Friday, September 2, 2011

2011/12 NHL Preview - Southeast Division

We've covered the West (Northwest, Central, Pacific), so now we turn our attention to the Eastern Conference, beginning today with the Southeast. Seen for several years as the league's softest, the Southeast has rebounded, now with two clubs that have legitimate eyes on taking the East.


Projected depth chart / lines:
Jussi Jokinen - Eric Staal - Jeff Skinner
Tuomo Ruutu - Brandon Sutter - Alexei Ponikarovsky
Chad Larose - Zac Dalpe - Zach Boychuk
Jiri Tlusty - Tim Brent - Anthony Stewart

Joni Pitkanen - Tomas Kaberle
Bryan Allen - Jamie McBain
Derek Joslin - Tim Gleason

Cam Ward
Brian Boucher

The 'Canes have missed the playoffs for two seasons in a row, and were as active as they could be this off-season to try to get back into contention. The club managed to keep most of their pending UFA like Joni Pitkanen and Jussi Jokinen, only really having to say goodbye to Erik Cole. The club will hope young players like Zach Boychuk and Zac Dalpe are ready to pick up the offensive slack left by Cole's departure, as free agent signings Alexei Ponikarovsky and Anthony Stewart are low-risk gamble shots in the dark. After a strong sophomore season in 2009-10 where he topped the 20 goal mark, Brandon Sutter regressed last year, so Carolina will need him to bounce back. The club must also hope that last year's standout 18-year old rookie Jeff Skinner doesn't hit a sophomore slump, or else it could be a long season for the Hurricanes up front.

On defense, Tomas Kaberle was a great value signing after his poor play with the Boston Bruins minimized interest in his services league-wide. Kaberle has topped 45 points in 5 of the last 6 seasons (the only miss being a year he scored 31 points in just 57 games), despite playing for some pretty poor clubs. 23-year old offensive d-man Jamie McBain should continue his development after putting up an amazing 10 points in 14 NHL games at the end of the 2009-10 season, and building that into a 30 point rookie season last year. He is a nice sleeper pick for a late round of a deep hockey draft.

If the 'Canes due have a chance to surprise this year despite some holes and questions, it's because of Cam Ward. After winning the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe as a rookie, Ward has shown he is amongst the game's best goaltenders and will give his team a chance to win on any given night.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Bubble playoff team.


Projected depth chart / lines:
David Booth - Stephen Weiss - Kris Versteeg
Tomas Fleischmann - Sean Bergenheim - Tomas Kopecky
Evgeni Dadonov - Scottie Upshall - Matt Bradley
Jack Skille - Marcel Goc - Mike Santorelli

Brian Campbell - Mike Weaver
Dmitry Kulikov - Ed Jovanovski
Jason Garrison - Keaton Ellerby

Jose Theodore
Scott Clemmensen

We covered the remodeling of the Florida Panthers in an earlier piece, and certainly the club that will begin the 2011-12 season looks nothing like that which finished 2010-11. Up front, the acquisitions were numerous as the team struggled to reach the salary cap floor. Kris Versteeg has become somewhat of a journeyman, now joining his fourth club since 2009-10, but his ability to contribute offensively cannot be questioned. Sean Bergenheim and Tomas Fleischmann were great high-potential-payoff underrated signings (both were high on our initial wish list of Habs targets), though the team did have to overpay to bring them in. When Bergenheim was taken in the first round in 2002, he was seen as a similar player to fellow Finn Saku Koivu, but his offense never seemed to translate at the NHL level. He broke out last season, first with a career high of 29 points, but then far more importantly, 9 goals and 11 points in 16 playoff games - certainly the kind of clip the Panthers would love to see him at this year. A third round selection in 2007, skilled Russian Evgeni Dadonov should see full-time action at the NHL level after scoring 17 points in 36 games with Florida last year. It will be interesting to see how this chemistry experiment plays itself out, but it is unlikely to yield immediate results.

On defense, the big ticket acquisitions of Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski will soak up minutes to allow the young core to develop at their own pace. Leading this group of youth is 2009 1st rounder Dmitry Kulikov, already entering his third season in the big league after scoring 26 points in 72 games last year.

The team lost starter Tomas Vokoun to free agency this summer, instead going with a duo of Jose Theodore and Scott Clemensen to hold the fort until top prospect Jacob Markstrom is ready for full-time duty. Over the last two seasons, Theodore seemed to have refound his game, so he should be an adequate stop-gap.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Out of the playoffs.


Projected depth chart / lines:
Ryan Malone - Steven Stamkos - Martin St. Louis
Teddy Purcell - Vincent Lecavalier - Steve Downie
Ryan Shannon - Dominic Moore - Nate Thompson
Tom Pyatt - Dana Tyrell - Adam Hall

Victor Hedman - Mattias Ohlund
Pavel Kubina - Eric Brewer
Brett Clark - Matt Gilroy

Dwayne Roloson
Mathieu Garon

The Lightning lost quite a bit of offensive depth this summer, but still possess perhaps the game's top duo in Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis (though I'm sure the Sedins would disagree... so let's say best non-brother duo). Dominic Moore set a career high with 18 goals last season and looks to have perhaps finally found a more permanent fit after stops in New York, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Toronto, Buffalo, Florida, and Montreal (all by the age of 31 - WOW!). Teddy Purcell is coming off a breakout season with 51 points after joining the Lightning from the Los Angeles Kings at the 2009-10 trade deadline, and the team hopes that young first rounder prospects Carter Ashton and Brett Connolly will be able to follow his progression and make the jump to the big league in the near future to replace the likes of Simon Gagne and Sean Bergenheim.

Tampa has quietly assembled what might be the best overall D in the league for the coming season, with Victor Hedman - now in his third year - expected to emerge as a true #1 workhorse. The team managed to retain Eric Brewer after picking him up during last season, and added Rangers cast-off Matt Gilroy in an underrated move (we wanted him in Montreal), ensuring that Marc-Andre Bergeron won't have to form part of the permanent top 6.

It's a good thing the team's defense is so strong, as starter Dwayne Roloson will turn 42 just after the season kicks off on October 12. Rolli had a great year and is a very impressive athlete given his age, but did show signs of fatigue as the playoffs rolled on. Fortunately, the team locked up a very capable back-up in Mathieu Garon who could easily split time with Roloson to give him any rest he needs.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Solid playoff team.


Projected depth chart / lines:
Alexander Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - Alexander Semin
Troy Brouwer - Brooks Laich - Mike Knuble
Marcus Johansson - Joel Ward - Jason Chimera
D.J. King - Jeff Halpern - Matt Hendricks

Roman Hamrlik - Mike Greene
John Carlson - Dennis Wideman
Jeff Schultz - Karl Alzner

Tomas Vokoun
Michal Neuvirth

The Capitals seemed to make all the right moves in all the right places this off-season, adding size up front in budding power forward Troy Brouwer while cementing their bottom 6 with the additions of playoff vets Joel Ward and Jeff Halpern. They are a popular pick as a league favourite at this stage, now boasting a far deeper team than just the top line of Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alexander Semin. Their 2nd line - with Brouwer, Brooks Laich, and Mike Knuble - offers three big bodies that are certain to be a challenge to defend against. Marcus Johansson had a strong rookie season at the age of 20 last year when put into a big minute role due to injuries. When the team is healthy, he should be able to play against opposing bottom lines and thus may be able to surpass last season's 13 goals and 27 points.

On defense, Roman Hamrlik seems like the perfect signing to balance out the offense-first Mike Greene and John Carlson. The veteran may be slowing down with age, but he provided very valuable services to the Canadiens and will be missed. Former first round selection Karl Alzner should take on a bigger role entering his second year as a full-time NHL'er. The club has a bit of a log-jam on the bottom pairing, with both Tom Poti and John Erskine also under contract, at $2.875M and $1.5M respectively. Given that the team still needs to do a bit of wiggling to get under the salary cap, expect one of the two to find a new employer soon enough.

The team's biggest coup this off-season, however, was in nets. After getting a king's ransom in return for Semyon Varlamov - who some felt would ultimately end up being a third stringer behind Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby - the club signed star keeper Tomas Vokoun to a dirt cheap one year contract, filling perhaps the last hole needed to make the Caps a true top flight contender.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Conference contender.


Projected depth chart / lines:
Andrew Ladd - Nikolai Antropov - Bryan Little
Evander Kane - Alexander Burmistrov - Blake Wheeler
Chris Thorburn - Jim Slater - Eric Fehr
Patrice Cormier - Ben Maxwell - Tanner Glass

Dustin Byfuglien - Tobias Enstrom
Ron Hainsey - Zach Bogosian
Mark Stuart - Johnny Oduya

Ondrej Pavelec
Chris Mason

Excitement over the return of the Jets gave way to a bit of disappointment as the former Atlanta Thrashers were rather quiet over the off-season. This may have been in part intentional, however. It gives management and ownership one year to evaluate the talent that is in place, and besides, given the crazy travel schedule they'll have playing one year out of the Southeast Division, even the best of rosters would have likely had some difficulty in succeeding. So perhaps the bigger splashes come next summer.

Meanwhile, the team should benefit from the continued development of Bryan Little and Evander Kane up front, two young stars who just happen to be western Canadian born and should feel at home in Manitoba. Alexander Burmistrov, the team's first round pick in 2010, had a quiet season as a 19-year old, but with a full year of experience under his belt should easily surpass the 20 points he finished with. Team captain Andrew Ladd (who conspiracy theorists will remind you is also a western Canada kid) set career highs with 29 goals and 59 points last year so he'll look to continue on that high armed with a new long-term contract. While there is a solid young core in place, the team lacks in depth at the moment, and without sufficient go-to talent on the top lines, they will struggle to produce for stretches this year.

On the backend, though, the Jets can count on a solid group of 7 (the 6 above + Randy Jones). Developing star Zach Bogosian remains unsigned but hopes to have a deal in place for camp. While the team lacks in offense, the top pair of Dustyin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom are skilled in supporting the attack and will both be counted on when the younger forwards slump.

In goal, it is reasonable to expect that Ondrej Pavelec and Chris Mason split games at about a 50-30 ratio, provided the former's health concerns are all behind him. When he has been on the ice, Pavelec has shown improvement year over year and this could be the season he establishes himself as a true number 1.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Out of the playoffs.

Thanks for reading. Monday we move on in the East to the Atlantic Division, before previewing the Habs and the Northeast Tuesday, and finally our full predictions on Wednesday.

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