It’s no secret that the Southeast has been the butt of jokes for the last few years. Whenever you’re looking at the order of the NHL Draft and see the same usual suspects selecting near the top every season, the jokes are going to come. And let’s be real – constantly missing the playoffs and drafting in the top 10 are not the types of consistency that fans are looking for.
But this season might be the beginning of something different. The defending Presidents’ Trophy winners look to be in fine shape in Washington DC. The Atlanta Thrashers and Tampa Bay Lightning each made some great pick-ups over the offseason, the Carolina Hurricanes were in the Eastern Conference Finals 16 months ago, and the Florida Panthers have started their rebuild with a bang. There’s a feeling these five teams could collectively be more interesting than they have been in a while.
To help us break it all down, we are happy to have some fantastic writers sharing their thoughts. Here’s today’s line-up!
Laura Astorian from SBN Atlanta (Thrashers)
Bob Wage from Canes Country (Canes)
Donny Rivette from Litter Box Cats (Panthers)
John Fontana from Raw Charge (Lightning)
Rebecca Henschel from Japers Rink (Caps)
1. Tell us why your team will be better this season than they were last.
Laura (Thrashers): Obviously we’ve added a few guys here and there from some team that just won this shiny trophy thing. No, seriously, the addition of Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Sopel, Andrew Ladd, and Ben Eager bulks the team up a bit. Bigger doesn’t equal more goals, but Buff and Ladd should be good for around 30 goals for next season, and Eager’s a useful agitator. The addition of these guys doesn’t balance out the loss of Maxim Afinogenov’s scoring touch, but it should help out with his -17. There should be more defensive responsibility with the loss of Max, Slava Kozlov, and that guy who’s keeping the Garden State on pins and needles.
Also, as sad as I was to see Johan Hedberg go to New Jersey, Chris Mason’s a massive upgrade over him. I loved watching him with the Blues the past two seasons, especially the string of 33 consecutive starts he had to lead the Blues to the 2009 playoffs. He’s an absolute workhorse and a great guy, who should be an effective mentor to Pavelec. Pavs just needs to watch out or else Masonry’ll relegate him to the back up role.
Bob (Hurricanes): The Hurricanes are younger, faster, healthier, and hungrier than they were last season. Will those attributes actually make them better? Time will tell.
In the first half of last season, they couldn’t be much worse as they fell to last place in the NHL, but in the second half, they had one of the best records in the league. What was the primary difference between the first part and the second part of the last campaign? In the latter part of the season, the Canes were comprised or a younger, faster, healthier, and hungrier group. They just need to carry on what they were doing then.
Donny (Panthers): It’s going to require a convergence of many aspects all hitting high notes at the same time; a coach’s dream. The Panthers may poach a few points out of opponents taking them lightly, but unless a stream of career years are had by veteran forwards such as Rostislav Olesz, Chris Higgins, and Steve Reinprecht, they’re done early. So many elements must come together: a veritably fresh defensive corps under new assistant coach Gord Murphy, a number of highly regarded rookies looking to make their individual marks, and a slew of new faces morphing with an already underachieving band of forwards. Plus, it would obviously help the situation if David Booth remains healthy. It’s a scary realization: the perception that all of the club’s offense is riding on a single player. This is a rebuilding year – done the correct way, finally – and any gain in the standings over last season will be a welcome but likely unexpected development.
John (Lightning): Last year, I talked about stability. I played up the fact the dysfunctional group that was in control of the Tampa Bay Lightning had stabilized and how things would improve because of that. How wrong I was…
Stability for the Lightning has been a myth for the franchise since 2007. Yet the changes in the team this off-season – from the top down – have only increased confidence in the talent this club already employs. The promising GM with a career of excellence behind him (Steve Yzerman), the prodigical new head coach whose approach to the job has earned him raves from past players and pundits around the league (Guy Boucher). That’s not even touching on player-personnel moves that have further hammered home the belief that Yzerman knows what he’s doing (Dumping dead weight, adding talent, seeking out to improve the bottom 2 lines and flesh out the defense to play to a new-system’s strengths).
Everything this offseason has instilled a new sense of confidence in the Bolts. Guy Boucher’s coaching system – if it can solve the mystery of the Lightning’s bi-polar scoring abilities – should alone make the Bolts a playoff contender.
The players are once again excited, and there Is a renewed sense of desire. New owner Jeff Vinik’s assertion that the Bolts will be a world-class organization have been proven right so far, and only a world-class organization will make inroads from dismal showings the last three seasons. I’m banking on just that happening.
Becca (Capitals): Just from a personnel standpoint, the additions of Karl Alzner and John Carlson could be huge for the Caps. They’re both still young and still developing, so neither should necessarily be expected to set the League on fire right away, but they’re very solid, have been impressive in their time with the Caps and will only get better as the season progresses. A lot of people see the Caps’ D as the main weakness – we know that’s not really where the biggest issues are but it never hurts to shore up that position.
Beyond that, though, is the fact that they will hopefully be able to build on the successes and ultimate failure of last year. The Caps perfected winning in the regular season, finished first overall, swept the season series from one of their biggest rivals, racked up huge offensive numbers – now they have to use what happened in the playoffs as motivation to make the transition to winning in the postseason. If blowing a 3-1 series lead to a #8 seed in the first round isn’t enough motivation to do that, I don’t know what is.
2. What part of your team are you concerned about this season?
Laura (Thrashers): Kind of concerned about scoring this year. Kovalchuk and Afinogenov were responsible for a good bit of scoring last season and with them gone we will lose some production. Little absolutely must produce closer to his totals from the year before last, and if he’s on a line with Bergfors and Antropov he should. Of course, getting Bergfors re-signed would be a nice step forward in that direction. Kane and Peverley’ll be looked at to pick up some slack.
We have assist machines in Tobias Enstrom and Antropov – they need people to get those pucks to.
Bob (Hurricanes): The blueline is the biggest concern. The top three of Tim Gleason, Joni Pitkanen, and Joe Corvo are solid, but the bottom four of Anton Babchuk, Jamie McBain, Jay Harrison, and Brett Carson have very little NHL experience. Cam Ward will be a busy beaver in net and he will need to stay healthy in order for the Canes to have a chance at a winning record this year.
Donny (Panthers): Management hasn’t yet acquired the stereotypical stud centerman. Could Stephen Weiss improve upon his numbers from a year ago? Quite possibly, yes; his point total dropped from the previous year (60 from 61) but goals doubled from 14 to 28 while playing with a vast array of wingers replacing the injured Booth and Nathan Horton, indicating his potential may not yet have maxed out. Head coach Peter DeBoer likely finds himself in a sticky situation in this, his third year. He showed plenty of promise in 2008-09 when his Panthers missed out on postseason action due to a standings tiebreaker (since changed), and last year’s debacle can’t honestly fall upon his shoulders. A new general manager typically wishes to install his own guy in the position but who’s to say Dale Tallon wouldn’t have tabbed Pete for the job anyway? Realistically DeBoer needs get the absolute maximum out of his squad out of the gate or it’ll be a quick hook. And this division hasn’t gotten any easier to compete in.
John (Lightning): Between the pipes, Mike Smith is in a contract year while trying to re-establish himself as able, while new acquisition Dan Ellis is in an ego year (goalies as compared to brain surgeons and his juvenile reactions to fans who called him on it? Classy, Dan…). The Lightning’s goaltending situation downright frightens me. It doesn’t help that head coach Guy Boucher’s go-go-go system can be exploited (by defensive screw ups) and lead to cases where goaltenders are left to fend for themselves on one-on-one and two-on-one situations.
Now factor in your backstops being tentative and overconfident and you have the makings for a disaster if neither netminder can stand tall in the crease and rise to the occasion.
Becca (Capitals): One of the bigger concerns going into this season is a lack of depth at center – or more specifically, the lack of a definitive second-line center. The Caps have an elite center on the top line in Nicklas Backstrom; between prospects like Marcus Johansson and Mathieu Perreault and veterans like Boyd Gordon and Dave Steckel they’ve got the third/fourth line roles taken care of. It’s that pesky second line, and a permanent slot alongside the enigmatic Alexander Semin, that’s troubling.
There are some smaller concerns, as well. Penalty killing last year was awful and it’s an area that really hasn’t been addressed this offseason – yet. We’d like to see a veteran presence on the blue line to help mentor not only Carlson and Alzner but also Green and Schultz. And as much faith as most of us have in our young goaltending tandem there are a few nerves about entering the year with two 22-year-old goalies, neither of whom has been a number one guy at the NHL level.
But really, the biggest concern is and will continue to be postseason play. We’ve seen the great regular season performances, at both the individual and team level – just about every Caps fan is looking at this upcoming season as nothing more than a dress rehearsal for the games that matter, and we hope the team is doing the same.
3. Each year there are players who break onto the scene as all-stars or even superstars. Sometimes it’s a rookie who is already expected to be great, sometimes it’s a rookie who shocks the world, and sometimes it’s a younger player who simply comes into their own. Which player on your team should we expect to have a breakout season?
Laura (Thrashers): If you can have a re-breakout year, I’m looking at Little and the line placement he’ll presumably be on. He’ll pick it up big time. Bergfors is already known for his scoring ability, so I’m going to look in the direction of Evander Kane. He’s got speed and toughness, and can school bigger and slower players (see: Chris Pronger). Being on the 3rd line last year might’ve held his totals back, as did not having any PP time at all – he should see some of that this season.
If he makes the team (and I think he will as a 3rd line center), Patrice Cormier’s going to be a force to deal with. Not necessarily as a scorer, but as a leader on the ice and as someone who will be a pain for opponents to get through when the checking line’s out there.
Bob (Hurricanes): Brandon Sutter started to break out last year, after starting off the season in the AHL. This season, he will start out as Carolina’s second line center and will be getting his fair share of powerplay time and other important time on the ice, right from the get-go. He only played 72 games last year and still had 21 goals, in a limited role. Watch out for Brandon Sutter this year.
Donny (Panthers): A year ago I answered that question with center Shawn Matthias. I was wrong (Dmitry Kulikov filled the role splendidly), but I’m going with him again. His play morphed into a gritty yet finessed style late in the season, when he really began to appear comfortable. Even from a spectator’s standpoint, it looked as if he quit overgripping the stick and started having fun, which increased his minutes substantially in a variety of roles. He’ll have every opportunity to climb the ladder.
John (Lightning): Sean Bergenheim. UFA signing this August, who had been with the New York Islanders the past few seasons. Part of this choice is from going on reactions to the signing by NHL pundits – Bergenheim played with heart on some bad Isles teams but didn’t exactly excel. Being in a more talented TB system may help him raise his game.
I’m also hoping for a breakout by Victor Hedman this year. A lot was asked of Victor in his rookie season with the Lightning – too much playing itme, too little learning time. It turned into a mess. This year, he is surrounded by versed veterans who can better share the load of ice time that Victor had dumped on him last year.
Becca (Capitals): As Caps fans we’re trying to temper our expectations a bit for our young defensemen, Alzner and Carlson; after all, they’re both really young and defense is a position that is notoriously tricky to grow into. I think a lot of us are trying to play down their potential impact just in case it’s not as great as we hope.
Still, I can’t help but think that Carlson in particular is poised to have a hell of a season. If you saw him at the WJC (where he earned the nickname “Real American Hero John Carlson”, or RAHJC) or caught any of his performance with the Caps – especially during the playoffs – you know that this is a special kid. He’s positionally very sound and has good offensive instincts, and he’s a feisty little bugger who is definitely not afraid to mix it up and be physical.
Slightly more under the radar would be someone like Michal Neuvirth, the lesser known of the two kid goalies who is probably going to give Varlamov a serious challenge for the #1 spot. He’s got consecutive Calder Cup wins under his belt, has been impressive in limited work with the Caps and is very hungry to make his mark on the NHL.
4. We all know that watching a team for 82 games allows us to appreciate things casual fans won’t necessarily recognize. Which guy on your bench doesn’t get nearly the respect he deserves?
Laura (Thrashers): He got a lot more respect as the year went on last season as his production picked up, but Jim Slater’s someone who doesn’t get nearly enough attention outside of Atlanta. He has the problem of being a former 1st round draft pick (30th overall in 2002) so people expect a certain output from him. He’s not a scorer necessarily, but he’s one of the fastest Thrashers’ on the ice, and when his line’s out (usually he centers Eric Boulton and Chris Thorburn), opportunities happen. They don’t always convert as a goal, but the chance is there and the puck is often being carried down the ice into the opponent’s zone by Slater. He’s also solid on the PK, and was responsible for a couple of game winning goals as well.
Bob (Hurricanes): Tom Kostopoulos used to be a fan favorite in Montreal and now Caniacs know why. He works hard every single shift, does the “dirty work” when necessary, kills penalties, plays any role which is asked of him, and drops the gloves as needed, (even though he admits he’s not the best fighter in the world.) On top of that, he chips in 7-8 goals a year. He is your prototypical “team guy”.
Donny (Panthers): Radek Dvorak. Not that he isn’t given respect, he’s simply easy to overlook when the focus tends to be dominated by the Booths, Tomas Vokouns, et al, which is unfortunate. At 33 he remains one of the fastest skaters on the club, plays with his hair on fire every night, and is a madman on the penalty kill (7 SH goals over the past two seasons). He brings a quiet sense of stability to a roster which has lacked that in recent years.
John (Lightning): This one is actually hard to answer with the staff turnover this off-season. Last season, of the guys who are still on the roster, I can say Nate Thompson was oft overlooked. He had been a waiver pickup from the Isles in January and the man performed amiably in the role that was requested of him – third-line center. He was solid with faceoffs, spent a good amount of time on the penalty kill, handled the chores set before him well. He wasn’t flashy, wasn’t going to score a ton of goals but he did the work soundly. He was a real asset for the squad last season and one of the team’s best defensive forwards.
Becca (Capitals): Easy – Mike Green. Back-to-back Norris nominations or not, there are still a lot of fans (and a fair number of media members) who see him as little more than a forward in defenseman’s clothing.
Those who think that seem to have little understanding of a forward’s role and even less of an understanding of how Green’s position helps him to generate offense. He’s very fast and creative and possesses a lethal shot, all of which he’s tailored to his specific position. What’s more, those who disrespect him severely underestimate his defensive ability. He’s not perfect in his own end but he’s much, MUCH better than he gets credit for and is easily one of the most well-rounded defensemen in the League.
Until April. Ha.
5. The Moment of Truth: I understand that everyone is an expert BEFORE the season starts; so as bloggers, it’s important to throw up your pre-season predictions so everyone can mock you later. If your credibility was on the line, how would you rank the final standings of the Southeast Division? More importantly, which teams do you think will make the playoffs from the Southeast?
Laura (Thrashers): Final standings were tough this time, seeing how ATL improved with goaltending and TB improved with defense – and already has some scorers to deal with. I think that the Thrash and the Bolts could be either or as far as 2nd in the division this season, but I’m hoping for Tampa’s usual inexplicable meltdown and near miss. That, and I’m a homer.
3. Tampa Bay
Bob (Hurricanes): This is tough because every team in the division should be better, but here goes nothing. The top two will make the playoffs.
1. Washington: No doubt everyone will pick the Caps to be number one, but will their young defense and goaltending hold up? No President’s Trophy for them this year, but the Division Championship is theirs for the taking.
2. Tampa Bay: I always felt like the main problem in Tampa for the past few years was leadership. That should not be a problem now. They are loaded at forward, Victor Hedman should improve over last season, and Dan Ellis is not too shabby in net. If Vinny regains his form, this could be a very dangerous team. (Two 50 goal scorers on the same team?)
3. Atlanta: The Thrashers have a new GM, coach, and half a new team. It might take them awhile to find themselves, but if they can play like a team, they should be very competitive and win their share of games.
4. Carolina: The Hurricanes have more questions than answers in this rebuilding year. While they should be very competitive and fun to watch, there will probably be a learning curve for the younger players to fight through. At the risk of repeating myself, the defense is too inexperienced. If one of the top three get injured, (Corvo, Pitkanen, Gleason), the Canes could have big problems.
5. Florida: I loved their draft, but the lowest scoring team in the NHL did nothing to improve that glaring weakness and they will continue to struggle scoring goals. Tomas Vokoun can only get so many shutouts
Donny (Panthers): I called the Panthers a playoff club one year ago, and we all saw how that played out. After the summer we’ve all witnessed it’s pretty clear that the scramble for second place in the division will be a dogfight, hence:
1. Washington – NHL’s best regular season club remains on top by default.
2. Tampa Bay – GM Steve Yzerman has entire franchise reading from the same page. And that’s a frightening collection of top-six forwards.
3. Carolina – Lots of new faces, but Staal, Ward, and Paul Maurice always find a way to stay dangerous.
4. Atlanta – Another team oozing with turnover; Rick Dudley’s crew is on the rise in a tougher division.
5. Florida – Year One of the rebuild commences; they’ll compete but face ever-stiffening opposition.
As for playoffs, call it Caps and Bolts.
John (Lightning): What do I see this year? More parity in the SE (and the Eastern Conference in general). Atlanta improved themselves, Tampa improved. Carolina is retooling/rebuilding and Washington has retooled. Unless Craig Ramsey in Atlanta proves to be out of his league as their new head coach, I believe this is your top-four finalists in the division. All will vie for the playoffs but ultimately only two teams making it: Washington and Tampa Bay.
Florida is a wild card that I am writing off too easily. They are rebuilding under Dale Tallon and I think this is a year of growing pains. I expect last place, but they have a record of being at thorn-in-the-side of SE teams (especially the Bolts). While I don’t expect them to make the playoffs – I wouldn’t necessarily lock them in as the cellar-dwelling team of the SE
Becca (Capitals): 1. Capitals – Washington absolutely dominated the Southeast last year, to the tune of a 19-3-2 record within the division and a 38-point lead over the second place Thrashers when all was said and done. It probably won’t be nearly as lopsided this year (and thank goodness) – but the offseason changes made by the other teams won’t be enough to catch the Caps, either.
2. Thrashers – Atlanta probably wins the “most improved” award simply by having pillaged the cap-strapped Blackhawks. They’ve been tough to play against the past few years and by adding some gritty guys like Byfuglien, Eager and Meyer they’ve become even tougher, and while they haven’t had any high-caliber forwards since Kovalchuk departed they’re well-rounded and solid. Their goaltending is also a bit more grounded with the addition of Chris Mason and their D is nothing to sneeze at.
3. Lightning – Yzerman’s already making his mark on his new team and is starting to shape them into a potentially scary division rival. They’ve got some good depth, young talent in guys like Stamkos and Hedman, slightly more solid goaltending and, if he can stay healthy, a great forward in Simon Gagne. Might be a few more years until they’re really a threat, though.
4. Hurricanes – Carolina’s M.O. this year seems to be putting out the best team for the least amount of money; they’ve still got some of their big names and will probably be a halfway competitive team but the loss of Brind’amour’s leadership and Whitney’s offense is going to hurt them. But hey, they got Joe Corvo back…so all is good in Raleigh.
5. Panthers – The good news for the Panthers is that in new GM Dale Tallon they have someone in charge who seems to be capable of turning a team into a contender (at least for one year). The bad news is it’ll be a little while longer before that can happen. They lost another of their “big” guns in Nathan Horton and were already struggling to score with him in the lineup, and have acquired only role players to fill out the roster. Florida is in full-on rebuilding mode.
As for playoff teams…I think it’s just the Caps and either Atlanta or Tampa. Depending on how much of a cluster there is at the bottom of the Conference a third team could crack the postseason, but for now I’ll be optimistic and say 2 teams make it
The next division up in our Blogger Roundtable Preview series will be the Pacific on Monday, September 13. If you want to take a look at the entire schedule, you can check it out here—or if you want to make sure you don’t miss anything, you can subscribe to VFMS (via email or RSS) for the next couple of weeks. If there are any writers you found interesting here, I urge you to go check out their sites. Each and every writer who participated has an extremely good site and pump out great content year-round!