Does the Atlantic Division have a true favorite?

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Every year, sportswriters face tough choices when they make predictions. Can a surprise team find lightning in a bottle once again or will they prove to be one-hit wonders? Will the splashiest moves create a “Dream Team” or an expensive, embarrassing nightmare? Should you tab the best team on paper or try to chart intangible things like chemistry?

While most decisions are tough, there are certain situations that stand out by being unusually difficult to gauge. In my mind, the Atlantic Division race is far more difficult to forecast in 2011-12. You could make an argument for almost every team to win the title, although I don’t think the New York Islanders are “there” yet. (Expect significant strides from that young bunch, though.)

Let’s take a look at what makes each Atlantic team confounding.

New Jersey Devils

The Devils were expected to collapse like they did in 2010-11 during just about every season since the lockout. That’s the natural assumption when you keep losing great (Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer) and very good (Brian Rafalski, Paul Martin) defensemen while your star goalie slides further away from his prime.

New Jersey has burned many pundits for counting them out over the years, though. Before 10-11, they ranked high in the standings more often than not, even when they looked thin on paper. They’re a deeply flawed team, but it’s tough to count them out completely considering their organizational guile (not to mention the fact that they employ Zach Parise, Martin Brodeur, Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrik Elias).

New York Islanders

Again, I don’t expect them to be in the division title chase, but counting this rising team out of the playoff picture is foolish. The Isles could turn some heads, especially if Mark Streit and Kyle Okposo are healthy.

New York Rangers

Click here for a post full of questions about the team, but to play my own devil’s advocate, they have arguably the best goalie in the world (Henrik Lundqvist), one of the league’s best passers (Brad Richards), a fiery coach (John Tortorella) and a ton of worker bees to drop in front of shots and hustle for loose pucks. It’s not outrageous to put them in the mix.

Philadelphia Flyers

Not many division title winners trade away their captain (Mike Richards) and a potent, affordable sniper like Jeff Carter. Then again, the Flyers march to the beat of their own stone-faced drummer.

They still have a nice variety of forwards to work into the lineup, although that group won’t be as good in all three areas of the ice (especially on the penalty kill). It’s hard to tell what to expect from Jaromir Jagr and Jakub Voracek this year, in particular.

Oddly enough, public sentiment seems to be that Ilya Bryzgalov will be a bust. I disagree, even if I firmly nod my head when people discuss the risky nature of his contract. For all that’s been made about Dave Tippett’s defensive system, the Phoenix Coyotes allowed the third most shots per game (32.6) last season. Bryzgalov kept them afloat and should be able to clean up some messes for Philly, which is promising since Chris Pronger’s health is unclear – at best.

Pittsburgh Penguins

A lot of people – and at least one prominent video game – picked the Penguins to win the Stanley Cup, which probably means that they expect them to take their division as well. Two factors make that a risky proposition, though:

1. Obviously, Crosby’s health is a big question mark.

2. The Penguins earned just one division title since Crosby’s debut.

The team should be commended for its work without Crosby and Malkin last season, but they played with a tiny margin of error and scrapped out a lot of charity points in that time. Geno could indeed be explosive next season, but the Penguins’ aren’t a lock to win the Atlantic by any means.

Then again, who is?

Austin Watson suspended two games for boarding Dominic Toninato

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The NHL’s Department of Player Safety is working overtime on Sunday night, as they’ve handed out a pair of suspensions.

Moments after announcing Radko Gudas’ 10-game suspension, the league handed a two-game ban to Predators forward Austin Watson for boarding Avs rookie Dominic Toninato.

Unlike Gudas, Watson has no history of being fined or suspended during his NHL career.

Here’s the league’s full explanation of their decision to suspend Watson:

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Radko Gudas suspended 10 games for slashing Mathieu Perreault over the head

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We all knew that Radko Gudas would receive a suspension for his slash to the back of Jets forward Mathieu Perreault‘s head, but we didn’t know how long he’d be forced to sit out.

On Sunday, the NHL’s Department of Player Safety announced that Gudas has been suspended for 10 games for the incident.

The league confirmed that the fact that the Flyers defenseman is a repeat offender played against him in this case.

Check out the Department of Player Safety’s full explanation of the suspension:

The suspension will also cost him just over $408,000 in salary, per Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston. Ouch!

“He got the meaty part of the neck,” Perreault said after the game, per TSN.ca  “It could have been worse, I guess.

“He apologized in the penalty box, but when you look at the replay, it looks like he did it on purpose. It wasn’t an accident. He’s been known for doing stuff like that, so I certainly don’t appreciate it. I’m sure the league will take care of it.”

Gudas served the first game of the suspension on Saturday. He’ll be eligible to return to the Flyers lineup on on Dec. 12 against Toronto.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Flyers will host Penguins in outdoor game at Lincoln Financial Field in 2019

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The battle of Pennsylvania will take a new twist, as the NHL announced that the Philadelphia Flyers will be hosting the Pittsburgh Penguins at Lincoln Financial Field (home of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles) on Feb. 23, 2019.

This will be the second time that these two teams play each other in an outdoor game. Last season, the Penguins beat the Flyers, 4-2, at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

“It’s always a special opportunity to take the game back to its roots and have NHL players skate outdoors,” Penguins president and CEO David Morehouse said in a release. “We competed against the Flyers outdoors at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh 2017 and look forward to completing the in-state ‘home-and-home’ series at Lincoln Financial Field in 2019. It should be a great atmosphere.”

This will be the fifth time that the Penguins are involved in an outdoor door since 2008. They won a shootout decision against Buffalo (2008), they lost a home game to Washington (2011), they lost in Chicago (2014) and they beat the Flyers earlier this year.

It’s the second time the Flyers host an outdoor game (the first one was at Citizens Bank Park baseball stadium). The game at Lincoln Financial Field will be the fourth outdoor game for the Flyers. They lost in Boston in overtime (2010), they dropped home decision to the Rangers (2012), and they had the loss to Pittsburgh last year.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Is it time for the Canadiens to blow up their roster?

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The 2017-18 season isn’t even two months old, and the Montreal Canadiens already find themselves at a crossroads. Is it time for them to start rebuilding?

The Canadiens, who are 8-11-2 after three straight losses to Columbus, Arizona and Toronto, have over $7 million in cap space, but they have nowhere to use it. They already traded a blue-chip prospect in Mikhail Sergachev over the summer, and it’s not like their prospect pipeline is overflowing with quality either.

Clearly, losing Andrei Markov and Alexander Radulov (for nothing) hurt this edition of the Canadiens.

The team just completed a six-game homestand  that they should have used to make up for their incredibly poor start to the year. Instead, they finished the stretch at the Bell Center with a mediocre 2-3-1 record (they barely beat Vegas and Buffalo, who were both playing their second game in two nights when they took on Montreal).

During the six-game home stretch, they managed to find the back of the net just 10 times (four of those goals came in the 5-4 loss to the Coyotes).

Up until this point, general manager Marc Bergevin has been unwilling to trade away his veterans for prospects and/or draft picks. That might be about to change, per Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos.

On Saturday’s “Headlines” segment, Kypreos mentioned that ownership and the front office will have a discussion about the direction of the team.

The one player that was singled out on the broadcast was Max Pacioretty, who has one year remaining (after this season) on his current contract.

Would the Canadiens be willing to move him? Maybe, but would they do so with the idea of a rebuild in mind? That remains to be seen.

You have to believe that Bergevin’s on thin ice. Despite being under contract until 2022, he has to be feeling the pressure right now. Montreal is a demanding hockey market, and although they have plenty of cap space, this team clearly isn’t better than it was last year.

The core is far from terrible. Pacioretty, Shea Weber, Carey Price and Jonathan Drouin are all quality hockey players, but they don’t have much depth up front and their defense might be one of the worst in the league after Weber. Jeff Petry has struggled, the contract they handed out to Karl Alzner appears to be a mistake, Jordie Benn, Joe Morrow and Brandon Davidson are all depth players, and Victor Mete is a promising 19-year-old that’s had his ice time cut lately.

When it comes to the center ice position, the Canadiens are still searching for answers. Drouin has been forced to learn on the job, which is far from ideal for a number one center. Behind him, there’s Phillip Danault and Tomas Plekanec, who are both better suited to be third liners.

In order to become one of the elite teams in the NHL, the Canadiens have to take a step back over the next couple of years. They might not have to rebuild from scratch because they do have key pieces, but the roster definitely needs a lot of work.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.