As the Atlantic Division supplied four of the eight Eastern Conference playoff teams in 2008-09––along with the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins––it was not surprising to see three Atlantic Division teams––Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New Jersey––among Puck Prospectus’ top eleven projected teams for 2009-10. If anything, the beasts of the East have surpassed expectations thus far, given a powerful start by New Jersey as well as playoff-caliber showings by the New York Rangers and the New York Islanders.
Atlantic Division - VUKOTA vs. Actual
Team Rank (VUKOTA) Pts (VUKOTA) Pts (Actual)*
Pittsburgh Penguins 5 103 107
Philadelphia Flyers 9 94 108
New Jersey Devils 11 93 128
New York Rangers 24 85 94
New York Islanders 30 79 86
* Actual points per game, projected over 82 games
The Pittsburgh Penguins have fluctuated between scorching hot to ice cold in the early season. After starting a blistering 12-3-0, the defending champs were winless during a four game stretch from November 5-12 in which they were outscored 17 to 3. Embarassingly, a team with Sidney Crosby was shut out twice in a row and held scoreless for over 160 minutes. But poor play wasn’t the sole culprit, as injuries to Sergei Gonchar, Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Tyler Kennedy and Conn Smythe Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin took 0.82 GVT per game out of their lineup for most of that stretch. Overall, the Pens are where Puck Prospectus’ VUKOTA projections expected, with some bright spots making up for the injury woes. Overachievers have included 23 year old forward Tyler Kennedy (2.8 GVT), ex-Blues’ defenseman Jay McKee (2.8 GVT) and super-sophomore D Alex Goligoski (5.0 GVT), who leads the team at plus-11; the surprising Goligoski is 2nd among defensemen in goals, 7th in points and 3rd in plus/minus rating. All in all, Pittsburgh is still a playoff lock, and is simply looking to have their stars healthy for another championship run, a la Gonchar’s late season return in 2008-09.
Philadelphia is currently tied for last place in the Atlantic, but that’s highly misleading, both because they’ve played four games less than three of their rivals and because by one measure, the Flyers have been the best team in the entire NHL: Philadelphia leads the league at 1.13 goal difference per game, a portent of even better results to come. The Flyers boast two of the biggest stories of the young season: the wildly successful return from the KHL by controversial netminder Ray Emery (7.0 GVT) ––who is in the top 10 in wins, GAA and save percentage––and the Norris Trophy caliber play of offseason acquisition Chris Pronger (5.7 GVT), who is being given credit for the improved play of 25 year old Matt Carle (4.5 GVT) – Carle and Pronger are tops among all skaters at plus-17 and plus-13. Rookie James van Riemsdyk (3.9 GVT) has provided a welcome boost to Philly’s offense, offsetting the long term loss of Simon Gagne (0.7 GVT). The Flyers of 2008-09 were known for their prolific offense; Paul Holmgren’s moves to acquire Emery and Pronger have now built the nucleus of a championship defense.
New Jersey Devils
The Jacques Lemaire Era, Part Deux, did not get off to an auspicious start with a pair of listless losses to division foes Philadelphia and New York, making the offseason departure of Brian Gionta––without any significant offsetting addition––appear that much worse. But you and I should have known better than to doubt Lou Lamoriello and Jacques Lemaire – Fast forward a month and the Devils are 1st in the Atlantic Division and currently on a sizzling eight game winning streak. While Zach Parise (6.5 GVT) is off to a monster season and Marty (6.2 GVT) is being Marty, unexpected contributions have come from tough guy David Clarkson (3.6 GVT), rookie Niclas Bergfors (2.8 GVT) and Andy Greene (2.7 GVT). On the other side of the ledger, Patrik Elias (-0.5 GVT) has underachieved mainly due to injury, but the biggest disappointment thus far lies with newly resigned Johnny Oduya (-0.7 GVT), who is a team worst minus-5 after posting a combined plus-49 over the past two seasons. Even with some early performers coming back down to earth, bounceback contributions from these two veterans should keep the Devils in the hunt for the President’s Trophy once again.
New York Rangers
The offseason moves and preseason roster decisions of the Rangers could not have panned out much better. Marian Gaborik (6.7 GVT) has paid off for the Rangers in a big way, though as you know, every analysis of the explosive 27 year old winger begins with a health disclaimer. Inconsistent ex-Lightning Vaclav Prospal (3.7 GVT) has found chemistry with Gaborik, while ex-Sabre Ales Kotalik (2.7 GVT) is prospering as a power play and shootout specialist. The contributions of rookies Michael Del Zotto (3.3 GVT), Matt Gilroy (1.9 GVT) and Artem Anisimov (1.0 GVT) all bode well for a Blueshirts’ squad on the upswing, with additional reinforcements ready to come up from Hartford. Off to slow starts are Ryan Callahan (0.7 GVT), Sean Avery (0.5 GVT), Michael Roszival (0.5 GVT) and Christopher Higgins (0.4 GVT). VUKOTA would have you believe that New York will sink in the standings, but given the health of Gaborik––there we go again––many Blue Shirts look to exceed projections, including veteran role players and already-contributing rookies.
New York Islanders
After starting 0-3-3, the surprising New York Islanders have gone 7-3-4 in their next fourteen games, peaking with a four game winning streak against the Rangers, Capitals, Sabres and Oilers. Matt Moulson (3.4 GVT), Jeff Tambellini (3.0 GVT), Frans Nielsen (2.6 GVT), Andy Sutton (1.9 GVT) and Jack Hillen (1.6 GVT) may be playing over their heads thus far, but that offsets brutal starts by Richard Park (-1.3 GVT), Bruno Gervais (-1.2 GVT), Jon Sim (-1.1 GVT) and Tim Jackman (-0.7 GVT). Number one overall draft pick John Tavares (1.9 GVT) is off to a fine start, tied with Moulson for the Isles’ lead with 14 points, and can be expected to finish the season in the ballpark of a solid 10 GVT.
Expect more of the same for the Devils, Penguins and Flyers; along with the Capitals, they’re good bets to be the best four teams in the East at year's end. The excellent chemistry of the Rangers bodes well for a return trip to the playoffs, in excess of VUKOTA’s projections. Despite playing well recently, look for the Islanders to fade as the season goes along; they’re clearly better than the 30th ranked team, but shouldn’t be expected to have more than an outside shot at a playoff bid unless other Eastern Conference teams falter.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Timo Seppa runs the statistical hockey site Ice Hockey Metrics.
Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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