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Eastern Conference Preview: Few teams rival Pens depth in deep conference

Atlantic Division

1. Pittsburgh Penguins

Storyline:All eyes are on the return of Sidney Crosby that should come in November as long as things continue on the upswing. The top storyline right now is Evgeni Malkin’s who’s presence makes the Penguins a top contender in the Eastern Conference even without Crosby.
Notable Additions: Steve Sullivan, Richard Park, Steve MacIntyre
Sullivan at age 37 still has the skill to be a factor on a nightly basis but injury concerns will follow him all season. The Penguins are banking on a top-6 role and top power play time for Sullivan.
The 35 year old Park will provide depth as an extra forward and gives the Penguins speed up front and excellent penalty killing capabilities.
MacIntyre takes over the enforcer role for the departed Eric Godard. He enters the season as the No. 14 forward and won’t see much action this season.
Key Departures: Max Talbot, Mike Rupp, Eric Godard,
Newcomer to Watch: Joe Vitale – Although the 25 year old has been in the Penguins organization and got a cup of coffee at the NHL level, last February, Vitale enters the season with an opportunity to establish himself as the team’s 4th line center and stick at the NHL level. He has good intangibles and is an excellent forechecker. Most importantly gives the Penguins a right handed face-off option.
ROSTER
Forwards: Evgeni Malkin, Steve Sullivan, James Neal, Chris Kunitz, Jordan Staal, Tyler Kennedy, Matt Cooke, Mark Letestu, Pascal Dupuis, Arron Asham, Joe Vitale, Craig Adams, Richard Park, Steve MacIntyre, (Sidney Crosby, Dustin Jeffrey on Injured Reserve)
Defensemen: Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek, Ben Lovejoy, Matt Niskanen, Deryk Engelland
Goaltenders: Marc Andre Fleury, Brent Johnson
Few Teams Rival Penguins Depth
The Penguins believe they have their most complete lineup in the Ray Shero era. Down the middle no team rivals the Penguins top three of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal.
Not to mention they have NHL caliber players behind them at the center position with the likes of Mark Letestu (14 goals – 64 games), Dustin Jeffrey, Richard Park and Joe Vitale.
On the wings, Pittsburgh believes this is their best group since the 2008 season with the likes of Tyler Kennedy, James Neal, Steve Sullivan and Chris Kunitz rounding out the top-6.
Tyler Kennedy has the look of a player who’s ready to emerge as a true top-6 player. Chris Kunitz showed in the preseason that his 17.2 shooting percentage from last season might not be a fluke. 
The x-factor will be James Neal.
If any of those players struggle, Pittsburgh has versatile players such as Pascal Dupuis who can play anywhere in the lineup and step in a top-6 role, if needed. Pittsburgh is in solid position.
The strength of the Penguins through is on the backend with Marc Andre Fleury between the pipes and a top-4 of Brooks Orpik – Kris Letang, Paul Martin – Zbynek Michalek.
Questions about this group is their No. 3 pairing and whether this type of defense that lacks a nasty edge is built for the playoffs.

2. Philadelphia Flyers

Storyline: The Flyers won the division last season but faltered in the playoffs and slashed their roster, trading away the cornerstones of the franchise, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter with a strategy of changing the culture of the team. The Flyers return this season with one of the leagues most talented teams but how this team gels is anyone guess.
Notable Additions: Ilya Bryzgalov, Jaromir Jagr, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, Brayden Schenn, Maxime Talbot, Andreas Lilja.
With a significant roster overhaul, goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov is the Flyers prized acquisition, followed by the surprise signing of Jaromir Jagr. The Flyers bolsted their wings with the additions of Jagr, Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek.
Key Departures: Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Kris Versteeg, Ville Leino, Nik Zherdev, Darroll Powe, Sean O’Donnell.
Newcomer to Watch: Jaromir Jagr – Jagr was excellent in the preseason and as he showed in the World Championships last spring, he still has the abiltiy to be a factor at the NHL level. Scouts believe Jagr has the ability to put up 60 to 70 points this season but how he holds up over the course of an 82 game schedule remains to be seen.
Byrzgalov changes dynamic but long-term health of core vets could dictate Cup Contender Status
The addition of goaltender Ilya Byrzgalov changes the dynamic for the Flyers who now have the type of goaltending to matchup against elite teams.
In front of Bryzgalov, the Flyers have an excellent blueline that can physically pound and wear down the opposition but also have a good mix of puck movers who are factors in the transition and offensive game.
The wildcard is Chris Pronger. He has struggled to stay healthy and a year older and like Jagr, it remains to be seen if he can stay healthy over the course of the entire season.
Offensively, the Flyers lost over 25% of their goal scoring from 2010-2011 with the departures of Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Kris Versteeg.
The Flyers though still have plenty of playmakers and players to put the puck in the net. However, they are somewhat smallish down the middle with Daniel Briere and Claude Giroux. An X-factor for them down the middle will be Brayden Scheen who came over in the Richards trade.
The Flyers believe Giroux and James Van Riemsdyk are budding stars and will continue to increase their offensive production.
The addition of Jagr should pay dividends on the power play.
On the wings, the Flyers have good size and a mix of skill and grit. Overall they will be a tough team to play against with a blend of grit and toughness. The Flyers feel that they are a much faster team than last year.
Changing the culture of the team inside the dressing was also a focus for Flyers brass, leading to the signing of Max Talbot.

3. New York Rangers

Storyline: Scoring has been the Rangers achilees heel when it comes to competing against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. New York feels that area has been addressed with the signing of Brad Richards.  
Notable Additions: Brad Richards, Mike Rupp, Tim Erixon
The Rangers landed this summers prized free agent, signing center Brad Richards. The addition of Richards gives the Rangers an elite No. 1 center they desperately needed to compete with the likes of Pittsburgh and Boston in the Eastern Conference.
An underrated signing for the Rangers was Mike Rupp who will help them be even tougher to play against under head coach John Tortorella.
Erixon, a former first round pick, is going to be a good one in this league on the blueline but will need some adjustment time playing at the NHL level.
Key Departures: Chris Drury, Alex Frolov, Matt Gilroy, Vaclav Prospal, Bryan McCabe
Newcomer to Watch: Brad Richards – The Rangers have been a borderline playoff team that competes hard but haven’t been able to make that next jump. All eyes will be on whether Richard was the one player they were missing.
A year away from title contender?
Although Brandon Dubinsky will start the season on left wing, the addition of Brad Richards gives the Rangers a strong 1-2 punch down the middle in the long-run with Richards and Dubinsky, which is big to competing in the Eastern Conference.
As good as Richards is, the x-factor is Marian Gaborik. Can Richards get Gaborik back to his 40 goal ability and can Gaborik be a consistent force?.
Offensively the Rangers are more dynamic but this is still a team that will be built behind their grit and goaltending. They have one of the leagues best goaltenders in Henrik Lundqvist and an young and emerging blueline.
The Rangers though are still lacking a top-4 veteran defenseman and are dealing with uncertainity surrounding Marc Staal who will be sidelined for at least the first 4-to-6 weeks of the season, maybe longer.
The Rangers will push for a division crown but this is a team that’s a year away from being a title contender.

4.New York Islanders

Storyline: A team on the upswing, the New York Islanders are a potential sleeper for a bottom playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Islanders tough rugged style is now met with dynamic offensive players upfront and likely improved scoring from the backend with a healthy Mark Streit. The big storyline will be the goaltending.
Notable Additions: Nino Niederreiter, Marty Reasoner, Brian Rolston, Jay Pandolfo, Evgeni Nabokov, Steve Staios.
The Islanders have added a lot of veterans and experience with the addition of Reasoner, Rolston, Pandolfo, Staios and improved goaltender with Evgeni Nabokov reporting.
Reasoner who the Penguins tried to acquire at the 2011 Trade Deadline, was a very underrated addition.
Key Departures: Tent Hunter, Zenon Konopka, Doug Weight, Radek Martinek, Bruno Gervais.
Newcomer to Watch: Nino Niederreiter – The No.5 overall pick in the 2010 draft is an immense talent and another top-6 talent added to the Islanders mix upfront. Niederreiter will begin the season sidelined due to a groin injury.
Goaltending will dictate whether Islanders push for playoff spot
The Islanders have evolved as a team that the opposition doesn’t like playing against. They can put the puck in the net with some of the conferences best teams.
On the blueline, they should be improved with the return of Mark Streit and Mark Eaton from injuries. Milan Jurcina is an x-factor on the blueline but he continues to struggle to stay healthy. The Islanders signed Steve Staios to add a veteran presence.
The Islanders enter the season with three goaltenders. Rick DiPietro had a strong camp for the Islanders and will open the season as the team’s starter. What remains to be seen is whether he can stay healthy.
The Islanders are in better position behind Dipietro with Evgeni Nabokov backing up Dipietro. Nabokov is expected to see plenty of action as the Islanders could look to explore his trade value.

New Jersey Devils

Storyline: The Devils tanked under former head coach John MacLean, going 9-22-2 but went 29-17-3 under Jacques Lemaire in 2010-11. They bring in a new head coach in Peter DeBoer who will continue to the Devils structure and philosophy after going 103-107-36 in Florida.
Notable Additions:Petr Sykora, Eric Boulton, Cam Janssen
The Devils bolstered their toughness with the additions of Eric Boulton and Cam Janssen. Petr Sykora won a roster spot after entering camp on a tryout basis. He still has one of the leagues best one-timers.
Key Departures: Colin White, Brian Rolston
Newcomer to Watch: Petr Sykora – The 34 year old played his way out of the NHL but goes back to where all of the success began. Sykora had a strong training camp and is being banked on to make an impact in a top-6 role.
TOO OLD at Key Positions
Zach Parise returns to  full health and the Devils hope they can a full season look at what they believe can be one of the league’s top 1-2 combos in Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk who had a disappointning 31 goal season in 2010-2011.
Parise and Kovalchuk will dictate a lot for New Jersey this season and both will be counted on for 80+ point seasons.
The Devils averaged a woeful 2.09 goals per game but they should expect a bounce back season from Kovalchuk who had 12 goals in his final 22 games and a healthy Parise will help New Jersey improve in that area.
The Devils have a needed infusion of youth with first rounder Adam Larsson and young centerman Jacob Josefson is an intriguing player for the Devils.
The Devils though are still too old at key positions. Patrick Elias is 35 on the downside of his career and New Jersey now enters Petr Sykora in an expected top-6 role.
The goaltending position has two goaltenders pushing 40, with Marty Brodeur 39 and Johan Hedberg 38.
In the end, what will keep New Jersey from competing with Pittsburgh and Philadelphia is their blueline.

Eastern Conference Rankings

(Not in order of predicted finish to regular season)

1. Washington Capitals – An off-season overhaul headlined by becoming a complete team, the Capitals added goaltender Tomas Vokoun, defenseman Roman Hamrlik and forwards Troy Brouwer, Jeff Halpern, Joel Ward.
The Capitals finally have the goaltending to matchup against the top contenders in the East but most importantly they have the kind of depth players in place to win playoff hockey. Could still use a Brooks Orpik type of defenseman on the blueline but not many of them out there. Head coach Bruce Boudreau has no excuses for failure this season.
Projected Finish: 1st in Eastern Conference, 1st in Southeast Division
2. Boston Bruins– The Bruins lost Tomas Kaberle, Michael Ryder, and Mark Recchi in the off-season but the Bruins won’t face difficulties in replacing those three. They return a Cup contender with the best 1-2 punch in goal with Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask and a punishing blueline that wore down teams in the playoffs. Offensively, the Bruins have excellent depth down the middle with Patrice Bergeron, Nathan Horton, Chris Kelly, and Tyler Seguin to go head-to-head with the likes of Pittsburgh.
Projected Finish: 4th in Eastern Conference, 2nd in Northeast Division
3. Pittsburgh Penguins– The return of Evgeni Malkin makes them a top contender in the Eastern Conference and a return of Sidney Crosby as the games best player could put them over the top. Defensively, the Penguins should be even better with emergence of Kris Letang, along with Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek having a full season under their belt in the Penguins system.
Projected Finish: 3rd in Eastern Conference, 1st in Atlantic Division
4. Philadelphia Flyers– If they can gel together, the Flyers could be one of the most dangerous teams in the NHL. A lot will bank on the health of some key veterans like Chris Pronger. The Flyers are a faster team that will be more gritty to play against and should boast one of the leagues best power play units.
Projected Finish: 5th in Eastern Conference, 2nd in Atlantic Division
5. Buffalo Sabres –The addition of Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr on the backend were big for Buffalo and they have a look of a team that could succeed in the playoffs and will push for a division crown. A wildcard upfront is Ville Leino who was their prized acquisition upfront. With the big contract in place, the pressure will be different for him than the situation in Philadelphia. Derek Roy returns from quad surgery and the Sabres will be banking on a bounce back season from Jason Pominville and Drew Stafford to pick up where left off, following a 31-goal campaign.
Projected Finish: 2nd in Eastern Conference, 1st in Northeast Division
6. Tampa Bay Lightning:– All signs point to the Lightning being a team that takes a step back in the Eastern Conference. However, there is enough star power that makes them a legitimate threat once again. Underrated area of this team is the blueline. Goaltending is a big question mark as Dwayne Roloson is now 42.
Projected Finish: 6th in Eastern Conference, 2nd in SoutheastDivision
7. New York Rangers – Brad Richards will be a difference maker but enough to get them into a title contention? not yet… A young evolving blueline is still missing a veteran top-4 defenseman presence.
Projected Finish: 7th in Eastern Conference, 3rd in Atlantic Division
8. Montreal Canadiens – On paper this team has a lot of holes offensively, even with the addition of Erik Cole but they are a team that has shown to be built for the playoffs, advancing to the third round in 2010 and nearly knocking off the Cup Champion Bruins last season. The problem this year though could be making the playoffs as the Canadiens figure to struggle to get in.
Projected Finish: 8th in Eastern Conference, 3rd in Northeast Division.
On the Cusp
9. Carolina Hurricanes – The Hurricanes returning to the playoffs won’t surprise many. They should overcome the loss of Erik Cole and figure to be in contention again for a bottom spot.
Projected Finish: 9th in Eastern Conference, 3rd in Southeast Division
10. Toronto Maple Leafs – The Leafs made some nice additions adding John-Michael Liles, Tim Connolly, Matthew Lombardi, and David Steckel among others and this is a team that should be a sleeper for a bottom playoff spot. However, the Leafs will be banking on the health of Tim Connolly and Matthew Lombardi and will need a lot of things to go right to crack the top-8 in a deep Eastern Conference.
Projected Finish: 10th in Eastern Conference, 4th in Northeast Division
11. New York Islanders –If the Islanders get the goaltending, they could make some noise for a bottom playoff spot.
Projected Finish: 11th in Eastern Conference, 4th in Atlantic Division
12. New Jersey Devils – The Devils will need a lot of things to come together for them, including a bounce back season from Marty Brodeur and All-Star seasons from Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk.
Projected Finish: 12th in Eastern Conference, 5th in Atlantic Division
13. Florida Panthers –The Panthers added Brian Campbell, Tomas Fleischmann, Ed Jovanovski, Scottie Upshall, Kris Versteeg, Sean Bergenheim, Tomas Kopecky, Matt Bradley, Marcel Goc and goaltender Jose Theodore this off-season. They will be a much more competitive team but the big questionmark is between the pipes with Jose Theodore.
Projected Finish: 13th in Eastern Conference, 4th in Southeast Division
14. Ottawa Senators – Another rebuilding year…..The Sens would sure love for someone to take Sergei Gonchar off their hands.
Projected Finish: 14th in Eastern Conference, 5th in Northeast Division
15. Winnipeg Jets – A young rebuilding team that could be difficult to play against at home but won’t push for a playoff spot.
Projected Finish: 15th in Eastern Conference, 5th in Southeast Division

About The Author

William DePaoli

TIOPS Insider

William DePaoli is the President/Founder of Inside Pittsburgh Sports LLC and can be reached at wdepaoli@insidepittsburghsports.com

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