NHL season preview: Atlantic Division looks to bring home another East title, maybe more?

Bruce Bennett

Traditionally one of the NHL's best divisions, can the Atlantic Division send four contestants to the playoffs again after beating each other up in a compressed lockout schedule?

Though they've just one Stanley Cup to show for it, the Atlantic Division has produced four of the last five Eastern Conference Champions. In 2011-12 they sent four teams to the playoffs, with the weakest of the four reaching the Cup Finals.

But like the Philadelphia Flyers before them, the New Jersey Devils failed to bring home the hardware. Will it be a different Atlantic team's turn in 2013? Here's a quick look at the combatants.

New Jersey Devils

2011-12: (48-28-6) The Devils adjusted to and then thrived under new coach Peter DeBoer, riding his aggressive system to thump more talented teams on their way to the Stanley Cup finals. (That their longest series was a seven-game opening round win over the Panthers tells you how tight this league is.)

Offseason changes: The Devils weren't very active in pre-lockout free agency -- and their biggest splash was an overpayment of Bryce Salvador on a contract extension. Meanwhile, they lost cornerstone Zach Parise as well as finalist contributors Alexei Ponikarovsky and Petr Sykora.

Strengths: The evolution of Ilya Kovalchuk that started under Jacques Lemaire did not stall under DeBoer, who is a good coach and showed it by guiding his team through four rounds. But now without Parise and with Patrik Elias about to turn 36 this season, the team rests on Kovalchuk's and, fans hope, Adam Henrique's shoulders.

Weaknesses: Both goalies are in their late 30s and it shows. Martin Brodeur recaptured some magic last year, but it's in diminishing supply. But the loss of captain Parise is the most glaring void.

New York Rangers

2011-12: (51-24-7) The Rangers claimed their first division title since 1994, but a worn and injured team fell to the rival Devils after going seven games in each of the previous two rounds.

Offseason changes: Stop me if you've heard this before -- the Rangers added a high-priced star. This summer it was Rick Nash, who joins Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik as $7 million (or thereabouts) men. Unlike the latter two, adding Nash cost the Rangers some players. Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov are not stars, but their departure will be noticed. Tim Erixon and the draft pick are future assets, but the Rangers are always focused on the now.

In depth exchanges, the Rangers also added Arron Asham, Taylor Pyatt, Jeff Halpern and brought back Matt Gilroy, while letting Ruslan Fedotenko and Brandon Prust walk.

Strengths: Henrik Lundqvist, and some millionaires who can score. Behind the bench, John Tortorella gets ripped for his emphasis on shot blocking and his prickly demeanor, but he is a good coach. He has his players sufficiently motivated -- and scared -- and working together to support his system. Entering his fourth season, the players get it. This could be their year.

Weaknesses: If he's in any danger of burning them out, this better be their year. When the Rangers were extended to seven games in two close series against ostensibly weaker opponents, pundits questioned whether Tortorella's system was sustainable in the long run. But Marian Gaborik (who is healthy after surgery) wasn't injured blocking shots.

New York Islanders

2011-12: (34-37-11) John Tavares reached another level in 2011-12 to forecast big things for the franchise star. But as usual, he had too little help. Average goaltending, a thin blue line and inconsistently supporting forwards left the Islanders the only Atlantic team to miss the playoffs. They haven't made it since 2007.

Offseason changes: With several promising forwards in the pipeline, the Islanders let P.A. Parenteau walk as a free agent to Colorado on a four-year deal. In his stead, they shopped the bargain bin again, picking up Brad Boyes on a one-year "prove it" deal. To toughen up, they also added Matt Carkner and Eric Boulton.

Strengths: The future, and too little of the present. The Isles announced plans to move to Brooklyn's new Barclays Center, so they finally settled questions on where they'll be in 2015. Too many of the players who should be good by then are not ready now. Tavares, Travis Hamonic, Matt Moulson and Frans Nielsen are the present foundation.

Weaknesses: Everyone else is either inconsistent or not ready yet. The goaltending, with aging Evgeni Nabokov and constantly injured Rick DiPietro is a major question mark, and the blue line looks dangerously thin with Lubomir Visnovsky bent on not reporting.

Philadelphia Flyers

2011-12: (47-26-9) The Flyers survived their 2011 Draft purge of Jeff Carter and Mike Richards better than expected, saw Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier develop into solid future pieces, and watched Claude Giroux develop into a superstar. A cathartic demolition of the Pens in the first round was followed by an anticlimactic five-game loss to the Devils.

Offseason changes: Just another Flyers summer, is all. They signed Shea Weber to a CBA-busting offer sheet (but Nashville matched), traded James van Riemsdyk for the still undeveloped Luke Schenn, and lost Matt Carle and Jaromir Jagr to free agency. There were even rumors of interest in Roberto Luongo, because this is the Flyers: The goalie turnstile never ends.

Strengths: Giroux is fantastic, while B. Schenn, Couturier and perhaps even Wayne Simmonds are only poised to get better. The Flyers are always deep up front.

Weaknesses: The blue line has been obliterated by injuries, losses that L. Schenn and Isles castoff Bruno Gervais are unlikely to amend. Ilya Bryzgalov is capable of good days and bad days, which is not what you bargained for when you commit nine years and a no-trade clause.

Pittsburgh Penguins

2011-12: (51-25-6) The Penguins were an offensive machine that only got better when Sidney Crosby returned from a year of concussion issues, falling just short of the Rangers for the division and conference titles. But a disorganized defense and Marc-Andre Fleury's continued struggles were their undoing in the playoffs.

Offseason changes: With Fleury's disastrous series against the Flyers, the Penguins brought in strong insurance in Tomas Vokoun. They also made waves at the draft by moving Jordan Staal to Carolina for Brandon Sutter and some futures. Sutter should slot in well behind Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. That trade and the dumping of Zbynek Michalek positions them to transition toward a future marked by several promising blue line prospects.

Strengths: It's down the middle and then some. Crosby and Art Ross winner Malkin are a devastating 1-2 punch that can also play together when Dan Bylsma needs extra firepower. As mentioned, the Penguins will have a stable of good young defensemen soon.

Weaknesses: Those youngsters can't arrive soon enough. The free agent splurge on Michalek and Paul Martin did not work out nearly as well as planned, and Fleury has too infrequently bailed out the Penguins blueline.

Predicted Order of Finish: Penguins, Rangers, Flyers, Devils, Islanders.

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