UPDATED: October 4, 2006

 HOFFER'S NET

By Pat Hoffman.

A Strong Current: An Atlantic Division Preview

The 2005-06 National Hockey League season saw three teams in the Atlantic Division place in the top 10 in the league, three teams amass at least 100 points and featured candidates for the Hart (Jaromir Jagr), Jack Adams (Tom Renney) and Vezina trophies (Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Brodeur). The division featured superstar youngsters such as Pittsburgh Penguin phenom Sidney Crosby, Devils winger Brian Gionta and Rangers rookie winger Petr Prucha. Hockey pundits wonder what the Atlantic division has in store for us this year and just looking at the way things are setup, it looks like the same three teams that dominated the division last season, the New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Rangers, will continue to do so during the 2006-07 NHL campaign.

Many hockey/sports publications have picked the New York Rangers to win the division this season and with good reason. The Rangers improved their roster during the off-season by picking up skilled free agents in Brendan Shanahan, Matt Cullen, Aaron Ward, adding a solid scoring winger in Adam Hall and resigning Jaromir Jagr's Czech mate, Martin Straka. With these moves, the Rangers have added a more formidable scoring punch to ease some of the burden off of Jagr's shoulders and have also added a defenseman that is reliable, a good shot-blocker and someone who has won the Stanley Cup with both the Detroit Red Wings and last year's champion Carolina Hurricanes. All of these acquisitions to go along with a superstar goaltender between the pipes in Henrik Lundqvist, depth forwards in Michael Nylander, Petr Prucha and Jason Ward and solid defenseman in Marek Malik, Michael Rozsival and Darius Kasparaitis, provides the Rangers with a really solid roster going into the new season.

While this roster certainly has the talent and depth to be the best team in the Atlantic, it will not be an easy task. One cannot forget about the New Jersey Devils, a team that reeled off an incredible 15-game winning streak at the end of the season to not only grab the division title, but also sweep the Rangers right out of the playoffs in the first round. The Philadelphia Flyers also pose as a threat with the likes of Peter Forsberg and Simon Gagne. The Pittsburgh Penguins will also look to make some noise this year as Crosby looks to continue to put points up on the board while newcomer Evgeni Malkin looks to make his mark in the NHL in his rookie season. The New York Islanders will just try to prove to everyone that they are not a joke and that should be used as motivation to get their club back afloat.

Now, let's take a closer look at these teams that the Rangers will have to fight off if they want to win the division this year.

New Jersey Devils

General Manager Lou Lamoriello figured out a way to solve his salary cap issue by sending defenseman Vladimir Malakhov out of town and as a result, the Devils seem to be set to begin the 2006-07 NHL campaign. The Devils will still be a tough team to play against this season. New Devils coach Claude Julien will certainly have his hands full if the team manages to lose one of its top players such as leading Devils goal scorer, Brian Gionta (still unsigned as of press time). However, if that happens, he still has top forwards Patrick Elias and Scott Gomez, Brian Rafalski, a tough, rugged defenseman in Colin White and of course, future Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur. With the team getting ready to play in a new arena in the next few seasons, look for the Devils to try and get some new fans by playing tough, competitive hockey all season long.

Offense

Most hockey analysts figured that the Devils would have trouble scoring goals without Patrick Elias in the lineup for half the season but as it turned out, the Devils received had an incredible 1-2 scoring punch in Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez. Gionta led the team with 48 goals, 10 of which were game-winners while Gomez scored 33 goals. The Devils need Elias to be the 40-goal man that he is capable of being so that the team does not rely too heavily on G & G (Gionta and Gomez) and will also need some scoring from Jamie Langenbrunner, sophomore Zach Parise and defenseman Paul Martin, who has the potential to be a dangerous power play quarterback.

Defense

Fortunately for the Devils, Colin White signed a long-term deal with the club and should be a strong, physical presence on the blueline. Brian Rafalski led all Devils defensemen in scoring last season with 49 points and will most likely do the same this season as he moves the puck well and sees lots of time on the power play. Sophomore defenseman Paul Martin was second in scoring for Devils defenseman behind Brian Rafalski with 37 points. Martin, who also eats up a lot of ice time on the Devils power play, is quickly becoming one of the NHL's best defenseman and has the potential to be a top-scoring defenseman in the league.

Goaltending

After a slow start and some problems adjusting to the new rules, Martin Brodeur went onto win over 40 games (43) once again while posting 2.57 goals against average and a .911 save percentage. He was one of the main reasons that the Devils got so hot towards the end of the season to help them clinch the Atlantic division. Look for him to play between 55-70 games once again.

The backup goaltending duties for the Devils belong to Scott Clemmensen, as he won three games, had a 3.35 goals against average and posted a .881 save percentage last season. With Brodeur playing the majority of the games, do not expect Clemmensen to see too much playing time this year.

Philadelphia Flyers

With Forsberg feeling strong and healthy and with Gagne and Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock back in the fold, one would think that the Flyers would be set to go. However, bad luck continues to haunt the Flyers as they appear to have lost starting goaltender Antero Niittymaki for up two months after he tore his left labrum during practice on September 26th. What will the Flyers do now? Will they stick with former playoff hero Robert Esche and 21-year old Martin Houle or will they go after an experienced goaltender such as a Sean Burke or Brian Boucher? As of press time, that question has yet to be answered.

Offense

The Flyers' offense appears to be set. With Forsberg healthy, Gagne resigned and a resurgent Mike Knuble on board, the Flyers should have no problem putting the puck in the net during this upcoming season. The team will also look to sophomore Jeff Carter, who scored 23 goals as a rookie last season, to help provide some balance to the teams' offense. However, if the team wants to be a consistent offensive threat, they will need more scoring from their defensemen.

Defense

Ken Hitchcock is known for putting in a defense-first style of hockey and that will continue to be the philosophy of this hockey club as long as Hitchcock is at the helm. Joni Pitkanen really made his presence known as top offensive blueliner last season as he posted 46 points to lead all Flyers' defenseman in scoring. Some of the scoring slack will be picked up by Freddy Meyer, as he racked up 27 points in 57 games for the Flyers. After realizing that his blueline lacked toughness, Flyers GM Bob Clarke went out and got Denis Gauthier in the middle of last season, as he should continue to be a physical force along with Derian Hatcher on the Flyers blueline.

Goaltending

There always seems to be some kind of goaltending problem in Philly and this year is no different. As mentioned earlier, started Niittymaki could be lost for up to two months after tearing his left labrum in practice. This hurts the team after Niittymaki had such a strong season with the club last year. Niittymaki was spectacular in a 17-consecutive start stretch dating back to late December into January and he used that momentum to win 23 games and post a goals against average of 2.97 and a save percentage of .895. To top it all off, he was a Silver medalist and a tournament MVP in the 2006 Olympics in Turin. Hopefully, he'll be in top form when he returns to the ice in the next two months or so.

For now, the Flyers will have to rely on Robert Esche. Last season, Esche won 22 games, had 2.97 goals against average and a .897 save percentage. In the beginning of the season, Hitchcock gave Esche the opportunity to be the number one guy but Esche never seemed to be able to take control. The question is will Esche be able to take control this season? Only time will tell.

Pittsburgh Penguins

It is a whole new world in Pittsburgh this season. The Pens' have a new general manager in Ray Shero, Mario Lemieux has retired once again and another new star player is ready to be born in the NHL as Evgeni Malkin gets ready to take the stage in four to six weeks after dislocating his shoulder in a pre-season game. This season also marks the return of superstar Sidney Crosby, coming off a 102 point rookie season and ready to make even more noise this year. Is this a playoff team? Not yet. However, this club could turn things around this season and give us a glimpse of what they could be in the future.

Offense

It is expected that the Pens' offense will be led by Crosby and Malkin, once he returns from injury. After those two guys, the Penguins will look to depth players such as Mark Recchi, John LeClair, Nils Ekman, Ryan Malone and Colby Armstrong to help contribute to the offense this season. What will also help the Penguins offense is if defensemen Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney, coming off of 58 and 38 points respectively, can continue to produce from the blueline.

Defense

The Penguins defense has been horrendous for the past four years. However, once coach Michel Therrien came in, a new defensive system was put in place and the Pens' started to play a bit more responsibly in their own zone. Shero wants this team to develop a system of smart-defensive hockey. As part of the development process, Shero went out and picked up free agent defenseman Mark Eaton, who had been a top penalty killer with the Nashville Predators. Hopefully, Gonchar and Whitney can pick up where they left off last season and help bring stability to the Pens' defense.

Goaltending

The time is now for Penguins young phenom goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to become the go-to man in net. The 21-year old played in 50 games last season and put up respectable numbers for the worst defensive teams in the NHL, as he posted a 3.25 goals against average and a .898 save percentage. This kid has great athleticism, an abundance of side-to-side quickness and a drive to put the Penguins back on the map.

The backup goaltender for the Pens is Jocelyn Thibault. He was a free agent flop for the hockey club as he went 1-9 in 16 games for his club while posting a 4.46 goals against average and a .876 save percentage. What the Pens could use is a solid veteran presence in net but that has yet to be seen down in PA.

New York Islanders

Things are certainly sinking on the Island as the club had a whirlwind summer. First, the hiring then firing of new general manger Neil Smith. After that, former Islanders' backup goaltender Garth Snow was hired to be the gm of the struggling franchise. Close to two months after that, the Islanders resigned goaltender Rick DiPietro to a 15-year deal. Hopefully, the team can start winning some games under new head coach Ted Nolan or else the Islanders can be found at the bottom of the Atlantic, no pun intended.

Offense

Ted Nolan wants his hockey club to be an attacking team this season. Last season, the Islanders were tied with the Boston Bruins for fewest goals scored in the Eastern Conference (230 goals, 2.80 goals per game). Leading the Islanders offense were Alexei Yashin (68 points), Miroslav Satan (66 points) and Jason Blake (57 points). The Islanders were look to newcomer Mike Sillinger, who scored 32 goals last season, to help take some of the scoring pressure off of Yashin and Satan.

Defense

If the Islanders are to have any success this season, their defense must be better than it has been over the past couple of seasons. During the off season, the team went out and signed Brendan Witt, who will help to provide a physical force in front of the Isles net. The team also signed former New York Ranger heavily booed defenseman Tom Poti, who the Isles will look to provide some much needed offense on the blueline. Rounding out the defense are Alexei Zhitnik, Radek Martinek and a few youngsters who are looking to solidify spots on the team this year.

Goaltending

The first overall pick in the 2000 NHL entry draft and new 15-year man for the Islanders has yet to find his niche out on the Island. While winning 30 games and posting a goals against average of 3.02 and a respectable save percentage of .900, Rick DiPietro has yet to excel as the Islanders starting goaltender. He has been unable to provide his hockey club with a consistent regular season and he still has some trouble positionally. If he wants to prevent further embarrassment of his team, he will need to have a strong regular season and try to push his club into the playoffs, certainly no easy task.

The role of backup goaltender belongs to former Devil, Ranger and Thrasher goaltender, Mike Dunham. Look for Dunham to get into many games this season if DiPietro cannot give the Islanders want they want: solid goaltending

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 The opinions expressed on this page are of the author, and in no way reflect the views of the NHL, it teams or players. All material in Hoffer's Net copyrighted (C) 2006 Spector's Hockey. Reproduction of this material in whole, or in part, without consent by the author or Spector's Hockey is prohibited.