August is almost upon us, which can only mean one thing – its training camp time.
The time in the NHL where there’s hope running through every team’s fan base, except for Toronto’s of course. But, with that hope in mind, it’s time for our ridiculously early season prognostications that will likely be proven to be dead wrong by the second week of the season or just the Ridiculously Early Season Predictions, for short.
We’re going to start with the Eastern Conference this season, namely the Atlantic Division so, let’s get started.
New Jersey Devils – The NHLPA filed their grievance on Thursday regarding Ilya Kovalchuk’s contract and one would assume that, despite their desire to resolve this quickly both sides are digging in for a fight.
Even without Kovalchuk in the fray, however, the Devils remain a much improved team over last season’s with the additions of Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder on defense and Jason Arnott up front. It could, in fact, be argued that the Devils could be a better all around team without Kovalchuk, as they would have to unload a contract in order to come into the season under the salary cap.
Looking at this team, however, Volchenkov and Tallinder should be upgrades over the departed Johnny Oduya and Paul Martin, while Arnott should give the team a solid second-line center that can pitch in on offense.
While these three players alone might not get the Devils back to the promised land, in the Stanley Cup finals, they will certainly go a long way towards making New Jersey more competitive both in the regular season and the post season.
New York Islanders – The Islanders may find themselves in the enviable situation of having to spend money in order to reach the cap floor this season – something that many teams might relish at this point in the off season.
The problem for the Isles, however, is how do they do that?
With the big fish out of the free agency pond, the Isles may have to resort to multiple signings, which could cut down on the amount of playing time that some of their youngsters would get.
It’s hard to imagine that forwards Doug Weight and Matt Moulson won’t be back with New York this season, so that will take care of some of it, but likely won’t resolve the entire issue, but this is good news for a team that only has seven roster players under contract for next season and 13 restricted free agents coming up.
Another year’s experience for their big time youngsters will be good for the Isles, and they’re headed in the right direction – they’re just not there quite yet.
New York Rangers – As has been the case the last few seasons, the Rangers are an enigma wrapped in a riddle, wrapped in a puzzle.
They have Marian Gaborik who, after countless disappointing seasons in Minnesota, came out and showed that he could shoulder the load and be a superstar in the NHL, but past him they don’t have many players that chipped in offensively.
Then, this off season they made what many consider to be the shrewdest move, signing Martin Biron as a capable back up for a goalie who has never really had a capable back up, but they then went out and signed enforcer Derek Boogaard to a ridiculous four-year, $1.65 million per contract.
So, as it stands now, the Rangers aren’t really much better than they were at the end of last season. Alexander Frolov’s agent has stated that his client is close to a deal with the blueshirts and, if that’s the case, the team could be looking better going into this season.
But, as it stands right now, they’re in the same spot that they were last season, which means that they will likely be on the outside looking in once more.
Philadelphia Flyers – After spending most of the off season pretending like the salary cap didn’t apply to them, they’re now back under the cap by a whole $327k.
After replacing Simon Gagne with Nikolai Zherdev, which was likely a salary shedding move, it is apparent that the Flyers are anticipated increased production from James Van Riemsdyk, Claude Giroux and Ville Leino next season, along with what Zherdev brings, to make up for the loss of Gagne’s production.
But the story here isn’t in the team’s offense, but in a defensive unit that could easily be the best in the NHL.
After their defense got embarrassed by Chicago through much of the finals, the Flyers responded by going out and trading for Andrei Meszaros and Matt Walker and signing free agent Sean O’Donnell.
That gives them five defensemen that could legitimately be considered top-five defensemen and two more that are legitimate shut down d-men, plus Oscars Bartulis who appears to now be on the outside looking in.
All of this points to the fact that we could very well be looking at a situation much like the Penguins and Blackhawks faced, of having to lose before you can win.
Pittsburgh Penguins – Let’s be perfectly honest here. You can never count the Pens out of anything.
While they still have one glaring need to address (a scoring winger), the Pens have upgraded their defensive unit which should be a big help for Marc-Andre Fleury.
Zybnek Michalek and Paul Martin give the Pens two more defensemen that can play in any situation and takes the pressure off of Kris Letang and Alex Gologoski on the powerplay and should help in the wake of losing Sergei Gonchar to free agency.
The best news for the Pens, also, is that they have the cap room to address their need for a winger before free agency is out. With the market value for free agent forwards taking a dive, especially with the signing of Nikolai Zherdev, the Pens can more than afford to improve their forward corps.
That, in and of itself, is encouraging news for Pens fans and they should expect to see the playoffs in Pittsburgh once again.
Well, now that we’re done with the previews, let’s take a look at how I think the Atlantic Division is going to line up come playoff time this coming season:
1) Philadelphia Flyers
2) New Jersey Devils
3) Pittsburgh Penguins
4) New York Rangers
5) New York Islanders
Through most of the season last season, all five teams were in playoff contention and it should be much of the same this season, though I think that the Rangers and Islanders will fall of towards the end of the season once again and be on the outside looking in. The Flyers, Devils and Penguins, however, should all be back in the dance once again.
Up Next: The Northeast Division