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Atlantic Division: The NHL's best grouping?

Sam McCaig
Yahoo Sports
Atlantic Division: The NHL's best grouping?
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Evgeni Malkin is back in the Penguins' lineup and looks like he's on the verge of a huge season

The Atlantic Division can stake a claim as the most competitive in the Eastern Conference, boasting four playoff-caliber clubs in the Penguins, Flyers, Devils and Rangers – and then there’s the Islanders, who look like a lottery team once again. It was a tumultuous off-season for the Atlantic, with the Pittsburgh nursing two injured superstars, a massive overhaul in Philadelphia and the Rangers landing the biggest fish in the free-agent pond.

Predicted order of finish:

1. Pittsburgh Penguins*

2. Philadelphia Flyers*

3. New Jersey Devils*

4. New York Rangers*

5. New York Islanders

(Asterisk denotes playoff team.)

1. PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

Five Most Important Players

1. Sidney Crosby(notes), C: Well, duh…

2. Marc-Andre Fleury(notes), G: Money goalie whose only flaw is the odd bout of inconsistency.

3. Evgeni Malkin(notes), C: A rare blend of size, skill and hockey sense.

4. Jordan Staal(notes), C: Team’s third-best pivot is a full-blown star in his own right, and can capably center a scoring line if needed.

5. Brooks Orpik(notes), D: Kris Letang(notes), Paul Martin(notes) and Zbynek Michalek(notes) play more minutes and score more points, but Orpik sets the physical tone.

Best-Case Scenario: Healthy superstars and a run at the Cup.

Reality Check: Malkin should be able to bounce back from his knee injury, but Crosby’s concussion is the headache that hasn’t go away.

2. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

Five Most Important Players

1. Ilya Bryzgalov(notes), G: He was great in Phoenix, but the pressure will be much more intense in Philadelphia – especially in the playoffs, natch.

2. Chris Pronger(notes), D: The Flyers have great depth on ‘D’ (Kimmo Timonen(notes), Matt Carle(notes), Andrej Meszaros(notes), Braydon Coburn(notes)), but there’s no replacing Pronger’s presence.

3. Danny Briere(notes), C: For all the potential firepower in Philly, he’s the only proven go-to guy on offense who’s in his prime.

4. Claude Giroux(notes), RW: Two-way stud could help out Briere with another 25-goal, 76-point season.

5. James van Riemsdyk(notes), LW: Big winger is poised for a big breakout.

Best-Case Scenario: Bryzgalov shines, Pronger stays healthy, Jaromir Jagr’s(notes) forever young and all the new guys blossom. On paper, there’s enough skill and depth to challenge for the Cup.

Reality Check: Pronger and Jagr in the same dressing room? This’ll be fun.

3. NEW JERSEY DEVILS

Five Most Important Players

1. Zach Parise(notes), LW: Dynamic and determined, the Devils are a much better team with their talisman in the lineup.

2. Martin Brodeur(notes), G: The NHL’s all-time wins and shutouts leader doesn’t have to prove anything to anybody. On the other hand, he’s coming off his first-ever losing season, he’s had two major injuries in three years, he turns 40 in May and could be a free agent next summer.

3. Ilya Kovalchuk(notes), RW: He was a big part of both the first-half flop and second-half rally. And the same will hold true this season and beyond.

4. Patrik Elias(notes), C: A natural winger, his ability to play the pivot will mitigate the loss of injured center Travis Zajac(notes).

5. Henrik Tallinder(notes), D: The best all-around defenseman for a franchise whose all-around defense is renowned.

Best-Case Scenario: Brodeur bounces back, Kovalchuk dials in and the Devils return to Cup contention for the first time in nearly a decade.

Reality Check: The Devils are weak down the middle and that’s never good.

4. NEW YORK RANGERS

Five Most Important Players

1. Henrik Lundqvist(notes), G: Perennial team MVP is coming off his best season (11 shutouts, .923 save percentage).

2. Marian Gaborik(notes), RW: The Rangers’ lone gunman needs to flirt with 50 goals.

3. Brad Richards(notes), C: After starring for a decade in the hockey outposts of Tampa and Dallas, Richards hits the bright lights of Broadway.

4. Marc Staal(notes), D: The blue line is built around this physical, mobile rearguard, which makes his post-concussion symptoms all the more disturbing.

5. Ryan Callahan(notes), RW: Hardworking coach’s favorite has to help out with secondary scoring.

Best-Case Scenario: Richards and Gaborik make music and the Rangers perfect their playoff style with a deep post-season charge.

Reality Check: New York’s razor-thin margin for error is one Gaborik groin flare-up from being exposed.

5. NEW YORK ISLANDERS

Five Most Important Players

1. John Tavares(notes), C: Determined goal-scorer wants to lead the franchise’s long-awaited turnaround. Good luck, young Jedi.

2. Mark Streit(notes), D: He missed all of last season with a shoulder injury, and the Isles’ power play and blue line missed him terribly.

3. Evgeni Nabokov(notes), G: After last season’s holdout, his heart might not be in Long Island. But at least his body is.

4. Kyle Okposo(notes), RW: Power forward-in-the-making hit an injury speedbump last season.

5. Michael Grabner(notes), LW: Waiver-wire find scored 34 goals and earned a Calder Trophy nomination. Now, to prove he’s not a flash in the pan.

Best-Case Scenario: Nabokov rises to the challenge, the prospects hit fast-forward on the progress button and the team cobbles together a comprehensive defensive approach. Then, with a little luck, maybe – maybe – the Isles are a bubble playoff team.

Reality Check: The young guns up front aren’t there yet, and the back end is one of the very weakest in the league.