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NHL Mid-Season Report: Atlantic Division

Sidney Crosby is challenged by young Michael Del Zotto. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

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Sidney Crosby is challenged by young Michael Del Zotto. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

NEW JERSEY DEVILS

THN pre-season prediction: 5th in East

Scoring leaders: Patrik Elias, 30; Ilya Kovalchuk, 23; Travis Zajac, 21.

Key stat:
Devils have league’s worst 5-on-5 goals-for/against ratio (0.51); by contrast, the Boston Bruins – a team that plays like New Jersey’s teams used to play – is the NHL’s best in that department and nearly three times as good as the Devils (1.47).

Biggest surprise:
Martin Brodeur. Normally, this is a place where we’d talk about positive surprises, but the Devils have been so bad, we’ve got to look at the precipitous fall in play of New Jersey’s cornerstone netminder. Brodeur has been pulled as many times this year as he has wins (six) and is on course to easily post the worst goals-against average and save percentage of his career. He’s not getting any help from his defensemen, but it looks as if the Devils’ longtime dependence on Brodeur has taken its toll.

Biggest disappointment: Ilya Kovalchuk. It’s easy to pin this label on the guy who just signed a 15-year, $100-million contract, but in this case, it’s warranted. From showing poor leadership (e.g. arriving late for team meetings), to his team-worst minus-29 mark to scoring as many goals as 36-year-old Jason Arnott, Kovalchuk has been a complete washout. If his play doesn’t improve soon, look for Devils GM Lou Lamoriello to take the radical step of forming a new professional league all by himself, so he has somewhere to “loan” Kovalchuk and his mammoth deal.

What to expect:
The sound heard when something – in this case, the Devils’ season – is circling a drain, because there’s no chance whatsoever they’ll qualify for post-season play. With Jamie Langenbrunner traded and other veterans likely to follow, Lamoriello will have little choice but to take stock of what his team needs and attempt to address it in the off-season. Signing Zach Parise to a contract extension is crucial, but in the past Lamoriello has shown he’s usually good at retaining talent developed in New Jersey’s system.

The bigger concern should be (a) how to improve a blueline corps that is nowhere close to the league’s best; and (b) what to do with a franchise goalie who may be out of gas – and who definitely has one more year and $5.2 million left on his contract. There’s no easy answer to either. The irony for Kovalchuk is he may be further from playoff contention in New Jersey than his former team in Atlanta has become in his absence.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS

THN pre-season prediction: 14th in East

Scoring leaders: John Tavares, 29; Blake Comeau, 26; P.A. Parenteau, 24.

Key stat: Isles are the league’s only team that’s yet to win a game when they’ve outshot their opponent (0-14).

Biggest surprise: Andrew MacDonald. He missed 15 games due to a fractured hand, but the Isles’ sixth round pick (160th overall) in 2006 has come on strong to emerge as the team’s best defenseman (other than the injured Mark Streit and the traded James Wisniewski). MacDonald leads the team in average time on ice per game (22:48) and, after recording just two assists in his first 15 games, he has 10 in his past 11.

Biggest disappointment: Rick DiPietro. Now, a lot of things went wrong for the Islanders this year, but DiPietro’s inability to stay healthy – he missed three games with a swollen left knee and is currently sidelined by a groin injury – combined with his inconsistent play (including a 3.46 GAA and an .889 save percentage) makes the decade still remaining on his contract seem like a long, long time.

What to expect: With the playoffs all but a fantasy for the Isles, GM Garth Snow will continue stripping his roster of veterans – as he did when dealing Wisniewski and, more recently, Dwayne Roloson – and accumulating draft picks and prospects such as Ty Wishart.

After that, though, there’s no indication as to what Snow will do. The Isles have improved under interim coach Jack Capuano (they’re 8-3-2 since mid-December), but there’s still half-a-season left to play – and with Roloson gone and DiPietro injured, it could be a painful process.

Some of that pain will be alleviated once the organization takes advantage of what should be a very high first round draft pick again this summer. However, at some point, the roster must be augmented with capable vets who can take pressure off John Tavares and other youngsters. Having a change in fortune in terms of injuries would help as well.

NEW YORK RANGERS

THN pre-season prediction: 13th in East

Scoring leaders: Brandon Dubinsky, 37; Derek Stepan, 24; Marian Gaborik, 23.

Key stat:
Rangers have won more road games than any NHL team (15-7-1), but are just 10-9-2 at home.

Biggest surprise:
Brian Boyle. The 6-foot-7 behemoth put up just four goals and six points in 71 games for the Blueshirts last year, but currently sits second in team goal-scoring this season with 14 (and 22 points) in 44 games. Not bad for a guy who had 12 goals in 107 career NHL games prior to this year.

Biggest disappointment: Michael Del Zotto. Maybe he overachieved last season as a rookie defenseman who posted nine goals and 37 points in 80 games. Maybe we forget he’s still just 20 years old. But nobody imagined Del Zotto’s point production would be cut in half and he would lose the confidence of management to the point where he was assigned to the American League (as he was January 3) to re-establish his game.

What to expect: If the Rangers could play all their games away from Madison Square Garden, they’d be challenging the Flyers, Red Wings and Canucks for first place in the league. Unfortunately, their maddening inconsistency at home has the Blueshirts in third place in the competitive Atlantic Division and only a short losing streak away from being on the outside of the playoff picture.

That reality is in part behind GM Glen Sather’s recent acquisition of Wojtek Wolski (for D-man Michal Rozsival) and likely will lead to additional deals – perhaps, for a big-time player such as Dallas’ Brad Richards – prior to the Feb. 28 trade deadline. Sather has more than enough cap room to make such a move; his history suggests he cannot help himself if he gets the chance to do so again.

Otherwise, the Rangers would benefit from some stepped-up play by highly paid right winger Marian Gaborik, who has just one game-winning goal in 30 games played.

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PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

THN pre-season prediction: 4th in East

Scoring leaders:
Mike Richards, 38; Danny Briere, 37; Claude Giroux, 36.

Key stat:
The Flyers average 3.36 goals-per-game – best in the East and third-best in the league, behind only Vancouver (3.40) and Detroit (3.42).

Biggest surprise: Sergei Bobrovsky. Most believed the Flyers would enter the season with veteran goalies Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher pushing each other for playing time. But the 22-year-old Bobrovsky pushed both out of the way – and his numbers since taking over the No. 1 role (including a 16-6-3 record, 2.55 GAA and .917 save percentage) have earned him the respect of his teammates.

Biggest disappointment: Nikolai Zherdev. It isn’t as if Zherdev had a reputation for hard work and sacrifice when he signed with the Flyers last summer, but when you’ve scored 13 goals as he has this season and you’re still a healthy scratch, you’re confirming all the reasons why two NHL teams gave up on you.

What to expect: The Flyers dominated the first half of this season the way they were expected to dominate last year. Captain Mike Richards is one of the best two-way players (and leaders) in the game, the team’s defense is as deep and talented as any in the game, and they’ve got an embarrassment of riches up front (including Danny Briere, Claude Giroux, Jeff Carter, Ville Leino and Scott Hartnell).

Defensive difference-maker Chris Pronger is scheduled to return from right foot surgery that’s sidelined him for the past month. That’s as nice an addition as any player who’ll be traded at the deadline.

Beyond that, there’s the usual Flyers question mark in goal heading into the second half of the season and the playoffs. Although Bobrovsky has looked great at times this season, a possible tandem of him and Brian Boucher (or the since-waived Leighton) may not stand up to the pressure. And as it stands, it’s not as if Philly has the cap room to pick up anyone else.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

THN pre-season prediction: 2nd in East

Scoring leaders: Sidney Crosby, 66; Kris Letang, 40; Evgeni Malkin, 35.

Key stat: Pittsburgh’s penalty kill is ranked first overall in the NHL at 87.4 percent, proving this team doesn’t win on Sidney Crosby’s offense alone.

Biggest surprise: Mark Letestu. A career American Leaguer, Letestu was given an opportunity at the NHL level when Jordan Staal was injured; the 25-year-old has taken advantage of it, scoring nine goals (including three game-winners) and 19 points in 45 games.

Biggest disappointment: Evgeni Malkin. Sure, he’s second on the team in goal-scoring (with 15) and has missed time with a knee injury, but Malkin has underwhelmed – first, with his offensive numbers, which are on course to drop for the second straight season; but also with his defense: he is the only one of the top 14 Penguins point producers with a minus rating (minus-4).

What to expect:
Pittsburgh’s engine has more than one crucial component – but let’s not fool ourselves: this is Crosby’s team.

That makes the concussion he suffered at the Winter Classic worth worrying about. If he’s sidelined for any great length of time, the pressure will fall to Malkin, Jordan Staal, Kris Letang, Alex Goligoski and Marc-Andre Fleury to pick up the slack. But as the key stat above demonstrates, the Penguins are deep enough on defense – the signings of Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin were two of the best of the off-season – to continue to give the opposition fits.

But if Crosby can come back as some have with relatively few after-effects, the Penguins will continue to push for first place in their division and conference. And if Crosby’s dedication to all aspects of his game continues to improve it, hockey fans will be in for even better treats.

THN Puck Panel – Breaking down the Atlantic and Northwest Divisions


PRODUCER: Ted Cooper

 

THN's mid-season reports will run two a day from Jan. 12-14.

Follow Adam's hockey tweets at twitter.com/TheHockeyNews, and his non-hockey observations at twitter.com/ProteauType.

Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Mondays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.

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