The Atlantic Division was the best in the NHL last season, as four teams finished with 102 points or more, and the New Jersey Devils, who finished fourth in the division, ended up representing the Eastern Conference in The Stanley Cup.
That being said, the Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils all lost a key scorer from last season, while the New York Rangers added a top-flight goal-scorer in Rick Nash.
While the players and owners continue to squabble over a new collective bargaining agreement, let’s stay positive and examine who has the best shot at winning the Atlantic Division for the 2012-13 season:
New York Rangers
The one thing that stood between the New York Rangers and a Stanley Cup berth was a lack of scoring and the team believes they addressed that with the acquisition of Rick Nash. Not only will Nash boost the scoring, but the growth from young forwards Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider should provide ample depth.
New York has elite goaltending and an excellent defense, as evidenced by the 187 goals they allowed in the regular season –- the fewest in the East. Now that they boosted their offense, they should be the frontrunners not only for the Atlantic Division crown, but for the East title as well.
The Penguins aren't heading into the 2012-13 season with momentum. They were shockingly thumped by the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the playoffs, as their weak blue line was exposed.
In the offseason, their biggest moves were subtractions as they traded away center Jordan Staal and veteran defenseman Zbynek Michalek. Although they are reportedly courting Shane Doan, they haven't made any significant additions.
The Penguins' offense is still fantastic and the goaltending situation is just fine, but the key to the Penguins success this year will be a very inexperienced defensive corps. Veterans Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang and Matt Niskanen are still around but they didn't look so hot at the end of the season. The key will be the growth of a number of young defensemen including Simon Despres, 2011 first round pick Joe Morrow and 2012 first round picks Derrick Pouliot and Illi Maatta.
The Flyers enter the 2012-13 season in the same situation they face seemingly every year. They have an excellent offense, but a big question mark in net.
Ilya Bryzgalov was acquired (and signed a nine-year contract) to be the Flyers solution in net. Instead, he proved to be frail mentally and no better than any of the other scrubs that the Flyers used between the pipes. He caved in the spotlight and that's a serious concern going forward.
With Andrej Meszaros (Achilles) out indefinitely, Chris Pronger still sidelined with concussion symptoms and Matt Carle gone (free agency), the Flyers will once again have to outscore their opponents to win. That should work in the regular season -– even with Jaromir Jagr in Dallas now -– but they’ll be exposed in the playoffs.
New Jersey Devils
The Devils' big change in the offseason was the departure of captain Zach Parise. New Jersey feels they can win without Parise, as they went most of the 2010-11 season without the forward. Travis Zajac played only 15 games last season, but the center has shown he can be productive in the past and is expected to take Parise's place.
The Devils could have been a serious Cup contender with both Parise and Zajac, but they will hope they have enough to get the job done this season.
New York Islanders
The Islanders continue to toil in the Atlantic basement and not much will change in the 2012-13 season. They’re in a tough spot considering their goaltending situation includes the likes of over-the-hill veteran, Evgeni Nabokov, who doesn't really want to play on Long Island, and Rick DiPietro, who has played just 47 games in the last four seasons.
The biggest reason for the Islanders' failures has been an overall lack of talent. The franchise has failed to give help to All-Star forward John Tavares and did nothing when P.A. Parenteau, who finished third on the team with 67 points last season, walked away in free agency.
With four better teams in their division, the Isles face an uphill battle to make the playoffs.