Atlantic Division: The NHL's best grouping?

Evgeni Malkin is back in the Penguins' lineup and looks like he's on the verge of a huge season

Atlantic Division: The NHL's best grouping?

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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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