Inside Report: The Atlantic division will likely represent four playoff teams again. The Devils, Rangers and Flyers all have the ability to overtake the Penguins in the Atlantic but despite the injuries, Pittsburgh is still a slight step ahead of their counter parts. Marc Andre Fleury has another year under his belt and Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are only getting better.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins (47-27-8)
IN: RW Miroslav Satan (41pts), LW Ruslan Fedotenko (33pts), RW Matt Cooke (23pts), RW Bill Thomas, Eric Godard (2pts, 171PIM)
OUT: RW Marian Hossa (66pts), LW Ryan Malone (51pts), LW Gary Roberts (15pts), LW Jarkko Ruutu (16pts, 138pim), C Adam Hall (6pts), RW Georges Laraque (13pts, 141 pim) G Ty Conklin (W18‚ÄìL8 2.51 GAA)
The Penguins took a hit in the off-season when Marian Hossa spurned their 7yr-$52 million offer to sign with the Detroit Red Wings. Hossa was the elite winger the Penguins sought to play with Sidney Crosby for over two years. Forwards Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts, Adam Hall, Jarkko Ruutu and Georges Laraque also departed out of town. Ray Shero first took care of business and locked in Evgeni Malkin and Marc Andre Fleury to long term deals then addressed his needs.
Upfront the Penguins are not as deep as they were last season but their third line is stronger and the Staal-Malkin-Sykora line has the chance to do special things . To address the loss of Hossa and Malone, Shero signed Islanders duo Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko. Pittsburgh is banking on Satan to return to his form playing with Sidney Crosby but that is not a sure thing. Satan showed glimpses of what he could do during the early stages of training camp but struggled in the preseason. Satan still has the scoring ability around the net but struggles in the neutral zone due to his lack of speed. Satan is no longer a dominate one-on-one player.
Ruslan Fedotenko has had a strong camp and will begin the season on Sidney Crosby‚Äôs line. Don‚Äôt expect him to put up Ryan Malone (27 goals) numbers but he should be in the 18-22 goal range. Pittsburgh will live with that. One key pickup this summer was Matt Cooke. Cooke plays a similar game to Jarkko Ruutu but has more scoring ability. Cooke and Max Talbot have showed instant chemistry on the third line and both players play well off of each other. Petr Sykora (28 goals) will be counted on to duplicate his numbers with Marian Hossa and Ryan Malone out of the picture. Sykora will also be playing for a new contract. Jordan Staal will be moved to left wing. Staal is showing a new brand of confidence and a 25 goal season is not out of the question. The Penguins fourth line will consist of 4-5 players. Paul Bissonnette (23 yrs old) has been a huge surprise in camp and gives the Penguins a physical edge that they lost with the departures of Gary Roberts, Georges Laraque and Jarkko Ruutu. Tyler Kennedy (10 goals) has found his comfort zone in a fourth line energy role. Kennedy will alternate playing center and wing. New comers Bill Thomas and tough guy Eric Godard will see time on the fourth line along with Jeff Taffe (12 goals).
On Defense Pittsburgh was dealt a serious blow when it was revealed Sergei Gonchar (65 pts) was going to be sidelined for 4-6 months with a dislocated shoulder. The Penguins will also be missing offensive D Ryan Whitney (40pts). The two players combined for 105 points last season. The Penguins top seven D on their roster right now combined for 55 points last season. Pittsburgh will have a tough time filling the void of Gonchar and will be counting on young puck moving D Alex Goligoski (WBS 28pts ‚Äì 23 playoff games) and Kris Letang (17pts). Pittsburgh ranked 23rd last season on the PK but the addition of Hal Gill made them better in the playoffs and a healthy Mark Eaton should improve their numbers. Pittsburgh had a chance coming into the season when healthy to have one of the league‚Äôs strongest defensive corps.
Burning Questions: The Penguins ranked dead last in face-off percentage. They have not addressed that need in the off-season. A 4th line face-off specialist would be a nice addition. Another concern is a top line winger for Sidney Crosby. It remains to be seen whether Miroslav Satan is the answer.
Final Word: Going into the playoffs Pittsburgh was a step ahead of the rest in the Eastern Conference. They have come back to the pack but they remain the top team in the Eastern Conference. The Penguins should represent the East in the finals again but it is very difficult to get back there for the second straight season. The last team to do so in the East was the New Jersey Devils (1999-2000 2000-2001)
2. New York Rangers (42-29-11)
Rangers GM Glen Sather decided to part ways with captain Jaromir Jagr and agitator Sean Avery. Sather never made a serious attempt to bring either player back and believed it was time for a makeover. The first step of business was upgrading his blue line. Sather brought in D Wade Redden, D Dmitri Kalinin and re-signed D Michal Rozsival. The Rangers should get a even bigger boost from D Marc Staal who continues to blossom into a potential #2 defenseman.
Upfront the Rangers have added Markus Naslund (25 goals), Nikolai Zherdev (27 goals), Dan Fritsche (22 points): Out: Jagr (25 goals), Avery (15 goals), Shanahan (23 goals). Zherdev was a great addition and will flourish under head coach Tom Renney. Zherdev is the perfect kind of winger Scott Gomez needed. C Brandon Dubinsky (14goals-26assists-40points) is developing into a 50-55 point player. What will be interesting with Dubinsky is how he plays without Jagr. The Rangers need Chris Drury to improve his numbers. What the Rangers lack is scoring on the wings. When the team signed Brendan Shanahan two seasons ago it hurt the development of RW Petr Prucha (7 goals). The sleeper will be Markus Naslund. Many insiders blame his production on the system he was playing in Vancouver. If that‚Äôs the case and Naslund can get back into the 32-35 goal range, the Rangers won‚Äôt lose any sleep over Jaromir Jagr. How deep the Rangers go this season will depend on how far goaltender Henrik Lundqvist (37-24-10) takes them
3. Philadelphia Flyers (42-29-11)
The Flyers stood pat this summer but it will seem like they made a splash in free agency if LW Simon Gage (06-07: 41 goals)stays healthy . The Flyers had six players with 20+ goals in 07-08 and Gagne is a 35+ threat. He makes the Flyers that much more dangerous up front. Where the Flyers have issues is on the blue line. Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn play a strong two way game but the Flyers have major issues matching up against Pittsburgh and New York who are strong down the middle. The Flyers must address that need to take the jump to the next level. Goaltender Marty Biron can get the job done for the time being but I‚Äôm still not sure he‚Äôs the answer for the Flyers
4. New Jersey Devils (46-29-7)
The Devils made a great signing on the first day of free agency bringing back forward Brian Rolston. The Devils might have overpaid for Rolston (4yrs-24million) but he will have a major impact the next couple years. Rolston will bolster a 27th ranked offense and for the Devils to make a significant jump they will need Brian Gionta (22goals-31assists-53 points) to get back to the 30 goal plateau. The Devils also brought back Bobby Holik who will anchor the third line. Holik is not the player he use to be but he is still an effective third line shut down center. The Devils approach this summer has been to match the Penguins and Flyers down the middle. In goal Martin Brodeur returns and is coming off one of his best seasons since the early part of the decade. Where Brodeur wasn‚Äôt at his best was in the playoffs. The blue line needs improvement. A puck moving defensemen should be at the top of the Devils wish list. Once again the Devils will be a force in the Atlantic Division
Brian Gionta ‚Äì Gionta entering the final year of his contract, was being shopped last season and unless he sets the world on fire this season, his name will come up quite often in the rumor mill
5. New York Islanders (35-38-9)
The New York Islanders are committed to the youth movement but Garth Snow made a quality signing in luring D Mark Streit (13goals-49assists-62points) to Long Island. The Islanders will rely on Streit and youngsters Kyle Okposo and Blake Comeau to jump start a offense that will likely rank near the bottom of the league. G Rick Dipietro will keep the Islanders in games but the Islanders have no shot at the playoffs and will be playing for a top 10 pick. I like the direction the Islanders are heading but it‚Äôs going to be a slow rebuilding process because top tier free agents aren‚Äôt lining up to sign with New York
Bill Guerin (23 goals) ‚Äì Guerin may not be the player he use to be but he can still play and will be a nice addition to playoff team looking for a right handed presence on their top two lines
Photo Courtesy of Dan4thNicholas