the best centers in the game and Letang to boot
Why they'll miss - Lack of team defense, Malkin and Crosby never stay healthy at the same time
This is how I see the seeding next year for the Atlantic Division:
New York Rangers
New Jersey Devils
New York Islanders
With the top 3 teams making it to the dance.