The Southeast Division seems like a slam-dunk with a lot of our readers and bloggers. Conventional wisdom says that it’s the Washington Capitals and 4 other teams from the south. Before you subscribe to that line of thought, let me remind you: there was a team from the Southeast last season that defeated the East’s top seed, beat the Devils IN New Jersey in a Game 7 and went to the Eastern Conference Finals. That team was NOT named the Washington Capitals. So before you write off this division before the season even starts, you might want to take a look at all the teams and see who might rise up and surprise people this season.
We have some great bloggers bringing you the least talked about Division in the league today. Unbeknownst to the league and networks, there are 5 teams in the Southeast Division! Yes, I know—who would have known… We have the crew over at On Frozen Blog weighing in on all things Capitals. Bob from Canes Country is around to help people understand if the Hurricanes are a team that can make it back to the Eastern Conference Finals. We also have Don Rivette from Litter Box Cats (Panthers), Ben Wright from The Blueland Blog (Thrashers) and John Fontana from Raw Charge (Lightning) to help bring the knowledge for 3 teams that don’t get nearly the exposure that the rest of the teams in the league receive.
All of the contributors graciously donated their time and energy to the Roundtable—so sit back and enjoy! If you’ve missed the rest of the Eastern Conference or you’re interested in the schedule for the rest of the week, check out the layout for our Roundtable Week here!
1. Why is your team going to be better than they were last season?
The OFB Team (Capitals): While departed veterans like Viktor Kozlov and Sergei Fedorov played key roles for the Caps the past two seasons, the team’s core around which it expects to contend for some while is just now maturing into in-their-prime status: Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, Brooks Laich, and Alexander Semin. It was necessary for these young players to experience the playoffs as they did the past two springs. They now possess the experience associated with enduring three seven-game playoff rounds together.
Meanwhile, goaltending, which entering last season was rightly regarded as an enormous question mark, this autumn has to be regarded as a strength — and a deep one at that. Simeon Varlamov’s stellar showing in both the Russian Super League and the American Hockey League, we learned last spring, was no fluke. Michal Neuvirth meanwhile led the Hershey Bears to a Calder Cup title. Jose Theodore, while inconsistent, enters the proverbial “contract year.”
Bob (Hurricanes): They are bigger, stronger, and they love to hit. This isn’t your daddy’s Carolina Hurricanes team anymore that will be pushed around and bullied like they were against Pittsburgh. Newcomers, Tom Kostopoulos, Andrew Alberts, and Aaron Ward all bring the nasty with them. Each of them had over 100 hits and they join Tuomo Ruutu, Erik Cole, Scott Walker, and Tim Gleason, all heavy hitters in their own right.
The fourth line will be upgraded with Kostopoulos and Stephane Yelle.
Last but not least, Rod Brind’Amour should be healthy this year. He started out last preseason limping, had minor knee surgery, and never really got going until the end of the year. Don’t expect to see another -23 out of the Captain this season.
Don Rivette (Panthers): A year after screams of horror after the loss of 35-or-so goals chipped in annually by Olli Jokinen have finally been silenced. The bigger reason to believe is due to second-year head coach Peter DeBoer and his “positional responsibility first” system having been successfully employed – after half a season of major growing pains. Throwing out the Jacques Martin blueline grip of death, DeBoer loosened up almost every aspect of the team, allowing all of its unique parts to make the best use of their talents. David Booth, Michael Frolik, and a return to the wing for Nathan Horton show lots of promise.
Ben Wright (Thrashers): Every rookie needs time to adjust to the NHL and that was the story of the season for the Thrashers last year. John Anderson was a rookie NHL head coach and his two key assistants- Randy Cunneyworth and Todd Nelson were behind an NHL bench for the first time. It took a good four months for the team to completely buy into the coaching staff’s systems and when they did they went on a very nice run from early March through the end of the season, going 12-6-0 after the trade deadline. All of the key pieces are back, and they’re returning to Atlanta with complete faith in the coaching staff’s systems, as well as a solid understanding on how to execute them. That’s something you couldn’t say a year ago, and that will be the biggest difference between 2008-09 and 2009-10. Throw in the additions of Nik Antropov and Pavel Kubina as well as a more experienced core of young players that includes 31 goal-scorer Bryan Little, rookie sensation Zach Bogosian, and the underrated Toby Enstrom and this team should catch a lot of people by surprise.
John Fontana (Lightning): The short answer is — Can’t get much worse, so yes they will improve. This is, after all, a team that has finished 30th and 29th the past two seasons.
In the longer form answer, the Lightning have significantly solidified the defense this off season after completing 2008-09 with an AHL-caliber defense. Injuries and a revolving door on the blueline hurt the Bolts considerably. A strong defense and they might have held onto leads a few more times instead of having an abysmal record in 1 goal games (including OT and the shootout).
Stability will also factor in on why the Lightning will be improved this season, There wasn’t a coaching change, there hasn’t been a huge roster revamping like the previous season, there is not a change in ownership ongoing that creates more questions about the overall franchise. Stability may not translate into security, but it has a power all-it’s-own,
2. What part of your team scares the hell out of you this season?
The OFB Team (Capitals): The same one that scared the hell of out me when the Caps faced Pittsburgh in the postseason: the under-physical blueline which was powerless to do anything to dislodge Sidney Crosby from his encampment in the and near the Capitals’ crease. Two young defenders — Karl Alzner and John Carlson — could help out in this matter, should they make the club.
Bob (Hurricanes): The powerplay. The team lost Anton Babchuk, Dennis Seidenberg, and Frank Kaberle, each of whom split time manning the point of the powerplay. The replacements of Ward and Alberts are bigger and tougher, but they cannot play a lick with the man advantage. Color me worried.
Don Rivette (Panthers): Most would say it will be the timeless “lack of scoring” argument, but I disagree. It’s all about the “D”. The loss of the Jay Bouwmeester is certainly a large issue for the club to tackle, and few can replace whatever it was that Jay brought to each game (have at it, haters), but Assistant GM Randy Sexton has done an admirable job bringing in some fresh, unheralded blood. The likes of Jordan Leopold, Ville Koistinen, and the return of a healthy Bryan Allen, buoyed by the potential real-life debuts of Keaton Ellerby, Jason Garrison, and perhaps 2009 first-rounder Dmitry Kulikov, could round out a vicious corps led by Keith Ballard and Toronto fan-favorite Bryan McCabe. Make no mistake, though: it’s an all-or-nothing group.
Ben Wright (Thrashers): Uncertainty. There are two big questions hanging over this team’s head- who is going to step up in goal and who will be here when the dust settles?
The Thrashers have five goalies under contract at the moment and three of them saw action with the Thrashers last season. The question is which two (or three) will start the season in Atlanta. Will it be Kari Lehtonen and Johan Hedberg like it was last season, or will Ondrej Pavelec push one of the two aside. Will Lehtonen be healthy to start the season after his July back surgery? Will Drew MacIntyre get the chance to prove himself in the NHL after two very good seasons in the AHL with Manitoba and Milwaukee? Or could Peter Mannino turn some heads and force Don Waddell to make a tough decision? The Thrashers were 29th in the NHL in goals allowed last season and while defense is a team effort it all starts in goal.
Then there’s the elephant in the room- will Ilya Kovalchuk sign a contract extension or will he ride out the season and wait to see how it all turns out. Nobody wants another Marian Hossa media circus all season long and an early contract extension for Kovy would go a long way to convincing the fanbase that this team is headed in the right direction. If the Thrashers struggle this season and are sellers at the trade deadline there’s a long, long list of expiring contracts, including Kovalchuk, Slava Kozlov, Colby Armstrong, Rich Peverley, Jim Slater, Eric Boulton, Pavel Kubina and Johan Hedberg. That’s a lot of players with uncertain futures unless some extensions get signed in training camp. It’s worth noting that Don Waddell has a policy of not negotiating extensions during the season, though an exception would obviously be made for Kovalchuk if needed.
John Fontana (Lightning): In the negative context of “scares”? Goaltending. While the stats say Mike Smith and Antero Niittymaki are going to be fine in net for the Lightning, it’s not a question of on-paper ability as-so-much health. Smith is coming back from post concussion syndrome and Niittymaki has had issues with his hips. This creates big questions about how well both goaltenders will hold up through the season. Will Mike’s head get in the way of him coming back full force? How will the Bolts deal with either (or both) netminders falling to the injury bug? Last season, they had to deal with just that as Smith and Olaf Kolzig went down. Prospect Dustin Tokarski will be making his pro debut this season and prospect Riku Helenius will see more playing time at AHL Norfolk than he has in the past. He’s played only a matter of minutes at the NHL level.
3. Every year there are players that break onto the scene as all-stars or even superstars. Sometimes they’re rookies that are expected to be great, sometimes they are rookies that shock the world and sometimes they’re younger players that simply come into their own. Who is someone on your team that we should all look to have a breakout season?
The OFB Team (Capitals): No less than Dale Hunter this summer compared Carlson to NHL Hall of Famer Larry Murphy, except that Huntsy said that Carlson was a better skater. The kid is going to have a marvelous NHL career; question is, will it be on display in D.C. as early as this October.
Bob (Hurricanes): Last year it was Chad LaRose. This year, look for Jussi Jokinen to break out. Last season he scored 7 goals and had 20 assists after spending much of the season in Tampa Bay. Once he started feeling confident and comfortable in Carolina, he played very well and was one of the team leaders in the playoffs. (7 goals). He should continue his success and could chip in 20 plus goals this coming season.
Don Rivette (Panthers): I’m going to take a lot of flak for this, but I’m going with Horton. He’s already hit 62 points twice, but last year saw a slide to 45…a year in which he was asked to play center, after the loss of his longtime linemate (Jokinen), and adjusting to an offensive system unlike any he’d seen since drafted by the club. He’s got a lot of quirks, and many times it’s been honest to question some aspects of his game, but there’s simply too much size, talent, and a wrist shot among the top-five in the league to slough through at 40-60 points per season. It’s gotta happen.
Ben Wright (Thrashers): If Zach Bogosian hadn’t broken his leg last season and missed 35 games he would have a Calder Trophy finalist. He finished the season with nine goals and 19 points, one goal shy of tying the franchise record for goals by a defenseman. What’s most impressive is that he scored six of his goals and 11 points in the final 16 games of the season. Mark my words- Zach Bogosian will be an all-star in five years or less and will be a Norris Trophy contender shortly after that. He’s a beast physically and he is the single most competitive player I’ve ever met.
Honorable mention for breakout player of the year goes to Bryan Little who scored the quietest 31 goals in the NHL last season. Nobody outside of Atlanta seemed to notice, but maybe they will this year when he goes for 40 or more.
John Fontana (Lightning): Paul Ranger on defense. He’s been great when healthy. Another possibility is, if he makes the team, Dana Tyrell as a surprising rookie.
4. We all know that watching a team for 82 games, you start to appreciate things that casual fans won’t necessarily know. Who’s the guy on your team that doesn’t get nearly the respect that he deserves?
The OFB Team (Capitals): Brooks Laich, hands down. He’s a productive warrior, and terrifically versatile. He’s strong on his skates, an excellent skater, and he can play a checking or playmaking role reliably. Many in the hockey media in D.C. believe Laich could well be the next captain of this Caps’ club.
Bob (Hurricanes): Considering that the Canes did not get a single game on Versus this season, I would have to say the whole team doesn’t get the respect they deserve. But since I have to choose one player, it would be Joni Pitkanen. This player has so much natural ability it’s scary. He’s a joy to watch skate. He can pass the puck with the best of them. He took a lot of abuse in Edmonton, but this kid was a horse for the Canes during the playoffs and even brought up his physical play. He does not lead the team in TOI by accident. If he can continue to play with consistency and confidence, watch out.
Don Rivette (Panthers): Gregory Campbell. Bar none. He’s the Cats’ Do-it-all center: need an important faceoff taken? Quality penalty killer? Part-time tough guy? He’s your man. The respect factor is especially difficult for him achieve since his father happens to work for the league (what was he again?). He’s taken a lot of crap – every night – over his Old Man being NHL Disciplinarian Colin Campbell. Greg is entering full-season number five and his strengths continue to improve, while refusing to demand more ice time or a larger role. He’s a winner with serious heart and character.
Ben Wright (Thrashers): I’m going to go with one player on defense and one player up front for this one and both of my choices are veteran NHL players. On the blueline it’s Ron Hainsey who set a new franchise record for points by a defenseman last season with 39. He doesn’t expect that record to stand given how good Toby Enstrom and Zach Bogosian are, but it says something that Hainsey put up that many points while going through the entire season without a consistent D partner. He played with everyone from Garnet Exelby and Mathieu Schneider to rookies Nathan Oystrick, Boris Valabik and Anssi Salmela. He’s most likely going to start the season paired with Pavel Kubina and the two should see planet of quality ice time. Expect Hainsey to have an even bigger year than he did last year.
Up front you have to like what Todd White brings to the table, even though he gets absolutely no publicity for it. White finished third in team scoring for the high-scoring Thrashers last season and his 73 points tied him with the likes of Jason Spezza and Henrik Zetterberg in the scoring race. Look at this way- White outscored the top players for the Sabres, Avalanche, Oilers, Panthers, Kings, Wild, Canadiens, Predators, Islanders, Rangers, Blues, or Maple Leafs and he did it playing with NHL sophomore (Bryan Little) who had 16 points in his rookie season and an NHL veteran (Slava Kozlov) who was coming off of a 41 point season that was followed by offseason knee and shoulder surgery. With White as their center for more than half the season Kozlov and Little combined for 57 goals- the same number of POINTS they’d had the previous season. White’s 34 power-play points were good for 14th in the league and he was second on the team in power-play ice time as the Thrashers put together the 11th best power play in the NHL. Hopefully White can show the doubters that his monster season wasn’t a fluke.
John Fontana (Lightning): Well, before I answer this, I just want to say that during an 82-game-season, fans also start to nitpick even the smallest of flaws of some of the regulars on any given team. Many times that turns into something downright unjust as we expect players to play above and beyond their abilities given a situation they are thrust into by circumstances and not by their own skill set.
Right now, for me, it’s hard to put my finger on someone who I grow to appreciate more because of the guy’s effort day in and day out that others wouldn’t notice. Adam Hall serves as a steady man for the Lightning and Jeff Halpern is an unsung cog that you can rely on… Martin St. Louis’ effort and electricity seems to grow as the season progresses and you see how vital he is to the Lightning. My co-blogger Cassie pointed out Ranger as someone she grew to appreciate more during the course of the past two seasons (when healthy, that is).
5. Prediction time: If you were throwing down some serious money, how do you think the final standings of the Southeast Division will shake out? More importantly, which teams do you think are going to make the playoffs from the Southeast?
The OFB Team (Capitals): Only Washington I believe will make the postseason.
(1) Washington (fairly convincingly)
Bob (Hurricanes): Serious money eh, not Turkish Lira?
1. In that case, it’s really hard not to pick Washington to win the division. Although, it would not surprise me to see them slide a bit this year. I question their goaltending. But Knuble is a huge addition to the powerplay.
2. I think Carolina will be right behind Washington, earning a spot in the playoffs about the same place as last year.
3. Atlanta might surprise a few people. They came on strong at the end of last season. If Lehtonen can stay healthy in net, they could come close to making a playoff spot.
4. Florida might come close, but will falter as usual.
5. Tampa Bay has some talent on offense, but their goaltending and defense does not impress. Most importantly, the folk steering the ship don’t impress either.
Don Rivette (Panthers): This is the part I’d prefer to avoid, ‘cuz it’s just so wide open after Washington. With that said, the (obvious safe but logical choice) Caps win the division, especially after the signing of Mike Knuble, while 2-3 and 4-5 will be gunfights, as in two “good” clubs and two “pretty bad” clubs.
Carolina is the favorite for the #2 spot but are unremarkably changed from 2008-09 (unless Stephane Yelle can be summed up as “remarkable”). They are more or less the same team, which is of course fine considering their late-season success which only GM Jim Rutherford could have predicted before rehiring Paul Maurice.
Call it bias, call it faith, call it whatever, but I’m going with Florida to take the third slot. For the reasons I’ve stated, but most importantly because they are playing Coach Pete’s game, and fine-tuning – personnel wise – to perfect it. Lost the playoff spot on a tie-breaking technicality? Not this year.
Atlanta made some waves to close out the season – and produced headaches for a few opponents fighting for the postseason. The acquisitions of Pavel Kubina and Nik Antropov will help, but it’s hard to imagine coach John Anderson sparking this group to the next level, much less convincing an in-fighting ownership group to spend the coin necessary to keep that Kovalchuk dood around past the trade deadline.
Is there some sanity poking its way through the fibers of the Tampa Lightning. Not quite yet, but this summer has been utterly different from last, and that’s saying something. Stamkos? Looking good. Hedberg? Big, and probably the real deal. Vinny? Staying put. Tocchet? Maybe he’s the real deal. Just too early to predict whether they hit 60 or 80 points. But I’m not looking forward to seeing them play the Cats.
Ben Wright (Thrashers): My prediction for the division standings is Washington, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Carolina and Florida. If Kovalchuk signs an extension I think it could light a fire under him and the Thrashers and I think they could contend for the division title again. I see the Capitals and Thrashers making the playoffs with Tampa Bay and Carolina being in the race right to the bitter end.
John Fontana (Lightning): Well, call me a pansy but I don’t gamble. I look at the SE and figure the top two are locks unless there are serious issues that surface for either the Capitals or the Hurricanes (and serious issues do pop up, after all the Tampa Bay Lightning looked like a perennial playoff force only five years ago). So 1-2 are the Caps and Canes. It’s after that that things get clouded. Atlanta has been treading water during their ownership issues and the Florida Panthers have had turmoil all their own without any major upgrades to coincide losses.
All three teams — the Lightning, Thrashers and Panthers — after in a fight for the last three spots in the SE and are surrounded by what-ifs (as just about every hockey team is). I am inclined to say – out of fandom and bias – that I expect the Bolts to vie for third in the SE with the Panthers and Thrash competing for the bottom two spots… But really, it’s hard to gauge just how the three will finish. They could all surprise or all muddle along in mediocrity. It’s anyone’s ballgame for the last three positions is my point.