2009-10 Atlantic Division preview
The Flyers can contend for the Cup as long as Ray Emery doesn't melt down in net
The Penguins will be prey to Cup hangover while the Devils surprise, as usual
Marian Gaborik is all that separates the Rangers from a cellar date with the Isles
Here's how I see tme shaking out, in predicted order of finish:
2008-09 RECORD: 44-27-11, 99 points, third in Atlantic
FRESH FACES: Chris Pronger (Anaheim), Ray Emery (Russia), Brian Boucher (San Jose), Ian Laperriere (Colorado), Ole-Kristian Tollefsen (Columbus), Jason Ward (Tampa Bay)
OTHER PLACES: Mike Knuble (Washington), Joffrey Lupul (Anaheim), Luca Sbisa (Anaheim), Martin Biron (NY Islanders), Antero Niittymaki (Tampa Bay), Derian Hatcher (retired)
STORYLINE: The rich get richer and the mean get meaner. You may not like the Flyers, but you have to respect the courage of their convictions. They've defined the style they want to play and they pursue athletes who fit the mold. Pronger, the prize in the summer's biggest blockbuster, has always played as though he were wearing orange and black. Still a miserable S.O.B at 35, he brings his patented blend of skill and menace to what should be the best blueline in the East. Depth additions Laperierre and Tollefsen have no aversion to getting their knuckles bloody, and Emery may be the most willing pugilist to mind the twine since Philly legend Ron Hextall. Of course, he's being paid to repel scoring chances, not encroaching forwards, and there's little margin for error. After expelling both Biron and Niittymaki over the summer, the Flyers put their Cup dreams in the hands of the volatile Emery and Boucher, a fair backup but not someone who can carry a team for an extended period when the No. 1 goes down. It's a risky move that could backfire, but you can bet the Flyers won't go down without a fight.
MVP: Mike Richards. Years ago, Russian coaching legend Anatoli Tarasov called Bob Gainey the best all-around player in the world. If Tarasov were alive today, he might bestow the same honor on Richards. After a breakthrough season that saw him score 30 goals among 80 points, Richards offers a proven blend of offensive creativity, disciplined physical play and defensive awareness that can't be matched.
KID TO WATCH: James van Riemsdyk. "You have to hand it to the kid," a scout told SI.com. "There was a roster that looked like it had no room and he just forced his way onto it. They've really got a player there." JVR earned his spot, likely on the third line, with his willingness to battle for possession and a knack for finishing chances in tight. He still has to work on his play away from the puck, but his apparent desire to make the effort has won the trust of the coaching staff.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Ray Emery. Literally. You never know what this guy's going to do. After burning bridges in Ottawa, the netminder spent a season in exile in the KHL where he excelled on the ice (22-8, 2.12 GAA), but added new chapters to his legacy of troubles. Physically, there's little doubt he can carry the load for a contender. Emotionally? That's the gray area in which Philly's Cup dreams will live or die.
BOTTOM LINE: On paper, they Flyers boast what could be the league's most balanced and talented team, top to bottom. Anything less than a trip to the conference final would be a grim failure.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
2008-09 RECORD: 51-27-4, 106 points, first in Atlantic
FRESH FACES: Coach Jacques Lemaire, Rob Niedermayer (Anaheim), Yann Danis (NY Islanders), Ben Walter (NY Islanders), Andrew Peters (Buffalo), Cory Murphy (Florida)
OTHER PLACES: Brent Sutter (Calgary), Brian Gionta (Montreal), John Madden (Chicago), Bobby Holik (retired), Scott Clemmensen (Florida), Michael Rupp (Pittsburgh), Barry Tallackson (St. Louis), Kevin Weekes (retired), Niclas Havelid (Sweden), Brendan Shanahan (released)
STORYLINE: Does the return of Lemaire signal a rebirth of the dreaded Trappist Wonks (tip of the cap to Kevin Dupont)? Don't count on it. The new/old coach swears he's reformed and while this group obviously lacks the firepower to run and gun, Lemaire promises they won't spend the season in a defensive shell. Instead, he's looking for consistent intensity, appropriate aggression and a mindfulness of defense. What's that mean exactly? We'll see when New Jersey hits the ice. Just do yourself a favor: don't pigeon-hole Lemaire and do not underestimate the Devils.
MVP: Zach Parise. The Devils proved last season that they could win without Martin Brodeur between the pipes, but it's hard to imagine them generating enough offense to compete without the wily Parise leading the charge. If he takes a step back from the 45 goals and 94 points he registered in 2008-09, New Jersey will be hard pressed to compensate for the loss of Gionta and an extended shelving of Patrik Elias (groin surgery).
KID TO WATCH: Nicklas Bergfors. After four years of doing nothing to prove himself worthy of being a first-round pick (23rd overall, 2005), Bergfors may finally have earned a job in New Jersey with a strong finish to camp. The undersized winger has yet to display the scoring touch that first caught the eye of Devils' scouts, but he's developed into a reliable two-way player who can be a presence along the boards despite an obvious lack of size.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Martin Brodeur. He's three shutouts away from breaking Terry Sawchuk's all-time mark (103) and out for a little redemption after last spring's shocking playoff meltdown against Carolina. At 37, will age and mileage take its toll or will he again be the Vezina-caliber difference for the Devils between making some noise and again being an early also-ran?
BOTTOM LINE: Every year the critics line up ... and every year the Devils make sport of their disbelief. If this team could overcome leaving Brodeur on the sidelines for 51 games and still win the Atlantic, maybe it's time to simply give them the benefit of the doubt. Count on them punching a ticket to the playoffs. Actually winning a round? That's still TBD.
NHL Truth & Rumors