Three months ago, it would have been hard to assume that the Atlantic division could get any tougher.
That was the division, after all, that proudly hoisted four playoff teams, with all of them ranking in the top six seeds in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
And again, that was the division that produced three of the final four playoff teams in the East, along with the two finalists in the conference.
But in the wild month of July that was, most of those teams got even better this off-season, with three of them making potential league-changing moves to lock up prime-time players for 2013.
In the opening days of free-agency, the Pittsburgh Penguins, which was eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs by the Philadelphia Flyers, took a risky gamble, signing captain Sidney Crosby to a 12-year/$104.4 million deal. Crosby is less than a year removed from his concussion issues that, at one point, put his record-setting career in serious jeopardy.
Rumors mentioned that Crosby's deal was supposed to entice other free agents to come and play for an attractive team with beaming success, but the Pens didn't make much noise afterward.
Weeks later, the Flyers nearly made one of the biggest signings off the off-season, agreeing to terms with the Nashville Predators restricted free agent, Shea Weber, on a 14-year/$110 million contract. The move, which appeared more likely to go through as the week went on, would have given Philadelphia a dynamite defensive unit. But, Nashville matched it on Tuesday, helping the Preds -- who already lost Ryan Suter to Minnesota -- keep their captain.
And then, on Monday, the Rangers upped their offensive prowess, acqiuring long-time Columbus Blue Jackets forward Rick Nash in a trade. Nash, who requested a trade from Columbus at the end of the season, had a wish-list of about six teams, and the Rangers made the move for him, sending Brandon Dubinsky -- their best center -- along with Artem Anisimov, defensive prospect Nick Erixon and a 2013 first-round pick to the Blue Jackets.
The move by the Rangers appears daring, because it is unknown how Nash will play in John Tortorella's defensive system, and losing a player like Dubinsky is a tough blow for any team that plays in as many one-goal games as New York. On the flip-side, Rangers general manager Glen Sather got the explosive offensive player he always wants, and didn't have to give up any of their young stars for him.
Now, admist all of this, where do the Devils land?
By the naked eye, the only news that has come out of New Jersey during the off-season has been former captain Zach Parise signing a mega-deal with the Wild, and rumors of long-time goalie Martin Brodeur signing elsewhere.
As it has been well-documented, Brodeur didn't join his former captain, and signed a two-year deal to stay in the Garden State, and well, that's all they have so far.
Still, this Devils team is fine. In fact, they are in better shape than last year's team that reached the Stanley Cup Final.
A year ago, the Devils had several questions surrounding their team. Aside from the Parise cloud hanging over the entire organization, many questioned whether the Devils over-payed for star forward Ilya Kovalchuk, if Brodeur would be able to last an entire season -- nonetheless a playoff run -- and if they had any young, productive talent on the horizon.
Kovalchuk, who played the final two playoff series against the Rangers and Los Angeles Kings -- and the latter part of their second round series with the Flyers -- with a herniated disc in his back, shocked everyone and was the most productive player, league-wide, in the entire playoffs.
Brodeur was arguably the best goalie in the playoffs, aside from the Kings' Jonathon Quick, as he out-played the Flyers' Ilya Brygalov and the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist, en route to his fifth appearance in a Stanley Cup Final.
Several role players stepped up for New Jersey over the two-month adventure in the playoffs. Most notably, rookie Adam Henrique was incredible, scoring two of the most important goals for the Devils franchise on this side of the new millennium. His progress throughout the regular season and playoffs gives the Devils hope that he will be a mainstay in the lineup for years to come.
And besides, it wouldn't be the first time the Devils are better than their rivals who spent too much money on over-hyped players.
Just take a look at that playoff run, again.