I’m not going to lie, when it came time to write about the NHL’s Southeast Division, I considered moving right along to the Western Conference and hoping that none of you would notice. None of you probably would have, but in doing the preparation for writing this piece, I realized that I’m actually a little excited about watching these five teams play hockey. There’s a lot of solid youth in this division, as well as a relocated franchise, a team that flung money at the salary cap floor and eventually got there, a recent Cup champ looking to get back to playoffs, a returning conference finalist, and the Washington Capitals. Considering we don’t have to watch any more Atlanta hockey crowds, this division might not be a bad product this year.
We’ll start with the obvious.
1st: Washington Capitals 2010-11: 107 points, 1st in division
The Caps have won the Southeast four years in a row, and I’m picking them to run it to five this year. Washington started last year with a dud — so much so that they were actually the “can this talented group turn it around” team during the lead up to the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh. The Caps won that game, and sprinted to the conference’s top seed.
But gone is the goaltender who shined on that day. Semyon Varlamov was shrewdly dealt to Colorado, or the goaltenders’ Bermuda Triangle, in exchange for a first and second round pick, which was amazing considering an offer sheet would have only cost the Avs a second rounder. But yet again the Avalanche did what they do, and I’m still laughing. Losing Varlamov isn’t a positive for the Caps this year, but the loss was offset by the free agent acquisition of veteran Tomas Vokoun from Florida. Vokoun signed a one-year deal for $1.5 million, which is far less than many assumed he would get on the open market. Vokoun cited winning and playing in the playoffs as reasons he wanted to join the Caps, and he should do a bit of both for them this season. Backing him up / competing for the starting job will be last year’s starter, Michal Neuvirth, who was solid all the way around in his first full NHL season. The Capitals have to be considered as having one of the three or four best goalie tandems in the league, and that’s before we even consider likely AHL starter Braden Holtby, who seemed to rock a subzero GAA last year for the big club.
Forward Eric Fehr and defenseman Scott Hannan are both continuing their careers elsewhere this season, as well as a few other bit players. Brought in to “replace” Hannan is Roman Hamrlik, who spent the last four seasons in Montreal and placed fourth in the league last season in blocked shots. Also new to the Caps is fourth line center Jeff Halpern, who played last season in Montreal with Hamrlik. Halpern is solid on faceoffs and should give the Caps a solid 12 minutes a night. Washington also added two wingers who should be able to contribute in different roles. Troy Brouwer played his first three full NHL seasons in Chicago, winning a Stanley Cup in 2010. He now gives the Caps another top ten hitter in the league to add to Alex Ovechkin. Ovie ranked 10th in the NHL last season with 241 registered hits; Brouwer came in 5th with 262. Brouwer chipped in with 36 points for the Blackhawks last season after scoring 40 points in the 2009-10 Cup year.
The final free agent addition for Washington so far was winger Joel Ward, who like Brouwer, is entering his fourth full season in the NHL. Ward came over from Nashville and is now scheduled to cost the Caps $3 million for each of the next four years. Surprisingly, he hasn’t outscored Brouwer in either of the past two seasons. Instead, Ward made his money in the 2011 playoffs, where he registered 13 points in 12 games to help Nashville win its first playoff series in franchise history. Ward appears to be pretty strong and fast when he gets going, although I think he lacks the agility and puck command of a top-level forward. But Ward won’t be expected to be a top-level forward in Washington, and he should be a great fit for a team that needs playoff success in a bad way. Ward and Brouwer both have shown the grit needed to help their teams achieve in the playoffs, and should fit well into their likely third line roles for the Caps.
Offensively, the Caps boast two of the most dynamic players in the entire league in center Nicklas Backstrom and left wing Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin’s “full speed ahead” offensive mentality has won him many fans, but Backstrom possesses a more creative, finessed approach that gives Ovie the freedom to do what he does. Both stars had their point totals drop last year, but neither of them had bad seasons. The team decided to go with a more defensive approach in an effort to set up postseason success, and the change was looking good right up until the Caps were swept by division rival Tampa Bay in the conference semifinals. Backstrom could have done more in the playoffs, and should live up to heightened demands in his fifth NHL season.
On defense, the Capitals appear to be pretty deep. Everyone knows about Mike Green, who likes to pretend he’s a winger and has taken a lot of flack for that over the past year. Green blew up in 2008-09, scoring 31 goals and adding 42 assists in a season that moved him to the head of the class of fantasy defensemen. Green tacked on 76 points the following year before facing scrutiny for his lack of defensive awareness and accountability throughout Washington’s blown 3-1 series lead against 8th-seeded Montreal in the first round of the playoffs. Green struggled with injuries last season, and has essentially been taken off the radar as far as “great defensemen” go (which Green never was to begin with). It is interesting to me that the Washington team as a whole was able to shift its playing style and still achieve the east’s top seed last year, and yet nobody seems to think Green can practice some defense and change his own game. I’ve been very critical of Mike Green in the past, but now it seems everyone has figured it out and overcompensated on the hate. Let’s see if Green can’t put the work in this summer and come back as a more complete defenseman.
Aside from Green, the Caps have a lot of options on the blue line. They resigned Karl Alzner to a relatively cheap deal. Alzner will be 23 throughout the upcoming season, and was tabbed by some of the sharper hockey minds as one of the few restricted free agents that could have actually been worth an offer sheet. Alas, no offer sheet was given, and the Caps now have Alzner back in the fold. Younger and skating even more minutes will be 21 year-old John Carlson, who has shown the offensive potential in his 120 NHL games that has Capitals fans less concerned about Mike Green than they otherwise might be. Carlson has shown flashes while quarterbacking the Caps’ power play, but he still needs to hone his game, which can be said of almost any 21 year-old player.
Washington isn’t all youth on the blue line, as aside from adding Hamrlik, they also bring back Tom Poti, Jeff Schultz, John Erskine and Dennis Wideman, who once upon a time was the next big thing on the Bruins’ back line. Wideman had a solid year in 2010-11, scoring 10 goals and adding 30 assists. All four of the latter mentioned players should compete for playing time on the Caps’ defense. It is very possible that the Capitals shed one of these contracts in order to get under the cap and move a player that may not get much playing time. Of course, the easiest way to get under the cap is to move winger Alex Semin, who I did not address earlier because I get bored talking about one-trick ponies who don’t play defense and turn the puck over constantly. Semin’s hands seem to only be soft when he’s shooting the puck, as he reverts back to an ECHL puck-handler most other times. Semin’s goal-scoring can’t be argued with, and he fits in a particular role, but for $6.7 million the Caps could do better. I think they know that, but the problem is, so do most other teams. Semin could be a rental for some other contender, but teams like Washington who are out to win the Stanley Cup rarely are the ones selling the rental players.
2nd: Tampa Bay Lightning 2010-11: 103 points, 2nd in division
The Lightning had a playoff run last season that sets the bar pretty high in GM Steve Yzerman’s and head coach Guy Boucher’s second season in charge. Tampa Bay came back from a 3-1 series deficit at Pittsburgh and followed that with a series sweep of Washington. The Lightning then took a scoreless tie into the third period of Game 7 in Boston before surrendering their season-ender to Nathan Horton. It’s hard to tell a fan base to expect second place and that a trip to the second round of the playoffs would be a good encore, but that’s the way I feel about Tampa Bay right now.
Tampa Bay’s forwards are extremely talented at the very top. Steven Stamkos was second in the league in goals, while Marty St. Louis was second in the league in assists and points. However, after those two, one must wonder where the offensive consistency will come from. Teddy Purcell caught fire toward the end of the season and through the playoffs last year. Vinny Lecavalier continues to be enigmatic as everyone continues to wonder if he’ll ever up his game to his pre-concussion level. He has nine more years left at $7.27 million per, so the Lightning better hope to get some consistency out of him.
After that it’s rather thin. Gone are Simon Gagne and Sean Bergenheim, the former actually being a consistent offensive contributor, while the latter showed grit in the playoffs and was rewarded with a nonsensical contract by the Florida Panthers, who needed to overpay to get to the cap floor. In to replace those two are Tom Pyatt and Ryan Shannon, who are limited offensive players but can help a team win games.
On the blue line is where I’m interested to watch the Lightning this year. They have a budding star in Victor Hedman, the 20 year-old who was the 2nd overall pick in the 2009 entry draft. The 6’6” Swede is entering his third NHL season and will anchor this defense someday soon. I say “someday soon” because the Lightning locked down Eric Brewer to a new four-year contract in July. Brewer was the captain of the St. Louis Blues last season before being traded to Tampa Bay and playing a key defensive role in getting the Lightning to the brink of the Stanley Cup Finals. Two new additions to the Lightning defense are Matt Gilroy and Bruno Gervais, who both are physical and probably third liners for this Tampa Bay squad. Ahead of them should be finesse guys Mattias Ohlund and Pavel Kubina, and competing for dressed spots should be Brett Clark and Marc-Andre Bergeron. Of course, things will change from now until October 6, but those are the eight that Tampa Bay has right now. Of them, Hedman and Brewer are clearly the ones to watch.
The Lightning’s once vomit-inducing goaltending situation got more aesthetically pleasing with the trade acquisition of Dwayne Roloson last year, and the team signed the soon-to-be 42 year-old goaltender to a fresh one-year deal before letting Mike Smith walk to Phoenix. Tampa brought in Mathieu Garon from Columbus to serve as Roloson’s backup. Garon started out last season about as hot as Tim Thomas, but faded to a .901 save percentage while being beaten out by the crowned prince of Columbus’ nets, Steve Mason. Roloson and Garon make for one of the least sexy goalie tandems in the league, but assuming Roloson can stave off aging for another year, the Tampa crease should be alright.
3rd: Carolina Hurricanes 2010-11: 91 points, 3rd in division
Picking Carolina to finish ahead of Winnipeg after losing big, goal-scoring winger Erik Cole seems ill-advised, but it is based largely on two players: Cam Ward and Eric Staal. Ward led all NHL goalies last year in games played, shots against, and saves (by over 200). His .923 save percentage tied Carey Price and was only bested by three goalies who had 50+ games played: Tim Thomas, Pekka Rinne and Roberto Luongo, who were the three Vezina finalists in 2011. I think Ward is a tremendous NHL goaltender who can be counted on to carry similar peripheral numbers this season while potentially getting more than 8 games off, which is what he got last season while starting 74. The Canes signed Brian Boucher from Philadelphia, who no longer had need of the player after signing Ilya Bryzgalov to his big nine-year deal. Boucher is much-maligned, but he gives the Canes a veteran presence at the backup goalie position that they didn’t have last year. Youngster Justin Peters started the eight games that Ward didn’t, and Peters did not progress at all in having an .875 save percentage. Even with Boucher though, I would expect Ward to start 65 games this season.
Staal gives Carolina an elite center that Winnipeg and Florida do not possess. If hockey teams are built through the middle, as the old adage goes, then Carolina is building well. After Triple Gold Club member Staal, Carolina has Brandon Sutter and Tuomo Ruutu, both of which contribute offensively while Sutter continues to develop as an NHL center. Behind them Carolina has new addition Tim Brent to center the fourth line. The Canes hope that center prospect Zac Dalpe can get some action with the big club as well this year, but he’ll only get an extended opportunity if he can help the team win, as the Canes are coming off a 9th place finish in the east last year, and are only three seasons removed from making the conference finals (and six removed from winning the Stanley Cup). So while building for the future is very important, the Canes definitely want a return to the playoffs in 2012.
On the wings will be newly-signed Alexei Ponikarovsky, Jussi Jokinen and returning rookie-of-the-year Jeff Skinner. The Canes also brought in the older brother of St. Louis Blues stud forward Chris Stewart, whose name is Anthony. The elder Stewart appears to be a JV version of Chris, but can contribute offensively at times. Younger but more talented are prospects Drayson Bowman and Zach Boychuk, who like Dalpe, the Hurricanes would love to be able to develop at the NHL level this season as well. It all depends on how the youngsters play and what the team’s goals are as the season moves on.
The Hurricanes are led on defense by Joni Pitkanen, who skates, scores, hits and blocks. Carolina signed recent Cup winner Tomas Kaberle, who said that his brother Frantisek’s advice played a role in signing with Carolina. Frantisek Kaberle scored the game-winning goal for Carolina in Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals against the Edmonton Oilers. Carolina has three more D men to compete for top-four spots in Tim Gleason, Bryan Allen and Jamie McBain. All three blocked at least 103 blocked shots last year, while Gleason recorded 215 hits. McBain had the most offensive success last year, and is only 23 years old. My best guess is that Gleason and McBain join Kaberle and Pitkanen on Carolina’s top four.
A playoff appearance is possible for the Hurricanes this year, but so is a regression after the loss of Cole and the difficulty that Cam Ward will have to repeat his awesome 2010-11 season.
4th: Winnipeg Jets 2010-11: 80 points, 4th in division
This is just exciting. Winnipeg has an NHL team again. In fact, it had been about as long that Winnipeg had been absent from the NHL as it was that they were around (1979-1996 as the Jets; 1996-2011 absent). But it’s good to have them back, mainly because they provide another venue where the people care a lot about hockey. No matter how well the Thrashers played or who was in town, it was hard to watch their home games on the NHL package for more than five minutes. If nobody in the building cares, why should I from my living room? That problem is now solved for one franchise.
On the ice, the Jets should have the opportunity to compete. For one, they play in the one division in the east that could yield some easier victories. I think the Southeast should get better, but it certainly isn’t the division the Atlantic is. It could compete with the Northeast, but if we had to say one of the two divisions would get three teams into the playoffs, I think more people would go with the Northeast than the Southeast. If Winnipeg can take their divisional opponents and find a home-ice advantage that they lacked in going 17-17-7 in Atlanta last year, then the Jets can post a solid point total this year.
The most important swing player for the Jets this year is goaltender Ondrej Pavelec. Pavs memorably fainted a few minutes into the season last year against Washington, but came back and played pretty well for a good stretch of the season. Pavelec didn’t free fall a la Mathieu Garon, but he did end with a .914, which was only good enough for 23rd in the league. When the Thrashers traded super-talent Kari Lehtonen to Dallas near the end of 2009-10, they did so with the thought that Pavelec had talent close to Lehtonen’s, and could figure out the mental and consistency parts of being a starting NHL goaltender. As Pavelec enters the final year of his contract, this is the year that he has to put it together. He’ll be given every opportunity to start ahead of backup Chris Mason, and I think Pavelec is the key to helping this Jets team establish an identity early and push for third place in the division in year one. Ultimately, I have them coming up just short, but Pavs is the one guy who can up his level of play and get Winnipeg over an important hump.
I like Winnipeg’s defensemen. Tobias Enstrom is shifty and provides the offense a lifeline, while converted winger Dustin Byfuglien set the league on fire early last year before petering out. Byfuglien needs to improve his fitness level to be able to play over 20 minutes a game while not costing the Jets too much defensively. The Jets should have Zach Bogosian back on D, and he helps more defensively than the two offensive-minded blue liners in front of him. Winnipeg will have other options defensively, including Johnny Oduya, Ron Hainsey, Mark Stuart and the newly-acquired Randy Jones, who comes over from divisional opponent Tampa Bay.
Winnipeg’s forwards lack superstar talent, but they are solid and can succeed playing the right kind of hockey. First off, Andrew Ladd is a hell of an NHL player. I was happy to see him get off of that Chicago team that was disgustingly good in 2009-10. Ladd captained the Thrashers last year and should do the same for the Jets this year. He is a banger who creates goals through hard work and a physicality that Southeast defensemen were unwilling to match last season. That softness should largely go away this year, and Ladd will have to do even more to develop his offensive game and help the Jets score goals. Ladd has Evander Kane, Nik Antropov and Blake Wheeler to help fire some goals home. Alexander Burmistrov should be exciting to watch in his second NHL season. The 19 year-old was the 8th overall pick in the 2010 draft, and played 74 games last season as a true rookie. If he can speed up his development into the player that the Jets think he should turn out to be, there’s no reason he can’t be a contributor for Winnipeg this season given the rookie successes of Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, Jeff Skinner and others from that 2010 draft class.
5th: Florida Panthers 2010-11: 72 points, 5th in division
This is sad to do, but I have to take Florida fifth in the division at this point. They went out and added ten players in the last month, and while many of them are overpaid, it doesn’t really matter when you’re around the cap floor anyway. The Panthers have the roster to finish third in this division; I have no doubt of that. But I don’t love them at goalie this season, and I think it should take time for a team full of new faces to find their identity and jell as a squad.
Defensively, the Panthers have a couple big names and a couple young guys who they hope can earn their way into increased roles this season. GM Dale Tallon brought in Brian Campbell from Chicago and Ed Jovanovski from Phoenix to anchor the blue line, and in doing so actually gave Florida one of the better top-twos in the league, should they play together. Dmitry Kulikov was the 14th pick in 2009 and is entering his third season. Kulikov now has a couple of really solid guys to learn from, and these acquisitions should only bring Kulikov along faster. The Panthers also gave a big entry level contract to Erik Gudbranson, who was the 3rd overall pick in 2010. They expect Gudbranson to compete for a spot on the roster in camp, and there’s little doubt that he’s a big part of Florida’s future. But as far as this year goes, we’re looking at a rookie defenseman who has increased his per game output in both points and penalty minutes in his three seasons with Kingston in the OHL. The Panthers also have Mike Weaver and Keaton Ellerby on defense, but the player I like more than either of them is Jason Garrison, who enters the final year of his contract and looked to me like a guy who can succeed in the NHL last season when he skated 22:17 per game and totaled 136 hits and 127 blocks.
The Panthers weren’t able to score any forwards with the talent that would equate to a Campbell of Jovanovski, but they did bring in some guys who should be able to give them something. But in my opinion, their best offensively player is David Booth, a guy they already had on the roster. Joining Booth are Tomas Fleischmann, Scottie Upshall, Kris Versteeg, Tomas Kopecky, Sean Bergenheim, Marcel Goc and Matt Bradley. Returning for the Panthers are Booth, Stephen Weiss, Mike Santorelli and a few other players of expected lesser consequence.
In net, the Panthers are expected to roll out another new acquisition: 2002 league MVP Jose Theodore. Also on the roster is Scott Clemmensen, who certainly can be seen as competing with Theodore for starts due to the fact that Clemmensen has a heartbeat. In the long-term, neither of these players should have a huge role in the future of the team thanks to the fact that they are just keeping the throne warm for super-prospect Jacob Markstrom. The young Swede is returning from injury but should be fine for the upcoming season. It is conceivable that Markstrom could make the Panthers this season, but I’m not sure that Florida brass will want to have their future sitting on the bench rather than starting in the AHL. It would be fun to see Markstrom at the NHL level this year, but I think it’s unlikely that they will want to trot him out behind a group of skaters that have no experience together. Expect Markstrom to be the starter in 2012-13, but maybe not until then. Of course, if things go south again for the Panthers, they may let the kid take the reigns late this season.
Conclusion — While the Southeast may not carry the year-to-year intrigue of most other divisions in the NHL, this season might be a good one to start paying more attention to these teams. But when all is said and done, I’m picking an order of finish that mirrors 2010-11.