|Only eight points separate Sidney Crosby's fifth-place Penguins and Ryan Hollweg's first-place Rangers in the
current Atlantic Division standings.
Yes, it is only the first week of December. And yes, there are still three-quarters of a season to be played. But this Atlantic Division race is going to shape up as one heck of a race come early April.
As of Sunday, just eight points separated the first-place Rangers and the last-place Penguins, and if the season ended at the start of this week, four of the five Atlantic Division teams – the Rangers, Flyers, Devils and Islanders – would be in the playoffs.
And does anyone out there believe Sidney Crosby will allow his Penguins to miss the postseason this year?
Because of parity in the division and the absence of a cellar-dwelling punching bag, it is absolutely conceivable that all five Atlantic teams could get into the playoffs for the first time since the post-expansion era.
And if the Rangers, Flyers, Devils, Islanders and Penguins all get in this season, it will be remarkable considering each beat on one another eight times this season. In fact, the final day of the regular season features four of the five Atlantic teams in action, with the Rangers at the Devils and the Penguins at the Flyers.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
What is interesting about this division is the dichotomy of how the five teams have been built.
The Flyers, Devils and Penguins have put their fate in the hands of some of the League’s brightest young stars, while the Rangers and Islanders are counting on established veterans to lead the way.
The trend in Philadelphia, New Jersey and Pittsburgh, where young stars Mike Richards, Zach Parise and Sidney Crosby are leading their teams in scoring, illustrates a League-wide push to give younger players a bigger bite in games.
“There are so many more young players taking on more responsibility than they would have years ago,” Flyers coach John Stevens said. “Look at a guy like (Ryan) Getzlaf. He was the Ducks’ leading scorer (17 points) on their way to the Stanley Cup and he just turned 22.
“You’ve got Richards here (in Philadelphia). Look around – Crosby, (Evgeni) Malkin, (Alex) Ovechkin. Everywhere you look in every direction there seems to be a prominent, young presence on hockey teams. In Jersey you’ve got Parise and (Travis) Zajac. It’s across the board almost. Look in Chicago. (Jonathan) Toews (27 points) and (Patrick) Kane (20 points) are making huge contributions on that team and they’re teenagers.”
Unlike the 1980s and 1990s, when most rookies were given limited ice time, banished to the corners of the dressing room and ordered to provide Gatorade
To veteran teammates, today’s NHL is driven by members of the 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 draft classes, partly because of the advent of the NHL salary cap. The three-year, entry-level contracts allow teams to develop their young players quickly before they are forced to part with them, either through trades or restricted free agency.
In Philadelphia, Richards, 22, is making a case to become a write-in selection for the NHL All-Star Game. He began the week leading the team in goals (14), shots (70), points (31), faceoff percentage (52.5 percent) and was leading all Flyers forwards in ice time (21:06).
Richards’ support crew includes fourth-year forward Joffrey Lupul, 24, who is third on the team in scoring with 17 points, and third-year forwards Jeff Carter, 22, (tied for third in goals with eight) and R.J. Umberger, 25, (third in assists with 12). Rangy defenseman Braydon Coburn, 22, is third among Flyers defensemen in ice time (20:41) and is progressing nicely in his first full season in the NHL after getting spot duty with the Atlanta Thrashers.
In Newark, the Devils are beginning to resemble a Brent Sutter-coached team thanks to the contributions of young forwards Parise, 23, and Zajac, 22, and the solid play of rookie defenseman Andy Greene, 25.
Parise, taken 17th overall by the Devils in 2003, began the week leading the club in goals (12), assists (16), points (28) and power-play goals (six), and has been more effective on the road (19 points) than at the Devils’ new arena (nine).
Zajac, 22, was taken 20th overall in 2004, has four goals, two of them on the power play. Greene, who went undrafted, filled in nicely for injured veteran Colin White and is second on the Devils in ice time among defensemen at 21:02.
In Pittsburgh, the train is driven by Crosby, 20, and Malkin, 21. Crosby entered this week tied for third in the NHL with 36 points while averaging 20:58, tops among Penguins forwards. Malkin was just behind him with 30 points, and if Jordan Staal (two goals, three assists, minus-6) can get on track after netting 31 goals last season, the Penguins will make a big push for a playoff spot and perhaps a division title.
In Manhattan and Long Island, the old guard still very much is in command. The average age of the Rangers’ top four scorers – Jaromir Jagr, Scott Gomez, Chris Drury and Brendan Shanahan – is 33 years old.
No one in New York is going to challenge for a scoring title, not with Jagr leading the team with a pedestrian 21 points, but with their four leading scorers averaging nearly 20 minutes of ice time, it is clear the Blueshirts will go only as far as their 30-somethings take them.
Ditto on the Island, where the top three scorers for the Isles are veterans Mike Comrie, 27, Miro Satan, 33, and Ruslan Fedotenko, 28.
Like the Rangers, the Isles have no one in the scoring race and are relying on team defense and strong goaltending to get them into the playoffs. The Isles’ biggest minute munchers – defensemen Brendan Witt, 32, and Radek Martinek, 31 – also are on the back end of their careers, but playing strong enough to make the Islanders a legitimate playoff contender.