Hello to anyone reading this post!
Like most of you fellow puck-heads, I’m all stoked and ready for pucks to drop! My name is John Valley and I’m a huge Sens fan. Living in Ottawa, my life has been defined by figures such as Lalime, Pat Quinn, Hasek’s abductor, and Alfie’s hair. But I’m not just a fan of the Sens, but of the league in general. So, you may be asking, why start your first blog post for this site making a Southeast Division preview? Well, I happen to think the race for the SE division crown will be particularly close this year. Other than the Atlantic division, is any other division as close as this one? Secondly, this is a division that has historically been given very little media attention, especially in Canada. While I do consider myself primarily a Sens fan, since I became a fan of the team before I even started paying attention to other teams, I like to occasionally focus on lesser known teams and players within the league. If you have any comments or questions, please post them in the comments section at the bottom. Since I’m also a student and a part-time worker, blog posts won’t come as frequently as I like, but I hope to write as much as I can. Thanks and enjoy my Southeast preview!
In the past decade there have been some notable success stories within arguably the most maligned division within the league. Tampa Bay and Carolina both won the Stanley Cup in 2004 and 2006 respectively. The Capitals, with the emergence of Russian phenom Alexander Ovechkin, made the playoffs in 2008 and since then have been regarded as a perennial playoff threat. Last season, the Florida Panthers made the playoffs for the first time in twelve years, also winning the division. Though the Atlanta franchise was a hapless one outside of one playoff appearance in 2007, last season saw the franchise make a move to Winnipeg, and the reborn Jets had a surprisingly successful season and won the hearts amongst their native fans and other fans in the league.
Going into the 2013 season, this seems to be the most competitive division in the league. While most people can already prognosticate over who will win the division in some of the more top heavy divisions (such as the Pacific and the Northeast), the race for the Southeast crown appears to be wide open. In order to give my case for all the teams in the NHL’s most sunny division (the ‘Peg and DC excluded), I’ll have to do a breakdown of the respective rosters of these teams.
Carolina Hurricanes – The “We have two scoring lines?” Edition
Tlusty – E. Staal – Skinner
Semin – J. Staal – LaRose
Boychuk – Jokinen – Dwyer
Bowman – Brent – Westgarth
During the offseason, the Hurricanes made two of the biggest scoring addition to their top six, trading Sutter away for Eric’s younger brother Jordan, and signing the enigmatic Alex Semin. For a team that was 18th in goals, this should pay huge dividends. Some of the youngsters look to make a huge impact, as many fans have prognosticated Boychuk playing on the top line. We shouldn’t forget Zac Dalpe, who was a Calder favourite last season before getting sent down, and could make some noise if he gets a roster spot. Overall, having the two Staals gives the Canes the center depth needed to compete in this league, and the underrated Semin should succeed in a new city with less expectations; his talent can’t be ignored.
Pitkanen – Faulk
McBain – Gleason
Corvo – Harrison
While Gleason remains a fan favourite, and the heart and soul of the Canes defense, he will once again carry much of the responsibility as the defensive stalwart of this team. Pitkanen can move the puck, but at this point what you see is what you get. The Hurricanes do have two youngsters who could perhaps make a difference: Faulk, who was one of the better rookie d-men of last season, and McBain, who failed to make ‘the leap’ last season, but remains one of the better young defensemen around.
Cam Ward has established himself at this point as one of the better goalies in the league. He did struggle a bit last season, but seemed to rebound a bit once the coaching situation was settled out. Ellis is a serviceable backup, just keep him away from any Twitter accounts.
Best Case Scenario: Semin and J. Staal add scoring depth which the Canes of the past lacked previously. McBain and Faulk continue to improve and grow on the Carolina blueline. Staal plays lights out most of the season. With all these factors, Hurricanes surprise most and win the division.
Worst Case Scenario: The lack of depth on the backend continues to haunt the team. J. Staal inexplicably is unable to make the jump to becoming a full time top six player (although he has served that role time and time again in Pittsburgh). Semin in Carolina plays like Semin in Washington. The Hurricanes continue to be one of the weaker teams in the league.
Florida Panthers – The “Can we do it again?” Edition
Fleischmann – Weiss – Versteeg
Mueller – Huberdeau – Kovalev
Upstall – Matthais – Skille
Kopecky – Goc – Parros
The most recent addition to the team is Alexei Kovalev, who will be an interesting player to watch. As a Sens fan, I saw Kovalev’s stint as the perfect summary of his career: the talent to woo and lead a team, but the passion for it to spiral all out of control. Still, one has to wonder what his motivations are for coming back this time, at his age? If there is still some passion left, he may be able to fit right in on the second line with Calder favourite Huberdeau. The Flash-Weiss-Steeg line was one of the highest scoring lines in the league last year, and things only look like they can improve from here.
Campbell – Kulikov
Weaver – Kuba
Jovanovski – Gudbranson
Losing Jason Garrison will be a huge loss for the Panthers. Not so much on the offensive side – where he had most of his success piggy backing off Soupy, but on the defensive side where he was one of the better hard-nosed types in the league. Luckily, the idea of a Jovanovski/Gudbranson pairing seems to look like a potentially underrated shut down line. Kuba is overrated, but had a bit of a resurgence last season with Karlsson, so his career still has a few years of juice left. The player to watch will be Kulikov, who was just freshly signed out of the KHL.
Theo had a surprisingly decent season, leading the Cats to their first ever division win; he earns the benefit of the doubt heading into the shortened season. As a backup is the underrated Clemmensen, who emerged from the shadow of Brodeur to make his presence as an actual serviceable goalie known. Still, one should not forget about Markstrom, arguably the best goalie prospect in the league. If Theo and the team struggles, they could easily give the ball to Markstrom and roll with it.
Best Case Scenario: A division win seems tough, but not completely unfounded. Florida has the best prospect pool in the league and has an underrated forward core with a future franchise goalie waiting in the wings. Why they are rated so low is beyond me. They might not be a slam dunk for the playoffs, but should be in the hunt for the lower seeds, and potentially the division title if they continue to remain competitive.
Worst Case Scenario: Or… the team might actually be a complete fluke! Most of the talent that emerged last season doesn’t seem to be that established. Losing Garrison for Kuba will hurt a lot, and Theodore is not an elite starting goalie (and hasn’t been since the Lord of the Rings movies were in theaters). Bottom feeder in the East.
Tampa Bay Lightning – The “Stamkos is God” Edition
St. Louis – Stamkos – Purcell
Malone – Lecavalier – Conacher
Hall – Johnson – Pouliot
Crombeen – Thompson – Tyrell
For all the struggles the Lightning faced last season, scoring wasn’t one of them; they finished within the top ten for goals scored. Rumours of Lecavalier’s demise (his career, at least), have been greatly exaggerated. He’s still a great player who can get it done in crunch time, but this is Stamkos’ team now. Tampa has solid wing depth with the ageless St. Louis, Purcell, Connolly, and Pouliot. Conachar has a shot at making the team and could be a rookie dark horse if he fits, although it’s unlikely for this season.
Hedman – Carle
Brewer – Salo
Lee – Bergeron
One of the team’s weaknesses last season, Yzerman tried to mix things up by trading for Sens’ and Leafs’ defensemen Lee and Aulie. He’s hoping that one or both of them can stick this time; the competence they’ve shown in the limited time they’ve seen should prove him right. Hedman will need to improve after a mostly weak season last year. He did have 17 points in the final 28 games, which could suggest that when they team is starting to come together he can put up decent numbers. AHL defensemen of the year Mark Barberio has a good shot at making the team as well, so keep an eye out for him.
Lindback was good enough as a relief starter for Nashville when Rinne was gone to earn himself a starting role with the Lightning. The team also has Garon, who has shown to be competent enough to manage a decent amount of starts, but it’s safe to say that Lindback will get the majority of the starts. It’s a bit of a risk though, since he isn’t completely established as a goalie. One wonders how he will fare in Boucher’s system and facing more deadly sharpshooters in the East.
Best Case Scenario: Players like Hedman and Barberio break out and establish themselves amongst the roll players on the team. All the team’s hopes will lie on Lindback, and if he plays as well as the ghost of Dwayne Roloson, it should be enough to propel Tampa back into the playoffs.
Worst Case Scenario: If Lindback struggles, Garon won’t be enough to support the team. Vinny and Marty are getting up in years too. Also, what if teams start to figure out how to defend Stamkos, like they did with Ovechkin just a couple of years back?
Washington Capitals – The “That’s it… back to offense!” Edition
Ovechkin – Backstrom – Brouwer
Fehr – Riberio – Johansson
Chimera – Laich – Ward
Hendricks – Perreault – Crabb
While most of the focus among this group is on Ovechkin, people are forgetting about Backstrom, who missed half of last season due to injury. A full season from him helps the Caps and will help Ovie. Riberio looks like he should fit right in on the second line. I’m looking forward to seeing more magic from Johansson, who is becoming an underrated talent in the league. Adam Oates is now the head coach taking over from Dale Hunter, who motivated the team but wasn’t able to make it his own. The expectation is that the Caps will go back to being a high scoring offensive team, which will help them versus teams that struggle at that side of the game like Pittsburgh and Philly.
Green – Carlson
Hamrlik – Alzner
Orlov – Schultz
Is Green done or not? That seems to be the central question with this team, and with a goal-scoring oriented coach in Oates, the hope is Green will rebound along with Ovie. “The other” Carlson is emerging as the best defenseman on the team and he will be joined by the veteran Hamrlik and the stay-at-home Alzner. Orlov is also a great up-and-coming defenseman to keep an eye on, though it looks like he may miss the start of the season.
Hotlby was solid enough in the playoffs to earn himself the starting gig. Playoffs aside, he has looked strong in the AHL and has been seen as the goalie of the future for the past few years, so GMGM’s decision wasn’t based on a lack of logic. Even if the rookie struggles, they still have former starting goaltender Neuvirth in the system. If anything, Neuvirth might be a bit of a sleeper, since they’ll likely roll with both goalies to start, and he will be motivated to prove himself as a legitimate starter on this team.
Best Case Scenario: If Oates style works, Ovie and Green’s swagger should return and will rub off on most of the team. Also, Wolski is still somewhere in the system, and he has the talent to make a top six impact. If Holtby hangs on to be the starting goalie for this team, it would bode well for them heading into the playoffs and will likely make him a favourite to win the Calder trophy. This team remains a favourite to win the division, whether or not they can make noise in the East is another story.
Worst Case Scenario: Perhaps Ovechkin is just done, focusing more on the defensive side of his game and lengthening his career? That being said, he’s still an elite top scorer in the game. Green is more of a concern, seeing as if he’s not contributing offensively, he’s not doing much. The Holtby-Neuvirth two headed monster might do more harm than good if Oates tries to rock the boat too much by rotating goalies. To be fair, as any team with Jaroslav Halak has showed, it’s possible to succeed with multiple goalies. If all these factors occur, the Caps might struggle once again to make the playoffs.
Winnipeg Jets – “That’s it… back to Winnipeg!” Edition
Kane – Little – Wheeler
Ladd – Jokinen – Antropov
Ponikarovsky – Burmistrov – Wellwood
Miettinen – Slater – Machacek
Last season was a magical year for Winnipeg. Not only did they get their team back, but they actually had a decent season in which they just finished outside the playoffs. The addition of Jokinen gives them better center depth, and after a decent rebound season with Calgary I can see him forming well on that second line, as the KLW line has solid chemistry. I’ll be watching out for Alex Burmistrov, who has a lot of talent but hasn’t really been given a shot in the top six yet. Still, he could become more rounded out in a bottom six role and could then turn into a hell of a player, but the threat of him running back to Russia next year remains. It should also be noted that Mark Scheifele has made the team to start this season, although with a full roster it is unclear where he will fit in.
Enstrom – Byfuglien
Bogosian – Hainsey
Stuart – Postma
The Jets have one of the better defense lineups in the Eastern conference. Big Buff has become one of the premier scoring defensemen in the league and a healthy Enstrom isn’t far off. Bogosian seemed to come into his own last year; he’s coming off an injury but he’s good at both sides of the puck. Everyone’s favourite NHLPA player rep Ron Hainesy is also here, but while he’s undeniably overpaid he’s a decent option.
After many years of serving as a backup in the Atlanta system, Pavelec looks like he’s finally starting to hit his prime as a starting goalie. He’ll of course need better team support from the backend and from the checking line, but he looks competent enough to hold his own. Montoya is a decent fall back option, but the once former “goalie of the future” has never broken out, even when he had the chance to win the spot in the Islanders goalie carousel last season.
Best Case Scenario: With the addition of Jokinen and a healthy Enstrom, things should resume as expected. Kane is one player who could make the leap to elite status, and if he does it bodes well for the rest of the scrappy Jets forwards. Expect them to be in the playoff hunt most of the year, although a division spot seems unlikely
Worst Case Scenario: While they were expected to be one of the worst teams in the league last season, it’s still possible that the magic from the debut season could wear off. They have another brutal road schedule, playing in Manitoba and being forced to travel to Florida and the East coast, although they have enthusiastic fans at home. If the team continues to play weak on the back end, expect them to struggle in the competitive East.
- Carolina – Ward is the best goalie in this division. Better coaching and scoring depth will pay off in the shortened season.
- Washington – Goaltending may be a slim concern, but the Caps still have a ton of elite talent and will be a darkhorse to win the Stanley Cup.
- Winnipeg – I have Winnipeg sneaking into the playoffs at eighth. They seem well put together at all positions: good team chemistry, good puck moving d-men, and a reliable, potentially solid starting goalie.
- Florida – While most folks are predicting doom and gloom, many are forgetting that Florida has the best core of prospects, plus an elite franchise goalie waiting in the wings. While I don’t think they’ll make the playoffs, I think they are good enough to surprise some teams.
- Tampa Bay – While they are a dominant team on the score sheet, they have failed to really improve the team in their own end. Lindback is going to have to carry the team like Roloson did, as this team seems to play weak without even a smidgen of competent goaltending.