Pick 'em: Which Atlantic Team(s) Do the Islanders Leap?

Nino, young Jedi.

"You see where GM Garth Snow is going with this young group. But do you see them being better than any divisional rival? Us neither."

That's from The Hockey News Yearbook, which picks the Isles 12th in the East and which just arrived in my mailbox completely unaware of the Trent Hunter-Brian Rolston trade.

(I mention that not because that trade was a blockbuster, but because year after year THN sends me outdated yearbooks and previews that make me wonder who their audience is other than the nostalgic sap like myself who remembers when THN really was the "bible" of hockey and not just the "Digest of things Ken Campbell ranted about last week.")

But the premise is fair, and part of the formula for cap-era prognosticators each year: When picking who you expect to make the playoffs, it's helpful to suss out which playoff teams you think won't return.

Although as fans we are prone to play the disrespect card, I really have noticed a popular and fair consensus about the East among serious observers: There are a few very good teams, a few bad teams, and a vast bubble of maybe-could-be's in the middle. The Islanders are often in that bubble, but one stumbling block -- which has come up in discussion here all summer -- is that they can't top that bubble without also jumping some Atlantic rivals. So which ones will it be?

Let's tackle it from a strengths and weaknesses perspective:

Pittsburgh Penguins

Strengths: Coaching, defense/PK, Sidney Crosby if healthy

Weaknesses: Powerplay, Crosby's health, Evgeni Malkin's return from injury, Fleury's consistency

Key Additions: Steve Sullivan

THN is high on the Penguins and says they'll be division champs even without Crosby, but that just isn't true. They got by on fumes last season without Crosby, performing admirably but ultimately squeaking by. Sadly, where there's smoke there may be fire with Crosby's concussion recovery, so if he's not back it will be a long, hard year for the Pens. They are banking a lot on James Neal, an acquisition that was also banking a lot on ... Crosby being healthy.

 

Philadelphia Flyers

Strengths: Young forwards, a willingness to spend over the cap no matter what, Chris Pronger when healthy, an owner who totally never panics

Weaknesses: Paying a decent goalie like he's a savior, dumping two top forwards for kids and the cap room to overpay a goalie, Pronger's slow decline, Briere's congenital fear of Frans

Key Additions: Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, Ilya Bryzgalov, Jakub Voracek

Ilya Bryzgalov is not the savior Ed Snider thinks he's getting. (Thank goodness they didn't even go for Tomas Vokoun.) Jaromir Jagr is about to bring out his inner Kovalev. Schenn is a rookie. Maxime Talbot will make turtling popular in Philly. It's a good thing this team's always up for spending to the cap, because they make some seriously curious decisions. If Pronger's healthy for a year they still get into the playoffs comfortably. If not, they're candidates for this post.

P.S. THN has them fourth in the conference.

 

Short Island Smurfs

Strengths: Goaltending, solid defense, dangerous top six when healthy

Weaknesses: Marian Gaborik's doll parts, expecting too much from Brad Richards, Glen Sather

Key Additions: Brad Richards

Sather signed Richards to a silly cap-era contract, but that doesn't mean Richards won't significantly help the Rangers this season. That, Lundqvist and an underrated defense should keep them competitive. If Tim Erixon becomes what they hope Matt Gilroy would be, that blueline should be enviable. Sean Avery and Erik Christensen as fourth-line parts is much more valuable than Sean Avery and Erik Chrsitensen as first-line parts.

THN has them 7th.

 

New Jersey Devils

Strengths: Their Corsi-style figures from last year were better than their awful record.

Weaknesses: Martin Brodeur's any-day-now decline, Travis Zajac's injury, Zach Parise's uncertain injury rebound, Ilya Kovalchuk's curious presence

Key Additions: Trent Hunter's buyout, ... Adam Larsson?

Sounds like Larsson is factored in, which means there will be a learning curve. Just when they get Parise back, Zajac goes down for the opening month or two. Meanwhile, the wild card here is new coach Peter DeBoer, who didn't have much to work with in Florida but still carries that novice rep into a locker room that didn't have much patience for John MacLean.

And Kovalchuk -- he's like Alexei Yashin in some ways: Immensely talented, but difficult to fit into the overall scheme. He will provide goals, frustration, and confused teachable moments without Lemaire.

P.S. THN puts them 12th in the conference.

 

New York Islanders

Strengths: Youthful exuberance, underrated top six, potentially good blueline

Weaknesses: Goaltending wild cards, Mark Streit et al return from injury, youthful exuberance

Key Additions: Marty Reasoner, Brian Rolston, Mark Streit's live body

I'll say it again: Reasoner is a more important addition than many think. An upgrade over Zenon Konopka and a useful swing player on the bottom two lines. Rolston will require capturing some magic to be important, but it's not out of the question nor beyond his abilities to make a difference. That said, it again comes back to injuries and the depth to withstand them. The Islanders have more promising injury replacements in the system than they've had in the past, but it will still require either the new minor pros being ready to step in, or the youngsters being ready to step up.

With strong young forwards that should be one year wiser and a defense that (when healthy) can get the job done, the big X factor is the goaltending, where there are many candidates with caveats.

If Streit-Travis Hamonic-Andrew MacDonald are the top three they can be, if Ty Wishart develops, if the veterans swing for par, if Al Montoya continues the magic, the Islanders will be legitimately in the hunt.

 

So what's this mean? The Atlantic could be a strong division. It will probably be a tight division. From injuries to youth to offseason gambles, you could make an argument for any Atlantic team to fall out of the playoff picture. That means if things break just right for the Islanders, they could leap a rival or two (or three?) and make the playoffs. Or they could put in a solid season but still finish fifth. (In contrast, the Southeast has Florida and Atlantapeg. The Northeast has Ottawa and Toronto.)

To achieve their goal though, the Islanders are going to have to pass somebody.

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