It's never too early to start lining up teams and trying to figure out which ones have stepped forward and which ones are sliding back either toward the pack or out of sight. And yes, we know there are still lots of free agents left, and there is still plenty of time before training camp starts in mid-September, but that's what the dog days of summer are for, no?
And so, without further ado, here is how we see the divisions stacking up, starting with the Atlantic, as July gives way to August.
In what might be the toughest division in hockey, the Flyers have pushed themselves to the top with bold moves like the signing of talented but mercurial forward Nikolai Zherdev and the acquisition of solid blueliner Andrej Meszaros. Character winger Simon Gagne was a victim of the salary cap, and there are questions about the goaltending (that's never been said in Philadelphia, has it?), but the Flyers boast an enviable mix of talent, veteran experience and grit, which right now sees them as the team to beat not just in the division but in the conference. It will be interesting to see whether the goaltending tandem of the summer, Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher, is the same tandem come trade deadline time.
Critics still wonder about the depth of talent on the wings to complement the team's elite centers, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal. And that's a fair point. But GM Ray Shero did an admirable job in retooling the back end with the departure of Sergei Gonchar, who was a big part of the Pens' playoff successes in 2008 and 2009. Shero brought in two of the top defensemen on the free-agent market in Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek, which should make the Pens even more difficult to play against. If Marc-Andre Fleury bounces back after an off-key playoff, the Pens will challenge the Flyers at the top of the Atlantic, regardless of who's patrolling the wings with Crosby et al.
Ho hum. Boring offseason for the Devils as GM and president Lou Lamoriello took on the NHL over his proposed 17-year deal for free-agent winger Ilya Kovalchuk. If Kovalchuk remains with the Devils, they will remain a force in the Eastern Conference, especially with Lamoriello's shrewd pickup of blueliners Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov, and the return of former Stanley Cup hero Jason Arnott. But if Kovalchuk slips away and Arnott continues to be in and out of the lineup with injury, the Devils remain a one-dimensional team that figures to rely too heavily on aging Martin Brodeur to be considered a Cup threat.
What a strange, strange team. GM Glen Sather continued his annual foray into the world of the inexplicable, signing former Minnesota thug Derek Boogaard to a four-year pact worth $6.5 million. This after last year's disastrous signing of the thuggish Donald Brashear. Again we ask, "Huh?" The Rangers still lack a No. 1 center, although we suspect Vinny Prospal will pull some duty there again after the Rangers returned him to the fold. And we like the recent addition of former Los Angeles King Alexander Frolov, who has 30-goal potential as long as coach John Tortorella can get him on task. The blueline is still young (assuming Sather can get restricted free-agent defenseman Marc Staal under contract), although there's no real power-play quarterback. And there's still the issue of the onerous Wade Redden, Michal Rozsival and Brashear contracts the Rangers presume to bury in the minors or otherwise dispose of. In short, one step up and two steps back for the Rangers -- once again.
Hello, McFly, anyone home? The Islanders, a franchise in purgatory, continue to twist in the wind while owner Charles Wang and local politicians fight over whether there is a future for the Islanders on Long Island, or whether their future is in Queens or even in Kansas City or beyond. In the meantime, the Isles are a team that will be ignored by top free agents and have to rely on homegrown talent and over-the-top work ethic. Scott Gordon got a lot out of his kids this past season, but it'll be a tall order to keep pace with the big boys in the division once again. As for the annual over/under on how many games "franchise" netminder Rick DiPietro plays, we're guessing 11, counting exhibition contests.