The NHL season gets underway Oct. 6 with three games scheduled. But before the puck drops on another exciting season, we’ll take one last look ahead at each of the divisions. Monday will be the Atlantic and Pacific and be sure to check back Tuesday and Wednesday for the remaining four divisions.
Top three fantasy options: Sidney Crosby (injured), Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal.
Key additions: Steve Sullivan, Jason Williams, Alexandre Picard, Richard Park.
Key departures: Eric Godard, Maxime Talbot, Mike Rupp.
Something to prove: James Neal was on pace for a career-high 29 goals in Dallas in 2010-11. Then he was dealt to Pittsburgh before the trade deadline and slowed significantly with just a single tally in 20 games. The Pens are counting on him clicking with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, so Neal will look to bring back the scoring touch he left in Big D.
The big question: How long can the Pens thrive without Sidney Crosby in the lineup? They did yeomen’s work last year without him, but that was only for half the year. Evgeni Malkin is back to shoulder the load, but potentially an entire season without No. 87 will cast a cloud over the franchise.
Outlook: The Penguins proved last season they’re not a two-horse team. From Feb. 4 on they played without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, finishing 15-10-4 down the stretch and nearly knocked off the Lightning in the first round of the playoffs. With ‘Geno’ back from injury and ‘The Kid’ hopefully soon to follow, the Pens will lead a wide-open Atlantic Division that’s theirs for the taking. THN PREDICTION: Second in East.
Top three fantasy options: Claude Giroux, Jaromir Jagr, Daniel Briere.
Key additions: Jaromir Jagr, Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn, Jakub Voracek, Maxime Talbot, Ilya Bryzgalov, Andreas Lilja.
Key departures: Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Kris Versteeg, Ville Leino, Sean O’Donnell, Nik Zherdev, Darroll Powe.
Something to prove: The wild card in Philly is Jaromir Jagr. He averaged nearly a point per game over three Kontinental League seasons and looked impressive in the past three world championships with the Czech Republic. The KHL is a softer league with an easier schedule, so expect the Czech to be fresher than the 40 years old he’ll turn in February.
The big question: The move to get Bryzgalov was ultimately what set up the departures of Carter and Richards. It was designed to finally give the Flyers the goaltending they’ve needed since the days of Ron Hextall or even Bernie Parent, but is ‘Cool Bryz’ the answer they’ve been looking for? Sure he’s been a Vezina caliber netminder for two seasons, but he’s come up far too short in the playoffs, which is where the Flyers are expecting to win.
Outlook: The Flyers won the division last season, finished second in the conference, third overall and scored the third-most goals in the league. Yet they decided to slash ‘n’ burn their roster, shipping out Richards and Carter and taking on Bryzgalov and Jagr. Philadelphia still has a dump truck load of talent, but is it too much to expect everyone to gel this season and duplicate the 2010-11 campaign? THN PREDICTION: Fourth in East.
NEW YORK RANGERS
Top three fantasy options: Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik, Ryan Callahan.
Key additions: Brad Richards, Mike Rupp.
Key departures: Evgeny Grachev, Chris Drury, Matt Gilroy, Alex Frolov, Vaclav Prospal, Bryan McCabe.
Something to prove: Like many young defensemen, Michael Del Zotto fell victim to the sophomore slump with just 11 points in 47 games in 2010-11. As a rookie, he had 12 points in his first 12 games en route to a 37-point, 80-game season. The Rangers are hoping he regains the form that saw him make the NHL’s all-rookie team in 2009-10.
The big question: Where is the puck-moving defenseman going to come from? The Bryan McCabe experiment didn’t work out and rookie Tim Erixon was surprisingly sent to the American League to start the season. Del Zotto had a dismal sophomore season, but will get the first shot.
Outlook: Fulfilling the easiest off-season prediction, the Rangers picked up the premier 2011 free agent in Brad Richards, who’ll be a perfect fit alongside Marian Gaborik. Richards will improve a middling offense, but the team still needs a puck-moving defenseman. The Rangers can ride ‘King Henrik’ far, but not past the birds of the Atlantic. THN PREDICTION: Seventh in East.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
Top three fantasy options: Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, Patrik Elias.
Key additions: Eric Boulton, Cam Janssen.
Key departures: Brian Rolston, Colin White, Anssi Salmela, Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond.
Something to prove: Ilya Kovalchuk was a definite disappointment after signing his 15-year, $100-million deal. His 31 goals and 60 points in 2010-11 were the lowest per-game totals of his nine-year NHL tenure to go along with a career-worst minus-26. Still, Kovy proved he’s a money player when needed – his nine winners were his best to date.
The big question: How much does Martin Brodeur have left in his tank? He’ll be turning 40 during the playoffs and posted a pedestrian .903 save percentage last season. Johan Hedberg was retained as insurance, but he’s 38 and there is clearly no Brodeur equal in the development system.
Outlook: The Devils were a woeful 9-22-2 under John MacLean and 29-17-3 under Jacques Lemaire in 2010-11. They’re neither as bad nor as good as those records suggest. Expect a middling season under new coach Peter DeBoer, who in three seasons with the Florida Panthers went 103-107-36. THN PREDICTION: 11th in East.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
Top three fantasy options: John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Mark Streit.
Key additions: Brian Rolston, Marty Reasoner, Steve Staios.
Key departures: Radek Martinek, Bruno Gervais, Doug Weight, Zenon Konopka, Trent Hunter.
Something to prove: After missing all of 2010-11, Mark Streit leads a no-name ‘D’ corps that had just five PP goals combined last season. Streit had 10 and then nine in his first two seasons on Long Island. The Isles’ PP improved to 17th last season, so look for the man advantage to get even better this year with the Swiss defender anchoring it.
The big question: Can Michael Grabner continue as a sniper in the NHL? His 34 markers led the Islanders last season and left him as a finalist for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. His highest goal total as a junior with the Spokane Chiefs was 39 in 2006-07 so he has been a scorer at other levels before. After signing a five-year deal worth a $3 million cap hit in the summer, Grabner now has a contract to live up to.
Outlook: You got to love the talent being assembled on Long Island, but it’ll take time to actualize the potential. Isles goaltenders caught a bad case of DiPietroitis last season, with six different ’tenders combining to post the league’s fourth-worst GAA. The offense has improved the past three years, up to 15th last season, and looks good to crack the top 10 in 2011-12. But the goalie carousel will leave the Islanders in the basement again. THN PREDICTION: 12th in East.