The July 1st free agency frenzy is past and camp is still almost two months away. Yep, this is definitely the doldrums of the NHL season, and it only takes a look at the number of discussions about potential lines and the relative value of those players that filed for arbitration to know that we’re all just aching for the season to get under way again. As it turns out this article originally germinated as a response to the question “Who do you think will win the Atlantic Division this year?”. My response of course was typically non-committal, after all we’re still ten weeks away from opening night and all manner of things could happen between then and now.
But rather than dismiss the question out of hand (or remain satisfied with playing devil’s advocate) I have assembled what I will hope to be at least a modestly interesting recap of the summer so far, and how each team might compare to last season
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
ADD: Rachunek, Vishnevski, Weekes, Zubrus
SUB: Clemmenson, Dowd, Gomez, Lukowich, Rafalski, Rasmussen
Interestingly enough the Devils only lost 32 of their goals from last season, with 21 of those shared between Rafalski and Gomez. By contrast they added 33 goals, with most of those coming from Zubrus (20). On paper it looks as if the Devils have stepped down a notch, but in all reality I think they’ll be as tough as ever. Perhaps the biggest question for the team remains one of depth. They seem to get thinner each year, though the emergence of Zajac and Parise in particularly has helped give the team a jump start.
Last season there were some questions on the defense that haven’t been there for some time, and it’s hard to see how the additions of Vishnevski and Rachunek will do much to improve it. White will need to stay healthy and they’ll be hoping Paul Martin can improve on last year’s performance no doubt. 13 of last year’s opening night roster will be returning, but perhaps the more interesting aspect is that once again the Devils will start a new coach…this one a former Islander.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
ADD: Comrie, Fedotenko, Guerin, MacDonald, Sim
SUB: Blake, Dunham, Hill, Kozlov, Poti, Robitaille, Simon?, Smyth, Yashin, Zednik
How bad did the Islanders do in the off-season? Well they let go 3 of their top 5 goal scorers, they let two of their top defensemen go, and they lost the guy they spent a fortune in getting (Smyth) to free agency. Each of the replacements looks like a lesser version of what went before them, but you have to figure Nolan is going to get the most out of this bunch, and that might surprise some.
To top things off, only 10 of the 20 players who opened the season last year will return, although there’s some expectation that Chris Simon will be re-signed and that will bring the total to 11.
NEW YORK RANGERS
ADD: Drury, Gomez, Hutchinson
SUB: Cullen, Isbister, Nylander, Ortmeyer, Ozolinsh
The Rangers’ big splash was of course on Gomez and Drury, two proven centermen who got some pretty hefty raises to come to New York. Neither player can be considered in the same mould as a Lindros, Forsberg or Sakic in their prime, but both are talented players who strengthen a position that was weak for the Rangers. Perhaps the biggest strength for the Rangers is their continuity over the last couple of seasons, and the addition of players like Avery and Mara late in the season who potentially could both figure to be improvements over the entire season. There’s definitely some questions as to whether Gomez or Drury will have the chemistry with the team, and there’s still speculation that the Rangers could be looking at the free agent market or a potential trade to continue to improve their team.
13 of the 20 starters from last year are still with the organization.
ADD: Briere, Hartnell, Lupul, Smith, Timonen
SUB: Afanasenkov, Esche, Fedoruk, Pitkanen, Sanderson
While Briere and Timonen are the big additions and Lupul will be looking to bounce back from a disappointing season in Edmonton last year, the Flyers biggest change might be the one that actually occurred last year at the trade deadline when they acquired Martin Biron. Biron joined a franchise that has been synonymous with having questions in goal over the past decade and will be looking to rejeuvenate his career after he was edged out by Miller in Buffalo.
On defense the Flyers have put a lot of faith (and money) into the dimunitive Finn Kimmo Timonen, sending the highly touted (but somehow undervalued) Joni Pitkanen to Edmonton. Former Oilers captain Jason Smith will see a lot of time too on the blueline, and may actually be a good fit for Philly. Still, games aren’t won on paper, and the team has had a lot of turnover in the past 12 months….only 11 of the starting 20 players from opening night last year are still with the team, and a majority of players have only been with the team a short time.
ADD: Conklin, Sabourin, Sydor, Sykora
SUB: Ekman, Melichar, Ouellet, Petrovicky, Thibault, Thorburn
The scary thing about the Penguins is that they didn’t really lose anyone of consequence. Half the players they lost were only supporting cast, while they added a couple of interesting pieces in Sykora and Sydor. The Penguins also have the benefit of having had success last year and finding out what it’s like to play in the playoffs (a little like the Rangers the year before). This season they’ll go as far as Crosby and Fleury will take them…and that’s not even mentioning Ryan Whitney, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal.
12 of the starting 20 from last season’s opener will return, but this is a team that is building momentum and has a good balance of young and old, with all of their core players still with their best years ahead of them.