Surprise may lurk in Atlantic murk
There sure are a lot of questions floating in the Atlantic: Will the Penguins be as formidable after bleeding free agents all summer? Will Simon Gagne be healthy enough to put the Flyers over the top? Can the Devils win with a nondescript blueline corps? Can the Islanders win without scoring? Oh, yeah. The Rangers. Just about everyone except the goaltender should wear a question mark on his blueshirt rather than a number.
Amid all that uncertainty, here's my take on the division, with teams ranked in order of predicted finish:
2007-08 RECORD: 42-29-11 -- 95 points; fourth in Atlantic; lost conference finals to Pittsburgh
KEY ADDS: Arron Asham (New Jersey), Glen Metropolit (Boston), Steve Eminger (Washington), Ossi Vaananen (Colorado)
KEY LOSSES: R.J. Umberger (Columbus), Jason Smith (Ottawa), Derian Hatcher (injured reserve, likely retirement), Jesse Boulerice (free agent)
STRENGTHS: Forward depth
GM Paul Holmgren has done a magnificent job building what could emerge as the East's best offense. The deep and balanced group features an astonishing eight first-rounders, and while leading scorer Mike Richards couldn't crack the NHL's top 20 scoring list, he was one of seven Flyers with at least 20 goals. The Flyers averaged 2.99 per game last season (sixth overall), but should top that mark with the addition of Simon Gagne, the two-time 40-goal man who returns after missing most of last season with post-concussion syndrome.
Martin Biron brought stability to a position that doomed the Flyers to a last-place finish the prior season, but he was hardly a savior between the pipes. His numbers were middle of the road and, disturbingly, they worsened during the playoffs, a time when commitment to team defense usually improves a goalie's stats. The backup situation offers little reassurance, with Antero Niittymaki and third-string spare J-S Aubin both struggling with injuries. If the Flyers have a thermal exhaust port ready to be exploited, this is it.
MVP: Simon Gagne
Yeah, I'm a sucker for a great comeback story, and maybe that's coloring this call just a little bit. But Gagne, who returned to the ice last Saturday after eight months on the sidelines, has proven that he can be a special player, having scored 88 goals over his last two full seasons. If healthy, he'll not only be an elite sniper, but a force around which this team can rally.
ROOKIE TO WATCH: Claude Giroux
After netting 51 points in just 19 QMJHL playoff games last season, the shifty winger was considered a good bet to crack the Flyers lineup. But a late start to camp (the result of oral surgery) led to some lackluster play. Now Giroux is likely ticketed to start the season in the AHL. At some point though, he's bound to get a call-up. The eventual successor to Gagne, he'll be worth watching when he gets his chance.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Steve Downie
It's one thing to establish yourself as a physical presence. It's another thing entirely to go all Naomi Campbell. Downie earned a rep as a world-class nutjob -- and a 20-game suspension -- after delivering a flying elbow to the pumpkin of Dean McAmmond in preseason last year. That brain lapse essentially cost him his first NHL season, and while he eventually returned to play 32 games, he wasn't quite the same. To be a success, Downie has to skate a thin line. If he plays it just this side of the rule book, and makes the most of his offensive instincts, he could score 20 goals and become a significant part of this team.
BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: Last season's run to the conference finals has the Philly faithful believing that the Flyers can emerge as the East's top team. They might be right. This is a well-balanced, smartly-coached squad with more depth than primary rivals Pittsburgh and Montreal. That'll be the difference.
2007-08 RECORD: 47-27-8 --102 points, first in Atlantic; won Eastern conference; lost to Detroit in Stanley Cup Final
KEY ADDS: Miroslav Satan (NY Islanders), Ruslan Fedotenko (NY Islanders), Matt Cooke (Washington), Eric Godard (Calgary)
KEY LOSSES: Marian Hossa (Detroit), Ty Conklin (Detroit), Ryan Malone (Tampa Bay), Gary Roberts (Tampa Bay), Jarkko Ruutu (Ottawa), Georges Laraque (Montreal), Adam Hall (Tampa Bay)
STRENGTHS: The best 1-2 punch in hockey
In Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Pens arguably boast two of the top three forwards in the game. In 135 games last season, the pair combined for 71 goals and 178 points. Their comfort levels will be challenged by the loss of familiar wingers and a transition game that will struggle due to the injuries to Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney. But Crosby and Malkin are hockey's premier do-it-yourselfers, so 200 points from the pair is a conservative estimate.
WEAKNESSES: A decimated defense
Earlier this summer, it looked as though the loss of Hossa, Malone and Ruutu --their top three left wingers -- would be the biggest issue heading into the season. When you're counting on Islanders castoffs like Satan and Fedotenko to take their place, you can consider the bottom of the barrel duly scraped. But that situation pales next to the long-term loss of the Pens' top two blueliners. Gonchar is out four-six months after should surgery. Whitney was sidelined three months after foot surgery in August. That puts considerable pressure on a group led by Brooks Orpik, Hall Gill, Kris Letang and Mark Eaton that looks maybe a notch better than the result of an expansion draft.
MVP: Sidney Crosby
A new league advertising campaign centers on Crosby's disappointment over falling short in last spring's Cup Final. It's a novel approach, and one that should be taken at face value by the rest of the league. Sid enters the season highly motivated for redemption. You can pencil him in for his second scoring championship.
ROOKIE TO WATCH: Janne Pesonen
The leading scorer in the Finnish circuit last season, Pesonen brings some skill to the port side. At 26, he has the experience to step in immediately, although there are concerns about his lack of size reducing his effectiveness. He'll likely start out on a depth line, but could move up to a more prominent role as he becomes acclimated to life in the NHL.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Miroslav Satan
A 16-goal, 41-point season in a contract year rendered Satan a reclamation project rather than a coveted free agent. The Pens were in a bind, and so he not only got a generous deal, he won the Crosby sweepstakes. Lining up next to the kid, Satan's in line for a 30-goal, 75-point comeback campaign.
BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: The long-term absence of Gonchar and Whitney and the evaporated forward depth will cost the Pens precious points in the early going, preventing them from keeping up with the Flyers in the division race. When everyone's healthy, though, the playoffs will be another matter.