Four of the five Atlantic Division teams made the playoffs last season, more than any other division. And two -- the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers -- ended up facing each other in the Eastern Conference final.
So is this the best division in the NHL? That's debatable, although what seems clear at this juncture of the offseason is that the Penguins and Flyers still seem to be the class of the Atlantic Division. But the gap may not be all that wide after what has been a busy summer of activity for their rivals.
|Marc-Andre Fleury is one of the key players staying in Pittsburgh. (Getty Images)|
Pittsburgh Penguins: It was understood Pittsburgh wouldn't be able to keep its talented lineup intact because of the salary cap, so the vultures started circling soon after the Penguins lost the Stanley Cup Final to Detroit. The result was the loss of several key players including Marian Hossa, Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts and backup goalie Ty Conklin. But in the grand scheme of things, all of the departures other than Hossa, who turned out to be a worthwhile trade deadline rental, were peripheral in Pittsburgh. It would have been nice to hang on to some of them, but more important for the Penguins, they retained core players Evgeni Malkin, Brooks Oprik and starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. All signed long-term deals that should ensure the Sidney Crosby-led team will remain among the elites for years to come. In the meantime, the Penguins did an impressive job filling their other voids with forwards Miroslav Satan, Ruslan Fedotenko and Matt Cooke, and they saved themselves a fair amount of money as well. Grade: A-
New Jersey Devils: The Devils have been one of the NHL's best regular-season teams since the lockout ended by using a familiar formula of strong defense and great goaltending by Martin Brodeur. But that hasn't led to any real success in the postseason, in which the Devils have yet to advance beyond the second round. Last season, the Devils didn't even get that far, largely because the inability to produce offense continues to be their Achilles' heel. Improving that situation is the Devils' major goal this offseason, and New Jersey's biggest move so far, signing versatile high-scoring forward Brian Rolston to a rich free-agent contract, is a step in that direction. New Jersey has also repatriated Bobby Holik, a big center with a mean streak who might still have enough gas left in the tank at age 37 to be an effective shutdown guy. Overall, though, the Devils don't look any better than they did last season, while several of their rivals do. Grade: C+
New York Rangers: With only modest success since the lockout, the Rangers decided on a change in direction this summer. It's a pretty significant one, because it brings down the curtain on the Jaromir Jagr era and returns the team to the days when it threw big free-agent money at veteran players who often seemed like their best days were behind them. In this case, the beneficiaries were defenseman Wade Redden and forward Markus Naslund, who come with big price tags and even bigger questions marks. For that matter, so does Nikolai Zherdev, a supremely talented forward with attitude issues who arrived along with depth forward Dan Fritsche from Columbus for defensemen Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman. Those blue liners aren't likely to be missed because New York also signed free agent d-man Dmitri Kalinan and brought back Michal Rozsival, but there a lot of new faces on Broadway and potential chemistry problems. Grade: B-
Philadelphia Flyers: No team was busier before last season than the Flyers, who underwent a major and expensive roster overhaul. It was worth it, because Philadelphia had a remarkable turnaround season and made it all the way to the final four. It also meant there was a lot less to do this time around, other than plug some holes that are the inevitable consequence of the salary cap era. Philadelphia's biggest losses were veteran defenseman and captain Jason Smith and forwards R.J Umberger and trade deadline rental Vaclav Prospal, who were all important contributors during the playoffs. But the Flyers have a deep and balanced lineup thanks to last summer's maneuvers, and they filled the new voids to some extend by adding forwards Arron Asham and Glen Metropolit and hard-hitting defenseman Ossi Vaananen. The key move for the Flyers, though, was getting Jeff Carter to sign an extension that kept him from hitting the free-agent market. Grade: B+
New York Islanders: Long Island is a place where many NHLers like to live, just not play. That's why the Islanders have trouble attracting free agents unless they overpay or are willing to sign players who really have few other options. Chances are they'll have the same problem when it comes to replacing coach Ted Nolan, who cited philosophical differences when he parted company with the organization despite having one year remaining on his contract. One might plausibly interpret that as an expression of frustration on Nolan's part at the lack of talent he has had to work with. New York has made some token efforts to improve its anemic lineup, throwing a $20 million multiyear deal at defenseman Mark Streit, who is effective on the power play but a liability in his own end. The Islanders also added veteran Doug Weight, but any charge he'll get from playing with old buddy Bill Guerin should be offset by the fact his best years are clearly behind him. Grade: D