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What key questions face Atlantic Division teams?

Monday, 01.14.2013 / 3:00 AM / 2012-2013 Season Preview

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What key questions face Atlantic Division teams?
What questions does each Atlantic Division NHL team need to answer to be successful, and do they have the resources to provide said responses?

The wait for the 2012-13 season is nearly over. What questions do each NHL team need to answer to be successful, and do they have the resources to provide said responses? Well, let's take a division-by-division look at some of the key quandaries for each NHL franchise as the campaign beckons. First up is the Atlantic Division, which could again stake a claim to being the League's toughest.

Devils NEW JERSEY DEVILS


The New Jersey Devils came two victories short of winning the fourth Stanley Cup in franchise history last season, but a key member of that run no longer is with the organization. How the club overcomes the loss of Zach Parise via free agency certainly will go a long way in predicting their playoff fortunes.

1. How will the Devils overcome the loss of Zach Parise?
 
Parise had 31 goals and 69 points in 82 regular-season games last season, his first as captain. He was sixth in the League in playoff scoring with 15 points -- including eight goals -- in 24 postseason games. While it is true Parise is irreplaceable, let's not forget that the Devils were without top-line center Travis Zajac for all but 15 games last season after he suffered a left Achilles tendon injury in August.
 
"Zajac missed the entire season, [Ilya] Kovalchuk went down in Game 2 of the Philly series when we were down 1-0, but we played one of our best games of the year [in Game 2], so that's the mentality here," coach Peter DeBoer said. "We have to carry that into next year without Zach."
 
2. Who is the next captain?
 
There are a few strong candidates, including Patrik Elias, who actually wore the "C" in 2006-07, and Zajac, but the guess here is the team names a defenseman captain for the first time since Scott Niedermayer in 2004.
 
Bryce Salvador, who missed the entire 2010-11 season with a cochlear concussion, signed a three-year contract worth $9.5 million in the offseason and couldn't be happier. He's spent the last four-plus seasons with the Devils and was one of two defensemen to play in all 82 regular-season games in 2011-12. He is a consummate team leader on the ice and within the locker room. It doesn't hurt that he is also very cordial with the media.
 
3. Can forward David Clarkson repeat the 30-goal season he had last season?
 
Clarkson had a career year playing again for DeBoer, who coached him in junior hockey with the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League. He was third on the team with 30 goals and fifth with 46 points. He led the Devils with a career-high seven game-winning goals and finished tied for second with Elias with a career-best eight power-play goals.
 
In the playoffs, Clarkson finished in a five-way tie for first in the League with three game-winning goals. There's no reason to believe the 28-year-old right wing couldn't equal if not surpass his regular-season totals in 2012-13. He'll certainly be a player relied on heavily this season.
 
4. Is this the year Mattias Tedenby makes an impact?
 
The 24th pick in the 2008 NHL Draft split the 2011-12 campaign between the NHL and the American Hockey League, seeing action in 43 of the first 46 NHL games. The 5-foot-10, 175-pound Swede had one goal and six points in the NHL and four goals and 18 points in 32 AHL games. A good preseason could put Tedenby in a position to fill in at left wing alongside Zajac and Ilya Kovalchuk.
 
Mattias Tedenby
Mattias Tedenby
Right Wing - NJD
GOALS: 1 | ASST: 5 | PTS: 6
SOG: 46 | +/-: -15
"You're always hoping to see a diamond in the rough, but you're not going to fill Zach Parise's spot as far as what he brought," general manager Lou Lamoriello said. "Tedenby has a great shot to move forward. He's got all the tools and he's spending a very [workmanlike] summer back home with Adam [Larsson] and [Johan Hedberg]."
 
5. Is defenseman Adam Larsson ready to take that next step?
 
The 6-3, 200-pound blueliner had a solid rookie season, tying for second among first-year NHL defensemen with 16 assists, and he was fifth with 18 points, in 65 regular-season games. There was speculation that the fourth pick of the 2011 NHL Draft might have lost a step after taking a hit from Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban in a Feb. 2 game at Prudential Center. Larsson missed the next 10 games with a bruised lower back, and upon his return had two assists and a minus-1 rating in 16 games.
 
He was a healthy scratch for five of the team's last six regular-season games and for the first eight Stanley Cup Playoff games. Consistency might have been the reason DeBoer preferred other options down the stretch and in the postseason, although Larsson did notch a goal and a plus-3 rating in five postseason games. The expectation is for Larsson to have a greater impact along the blue line this season.
 
6. Can the Devils return to the Stanley Cup Final?
 
DeBoer certainly brought out the best in his team when it mattered most. He was able to adjust on the fly and from game to game. His stressed the importance of winning puck battles and his team played as a five-man unit throughout the opening three rounds on the way to eliminating the Florida Panthers, Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers.
 
The Devils frustrated the opposition to no end with a relentless forecheck and they consistently outnumbered their opponents to loose pucks while creating countless scoring chances off neutral-zone turnovers. The players bought into DeBoer's system and it showed. On top of that, the ageless wonder in net, Martin Brodeur, won 14 playoff games while sporting a 2.12 goals-against average and .917 save percentage.
 
"Their resiliency early in the year set up a level of confidence in the playoffs," New assistant coach Matt Shaw, who spent the last three seasons with the San Jose Sharks, said. "They weren't a one- or two-line team, they had depth on defense, and the goaltending. In the playoffs you always need some unusual suspects to do some things and they certainly had that with a number of different guys that were always big boosts. That's what you need to have a deep playoff run."
 
-- Mike Morreale
 

Islanders NEW YORK ISLANDERS

 
The New York Islanders insisted one year ago that the rebuilding process was over. Instead, they finished in the bottom five for a fifth straight season. From a 2-0 loss on opening night to a 7-3 defeat at Columbus on the final day of the season, the Islanders never came close to meeting the expectations from management, the coaching staff, and a fan base that hasn't celebrated a series victory in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for 19 years.
 
1. Will Ryan Strome play in the NHL this season?
 
The Isles' top pick from 2011 enjoyed another solid season in the Ontario Hockey League and could be ready for prime time. Strome, however, turned 19 in July and is unable to play for Bridgeport in the American Hockey League, which means New York or Niagara again this season.
 
Strome has dominated for Niagra this season with 22 goals and 62 points in 32 games before collecting six points in six games for Canada in the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship. General manager Garth Snow and coach Jack Capuano must decide to keep the talented center or send him back to the junior level.
 
2. Can Brad Boyes replace PA Parenteau's offense?
 
After showing he can be a top-six forward in the NHL, the Isles lost winger PA Parenteau to the Colorado Avalanche via free agency this summer. Parenteau thrived on the top line alongside Matt Moulson and John Tavares, as he tallied 53 points in 2010-11 before upping his total to 67 points this past season.
 
The Isles are hoping Boyes, who signed with the club in July, can fill the void. Although he had just eight goals in 65 games for the Buffalo Sabres in 2011-12, Boyes did score 76 goals over two seasons with the St. Louis Blues from 2007-09. Signed to a one-year, $1 million deal, Boyes has a golden opportunity to regain that form skating with Tavares.
 
3. Is Josh Bailey a center or a wing?
 
For whatever reason, the Isles' top pick from 2008 has been more productive offensively as a winger. It's likely he'll begin this season on the wing, but it's more imperative that he skates alongside players who can help him contribute (Bailey finished with 17 points in his last 19 games as a top-six forward).
 
Training camp will ultimately determine whom Bailey will play with, but don't be surprised to see him with Strome, a talented playmaker who can feed him the puck. That is, of course, dependent on Strome making the team.
 
4. Can Mark Streit regain his form?
 
The Swiss defenseman missed the entire 2010-11 season because of a shoulder injury during training camp, but returned healthy last season and was named captain in September. However, Streit didn't appear to be the same player he was prior to the injury -- at least in his own end of the ice. While he did manage to tally 47 points in 82 games, Streit finished a minus-27, which was the fourth worst plus/minus rating in the League.
 
Brad Boyes
Brad Boyes
Right Wing - NYI
GOALS: 8 | ASST: 15 | PTS: 23
SOG: 100 | +/-: 2
5. Can Rick DiPietro stay healthy?
 
Although he still has nine years remaining on his contract, the oft-injured goaltender needs to show Islanders brass he is capable of staying on the ice. While DiPietro came into training camp last season healthy, injuries again limited him to eight appearances. And, even when he did manage to play, he wasn't particularly effective (3.73 goals-against average, .876 save percentage).
 
Evgeni Nabokov enters camp as the Isles' No. 1 goaltender, but DiPietro's status will determine the No. 2. In the end, that also ultimately affects Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson, who are undoubtedly going to compete for playing time in New York.
 
6. Can the Isles compete in the Atlantic?
 
One of the biggest reasons why the Isles' chances of qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs are so difficult could be geography.
 
The other four teams in the Atlantic Division (New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins) all recorded at least 100 points in the standings last season, while the Isles finished with 79 and went 8-13-3 against division opponents. It is imperative the Islanders have a solid first half of the season if they plan on ending a five-year playoff drought. Should they stumble again early, the woes will likely continue.
 
 -- Brian Compton
 

Rangers NEW YORK RANGERS

 
For a team coming off a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, the New York Rangers have some big questions to answer after a very fluid offseason. The Rangers lost some of their depth, but added a 40-goal scorer in Rick Nash. Of their 12 regular forwards from last season, five are gone. The blue line will remain almost completely intact, something that is key for a club built on defense. Can the Rangers reach the Stanley Cup Final this season for the first time since 1994?
 
1. Can Henrik Lundqvist do it again?
 
The 30-year-old has been among the League's best goaltenders throughout his career, but he was finally deemed the best in the business last season. He went 39-18-5 with a 1.97 goals-against average and .930 save percentage, career bests in all categories, and was awarded the Vezina Trophy.
 
Expecting a goaltender to repeat a season like that is asking a lot. Lundqvist's lighter workload of 62 games helped to keep him fresh, but so did the fact the Rangers were atop the East for most of the season, giving coach John Tortorella the luxury of resting his elite goaltender more often.
 
The Rangers added Nash to boost the offense, but if the Rangers don't find a way to score a few more goals and Lundqvist reverts to his inferior, yet stellar numbers of the past few seasons, it could be a problem.
 
2. How will they handle big expectations?
 
The Rangers entered last season as a team that nearly missed the playoffs two years in a row. They also came into the season without the services of top defenseman Marc Staal, who missed the first half with concussion issues.
 
The Rangers surged to the top of the standings in November and December and never looked back. This season, the Rangers won't enjoy the cloak of anonymity. With the addition of Nash, no team in the East has a bigger target on its back. How the Rangers deal with the label of favorites entering a season, something they haven't had for a long time, will be interesting.
 
3. What will the line combinations look like?
 
Of course, with Tortorella shaking up his lines like a child unhappy with his Etch-A-Sketch drawing, they're subject to change from shift to shift. Nash will likely start the season with Brad Richards as his center, and if the two develop a chemistry that Marian Gaborik and Richards failed to find at the start of last season, they could be the go-to top unit.
 
That would leave Derek Stepan centering the second line with Gaborik. The two worked extremely well together at times last season, and with Stepan and Chris Kreider connecting so often during the postseason, they could make up one of the most potent secondary scoring lines in the NHL.
 
4. Who is killing penalties up front?
 
The Rangers mainly used seven forwards to kill penalties last season, and four of them (Brandon Prust, Brandon Dubinsky, Ruslan Fedotenko and Artem Anisimov) are no longer with the club. Jeff Halpern, who was signed this summer, has loads of experience on the PK, but that leaves just Brian Boyle, Ryan Callahan, Stepan and Halpern as reliable options while shorthanded.
 
Henrik Lundqvist
Henrik Lundqvist
Goalie - NYR
RECORD: 39-18-5
GAA: 1.97 | SVP: 0.930
Players on the current roster who have an opportunity to fill that role include Richards, Nash and Taylor Pyatt. The Rangers' PK was fifth in the NHL last season. They will have a hard time repeating that number with the losses they incurred this offseason.
 
5. Will the Rangers' grinding style grind the Rangers?
 
Make no mistake about the Rangers' style of play -- they embrace it and used it to win 51 games last season. In a battle of toughness and will, few teams can beat the Rangers at their own game. But it appeared to take its toll on the Rangers themselves at the end of the regular season and into the playoffs.
 
The Rangers went 11-9 in their final 20 regular-season games and went 10-10 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. There wasn't a player who was willing to admit to being tired, mentally or physically, during the postseason, but their play on the ice said otherwise. The compacted schedule could also be a factor this season. While the Rangers will be a Cup contender, they need to find a way to be fresher when it is time for the postseason.
 
6. What will Chris Kreider bring to the table?
 
If Carl Hagelin wasn't suspended during the first round of the postseason, it's possible Kreider never would have seen the ice during the playoffs. But that three-game ban opened the door and Kreider barreled through it with five goals and seven points in 18 playoff games.
 
Kreider's playoff numbers factored out over 82 games would give him about 23 goals and nine assists. It doesn't sound like much based on the reputation he built for himself, but the Rangers will sign up for that as long as Kreider improves his play away from the puck in his first full NHL season.
 
-- Dave Lozo
 

Flyers PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

 
The Philadelphia Flyers entered last season with what was believed to be a franchise goaltender and a questionable offense. They ended the season as one of the highest-scoring teams in the League backed by a goaltender who appeared at times to be -- in his words -- "lost in the woods."
 
1. Can Bryz bounce back?
 
Ilya Bryzgalov signed a long-term deal after two excellent seasons in Phoenix, but failed to meet expectations last season. However, the belief around the organization is that Bryzgalov will be more comfortable with a year's experience in Philadelphia under his belt.
 
"Once you get to know the guys and you feel more comfortable in your house, in your life, all that kind of stuff, definitely you get more confidence as the year goes on," Scott Hartnell said. "Next year he'll come back from Russia in the summer and his house is all set up -- he'll be ready to play."
 
2. How do they avoid the sophomore slump?
 
No team got a bigger contribution from its rookies last season than the Flyers. Matt Read led all first-year NHL players with 24 goals; Sean Couturier, the eighth pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, was second on the team with a plus-18 rating while playing against other teams' top lines; and Brayden Schenn was fourth on the team in playoff scoring with nine points. Rookie blueliners Erik Gustafsson and Marc-Andre Bourdon also grew into significant roles.
 
With the departures of James van Riemsdyk, Jaromir Jagr and Matt Carle, those young players now will be expected to provide even more. Schenn likely will enter the season as a top-six forward, while Couturier will see more ice time, especially on the power play. Their performances could determine how far the Flyers are able to go in the postseason.
 
3. Who replaces Jaromir Jagr?
 
Jagr arrived after three seasons in Russia and turned his line with Claude Giroux and Hartnell into one of the best in the League. But Jagr is with the Dallas Stars now, leaving a significant hole at right wing on the top line.
 
The front-runner to fill that spot appears to be Jakub Voracek. He brings more speed to the trio than Jagr, but his 18 goals last season were a career best. He'll have to perform at a higher level to take some of the pressure off Giroux and Hartnell.
 
4. Who fills the holes on defense?
 
With Chris Pronger's future in doubt and 37-year-old Kimmo Timonen entering the final year of his contract, general manager Paul Holmgren went big after free-agent defensemen Ryan Suter and Shea Weber, and after missing on them, he also lost Carle, who signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
 
Claude Giroux
Claude Giroux
Right Wing - PHI
GOALS: 28 | ASST: 65 | PTS: 93
SOG: 242 | +/-: 6
After losing out on Weber, Holmgren said he was happy with the makeup of his defense, pointing to the offseason additions of Luke Schenn and Bruno Gervais, plus young guys Marc-Andre Bourdon, Erik Gustafsson and Brandon Manning. Is that group enough to get the Flyers deep into the playoffs? Or will Holmgren have to look outside the organization?
 
5. What can Claude Giroux do for an encore?
 
In his third full NHL season, Giroux finished third in the League with 93 points and second with 65 assists. He was the fourth-leading scorer in the playoffs with 17 points despite playing 10 games. He skated in his second NHL All-Star Game and had the most points by a Flyer since Eric Lindros had 93 in 1998-99. Giroux's coach memorably called him the best player in the world, and he capped his season by earning the cover spot on EA Sports' NHL 13 video game
 
Now comes the hard part -- staying at that high level. Teams will focus their best checking lines and defense pairs on Giroux any time he's on the ice. How he handles that level of competition could determine the Flyers' fortunes this season.
 
6. Can there be a Schenn revival?
 
Is Luke Schenn the classic example of a player who just needed a change in scenery? The 22-year-old defenseman saw his average ice time plummet from 22:22 per game in 2010-11 to 16:02 last season with the Toronto Maple Leafs. His production didn't change much -- he had 22 points and a minus-6 rating last season after scoring 22 points with a minus-7 rating the season before.
 
Regardless of what happened with the Maple Leafs, the Flyers are confident Schenn can be a gritty, physical defensive-zone presence. He had 270 hits last season, nearly 100 more than any Flyer. Playing with his brother Brayden for the first time also should be a motivating factor.
 
-- Adam Kimelman
 

Penguins PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

 
For much of the 2011-12 season, there was one question that dominated the discussion about the Pittsburgh Penguins: When will Sidney Crosby return? Evgeni Malkin won League MVP honors, and James Neal was a revelation as his sidekick, but Crosby's health was an ongoing saga. When Crosby returned for good, everything seemed to fall into place for another run at the Stanley Cup.
 
That run lasted less than two weeks, as holes in a leaky defense were smashed open by the rival Philadelphia Flyers. Now it has been three years since the Cup returned to Pittsburgh, and the Penguins have exactly one postseason series victory since.
 
1. What happened to the defense?
 
The Flyers put Pittsburgh to the sword with 30 goals in six games, including 20 as Philadelphia grabbed a 3-0 lead in the series. Marc-Andre Fleury had a nightmare series, but the guys in front of him deserved to share the blame. The Penguins left gaping swaths of open ice for the Flyers to exploit, and ill-timed turnovers exasperated the issue.
 
While fans filled the radio air waves in Pittsburgh calling for major changes to the defense corps, the only guy who isn't on the roster from last year at this point is Zbynek Michalek, who was traded to clear cap space for a run at Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Unless general manager Ray Shero can make another trade, the main protagonists on the defense will be the same, with the addition of a young player from within. It isn't just the defensemen, either -- the forwards have to show a renewed commitment to goal prevention as well.
 
2. Will Marc-Andre Fleury rebound?
 
Ilya Bryzgalov had a miserable first playoff series for the Flyers, yet his ignominy was easily overshadowed by the goalie at the other end of the ice. Fleury allowed 26 goals in essentially five-and-a-half games, producing a 4.63 goals-against average and .834 save percentage that wouldn't have cut it in the mid-1980s.
 
Fleury has had famous foul-ups before, but the way he lost "it" so suddenly was startling. The pressure to get off to a good start in 2012-13 will be immense. The addition of Tomas Vokoun as his backup should help lighten his workload, but if Fleury struggles like he did at the end of last season it could be a lot lighter than he wants it to be.
 
3. Who replaces Zbynek Michalek?
 
There are a bevy of young defensemen who will compete for at least one spot on the opening-night roster and maybe two, pending a decision to carry seven or eight rearguards. The obvious favorite is Simon Despres, who impressed in 18 games for Pittsburgh last season and could be ready for 18-20 minutes per night immediately.
 
Other candidates include summer additions Brian Dumoulin and Dylan Reese, top prospect Joe Morrow and "veterans" Brian Strait, Robert Bortuzzo and Carl Sneep.
 
4. Who is the last forward among the top six?
 
Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis are locks to be on one of Pittsburgh's top two forward lines. Malkin, Neal and Kunitz were one of the top lines in the League last season, while Crosby and Dupuis have played together for a long time.
 
Evgeni Malkin
Evgeni Malkin
Center - PIT
GOALS: 50 | ASST: 59 | PTS: 109
SOG: 339 | +/-: 18
Kunitz was the third member of that line before Crosby's health problems, and it is possible he returns to the line. That would leave a spot open next to Malkin and Neal, who were both First Team All-Stars last season. The top candidates are Matt Cooke (19 goals last season), Tyler Kennedy (11) and Eric Tangradi (0 in 24 games). Dustin Jeffrey and top forward prospect Beau Bennett are the dark horses.  
 
5. Can Evgeni Malkin go back-to-back?
 
Malkin became the fourth player in team history to win the Hart Trophy as League MVP, scoring 50 goals and an NHL-best 109 points despite missing seven games. This was not Malkin's first time as the game's most dominant player (he was the Conn Smythe Trophy winner in 2009), but it was a worthy reward after two years of production below his expectations because of injury or lessened effectiveness.
 
It must be noted that two of Malkin's three best finishes in the MVP race came in years when Crosby missed significant time (Malkin finished second in 2008, when Crosby missed time with a high ankle sprain, and 2009). He had no trouble continuing to produce at a world-class level once Crosby returned last season, but convincing voters that he is worthy of MVP honors if arguably one of the other top two centers in the League is also on his team could be tougher than a season ago.
 
6. Can Sidney Crosby stay healthy?
 
It was coming at some point. Crosby finished the regular season and playoffs without reporting any new or reoccurring health problems, but his ability to complete a full season will remain in question until he actually does it.
 
Crosby had eight goals and 37 points in 22 games, then added eight points in six playoff games. It is possible the worst is over for Crosby, and he'll resume being the sport's dominant player in 2012-13. It will also probably be quite a long time before Penguins fans (and management) don't hold their breath any time Crosby lingers on the ice after a collision.
 
-- Corey Masisak
Quote of the Day

I remember the first time at Wrigley Field all of us had the long johns, the turtlenecks and the extra equipment because we were afraid of being cold. Halfway through the first period everybody's ripping everything off and we just ended up wearing what we would normally wear for a game at the United Center.

— Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp on the 2009 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic