Flyers will face tough test in division foes

Rick Nash joins a powerful group of forwards on the New York Rangers, who are likely not only favorites to win the Atlantic Division, but also represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final. (Photo courtesy of MSG.com)

In the middle of the seven-day period of waiting for Flyers fans after signing stud defenseman Shea Weber to a 14-year offer sheet, the New York Rangers felt the pressure and made a big move of their own.

The Rangers acquired Rick Nash from the Columbus Blue Jackets on July 23 for Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon and a first-round draft pick.

The Flyers saw their bid for Weber fail the next night when Nashville matched the offer to keep one of their All-Star defenseman with the team. They had already lost Ryan Suter to the Minnesota Wild along with Minnesota native Zach Parise, formarly of the New Jersey Devils.

The Rangers took a quantam leap forward, grabbing yet another superstar for several yet-to-be-proven players. Dubinsky was once formidable in his own right. Last season, he was a fourth-liner. Anisimov had a solid season, but also was a fourth-liner at best. Erixon barely played in the NHL last season, and a first-round pick is a first-round pick. The Flyers were willing to give up four of those to land Weber. One doesn't harm the Rangers.

While the Weber offer sheet was a bold move, the Flyers ultimately lost the deal, and fell further behind teams in their own division. The Rangers are more talented than ever. If the Penguins remain healthy, they too have a dangerous group.

Meanwhile, the Flyers biggest acquisition this season is Luke Schenn, and while he is a step in the right direction, the loss of Matt Carle hurts the Flyers.

I tweeted after the Nash deal and Nashville match that the Flyers may be the fourth-best team on paper in their division. That doesn't mean they will finish fourth in the division this season, it just means they have some hard work ahead of them.

Look at the Rangers, a team with offensive stars in Nash, Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik and Ryan Callahan, excellent defense in Michael Del Zotto, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal, gritty forwards like Michael Rupp, Brian Boyle and Taylor Pyatt, young talent in Chris Kreider, Carl Hagelin and Derek Stepan, and a Vezina goalie in Henrik Lundqvist. They are instantly the pick for Eastern Conference champions. And they beat the Flyers in all six meetings last season.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are not the team they were in their Stanley Cup years of 2008 and 2009. They have their share of superstars – captain Sidney Crosby, reigning Hart Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Tyler Kennedy, James Neal, Chris Kunitz and Marc-Andre Fleury – but questions arise.

Is Fleury an elite goalie anymore? He had a terrible series against the Flyers in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals this past April. Can Crosby stay healthy? He's battled concussions for two seasons now. Can Neal, Kennedy and Kunitz still be solid point-producers? Neal had a career year in 2011-12 and Kunitz and Kennedy have always been top-notch forwards for Pittsburgh.

The Flyers have questions of their own. They need to ensure that none of their sophomores slump. The sophomore slump, and an unfortunate series of injuries, is what ultimately did in James Van Riemsdyk. This year, the spotlight falls on Matt Read, Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn, who will all be asked to carry a sizable load for the offense this season.

The Flyers were able to retain Jakub Voracek after losing Jaromir Jagr to the Dallas Stars. They also have All-Stars Claude Giroux and Scott Hartnell on the top line. Wayne Simmonds and Max Talbot serve as strong second and third liners. Ruslan Fedotenko and Danny Briere should be able to provide some decent numbers as well.

Defensively, the Flyers may still be in trouble. Luke Schenn and Nicklas Grossmann are two recent additions that have helped bolster the blue line. But Kimmo Timonen is not getting any younger, Braydon Coburn and Andreas Lilja have made numerous mistakes, and Marc-Andre Bourdon and Erik Gustafsson are young. The Flyers are going to need players to step up, as they have in years past.

The Devils may have a slight edge on the Flyers on paper, but their roster took a big hit this offseason too. Parise is gone. Martin Brodeur is a year older. They have a good top line that can feature Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrik Elias and Travis Zajac or even one of their young guns like Stephen Gionta or Adam Henrique. Defensively, their top pair of Adam Larsson and Bryce Salvador is good, but beyond that, they have hit-or-miss players.

So perhaps the Flyers can outlast the Devils, but the Rangers and Penguins are still mighty challengers.

There is no doubt that the Flyers will still be a playoff team. Their division is the toughest in all of hockey. This division had four teams in the playoffs last season, and I wouldn't be surprised to see that happen again.

But if the Flyers want to make a run at another Stanley Cup Final, they may still be lacking that big defenseman that they once had in Chris Pronger. And with the rest of the division getting better, the road won't be easy.

Kevin Durso is a contributor for Flyerdelphia. You can follow him on twitter @KDursoPhilsNet.