Bobby Holik

Have The Rangers Kept Up

Many of you no doubt were like me, and watched the “opening night” games last night. For me it started out with an aged Def Leppard performing in Detroit, followed by a scrappy win by a Toronto Maple Leafs line-up that would (on paper at least) seemingly rival any for worst in the league.

For the late game, I chose to watch the Bruins against the Avalanche…mostly because it involved another Eastern Conference team, and I wanted to get a look at how they looked with their new additions and the return of Patrice Bergeron.

For those who don’t know, both Toronto and Boston came away with two points on the road against teams that were more heavily favored, and it got me thinking about how the teams the Rangers will compete with this year have changed. So as the Rangers look to restart their season at MSG tonight, I thought I’d give you my picks for the Eastern Conference.

The Rangers will once again play in one of the most competitive divisions in the league. The Flyers figure to be better than last season, though Umberger (trade), Kapanen (retirement) and Smith (free agent) are all gone from last year’s roster. Young defenseman Ryan Parent is scheduled to miss significant time to injury at the beginning of the season, but Brandon Coburn is healthy and the team appears to have toned down the reckless play that had them noticed for all the wrong reasons last year.

The Devils are improved simply with the addition of Brian Rolston. While the length and size of his contract was certainly of interest, there’s no question that this year he’ll contribute what New Jersey needs to get their power play going. A healthy Jamie Langenbrunner, as well as a full season of Bryce Salvador, along with the return of Bobby Holik, give the team a lot of depth and it’s hard to see the likes of Patrik Elias and Brian Gionta having another bad year like they did last season. A second year under Sutter’s tutelage is also likely to give the Devils a stronger start.

As for the Islanders, it will likely be tough going with yet another new coach behind the bench and Rick DiPietro only recently returned from off-season surgery. The Isles did sign Mark Streit for the blueline, but have already been forced to pick up Thomas Pock from waivers to cover off injuries amongst their d-men…a factor that certainly contributed to their drop off last year.

The Penguins too have a significant injury on defense, with Sergei Gonchar out for much of the season due to an injury in the preseason, and Petr Sykora also missed the first couple of games in Sweden, but is likely to return shortly. The loss of several players (Malone, Laraque, Conklin, Ruutu and Roberts) will also have an effect, though the Pens did pick up Miroslav Satan, Ruslan Fedotenko and Danny Richmond. Their success this season may very well come down to how well Marc-Andre Fleury plays in net.

Outside the Atlantic, the Northeast looks to be a division in flux. The Canadiens surprised almost everyone last season, but Carey Price showed his inexperience in the playoffs after a strong start that saw Montreal trade veteran Cristobal Huet at the deadline. The addition of Alex Tanguay certainly more than offsets the loss of Michael Ryder, but if the team has to go to Marc Denis in net, they’ll be in trouble.

Perhaps the biggest improver in the Northeast, may very well be the Bruins who will start the year with a healthy Patrice Bergeron in their line-up. Michael Ryder had success under Claude Julien in Montreal, and figures to regain that form under his former coach once again. The question for the Bruins is how well they’ll do in net. Tim Thomas is an unorthodox goalie, and tends to be streaky, relying heavily on his defense. If Chara once again gets hurt, then the Bruins might struggle a little more to compete.

The Sabres and Senators certainly have talent, but have significant questions. The Sens need to figure out their goaltending, and the addition of Alex Auld has continued the controversy in net. The Sabres real weakness is on the blueline, where they will be looking for someone to step up and provide some offense following the trade of Brian Campbell, and the loss of Dmitri Kalinin to free agency.

The Leafs will likely compete hard every night under new coach Ron Wilson, but they will have small margins for error with Vesa Toskala in net, and an offense that looks very weak on paper.

Down in the Southeast, figure the Capitals to be stronger than last year. All but written off, the Caps came within an overtime goal of knocking off the Eastern Conference finalist Philadelphia Flyers. Bruce Boudreau has the players bought into his approach, though the loss of both Huet and Kolzig has certainly weakened their goaltending situation. Can Jose Theodore turn the clock back, or will he continue to struggle behind a youngish team?

The Panthers made several moves late last season and over the Summer, and Tomas Vokoun looked good in the preseason. The blueline has seen the additions of Ballard, Boynton and McCabe, but the loss of Jokkinen (trade) and an injury to Stephen Weiss, may give the team some trouble early in the season.

Tampa has probably had more changes than any team in the East, and it’s going to take some time to figure out whether it’s for the best. Mike Smith and Olaf Kolzig looked good in the Bolts’ first two games, but there was a lack of offensive firepower, and a blueline missing Boyle (trade) and Ranger (injury), the team struggled. Look for the struggles to continue into the season.

As for the Thrashers, they had to overpay free agent defender Ron Hainsey just to help make the league Cap minimum, and will go into the season looking at the likely loss of Ilya Kovalchuk to free agency at the end of the year.

Finally the Hurricanes, a team that did everything wrong at the end of last season, looks not all that much stronger than last year. Erik Cole has gone in exchange for struggling defender Joni Pitkanen in the only major move that the club made. They still have good goaltending, but they should see increased competition from the Capitals and Panthers in the division.

Final season predictions…

1. Flyers
2. Capitals
3. Bruins
4. Devils
5. Canadiens
6. Senators
7. Rangers
8. Penguins
9. Panthers
10. Sabres
11. Hurricanes
12. Lightning
13. Islanders
14. Maple Leafs
15. Thrashers

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