Don’t call it the Southleast anymore! The Caps had been the only team basically in the division. But heading into this season the Florida Panthers (despite having the least amount of wins of any playoff team last season) are the defending division champ, the Lightning have the league’s top sniper and just 2 years ago were in game 7 of the Eastern conference final, the Jets pushed for a playoff spot last season and upgraded down the middle in the off season, and the Canes spent big this off season to get Jordan and Eric Staal together and are now a serious threat to win the division. It’s vastly improved, the equivilant of the NFC West in the NFL. Should be interesting to watch for the first time….maybe ever!
1. Washington Capitals – They just missed winning the division last season, they’ve won it the previous 4 seasons, and while the division as I just stated is a lot tougher now than it’s ever been I still believe this is the top team. But this is the Atlanta Falcons of the NHL, it doesn’t much matter anymore what they do in the regular season. This team needs to start going on some deep playoff runs.
It’ll be interesting to see how Adam Oates does behind the bench. Just from working with Oates I’m going to guess that every centre will get better in the dot. I know most roads lead back to Edmonton when reading my stuff but this is actually a great example. When Oates went to the Oilers in the 03/04 season the Oilers were horrific in the dot. Horcoff, Stoll, Reasoner. Once Oates arrived they improved by leaps and bounds in the dot and a big reason the Oilers went to the finals in 06 was because Horcoff and Stoll were so dominant in the dot. But Oates expertise goes beyond the dot, this guy had one of the highest hockey IQ’s ever seen in the league. He had to, he was 5’9 and was slow to put it kindly! As for how he will coach this team though I really have no idea. I would guess he will be a lot more structured than Bruce Boudreau was, but won’t be as restrictive as Hunter was, which is probably exactly what McPhee was looking for in a coach.
I like the move to acquire Mike Riberio. He is a UFA after the season, and he’s not the ideal 2nd line centre that this team needs, but he’s a huge upgrade in that spot. And this allows Brooks Laich to move back into the 3rd line centre role where he should be much more comfortable. With these 2 in place and a full season from Nicklas Backstrom they should be one of the top teams in the league in the middle.
Ovechkin will greatly benefit from a full season of Backstrom. For all the flack this guy has gotten the last few seasons, he’s scored some really big goals in the playoffs, he has still produced at a high level, and he’s done everything the organization has asked of him. He had every reason to go “big time” last year during the playoffs and even after Dale Hunter stepped down as head coach Ovechkin never said a bad word about him. Some don’t like him because he gets overhyped. I don’t know why that’s his fault? He’s an elite sniper who is very physical and plays with a ton of energy. He will never be Crosby or Toews or Malkin mainly because wingers can’t have the same impact on a game at this level then a centre can. But he’s still one of the best in the league.
They have a lot of size on the wings that I like a lot. They’re not overly physical guys, but they’ll lean on you and wear a team down. It’s scary how good this team could be on the wings in the next few seasons with Filip Forsberg, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson on the way. George McPhee has done an amazing job of keeping his shelves stocked while putting a high end team in the ice the last several seasons.
Their blueline doesn’t get enough love as one of the best young d cores in the league. Alzner and Carlson is a great top pairing and they’re only 24 and 23 (Carlson just turned 23 on the 10th) respectively. Then they still have Mike Green who finally started to figure it out defensively in last year’s playoffs, although that may have been just him buying into Dale Hunter’s system. But he’s still only 27 (usually the start of a defenseman’s prime) and then they have Dmitry Orlov who brings a lot of offense to the table from the blueline as well. My guess is that at some point Green is getting moved. He makes the most money, he’s the oldest, and he’s not on the top pairing. But it’s a nice problem to have.
Again I comeback to Hunter and this time ask if it was his system or did Braden Holtby really bust out in last year’s playoffs? My answer would be that it was a bit of both. Holtby was allowed to see every shot and had most rebounds cleared away. When a goaltender trusts the players in front of him his confidence will go up and that’s when you start to see the highlight reel saves. Between Holtby and Neuvirth I believe Holtby is the better of the 2 goaltenders, but I’m not sold on last spring being his spring board to being a legit number 1 goaltender in this league, there will still be more hills to climb.
They’re really rolling the dice here on Adam Oates as the head coach. McPhee could look like a genius or it could cost him his job. He has built something pretty great in Washington but they must take it to the next level now. One of these years this team will do just that, there is too much talent throughout the organization not to.
2. Carolina Hurricanes – The small market Canes don’t want to be small market anymore. Jim Rutherford could have waited for Jordan Staal to hit free agency this summer, but he decided to step up and take the big swing now. And not only did he take the swing on Jordan Staal but he stepped up and decided to take a chance on Alex Semin for 1 year/7 million. Don’t know why anyone gave him 7 million, but for just 1 season it’s worth the risk.
The talk in the off season was that they were thinking about using the Staal brothers together on the top line with Eric moving over to the left side. I won’t pretend that I watch a TON of Hurricanes hockey, but why in the hell would you load up 1 line when you could be one of the best teams at centre in the leauge?! I don’t know if they’ve noticed, but teams that are great in the middle win a lot. Add to that they haven’t got anything that even resembles a 2nd line centre. I’m sure Kirk Muller won’t be this stupid. Obviously there will be times in the game where you do throw them out together, much like the Avs used to with Sakic and Forsberg, the Oilers used to with Gretz and Mess, the Wings used to with Yzerman and Federov, the Pens do with Sid and Geno and used to with Mario and Francis, on and on and on. But don’t put them out together on a regular shift.
They’re not great on the wings, but Jeff Skinner is a beauty who will be a regular 30-40 goal scorer. Time will tell if Semin will get his act together. If he does, they have one of the top wingers in hockey and will be able to dominate down low playing with either one of the brothers. Tuomo Ruutu is another guy that will help this team dominate down low. He has finally been able to stay healthy the last few years and while he isn’t the crusher he used to be, he is very effective. As for the final piece of the top 6, I believe they got 3 candidates. Drayson Bowman, Jiri Tlusty, and what so far has been a 1st round bust Zach Boychuk. All 3 have talent and you would THINK 1 of these 3 could step up playing with quality centres.
The defense is easily the weakness of this team. Joni Pitkanen can log a lot of minutes and is very talented but has always left teams wanting more. Justin Faulk looked great in his rookie season, but how many times have we seen young d-men step in and look great in their rookie year and then have 1 or 2 down years? It’s because in that rookie year coaches will shelter them, and as they give them more responsibilities most guys struggle. Tim Gleason is a solid stay at home guy, but nothing to get too excited about. Jordan Staal will definitely help at the defensive end of the ice, but it will still be a weak spot for the Canes.
No weakness in net though. If you read my piece on the 2014 Olympic team you know what I think of Cam Ward. This guy is money, and as long as he stays healthy they have elite goaltending. I guess one issue would be that they’ve never really had a quality backup on the roster with Ward, but in a 48 game season you wouldn’t think he’ll need a lot of time off. I would guess he will play 40 of the 48 games this season….again if healthy.
I really like what Rutherford has done with this team and not only do I think they’re a playoff team, but they’ll be a tough out for anyone when they get there.
3. Tampa Bay Lightning – What a difference a year makes. 2 years ago it was the surprise team of the league. 5th place in the conference was amazing. Then they came back from 3-1 against the Pens (minus Crosby and Malkin) to pull the upset. Then they pulled an even bigger shocker sweeping the Caps. They were scoreless against the Bruins heading into the 3rd period of game 7 of the Eastern final before Nathan Horton got one past Dwayne Roloson midway through the 3rd and the Bruins finally sent Cinderella home. Then last season with everyone loving them, they were horrible. So which Tampa team will we get this season?
Of course it all starts with Steven Stamkos up front. 60 goals is incredible, and the kid is improving other area’s of his game while being such a sniper. He could stand to improve his playmaking though. He’s a centre, and I’ve always said centre’s that are shoot first guys are very difficult to play with. Marty St. Louis is the perfect guy to have helped bring him along, but Marty isn’t going to play forever. He doesn’t really have to become a pass first guy, but he has to dish it more which in turn will open up more for him and his linemates.
In camp right now they have Vinny Lecavalier playing with Teddy Purcell and Cory Conacher on the 2nd line. Conacher was Bob McKenzie’s pick at the start of the season for the Calder. He tore up the AHL last year. He is undersized but highly skilled, but he will have to win that roster spot. Vinny won’t have to win his roster spot, he’s entrenched there! I have said this before on the site and will say it again, I believe Vinny does get bought out but it won’t be by Tampa. I see them sending him along with something like a 1st round pick to a team that can afford to buy him out and has a buy left to burn. That way they don’t spend the money and Vinny can sign back in Tampa for a much more reasonable price.
So the forward group is really solid down there we all know that. The big questions come on the back end and in net. Victor Hedman will become that elite shutdown d-man one of these days. He just has too many tools not to be that guy. 6’6, 230, can skate, has a bit of a mean streak, so it will all come together soon. Weather he ever becomes a PP QB remains to be seen. I liked the Sami Salo signing but as always with him he has to stay healthy. If he can play 40 games he’s a steal, he still has one of the best shots from the point in the league. The Matt Carle signing was just disgusting. 5 mil a year for this guy is ridiculous and it shows how desperate Yzerman was to upgrade this blueline. He will improve the group, but he’s vastly overpaid.
Then they’re rolling the dice on Anders Lindback in net. Definitely has the talent. He’s 6’6, 205 and he’s very quick. But he’s raw so it’s a big chance they’re taking on him working out those kinks in his game. Mathieu Garon is actually a pretty good mentor to have around for him because Garon was a kid with a lot of talent once upon a time and so perhaps he can teach the kid some things that he should have done differently. At least with Garon there, Lindback won’t be forced to play 40 games. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if they split the games.
I really believe this team bounces back from a shockingly bad 2011-12 season and at least is in the playoff race. Yzerman has done a nice job so far as GM, and I like Guy Boucher as head coach even if the team doesn’t always play the most exciting style. They need Lindback to step up and be better than what they had with Roloson last year and they need Hedman to become that number 1 d-man but both of those things could very possibly happen this season.
4. Winnipeg Jets -What a run this team went on last year. They may have come up short in the end, but I followed this team very closely in the 2nd half last season and they played too many exciting, intense games. It was great to see and unreal for the fans who had been without the NHL for 15 years. Now this season they aren’t looking to just be a feel good story, they’re looking for the playoffs.
I really like the job Kevin Cheveldayoff has done thus far, and I’m a big fan of head coach Claude Noel. Noel is structured, passionate, intense, runs his bench well and he got the most out of this hockey team last season. I won’t say this about any other team, but while there are coaches I like better than Noel, I may not like a coaching staff better than this one. Quick, name the defenseman who has underachieved with Charlie Huddy on the coaching staff? I’ll make this easy for you, there hasn’t been one. Seriously this guy runs a blueline better than anyone else in the game. Then they brought in Perry Pearn in the off season and the one constant with Pearn is the PK under his watch always is among the best in the league. It’s a great staff so I will have a tough time blaming them for anything that may go wrong this season in Winnipeg.
One guy that could be a good whipping boy is Oli Jokinen. I actually really liked the signing at first glance. Only a 2 year deal and under 5 mil a season. But while he gives them some much needed size in the middle, I’m not sure I like pairing him with Kane (isn’t that a coaching decision….a staff that I just raved about?!) Both guys are shooters which is why Jokinen never really worked with Iginla. Now they will have crafty little Kyle Wellwood playing with them expected to be the setup man, but that mix never seems to work.
I’m a big fan of the 1st line with Ladd – Little – Wheeler. Blake Wheeler REALLY came on last season and established himself as a top 6 forward. He’s not physical, but he has size that he uses well and great wheels (pardon the pun) for such a big guy. He could stand to shoot a little more, and if he does that he might be unstoppable. Andrew Ladd has turned into a Brendan Morrow type. He doesn’t hit like Morrow, but you can tell he is the unquestioned leader of this hockey club both on and off the ice and he will do anything to win. Bryan Little has worked on this line, but I like him more as a winger. He is the guy they kind of have to lean on in that 1st line centre spot right now but obviously that needs to be upgraded down the road (Scheifele? Burmistrov?)
This defense is funny. Dustin Byfuglien gets overrated because of his offense and personality. This isn’t a great defenseman, he’s this generations Al Iafrate. Big shot, big personality, leaves you wanting much more. Tobias Enstrom also gets overrated because of his offense. But yet I felt a lot of people around hockey last season missed that Zach Bogosian (when healthy) and Mark Stuart really became a great shutdown pairing. I’m sure it was night and day for Bogosian to go from Atlanta where rumors were everywhere that he was being dealt to Winnipeg where he really got his game back. This kid has all the talent in the world to be right there with Drew Doughty and Alex Pietrangelo. He might not take that step this season comming off surgery, but don’t quit on him being an elite guy.
They will really need Ondrej Pavelec to put the off ice problems behind him. He was their horse between the pipes last season and a lot of the time looked incredible. I’m guessing they lean on him for 38 games this season. Last year was the first year he had a heavy work load in the league and it showed. But Jonathan Quick had those same kind of issues 3 years ago and he doesn’t look too bad these days does he?
I like this team but they get outmatched talent wise by Washington, Carolina and Tampa in this division, and by at least 8 teams in the conference. They aren’t far off being a playoff team, but I just can’t see them getting there this season.
5. Florida Panthers – What a great season for the cats. Finally getting back to the playoffs after 10 seasons out of the dance. Worse than that it had been 13 seasons since they had won a playoff game. Worse than THAT, they only had 1 playoff win in 14 years! Not 1 series win, 1 win. And when they got in they played the Devils hard, twice having them facing elimination going into O.T. But Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique spoiled the party. Now the cats look to get back to back playoff appearances for only the 2nd time in their existence, but I don’t see it happening.
This team was catching a lot of breaks early in the season, and they stockpiled points from taking teams to the shootout. They had the 3rd seed in the conference but they had 3 less wins than the next team with the lowest win total in the playoffs. And I also believe this team was highly motivated considering most in the game believed they over spent on a lot of UFA’s simply because they had to get to the cap floor. That would explain the great 1st half and fading in the 2nd half of the season.
Their goaltending is really sketchy. Both Theodore and Clemmensen were solid last season. But neither guy is a number 1 and they are 35 and 36 years old now. They’re just trying to hold the fort until Jacob Markstrom is ready, but to me Markstrom should have already been there last season. He needs to get some starts, he’s had his time in the AHL and now they need to bring him in and split starts with one of these guys. I’m really not sure why Dale Tallon hasn’t done this yet.
The blueline is solid, and Brian Campbell actually doesn’t get enough credit for carrying this team last season. He’s overpaid but in turn he gets underrated. He was THE reason Jason Garrison busted out at the start of last season. Garrison lived off the work that Campbell did on the PP. I would guess the guy taking over Garrison’s spot on the PP now would be Dmitry Kulikov who also has a cannon of a shot. 28 points in just 58 games last season so he is more than capable of being on the 1st unit PP. They have a couple of grizzled vets in Filip Kuba and Ed Jovanovski, but both are at best number 4 guys at this point.
Erik Gudbranson is out for the first 3 games of the season with a shoulder injury which won’t help the team out of the gate. I don’t know that Gudbranson is ever going to be a kid that will have a great all around game, but he will eventually become a beast defensively….as long as he can stay healthy. It’s not just this shoulder injury, this kid struggled with injuries during his time in the OHL as well.
Up front they do have a lot of depth. Dineen should be able to roll 4 lines every night which in a shortened season could be a huge advantage. But they have nobody that can carry the mail. Stephen Weiss has finally developed into a very good player in this league, but he’s not a 1st line centre. He plays a 200 foot game, he was 53% in the dot last year, he put up 57 points, but that’s a 2nd line centre on a contender. Don’t get me wrong I would love to have him on my team, but not as the top guy. I believe Jonathan Huberdeau will be on the roster the entire season and I’m sure the Panthers brass is excited about him. I don’t know if he will have the impact some believe he will in the first year or two, but he has star potential without a doubt.
I really don’t know what to think of this team, it’s built unlike any other in the league. The 1st line isn’t a very good 1st line but the 3rd line is better than a lot of teams 2nd line. The blueline has some pieces, but they don’t seem to fit that well. I believe this season with Tampa likely getting back on track, Carolina being improved, and the Caps getting back on track it will put the Panthers right back at the bottom of the division and conference. I believe it was just the perfect storm last season that led to this team making the playoffs, I don’t see the stars aligning like that again.
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