Commentary

2008-09 Atlantic Division fantasy preview

Updated: October 1, 2008, 10:35 AM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Key additions: Bobby Holik, C (free agency); Brian Rolston, C (free agency)

Key losses: Sergei Brylin, LW (free agency)

New Jersey Devils depth chart
Left wingCenterRight wing
Line 1Patrik EliasBrian RolstonBrian Gionta
Line 2Zach PariseTravis ZajacJamie Langenbrunner
Line 3Jay PandolfoJohn MaddenDainius Zubrus
Line 4Nicklas BergforsBobby HolikDavid Clarkson
Chad WisemanMike RuppJon DiSalvatore
DefensemanDefenseman
First PairingPaul MartinJohnny Oduya
Second PairingAndy GreeneBryce Salvador
Third PairingColin WhiteMike Mottau
Anssi SalmelaSheldon Brookbank
First power-play unit
ForwardsZach PariseTravis ZajacBrian Rolston
Point menPatrik EliasPaul Martin
Goalies
StarterMartin Brodeur
BackupKevin Weekes
Third stringScott Clemmensen

Sleeper: Paul Martin, D -- Hey, someone has to lead the blue line, right? Martin is as natural a choice as any, having amassed 32 points and a career-high plus-20 rating last season. Sure, he might have looked overmatched in the playoffs, but with a year's experience as the defensive leader under his belt, you should expect an improved performance from him this time. Martin might not be an elite fantasy defenseman, but as a point man on the power play for a defensively minded team, he'll give you a solid 35-40 points and not hurt you in any of the key categories.

Bust: Brian Gionta, RW -- Unfortunately, he's still living off that 48-goal campaign from 2005-06, because Gionta has been a colossal bust in two seasons since and has shown no signs of snapping his recent funk. Even with the addition of Brian Rolston, Gionta's best chance at fantasy value would be if he can retain his current top-line assignment with Rolston -- shifted back to center -- and Patrik Elias. That'd hurt the Devils' depth, though, so a second-line role seems more likely in the long haul. But that'd mean working with lesser types like Travis Zajac. No comebacks here!

Fantasy outlook:

While the Devils are routinely a playoff contender, that doesn't mean they're a great source of fantasy numbers. In fact, there might not be a team in all of professional sports with a roster comprised almost entirely of players who are better in the real game than in fantasy.

That's because when it comes to the Devils, everything begins and ends with the goalie, Martin Brodeur, and their stifling defensive scheme, the neutral-zone trap. Brodeur is the best in the biz, and annually is tops in our game despite his advancing age. This team does what it needs to do, and that usually means mounting a modest lead through two periods, then playing puck control for the final 20 minutes.

One thing that helps fantasy purposes: plus/minus. Devils players generally don't hurt you in that category, so at least if you take chances on any of them, you know there's no clear downside from the defensive angle. Problem is, there's not much in the way of scoring upside here; New Jersey ranked 27th in goals per game in 2007-08 (2.41) and 25th on the power play (15.6 percent). No Devils player managed as many as 70 points in either of the past two seasons, and only one -- Zach Parise -- had as many as 30 goals, and he did it in both seasons. That's a pretty conservative offense, wouldn't you say?

Still, someone has to score goals for this team. However, don't look deep past the first line or first power-play unit. Newly acquired Brian Rolston has been shifted back to center on what might be a productive No. 1 line between wingmen Patrik Elias and Brian Gionta, each of whom has qualified as a fantasy disappointment in recent seasons. If that trio -- the "ERG" line anyone? -- can carry the level of chemistry it has flashed in the preseason into the regular season, modest totals could be expected for each.

A final note: Be aware that the Devils, historically speaking, have been a far stronger team in the second half than the first half. New Jersey tends to wait until Jan. 1 to get itself in order, and that dates all the way back to the start of the Devils' impressive run in the mid-1990s. So if you see a Brodeur, Elias or Parise off to a somewhat sluggish start, it might be prime time to pounce on a buy-low Devils investment around Christmas. What a gift!


Key additions: Mark Streit, D (free agency); Doug Weight, C (free agency)

Key losses: Bryan Berard, D (free agency); Ruslan Fedotenko, LW (free agency); Miroslav Satan, RW (free agency); Josef Vasicek, C (left for Czech Republic)

New York Islanders depth chart
Left wingCenterRight wing
Line 1Jeff TambelliniMike ComrieKyle Okposo
Line 2Sean BergenheimDoug WeightBill Guerin
Line 3Jon SimMike SillingerTrent Hunter
Line 4Frans NielsenAndy HilbertRichard Park
Blake ComeauMike IgguldenTim Jackman
DefensemanDefenseman
First PairingMark StreitBrendan Witt
Second PairingChris CampoliRadek Martinek
Third PairingBruno GervaisFreddy Meyer
Andy SuttonDrew Fata
First power-play unit
ForwardsJeff TambelliniMike ComrieKyle Okposo
Point menMark StreitChris Campoli
Goalies
StarterRick DiPietro
BackupYann Danis
Third stringJoey MacDonald

Sleeper: Kyle Okposo, RW -- If you caught any Islanders games late last season, maybe you got a glimpse of this kid, who managed two goals and five points in a brief nine-game stint with the big club. There's plenty of opportunity for this kid, who boasts solid shooting and puck-handling skills as well as great speed. He has a chance to get time on the second line and first power-play unit. You could do a lot worse in the final rounds of your draft.

Bust: Mark Streit, D -- His chances at a repeat of his 62-point 2007-08 are slim to none, mainly because the Islanders' power play, simply put, is not the Canadiens'. Not that Streit is a poor player, but if you're paying for a top-25 defensive season, you can count on being disappointed. He was bound to come back to earth regardless of his team as a 30-year-old coming off an out-of-nowhere season; the move to New York just clinches it.

Fantasy outlook:

Expect a long season out on the island. Unfortunately for the Islanders, they happen to reside in one of the most competitive divisions in the league; that means while they turn over their roster to younger, hungrier players, wins will be hard to come by.

Gone are disappointments Miroslav Satan, Ruslan Fedotenko, Josef Vasicek and Bryan Berard; veteran playmaking center Doug Weight and power-play specialist Mark Streit were the only two "big-name" types brought in to replace them. That puts the microscope on the team's younger, up-and-coming types, a group that includes Blake Comeau, Kyle Okposo, Jeff Tambellini and Chris Campoli. Those four, incidentally, have combined for 319 career NHL games, so it's a fairly raw group with plenty to prove.

Another telling sign of the Islanders' chances: This team's leader in points from a season ago, Mike Comrie, had the fewest of any team leader in the league, with 49. If that's not a damning sign of how limited the Isles' fantasy potential is, we don't know what is. This team, at least in recent years, is where lesser free-agent finds tend to go to die statistically speaking, so you prospective Mark Streit owners, don't get overzealous with your expectations.

A key to the Islanders' fortunes, as has been the case in each of the past few years, is goalie Rick DiPietro. He has yet to develop into the star everyone anticipated when he inked that historic 15-year contract, but rest assured he'll remain the main man between the pipes, fantasy inconsistency or not. Problem is, he's off to a sluggish preseason coming off hip surgery, and if this team is forced to go to a backup, either Yann Denis or Joey MacDonald, it would almost assuredly mean disaster for this squad.

The bottom line with the Atlantic Division's certain cellar dweller: Feel free to take a flier on anyone on the first power-play unit, including Comrie, Streit and up-and-coming players like Okposo and Tambellini. Other than that, you probably can do better elsewhere.


Key additions: Markus Naslund, LW (free agency); Wade Redden, D (free agency); Nikolai Zherdev, RW (trade)

Key losses: Sean Avery, LW (free agency); Jaromir Jagr, RW (left for Russia); Martin Straka, LW (left for Czech Republic)

New York Rangers depth chart
Left wingCenterRight wing
Line 1Markus NaslundScott GomezNikolai Zherdev
Line 2Nigel DawesChris DruryFredrik Sjostrom
Line 3Aaron VorosBrandon DubinskyPetr Prucha
Line 4Pat RissmillerDan FritscheRyan Callahan
Lauri KorpikoskiBlair BettsColton Orr
DefensemanDefenseman
First PairingWade ReddenMichal Rozsival
Second PairingDmitri KalininMarc Staal
Third PairingPaul MaraDaniel Girardi
Ivan BarankaMichael Sauer
First power-play unit
ForwardsMarkus NaslundScott GomezNikolai Zherdev
Point menWade ReddenMichal Rozsival
Goalies
StarterHenrik Lundqvist
BackupSteve Valiquette
Third stringMatt Zaba

Sleeper: Nikolai Zherdev, RW -- He always had the skills to be a useful fantasy choice, but mired in Columbus, Zherdev lacked the supporting cast to rack up lofty point totals. Now in New York, he'll get the opportunity to work on the first line with Markus Naslund and Scott Gomez, providing him a much better chance at a 25-goal, 70-point type season. Many might think his 61 points of a season ago were the fluke, but with his shift east, a repeat should be considered the bare minimum expectation.

Bust: Wade Redden, D. What is it with defensemen migrating from Canada to New York this offseason? Like Mark Streit of the Islanders, Redden heads to the Big Apple destined for a downturn in his fantasy numbers. Not that he's due for a poor year, but if you're counting on a return to his 50-point years with lofty power-play numbers, you're kidding yourself. Ottawa's power-play unit was one of the deepest in the league, while New York's lacks that kind of star power to help him get to those levels.

Fantasy outlook:

Leave it to the Rangers to annually chase the big names: As of press time, rumors abounded that they were courting ex-Maple Leafs star Mats Sundin, who spent his summer trying to decide between retirement and one more NHL season with a contender.

But, unlike some of the Rangers' past conquests, Sundin's addition might make some sense; this team lost valuable veteran leadership with the offseason departures of Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka, Sean Avery and possibly Brendan Shanahan as well. Though the Rangers have a reputation as an offense-first franchise, the statistics last season didn't back it up; they ranked 25th in goals per game (2.50) and 22nd on the power play (16.5 percent). Adding Markus Naslund, Nikolai Zherdev and Wade Redden helps, but this team will need youngsters like Nigel Dawes, Brandon Dubinsky, Daniel Girardi and Petr Prucha to step up their games if it's to improve upon last season's performance.

That thrusts Henrik Lundqvist into the spotlight; his performance will dictate how far this team goes. He's coming off a standout campaign, with 37 wins and 10 shutouts, and he will have to shoulder the load as the Rangers engage in more defensive battles than we've grown accustomed to. Lundqvist is absolutely up to the task, but it's a bit troubling that his save percentage has dipped in each of the past two seasons, especially while his team has historically focused more on generating offense than fielding a roster full of defensively minded players. It'd be smart to anticipate some streakiness.

A potential strength of the Rangers: Their first power-play unit, which might include experienced options like Gomez, Naslund and Redden, each of whom boasts a campaign of at least 30 points with the man advantage. Naslund, in fact, has a 50-power-play-point season on his résumé, meaning if there's any area in which this team seems likely to boost its output, it's when its opponent has a man in the penalty box. For that reason, an up-and-coming youngster like Dubinsky or Girardi might be more appealing than a similar player on a team with a less potent power play, because the chances of either sneaking in useful minutes in those circumstances absolutely boosts their upside.

And if Sundin comes on board, continuing the Rangers tradition of buying big-name players, the lights might only get brighter, offensively speaking, on Broadway.


Key additions: Steve Eminger, D (trade)

Key losses: Vaclav Prospal, LW (trade/free agency); Jason Smith, D (free agency); R.J. Umberger, C (trade)

Philadelphia Flyers depth chart
Left wingCenterRight wing
Line 1Simon GagneMike RichardsDaniel Briere
Line 2Scott HartnellJeff CarterJoffrey Lupul
Line 3Scottie UpshallSteve DownieMike Knuble
Line 4Riley CoteGlen MetropolitArron Asham
Claude GirouxStefan RuzickaDenis Tolpeko
DefensemanDefenseman
First PairingKimmo TimonenBraydon Coburn
Second PairingDerian HatcherRandy Jones
Third PairingLasse KukkonenRyan Parent
Ossi VaananenSteve Eminger
First power-play unit
ForwardsSimon GagneMike RichardsMike Knuble
Point menDaniel BriereKimmo Timonen
Goalies
StarterMartin Biron
BackupAntero Niittymaki
Third stringJeremy Duchesne

Sleeper: Simon Gagne, LW -- We know, we know, he's a monstrous health risk. Still, considering how far Gagne seems to be slipping in early drafts -- he's being picked as a sixth/seventh winger -- he's well worth a roll of the dice. The preseason reports on his recovery from a concussion are good, and you can't ask for much higher upside in a first line than Gagne, Mike Richards and Daniel Briere. Don't forget, Gagne did rack up back-to-back 40-goal campaigns before his injury-plagued 2007-08.

Bust: Martin Biron, G -- A 30-win, five-shutout season represented a pretty nice 2007-08 campaign for Biron, but it's about the best we can expect from him in a typical year. Remember his days back in Buffalo? Biron was wildly inconsistent, and the fact remains that he had a stronger all-around team skating in front of him. Knowing the Flyers' tendency to ride the hot hand between the pipes, prospective Biron owners should be prepared to play the matchups and take him out during his inevitable cold spells.

Fantasy outlook:

Make no mistake: These aren't your 2006-07 Flyers, a team that managed an NHL-worst 56 points. This team improved by leaps and bounds last season, not only getting back to the playoffs but advancing all the way to the conference finals … and it was no aberration.

With a solid, deep nucleus of forwards, including last season's free-agent addition Daniel Briere, sniper Jeff Carter, breakout 2007-08 center Mike Richards and an on-the-mend Gagne, this team stands a good chance at improving upon its 2.99 goals-per-game rate -- good for sixth in the league -- of last season. One could make the case the Flyers might run as many as seven men deep in terms of fantasy standouts on the front lines, with other contributors like Joffrey Lupul, Steve Downie and Scott Hartnell decent later-round values. You might not find a better team that's more well-rounded in the forward ranks; there's oodles of scoring, power-play and penalty-minute potential here.

That might mean constant line shuffling, but as the regular season approaches, the top line of Briere (now a right winger), Richards and Gagne might be able to rival most any other in the game statistically speaking. Of course, with so many skilled forwards, coach John Stevens will be sure to spread the wealth. Count on there being enough opportunities to go around that as many as six forwards could be 60-point candidates.

On the blue line, the Flyers boast a great combination of veteran scoring talent in Kimmo Timonen and youthful upside in Braydon Coburn. Though Philadelphia might deploy four forwards on its first power-play unit, Coburn will still bring value to the second team, which should rank among the strongest in the game.

Between the pipes, while he's no standout, Martin Biron is a skilled enough netminder to keep this team in games. For fantasy, that means plenty of win potential and respectable ratios. The smart move, though, might be to handcuff him if he seems a little sluggish to start the season. For now, Jean-Sebastien Aubin is ticketed to serve as Biron's caddie, with Antero Niittymaki recovering from surgery on his hip. Niittymaki, though, would be the better backup if he makes a full recovery by November.


Key additions: Matt Cooke, LW (free agency); Ruslan Fedotenko, LW (free agency); Miroslav Satan, RW (free agency)

Key losses: Ty Conklin, G (free agency); Marian Hossa, RW (free agency); Georges Laraque, RW (free agency); Ryan Malone, LW (trade/free agency); Gary Roberts, RW (trade/free agency); Jarkko Ruutu, RW (free agency)

Pittsburgh Penguins depth chart
Left wingCenterRight wing
Line 1Ruslan FedotenkoSidney CrosbyMiroslav Satan
Line 2Pascal DupuisEvgeni MalkinPetr Sykora
Line 3Matt CookeJordan StaalBill Thomas
Line 4Connor JamesMaxime TalbotEric Godard
Luca CaputiTyler KennedyJonathan Filewich
DefensemanDefenseman
First PairingSergei GoncharKris Letang
Second PairingBrooks OrpikDarryl Sydor
Third PairingHal Gill Alex Goligoski
Ryan WhitneyRob Scuderi
First power-play unit
ForwardsEvgeni MalkinSidney CrosbyPetr Sykora
Point menSergei GoncharKris Letang
Goalies
StarterMarc-Andre Fleury
BackupDany Sabourin
Third stringJohn Curry

Sleeper: Kris Letang, D -- Sergei Gonchar's injury creates a wonderful opportunity for Letang, an offensively minded defenseman who could, in the best-case scenario, be every bit the star people expected Ryan Whitney might become. Whitney has some health problems of his own, missing the start of the season coming off foot surgery, so Letang should be thrust right into a key power-play role from the start. It's not unthinkable he could crack double-digit goals and 40 points.

Bust: Ryan Whitney, D. Naturally if I'm big on Letang, it follows that I'd be down on Whitney. He's out until at least November recovering from foot surgery, and that might be a conservative estimate. Besides, Whitney fell into Michel Therrien's doghouse with his down season, so there's no guarantee that when he returns, he'll adopt the same role he had before going under the knife. You can take a shot on his wondrous upside if you're the gambling type, but if you do it with a guaranteed starting spot on your blue line, you're taking quite the risk.

Fantasy outlook:

It's not hard to look at the Penguins' roster and identify their strength: They can score, score and score some more. Perhaps you might have noticed in some late-spring event they call the Stanley Cup final? What's better: This team's nucleus is young and improving, so it hardly could be considered a one-and-done appearance.

It all starts with studs Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, players who can carry a team on their shoulders individually when needed. Case in point: When Crosby went down, Malkin didn't skip a beat, keeping this team on its straight path to the finals. With Crosby healthy now, the Penguins can deploy two star-studded lines; potential wing men Ruslan Fedotenko, Miroslav Satan, Petr Sykora and Jordan Staal will be thrilled to hear that. Look no further than Sykora for your example of what working with a Crosby or Malkin can do for your fantasy stats; he enjoyed a career resurgence with 28 goals and 63 points last season.

The primary concern for the Penguins heading into the regular season, though, was Sergei Gonchar. A dislocated shoulder suffered in a Sept. 21 preseason game will cost him four to six months. He was a mainstay on the team's first power-play unit and one of the game's best snipers on the blue line. His skates will surely prove hard to fill. Having Ryan Whitney out at least a month of the regular season recovering from foot surgery complicates matters; suddenly the team's defensive depth, scoring-wise, has been significantly depleted. If the Penguins consider deploying a forward to play the point on the first power-play unit, don't be shocked. For now, up-and-comer Kris Letang will get the first crack at that role.

But to speak solely of Pittsburgh's offense doesn't do justice to this team defensively. Marc-Andre Fleury, despite an injury-plagued regular season, stepped up with an inspiring postseason effort, suggesting a star-studded career is in his future. He'll benefit from some of the game's best offensive support, and might be one of this season's biggest breakout bets. For that reason it makes sense the team would want to lock him up for the next seven years; he should get a much longer leash between the pipes this season as a result.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball, football and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.