Saturday, January 12, 2013

HOCKEY IS BACK! Southeast Division Preview

The Southeast was the most surprising division of 2012.  The favorites going into the season were the Washington Capitals and the Tampa Bay Lightning.  It seems every year a team comes out of nowhere to take the division.  Two years ago the Lightining came out of the blue to take it, and last year the Florida Panthers did the same.  Last year saw a renaissance of the Panthers, a team move from Atlanta move to Winnipeg, a Tampa team go from division champs to missing the playoffs, and a Carolina team who severely underwhelmed.  There was a lot of movement all over the division to make some teams better and some teams fall behind the curve.  The offseason was very exciting in the Southeast (and Canada). 

This season sees the team in last now being favored to win the division with the moves they made.  The Panthers are looking to go off the momentum they had last year to get back to the playoffs again.  The Lightning really need to figure out that goalie situation to contend.  There is much to be done in this division to take that step up to compete with the teams in the Atlantic Division.  The only advantage they have over them is they are not beating up on each other like they were all season.  What surprises will we see from the division throughout the year?  Judging by years past, there will be a lot to pay attention to.

Carolina Hurricanes: 33-33-16 5th in Southeast Division; Missed the playoffs
Biggest Acquisition: RW Jordan Staal
Biggest Loss: C Brandon Sutter
Overview: There is excitement once again in Carolina.  The Hurricanes made the biggest splash on draft day when they announced they traded for their beloved captain's brother Jordan Staal.  He is one of the best young players in the game and at the tender age of twenty-four he already has six seasons under his belt.  It is rare to get the kind of talent they received for the price they got him for. He was given a 10 year, 60 million dollar contract.  It looks as if Staal can turn into one of the best players in the league today.  On top of Staal, the 'Canes also landed sought after free agent Alex Semin.  Not only is is sweet to take a good player from division rival Washington, but they also get potentially another great scorer.  He is a much bigger risk than Staal, but a calculated one.  Semin had a down year last year with only 21 goals, but he could definitely use a change of scenery after the tumultuous start to his career in Washington.  At the end of the day, you are getting a player in his prime who has the talent to give you 75 points per year and you aren't married to the guy (one year seven million dollar contract) so if it does go south it won't kill you.

Besides the players they added, the Hurricanes had a decent roster.  They have captain and grizzled veteran Eric Staal.  They have top-tier goalie Cam Ward.  They have Jussi Jokinen who always has a shot to put the puck into the net.  They have Tim Gleason manning the blue line and helping keep the puck out of the net.  The Hurricanes had a down year in 2011-12 which can be explained by the number of players moved around, a bad coaching effort, and a team that dug a hole too deep to climb out of that year.  This year will be different.  They need to come out to a hot start and show the league that they not only won the offseason, but they're coming in to win the regular season as well.

Biggest Question Going Into The Season: How will Tuomu Ruutu injury affect the 'Canes chances?
This definitely hurts this team a lot.  They are losing a top six forward who plays his heart out every night.  Ruutu spent the majority of the offseason and lockout trying to rehab a hip injury that just wouldn't get better.  Doctors eventually recommended surgery on the 29-year-old that will keep him out until at least May.  There will be a glaring hole in the second line with Ruutu out.  The new incoming forwards need to step up his absence.  Jokinen and Jeff Skinner are going to have to pick up the slack on the second line and pick up who ever they decide to put on the wing with them.  This injury may hurt, but it won't hinder this team from making it into the playoffs.  The talent on this team is decently deep and as long as they don't crumble from the expectations they will be able to get Ruutu back from the playoffs.

Analysis: This is going to be a big year in Carolina.  The expectations have never been higher since the team moved there from Hartford in 1997.  We are looking at a team that many will pick from going without the playoffs to possibly representing the East in the Stanley Cup Finals.  Will the pressure get to this team or will they rise to the occasion?  They have a lot to prove after making the offensive acquisitions that they did.  They need some help on the defensive side of the puck.  They ranked 25th in goals against in 2011-12 and they didn't make many big additions for the next campaign.  They ranked dead last in shots on goal against.  Hopefully, Joe Corvo coming over from the Bruins will bring some of their mentality over to Carolina.  It doesn't matter who you have in net, if you have the most shots against you in the NHL, there will be some that end up in the net.  For the 'Canes to live up to their expectations then they have to sure up that side of the puck.  If not then they will be looked at as one of the biggest disappointments in the lockout shortened season.

Florida Panthers: 38-26-18 1st in the Southeast Division: Lost in the first round to the Devils
Biggest Acquisition: D Filip Kuba
Biggest Loss: D Jason Garrison
Overview: The Panthers shocked the hockey world in 2012 by winning the Southeast Division and making it to the playoffs for the first time since the 2000 playoffs.  They were picked to get beat by the Devils in as little as four games by some analysts, but actually took the Devils to a seven game series.  New Jersey needed two overtimes to put this team away for good.  The Devils ended up going to the Stanley Cup Finals.  So the Panthers gave the eventual Eastern Conference champs the biggest competition on the way to the Finals.  That says something about the core of this team.  They no doubt have holes, but they have the kind of team that can play with the big dogs of the Eastern Conference. 

This team had some of the most turnover in the league.  They ended up making a trade, losing seven players to free agency, and added five through free agency.  They still have a great first line of forwards in Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann, and Stephen Weiss.  They ended up getting Filip Kuba to fill some of the hole that was left behind by Jason Garrison.  Garrison was a big loss but he cashed in on the good season he had.  They lost a little toughness when Krys Barch left for New Jersey, but he wasn't a major part of the team and can easily be replaced by veteran winger George Parros.  The new pieces need to gain chemistry and fast.  In a short season like this, it is the teams that get a rhythm the quickest that excel.  For Florida to repeat history and make the playoffs all their new pieces need to work as well  or better than the old ones did.

Biggest Question Going Into The Season: Where is the offense going to come from beyond the first line?
It is a really bad sign when of the top five point scorers on your team, two of them were defensemen.  They went out and got Peter Mueller from the Colorado Avalanche.  Mueller was looking to be a young stud when he was with Pheonix, but he caught the injury bug, on top of post-concussion syndrome, and never played more than thirty-two games with Colorado.  He has the potential to be a big point producer (he scored twenty points in fifteen games in 2010) and he is still only twenty-four years old so he has plenty of time to develop into a great player, as long as he can stay on the ice.  It also seems that stud forward Jonathan Huberdeau is going to make his NHL debut this season.  If everything goes according to plan, then he will be able to provide a young stud with great hands and a keen eye to find the open man.  He can make a defender miss and score with pin point accuracy.  If both these players end up working out for Florida they may have the best top six forward combination in the division.  If they don't workout, then they may have the worst.  No pressure guys.

Analysis: This team can go either way.  Will the top line be able to duplicate the production they had last year, or will 2013 be a down year for them?  How will the young talent develop in a shortened season?  Will they feel the loss of Garrison or will Kuba be able to take his place?  Was last year just a one time feel good story or will it start a trend in the sunshine state?  This team will be competitive this year.  I think the days of Florida being a push over are over.  They made good moves in the offseason.  Even though they don't have a lot of big names, they have great role players that can carry them.  Their biggest question mark is, how will Jose Theodore and Scott Clemenson hold up through the season?  Will we end up seeing Jacob Markstrom by the end of the season in net?  The goalie situation in Florida will tell a lot about how well they do throughout the season.  This will be one of the more fun seasons to pay attention to.  They have the ability to be one of the most exciting teams in the league.  We will see if it works out the way I think it will.

Tampa Bay Lighting: 38-36-8 3rd in the Southeast Division; Missed the Playoffs
Biggest Acquisition: D Matt Carle
Biggest Loss: D Bruno Gervais
Overview: The Lightining went out and upgraded their team anyway they could in the offseason.  Tampa had the worst goals against per game in the entire league.  To try and fix that stat (because you obviously can't win that way) they picked up defenseman Matt Carle and Sami Salo.  Tampa ended up ninth in the NHL in scoring, yet still ended up without a playoff berth.  They went out and got Predators backup Anders Lindback in a trade.  Lindback was a highly touted draft pick up until he was diagnosed with Adult Onset Still's disease.  In thirty-eight games with the Predators, he posted a .914 save percentage and has a 16-13-2 record.  With the amount of scoring that the Lightning will give him on top of the upgraded defense this should be a dangerous Tampa team.

The Lightning bring back a core of great scorers.  They had the 2012 Rocket award winner in Steven Stamkos, who scored sixty goals last season.   They still have Vinny Lecavalier and Martin St Louis (even though they seem to be involved in trade talks every single year) on a team that looks to be an offensive juggernaut.  Their top five scorers (Stamkos, St Louis, Lecavalier, Ryan Malone, and Tedy Purcell) had a combined 333 points in one year.  They average over 66 points a piece.  An offense this potent has to be more of a threat when it comes to winning games.  They need to work on the defense and goaltending.  You know that saying the best defense is a good offense?  It isn't true in the case of the Lightning.

Biggest Question Going Into The Season: Will Lindback be able to carry the load going into the season?
Lindback has all the qualities of a great goalie.  He is huge, but extremely quick at the same time.  He is a little inconsistent, which is something you expect with a young goalie.  To be honest, anything is better to how consistently bad Dwayne Roloson was last season.  With an improved defense in front, Lindback does not need to win any games for Tampa Bay.  He needs to make sure he doesn't lose any games for them.  Lindback's record over in Finland was not the best, but his stats were superb.  He posted a .930 save percentage and 2.33 goals per game.  If he can duplicate those numbers in the states,   this team will go very far.  He seems to love the fact that he is the number one guy finally.  He has the confidence to forget the bad games and remember that he is always capable of a gem.  This seems like  this will actually work.

Analysis: Say hello to the dark horse candidate in the Eastern Conference.  Everyone will be choosing the Penguins, the Rangers, Hurricanes, but the team I would be really afraid is this Tampa team.  They have a great offense, one of the best in the league actually.  They have a revamped defense that, on paper, seems like they can do some damage with new pieces Carle and Salo.  Then they have the up and comer in net who has the skill and size to be a great player for years to come.  This is a team I don't want to face.  They may come from behind and steal this division, just like they did two years ago.  Carolina and Washington need to watch out because this just may be the team to beat in this division.

Washington Capitals: 42-32-8 2nd in the Southeast Division; Lost to the Rangers in the Eastern Semis
Biggest Acquisition: C Mike Ribeiro
Biggest Loss: RW Alexander Semin
Overview:  After one of the more tumultuous seasons in recent memory.  They squeaked into the playoffs after starting the season sorely underwhelming and causing their coach Bruce Boudreau to lose his job.  They ended up playing very well for a stretch and got into the playoffs with a number seven seed.  Unfortunately, it seemed they had the insurmountable task of going against the defending champion Boston Bruins.  They took them out in a barn burner of a series.  Next they played the Rangers and took the number one seed to seven games as well.  They lost to the Rangers in that seventh game, but they showed a new type of play and showed they may have finally found the goalie of the future.  The playoffs put the Capitals back on the map.  Ovechkin had the worst year of his career, causing much controversy when he was sat in crucial situations.  It didn't seem to affect this team when it mattered most.  They beat the defending champs in one of the most exciting series in years.

This year is different.  This year the questions are different than we have heard in years for this team.  The Capitals now have Adam Oates manning the bench and it seems like he has everyone on this team in the right spot.  They added Mike Ribeiro from the Stars to man the second line with Wojtek Wolski and Marcus Johansson.  Wolski looks like a good pickup on paper, but there has to be a reason why he has been on four teams in three years and was sent to play for the AHL affiliate of the Rangers.  Beyond that, it looks like a lot of positive for Washington in 2013.

Biggest Question Going Into The Season: Is Braden Holtby a one hit wonder?
Holtby was supposed to be the excuse the Capitals needed to be able to lose against the defending champs and have the fans not hate the team.  He ended up being the new franchise savior.  Is he ready for that kind of pressure?  Washington is know for their playoff and season disappointments.  The fans are expecting more out of this team.  Holtby is the one who are giving these fans hope for the future.  Will a 23-year-old kid who has a total of 21 games of NHL experience be able to take a franchise to where it needs to be when everyone is expecting him to be great?  Holtby has a lot on his plate.  He is, maybe unfairly, expected to be THE guy.  Will he be able to handle that?

Analysis: The Capitals are coming into this season with high expectations.  New coach Adam Oates will be expected to have his team live up to the expectations that he brings coming over from New Jersey.  There is a new coach and a new goalie.  High expectations plus high turnaround doesn't usually equal success.  Ovechkin will find a happy medium between the guy he was three years ago and the guy he was last year (basically, he will be very good, but not in the conversation for best in the league).  They will get production from their top two lines with Nicklas Backstrom hoping to be in true to self form.  The team will start slow being the fact that they won't have the practice time to gain the chemistry they need.  The early shortcomings will hurt them, but they will once again sneak themselves into the playoffs.  They will be a low seed, and after last year this will be something they are used to.  Don't expect last year's magic, though.  This is looking like another disappointing year for the Capitals. Sorry Ovi, maybe you should have stayed in Russia.

Winnipeg Jets: 37-35-10 4th in the Southeast Division; Missed the playoffs
Biggest Acquisition: C Olli Jokinen
Biggest Loss: G Chris Mason
Overview: It is the second year for the Jets return to Winnipeg.  The first year went better than anyone could have expected.  More people were looking for a last in the conference, when in reality they were close to a playoff spot for most of the year.  The Jets front office went out and signed Jokinen, Alexei Ponikarovsky, and Al Montoya to sure up their team to be competitive in a very good division.  They are still probably a year or two away, but they are definitely on their way to being competitive.  They look to grow from the play they had in their inaugural season.  Evander Kane was a twenty year old stud who looks to be the future of this franchise.

Things are looking good for the Jets (well besides the fact that all of their oponents are like a thousand miles away).  They still need to shore up the defense as they were 26th in goals against per game.  Blake Wheeler came out of nowhere with a 64 point season to lead the team.  Add veteran forward Nik Antropov to Jokinen and Kane and you have a stellar unit.  That's not even their first line!  This team will be completely overlooked as the season goes on.  They are a forgotten team, but don't count them out just yet.  They have enough skill players to stay competitive, but they need to get more defense to stay alive in a division that is filled with offensive stars.  The team did deal with numerous off the ice incidents, but it will be expected when you have a very young team.  They need to make the drama the exception instead of the rule.

Biggest Question Going Into The Season:  Were the Jets smart in signing Ondrej Pavelec?
Maybe the Jets wanted to buy low.  Maybe they really think they can go far with this guy.  Maybe they see something that the public does not.  Maybe they just know the fans are happy they're back and they can make a few unnoticeable mistakes.  Why would you give such an inconsistent goaltender a five year contract.  He will have a decent year, and then a bad one.  Is it the pain of being on a bad team that has hurt his career?  He needs to play better this year.  The Jets may have made a major quandary on their hands.  What if it isn't the team that isn't good, but it is the goalie who isn't?  The Jets NEED Pavelec to work out.  They need this contract to work out.  GM Kevin Cheveldayoff does not want his legacy to be remembered by risks that work out in his opponents favor.  If the Jets are going to stay alive in this division, then we need to see the 2011 version of Pavelec.

Analysis: This team is too young and the division is too hard.  Too many offseason incidents show that this team still has a lot of growing up to do.  They are a year or two away from actually competing, which is about the amount of time it will take for the Winnipeg love fest to end.  They need more defense because we have seen that the formula of let my offense carry me isn't going to work.  The Jets may end up over .500 once again, but they are looking to be saddled with last place in the division.  It isn't necessarily a step back for the team, it is just a step up for the division.  Unless the Jets make a move to bring in some help before the season, expect them to score a lot and give up a lot of goals.  They will be fun to watch, but I don't see them staying competitive for long with the way the season is looking to be structured. 

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