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Atlantic Division preview: Non-New York trio built for battle

by | Staff Writer

New Jersey Devils: Hockey's favorite guessing game during training camp has been about what the Devils will do to get under the salary cap. The players themselves have even been participating in their own private gallows humor as the day of reckoning draws nearer, but it is a stressful time for several veterans waiting to see who's still around after Wednesday's final rosters are submitted.

And it may help explain why New Jersey went 2-1-3 in preseason play.

Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk will give the Devils plenty of scoring punch. (Getty Images)  
Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk will give the Devils plenty of scoring punch. (Getty Images)  
Right now the Devils are about $4 million above the limit because they signed free agent Ilya Kovalchuk, although they could get some temporary relief by putting a couple of players injured in training camp on the long-term injury list. Whatever New Jersey does will require GM Lou Lamoriello jumping through hoops, but in the meantime, he has put together a team that has the earmarks of legitimate Cup contender.

Kovalchuk, of course, is a game-breaker, although he still has to prove he can be part of the team concept that is fundamental in New Jersey. If he does, he'll help make the Devils offense their most dangerous ever. Zach Parise can score as often or more than Kovalchuk, and along with Travis Zajac, Patrik Elias, Jamie Langenbrunner and the returning Jason Arnott, gives New Jersey two lines that will be tough, especially since rookie coach John MacLean plans to open up the team's game this season.

The Devils probably didn't get hurt in the free-agent tradeoff that saw Paul Martin leave the blue line and Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder arrive. Meanwhile Martin Brodeur is still around in goal, and with a dependable backup in Johan Hedberg, he'll get a few more games off which shouldn't hurt his 38-year-old body.

So things could be good this season in New Jersey, for those guys who will be around at least.

New York Islanders: One of these years, the New York Islanders will make some progress. Just not this one.

The Isles are still trying to build around young talents like John Tavares, Josh Bailey and Matt Moulson, but there are still plenty of holes to fill, particularly on a defense that was 28th in the league last year. And losing their best defenseman Mark Streit, possibly for the entire season with a shoulder injury, won't help.

Neither will the loss of Kyle Okposo, another recent first-round pick, who showed signs of emerging last season when he scored 19 goals. Okposo suffered a shoulder injury as well during training camp and will be out for an extended period.

The Islanders are hoping that Rick DiPietro will get in more games in goal this season than the last two combined, although that probably won't be until later in the season. In the meantime the team with one of the league's lowest payrolls will scratch and claw and try not to fall out of contention by Christmas time. Don't bet they won't.

New York Rangers: Rangers fans keep wondering how it is that GM Glen Sather is still around and chances are they still will be throughout the season. This is the ninth campaign under the mastermind of the Edmonton Oilers 1980s dynasty, and it is shaping up to be more frustrating than the last-game shootout loss that cost the team a playoff spot a few months ago.

For starters, New York won't look dramatically different this season, which is not really a good thing for a team that played a total of four playoff rounds last decade. They've added a couple of offensive-minded free-agent forwards in Alexander Frolov and Ruslan Fedotenko, who have both shown scoring touches at times during their careers, and the league's biggest bad-ass in Derek Boogaard to protect the troops, although no one seemed inclined to fight him during the three or so minutes he spent on the ice during preseason games.

In other words, he already looks useless. Veteran Martin Biron won't be because he'll help give franchise goalie Henrik Lundqvist a few more nights off, but on the surface, there's nothing to suggest this team is any better now than it was a few months ago. The Rangers certainly didn't look it during a mediocre exhibition schedule.

2010-11 Season Preview

Truth is this team was and still is about two players -- Lundqvist and super sniper Marian Gaborik and how far they can carry it. New York's defense is still young and vulnerable, despite the presence of expensive veteran Michal Roszival, who survived the salary machinations that forced Wade Redden to the minors.

In the meantime, there are still many question marks up front mostly at center where the Rangers lack a viable No. 1 center. It's a situation that isn't helped by having two of their better ones -- Vinnie Prospal and Chris Drury -- on the shelf to start the season. But even when they return to the lineup, this Rangers team will be hard pressed to stay in the playoff race.

Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers raised a few eyebrows when they brought talented but enigmatic forward Nikolai Zherdev back from Russia this summer, but his play during preseason games suggests he could go a long way toward offsetting the loss of Simon Gagne's production.

Zherdev picked up five goals in six games to lead Philadelphia in scoring, while after an injury-plagued season Jeff Carter had a pretty good camp as well with four goals. Those are good signs for the Flyers. So is the 5-2-1 record Philadelphia managed in preseason play because the team was taking a look at lot of young players in the process.

The Flyers came into training camp with their lineup essentially set up front and three lines that are productive and gritty, although there will be a couple of new faces aside from Zherdev when the final roster is set. One will be rookie Andreas Nodl, who beat out veteran 40-year-old Bill Guerin for a job.

On defense, there will be a new third unit with Sean O'Donnell and Andrej Meszaros, but Chris Pronger didn't get into any exhibition games after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in August. Pronger though still might be ready for opening night.

Meanwhile, forward Ian Laperriere won't be there because he's still dealing with concussion symptoms from taking a puck in the face during the playoffs, and starting goalie Michael Leighton isn't expected back until the end of October at the earliest because of a bulging disc in his back. But the Flyers are nothing if not deep throughout the lineup and still head into the new season healthier than they were through most of the last one. With coach Peter Laviolette putting his stamp on things from the outset, they'll be in the hunt for the Atlantic Division title, if not more.

Pittsburgh Penguins: The Penguins get to start the new season off on a high note with the debut of their long-awaited new arena on opening night. And that should help push the end to the last season a little further in the rear-view mirror.

Pittsburgh was stunned by its seven-game loss to Montreal, but there was an upside in that it gave a still very talented and mostly young team that had been to the two previous Stanley Cup Finals a longer summer to rest and recuperate. That didn't help versatile center Jordan Staal unfortunately because the infection in his foot looks like it will keep him sidelined the first few weeks. But for everyone else, an extra six weeks off definitely won't hurt.

In the meantime, Pittsburgh might even have found a way to fill some of Staal's void. The Penguins are obviously still pretty set down the middle with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but the signing of free agent Mike Comrie has paid early dividends with four goals in five preseason games. Comrie's career has headed south in the last few years and these days he's better known for having married Hilary Duff, but he's still young, had some big seasons and, most important, he signed for the minimum.

Pittsburgh paid a lot more though to free agent defensemen Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek after losing Sergei Goncher on the open market. They were hoping to find better wingers for Crosby to play with, but coach Dan Bylsma said a bigger priority for Pittsburgh was improving its 20th ranked defense. And he said the newcomers will help do that with their skating and ability to get the puck quickly to the forwards.

So far it seems to be working. The Penguins finished the preseason schedule 5-1 and outscored teams 24-14.


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