With preseason just around the corner, hockey fans are gearing up for what promises to be a highly competitive season on the back of last year’s extraordinary Stanley Cup. We preview the likely contenders in the Atlantic.

Projected order of finish (Futures NHL odds on Stanley Cup in Parentheses):

1. Pittsburgh (10-1)

Sidney CrosbyThis pick hinges on two of the game’s best players, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, being ready to go after missing the better part of last season with a concussion and torn ACL, respectively. Pittsburgh was quiet in free agency, most notably signing Jason Williams from Dallas, Steve Sullivan from Nashville, and Alexander Picard from Montreal, while re-signing seven forwards including Tyler Kennedy. Free agency losses were inconsequential, other than division rival Philadelphia poaching Maxime Talbot. This is not a team that needed any major additions to return to contender status, just better health for assets already in place.

2. Philadelphia (11-1)

After two close-but-no-cigar type seasons, the Philadelphia Flyers shook up its roster in a major way, shipping leading goal-scorer Jeff Carter and third-leading point-scorer Mike Richards out of town in trades, while completing a separate trade with Phoenix for standout goalie Ilya Bryzgalov.
Darrell Powe and Kris Versteeg were also traded, as the organization swung five trades in the month of June. Ville Leino left via free agency to Buffalo. Philadelphia is gambling on being one of the best defensive teams in the league, and they might accomplish that with Bryzgalov in goal and a healthy Chris Pronger leading the defense. But if Claude Giroux and James Van Riemsdyk don’t each score 30+ goals, it will be a frustrating year on Broad Street.

3. N.Y. Rangers (30-1)

New York pursued its usual strategy of signing the biggest-name free agent available this summer, landing Prince Edward Island native Brad Richards in the hope that the former Cup-winner will complement the team’s last major acquisition, Marian Gaborik. Here’s hoping this one turns out better than the Wade Redden signing. The Rangers lost Chris Drury to retirement and Alex Frolov to free agency. The best reason to believe New York can hold off New Jersey for third place in the division is the presence of two American forwards in their 20s, both coming off career highs in goals: Brandon Dubinsky and team captain Ryan Callahan.

4. New Jersey (30-1)

Sidney Crosby is not the only injured star player being heavily counted on by his team to return to form in this division. Last year was wasted for Zach Parise, a young American center who has scored as many as 45 goals, but managed three in 13 games in 2010/11. The Devils are counting on Parise’s return to solve a lot of their problems by playing big minutes on the top line. Perhaps he can even bring the best out of big-dollar signing Ilya Kovalchuk. A youth movement is underway in New Jersey, even if greybeards like Patrick Elias and goalie Martin Brodeur remain the team’s most important players. Number one draft choice Adam Larsson will likely see big ice time on defense. It is this youth, together with Brodeur’s decline, that has New Jersey likely to miss the playoffs again.

5. N.Y. Islanders (80-1)

Bodog’s longest shot to win the Stanley Cup, the Islanders would probably be satisfied with anything better than another last-place finish in this division. John Tavares, re-signed to a six-year deal this offseason, is the centerpiece of the rebuilding project. Matt Moulson, who has scored 30 and 31 goals the last two years, Kyle Okposo, who has star potential if he can stay healthy, and 34-goal scorer Michael Grabner are other bright spots. Mark Streit is one of the better offensive defensemen in the league, but his point production has declined for three straight years. In goal, the Isles will feature either Rick DiPietro, former San Jose Sharks backstop Evgeni Nabakov, or Al Montoya, who started 18 games for the team last year. At one point DiPietro was one of the game’s brightest stars in net, but he has managed 26, eight, and five starts for the team the last three years while fighting injuries. He’s still in his 20s, so there’s still hope he can live up to his lifetime contract.

Division MVP: Sidney Crosby, Center, Pittsburgh Penguins

MVP of the division, NHL, world, and solar system, if he is symptom-free after two concussions ended his 2010/11.

Division Best Defenseman: Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins

Philadelphia’s Matt Carle gets a long look here, but though he put up similar numbers with about a fifth as many penalty minutes (101 to 23), Carle also scored only one goal in 2010/11. Letang put up 50 points with eight goals, impressive enough totals to name him the division’s best. Carle and his teammate Andrej Meszaros were both +30 in +/- last year.

Division Best Goalie: Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers

It may seem like blasphemy after Brodeur was the class of the league for so long, but King Henrik’s save percentage, goals against average and shutout numbers are superior. Second-best is Pittsburgh’s Cup-winner, Marc-Andre Fleury.

Division Best Coach: Dan Bylsma, Pittsburgh Penguins

It would have been easy for the Pens to mail in the remainder of their season after Sid and Geno were lost with injuries last year, but Bylsma kept them grinding their way into the playoffs, and practically into the second round. Pittsburgh took a series lead on a far superior team in Tampa Bay, but couldn’t manage to throw the knockout punch without their top two centers.