Wait, is that really a Flyers logo on Jaromir Jagr's sweater? Photo Source: Alex Brandon/AP

The Rat Trick Division Preview: Atlantic Division

The 2011-12 season is quickly approaching. So we here at The Rat Trick decided to take a close look at each division and offer some insight of what to expect and offer some predictions as to what they will look like come April 2012. In today’s spotlight is the Atlantic Division.

One of the more intriguing division in the NHL last year, the Atlantic Division promises more of the same this upcoming season. The questions surrounding each team are many: How will the Philadelphia Flyers fare minus two of their top scorers (and their captain)? How healthy is Sidney Crosby? Is the addition of the biggest free agent from the off-season be enough to propel the New York Rangers to contender status? Are the New Jersey Devils ready to return to the postseason under former Florida Panthers coach Pete DeBoer? And will the arena issues in Nassau County have any effect on the psyche of the New York Islanders?

Philadelphia (47-23-12, 106 pts, t-1st) – To say the Flyers had an eventful off-season would be a tremendous understatement. After a second round sweep out of the playoffs by the Boston Bruins, GM Paul Holmgren decided changes were needed. In two separate deals, he sent his captain, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter packing in return for players, prospects (including top prospect Brayden Schenn and draft picks (one of which turned into another highly-regarded prospect Sean Couturier). That in and of itself is enough to turn heads, but that’s not where it stops. Prior to those deals, Holmgren paid an insane amount of rubles to goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to check out the parks of Philly. And just to make things a tad more interesting, former cross-state rival Jaromir Jagr was brought back from the KHL to the tune of a one year $3.3 million deal.

Whether you like the deals or not, you have to give Holmgren a modicum of credit for having the guts to make them. He certainly made the early part of summer a lot more interesting. Whether or not the moves make them more of a contender now than they were is up for debate. For the short-term, I think the Flyers take a step back. Losing two players who combined for 132 points (59 goals) is too much to not make a difference night in, night out. As far as Jagr, who knows what to expect? While one of the great all-time talents, he’s 39 and hasn’t seen NHL competition since 2008. And Bryzgalov was brought in to shore up the playoff goaltending, but he’s coming off two sub-par playoffs in Phoenix. The good news is that he’s as good as anyone the past two regular seasons, and he’ll one of the best defensive corps in front of him if Chris Pronger can stay healthy. This is still a good hockey team despite the losses. Schenn and newly-acquired Jakub Voracek and the continued emergence of James Van Riemsdyk will add some of the scoring that was lost but not enough to think of them as Cup contenders this season.

Pittsburgh (49-25-8, 106 points, t-1st) – Now that Pens coach Dan Bylsma knows he can win without superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, I’m sure he hopes he never has to do that again. Whether you like the Pens or not, you have to admire how well they played without their two best skaters, rallying to finish tied for first in the division. In terms of off-season moves, the Pens are the antithesis of the Flyers, banking on the health of Crosby and Malkin to give the team the desired boost. The biggest question of course is the healthy of Crosby who is still recovering from a concussion he received in January. The Pens will most assuredly take the utmost care regarding their franchise player, especially knowing that the team can hold their own in his absence. The good news is he is skating without symptoms and might even begin practicing soon.

The team could also use the James Neal who played so well in Dallas last season before coming over in trade and not the one who managed one goal in 20 games. If he can return to form, he gives them the scoring winger they’ve desired to play on the first line.

On the blueline, the team got a breakout season from Kris Letang, who exploded with 50 points (8 g, 42 a) to help offset any scoring losses from the front line. Defensively, this is one of the better corps in the league top to bottom who will only benefit from another season of playing better. They’ll, once again, play in front of Marc-Andre Fluery, who rebounded after a shaky start to finish with solid numbers. On his off-nights, the Pens didn’t lose much when they turned to Brent Johnson, who chipped in 13 wins, a 2.17 GAA, a .922 save % and knockout of Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro, whom he dropped like first-period Algebra.

And Matt Cooke? We won’t get into Matt Cooke.

New York Rangers (44-33-5, 93 points, 3rd) – There was only one huge name in the free-agent market this past off-season, and he turned down big money to play in Toronto for almost-as-big-money to be reunited with his former coach. Brad Richards inked a lucrative nine year deal to once again play under John Tortarella and help take the Rangers past the first round. With Richards expected to center the top line, there is hope in Gotham that it will lead to a monster season Marian Gaborik. Injuires and the lack of that elite center lead to a drop off from Gaborik last season, who dropped from 42 to 22 goals. If he’s healthy and playing with Richards, that total will go up significantly.

And credit where credit is due, GM Glen Sather has quietly done a good job building a solid core of forwards like like newly-named captain Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinksy (and re-signing both this past July) and adding some even younger players like Derek Stepan to compliment players like Gaborik and now, Richards.

The biggest question for this team is on defense. Marc Staal, the best player on the blueline is still suffering effects from a concussion and is a question mark for the season opener. After that, it’s a young group and while one would think the experience players such as Ryan McDonagh and Michael Sauer received last would make them better, it’s not a given. What really helps a young blueline? A netminder like Henrik Lundqvist, who posted one of his best seasons as a pro. There’s no reason to think he won’t be just as good this season.

New Jersey Devils (38-39-5, 81 points, 4th) – The Devils had one of the strangest seasons in recent memory, and not just because they weren’t in the playoffs. They went from a complete laughing stock for their start under John McLean to the most dangerous in hockey once Jacques Lemaire took over as coach in late 2010. The truth of where the team is this season is somewhere in between. There is still a lot of talent for new coach Pete DeBoer to play with but some of it is aging or coming off injury.

Ilya Kovalchuk had one of his worst seasons, despite still tallying 31 goals. Did I mention he signed for $102 million before last season? Patrik Elias, a cornerstone for the Devils forever, picked up his numbers from 2009-10 but is 35. He’ll need to have another solid year to help offset the loss of Travis Zajac, who underwent surgery to repair his left Achilles tendon and expected to miss the start of the season. But the injury news isn’t all bad, Zach Parise is expected to be 100% healthy (knee) after playing only 13 games last season. Parise is playing on a one year deal, so expect a huge year from him as he approaches free agency next summer.

Defense, once a strength of the Jersey franchise, isn’t such a strength anymore. There is help on the way as winning the draft lottery helped net top defenseman Adam Larsson, who is expected to make the team. Henrik Tallinder, Anton Volchenkov and Andy Greene are good players, but not spectacular. And in net, as always is Martin Brodeur, who is still capable of a shutout, just not as often as we’re used to seeing. It will be interesting to see how Marty and DeBoer mesh. DeBoer and Tomas Vokoun butted heads many times while in Florida, mostly regarding playing time. For right now, I hope Pete is renting.

New York Islanders (30-39-13, 73 points, 5th) – The Islanders are a team with some problems, the biggest of which is where they will play after 2014. And while there are still problems on the ice, the team should start reaping the benefits of drafting high every year. There is a solid group of forwards in place with John Tavares, Michael Grabner, Matt Moulson, Kyle Okposo along with newbies Nino Niederreiter and Ryan Strome. GM Garth Snow has done a great job building this core through the draft and claiming Grabner on waivers from Florida just prior to the start of last season.

This team will score goals, but can they keep it out of their own net? Back after missing all of last season with an injury is new-captain Mark Streit, which should help, but the blueline is still is still a major area of concern. Garth, you have enough offense, draft some D help! Goalie is just as a big of a question mark. Between Al Montoya, Rick DiPietro and Evgeni Nabokov, coach Jack Capuano must piece together a unit that will see a lot of rubber.

My prediction for the division looks like this…
2.New York Rangers
4.New Jersey
5.New York Islanders

Tomorrow, Patrick McLaughlin will preview the Northeast Division.

Thanks for reading! Any and all comments are greatly appreciated.

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Tags: Anton Volchenkov Atlantic Division Brad Richrds Brandon Dubinsky Brayden Shenn Brent Johnson Dan Bylsma Evgeni Malkin Florida Panthers Henrik Tallinder Ilya Bryzgalov Ilya Kovalchuk Jakub Voracek James Neal James Van Riemsdyk Jaromir Jagr Jeff Carter John Tavares Kris Letang Marc-andre Fluery Marian Gaborik Martin Brodeur Matt Moulson Michael Grabner Mike Richards New Jersey Devils New York Islanders New York Rangers Nino Niederreiter Patrik Elias Pete Deboer Philadelphia Flyers Pittsburgh Penguins Ryan Callahan Ryan Strome Sean Couturier Sidney Crosby

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