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Free-agency analysis: Atlantic Division

by Adam Kimelman
The Philadelphia Flyers' unexpected ride to the Stanley Cup Final featured remarkable play from goaltender Michael Leighton, but all that did was raise a number of questions heading into the start of free agency July 1.

Can he be a full-time No. 1 goalie? Or was his success during the 2009-10 season a one-time anomaly?

The answer to that question is just one of many facing the five teams in the division.

Here's a closer look at the Atlantic Division teams and what we can expect from them:

New Jersey Devils

Last season: 48-27-7, 103 points, lost in first round of the playoffs

Re-signing Ilya Kovalchuk would certainly be a nice gift to new coach John MacLean. The Devils were markedly better offensively with Kovalchuk, who scored at least 40 goals -- including 10 in 27 games with New Jersey -- for the sixth-straight season. With Kovalchuk, the Devils scored 76 goals in 27 games (2.86 goals per game); in 55 games prior to his arrival, they had just 140 goals (2.54 per game). The prevailing question, however, is how heavily the Devils will get into the bidding.

They also need to find the money to re-sign top defenseman Paul Martin, who will be one of the more desirable players available at his position. They also need to leave a little money in reserve to sign Zach Parise, who will be a restricted free agent following the 2010-11 season.

Another box on the to-do list is finding a backup goalie for Martin Brodeur. Brodeur will turn 39 on May 6, and the last three seasons he's been home to blow out the candles on his birthday cake, with some saying it's due to over-use during the regular season. An established goaltender -- at least someone more established than Yann Danis -- could ease that burden.

Lower on the list of priorities is finding checking line players to potentially replace Rob Niedermayer and Dean McAmmond, who might not return.

New York Islanders

Last season: 34-37-11, 79 points, out of playoffs

There are a number of holes and salary cap room to play with, but luring players a rebuilding team isn't the easiest deal. Scoring likely is at the top of GM Garth Snow's wish list, but it's hard to imagine Ilya Kovalchuk or Teemu Selanne coming to Uniondale. Re-signing restricted free agent Matt Moulson is a necessity, but they'll need more than that.

Defensively, the Isles could use a defenseman who can take some of the pressure off Mark Streit. Martin is familiar with the division, while Volchenkov and Michalek add grit and shot-blocking ability.

With all the young players the Islanders feature, re-signing a character player like Richard Park also would be helpful.

New York Rangers

Last season: 38-33-11, 87 points, out of playoffs

With their playoff hopes on the line in the season's final weekend, the Rangers' leading goal scorer over their last two games was ... Jody Shelley? Yes, the same Shelley who went 53 weeks between goals. So a big need going into the summer is finding offense from someone other than Marian Gaborik.

How that's accomplished, however, is a big question. The Rangers already have salary cap issues and need to re-sign restricted free agent defenseman Marc Staal and Dan Girardi -- both of whom are due big raises. It's certain GM Glen Sather would love to be in on the bidding for Ilya Kovalchuk, but he'd probably have to be creative with some big contracts already on the payroll. The combined $11.5 million cap hit for defensemen Wade Redden and Michal Rozsival makes things particularly difficult.

While Olli Jokinen likely won't be asked back, Vinny Prospal is a favorite of coach John Tortorella so it's likely an effort will be made to re-sign him. Ray Whitney and Alexander Frolov also could be possibilities.

Philadelphia Flyers

Last season: 41-35-6, 88 points, lost in Stanley Cup Final

If it seems like Groundhog Day around the Flyers, well, it's because almost every year sees the same questions being asked about goaltending. This year, it's up to GM Paul Holmgren to determine if Michael Leighton is the goalie that can lead his team to its first championship since 1975. Does he commit to Leighton with the belief that last season's success was a sign of things to come? Or does he believe last season was the best Leighton ever will play, and he'll go back to being the player waived four times in the last four seasons?

Holmgren already reportedly has opened discussions with the agents for San Jose's Evgeni Nabokov and Dallas' Marty Turco, both of whom will be free July 1, and already have been told they won't be offered new contracts from their current teams. Less expensive options include Nashville's Dan Ellis, St. Louis' Chris Mason and Tampa Bay's Antero Niittymaki.

Beside the net, the Flyers would like to add another veteran defenseman, preferably a defensive-minded one. Anton Volchenkov would be a good fit, but could be too expensive. Zbynek Michalek could come at a smaller figure. The team also has to sign restricted free agent Braydon Coburn.

Another scoring option on the third line would be nice, possibly to replace Arron Asham. But like with any other moves the team wants to make, the salary cap will be an issue. Goaltending appears to be the top priority, so where they progress in that vein will determine what money is available for other positions.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Last season: 47-28-7, 101 points, lost in second round of playoffs

The biggest decisions for GM Ray Shero will come along the blue line. Sergei Gonchar will become an unrestricted free agent July 1, as will Dan Hamhuis, whose negotiating rights the team acquired at the draft. Jordan Leopold, Mark Eaton and Jay McKee also will be unrestricted free agents.

Can the Penguins fit Gonchar and Hamhuis under the cap? A top five of Gonchar, Hamhuis, Kris Letang, Alex Goligoski and Brooks Orpik would be awfully nice.

Up front, the Penguins would like to get younger, meaning veterans Bill Guerin and Ruslan Fedotenko are unlikely to return, and neither will Alexei Ponikarovsky, who contributed little after being acquired from the Maple Leafs at the trade deadline. Dangling the opportunity to play alongside Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin might be just as good as cash.

Contact Adam Kimelman at

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