Kevin SchultzOn Thursday, New Jersey’s Ilya Kovalchuk announced his retirement — check out SNY Devils if you want to read all about that — and one of the Islanders’ main competitors in the Eastern Conference lost a major scoring threat. Heck, he was the Devils only scoring threat.
The Devils get out from under Kovalchuk’s contract, which is probably great for a team that seems to be teetering on some kind of financial insolvency disaster, but they’ll also lose a guy who had 37 goals and 83 points in the last full season. With David Clarkson also gone, the lowest scoring team in the East loses its two best scorers.
So, are the Islanders now the second best team in the Atlantic Division?
Pittsburgh is clearly the leader in the clubhouse at this point. They lost Jarome Iginla, but other than that, they’re still the same team. They likely won’t re-sign Douglas Murray, but bringing in Rob Scuderi and re-signing Kris Letang will easily off-set that.
It’s probably fair to say that the Islanders stood pat. Pierre Marc-Bouchard is probably a bit of an offensive upgrade if healthy and there may be some kids who will step up, but that’s not guaranteed. The Islanders certainly didn’t get worse, and the team has enough defenders to recover for Mark Streit’s absence. The Islanders are still clearly behind the Penguins — until they prove otherwise on the ice — but are any of the other Atlantic Division teams any better?
The Rangers have stood pat. They may end up about even with the Islanders again or the Islanders could certainly overtake them. That could be a coin flip. It’s hard to tell what effect a new coach in Manhattan will have on the Rangers.
Philly is so desperate for a goalie, they signed Yann Danis (remember him?) to backup Ray Emery. Emery is going to have his work cut out for him behind a bad defense that did add Mark Streit, but we all know from watching him that Streit’s offense is his best asset.
If the Atlantic Division still existed, I think it would be safe to put the Islanders behind the Penguins, and next to the Rangers, in a heated battle for second. But the NHL will be re-aligning next season, so the Islanders will be departing the Atlantic Division that they have competed in since 1993 (and never won) and moving into a yet-to-be-named Division.
That new division is basically the Atlantic Plus Three; it keeps the same five teams and adds Columbus, Carolina and Washington.
Columbus is literally the Rangers of Ohio with Marian Gaborik, Fedor Tyutin, Tim Erixon, Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov (did I miss anyone?) on the roster. They just barely missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker and got excellent goaltending from Sergei Bobrovsky. But will the success continue? It’s hard to say.
Last season Washington was an absolute mess before hitting a serious hot streak to make the playoffs, thanks to an en fuego Alex Ovechkin. In Carolina, last season didn’t go well as the Canes finished 13th in the conference. They haven’t made a splash in the off-season thus far, although there are rumors of them adding Jaromir Jagr.
While it’s still very early and we’re far away from playing games, it’s pretty clear that this new eight team division that the Islanders will be a part of is wide open. The Pens are the easy favorites and following them, for my money, are probably the Islanders and Rangers. But it is still hard to separate anyone from the pack aside from Pittsburgh. Columbus is really a wild card as to what they will be able to do next season, and the Capitals do still have Ovechkin and Backstrom. Most of the other teams have major question marks and don’t look to be a threat, but you never really know.
One other curveball in handicapping the race is that we’re coming off a shortened season. The Islanders snuck into the playoffs with a red-hot March and April (as did the Capitals). Their fortunes could certainly change for better or worse over the long, 82-game haul. But in terms of what Ilya Kovalchuk leaving means for the Islanders and their chances in 2013-14, it certainly can’t hurt. It’s a very serious blow to the offense of a divisional rival that wasn’t great to begin with.