NHL preview: Southeast Division

NHL preview: Southeast Division

Published Jan. 10, 2013 10:31 a.m. ET

2011-12 Record: 38-36-8 (10th place)
Additions: G Anders Lindback, D Sami Salo, D Matt Carle, F B.J. Crombeen, F Benoit Pouliot, D Matt Taormina, F Kyle Wilson
Subtractions: G Sebastien Caron, D Bruno Gervais, F Brandon Segal, F Michel Ouellet
Where We Last Left Off:
The Tampa Bay defense was blitzed to the tune of a league-worst 3.39
goals per game as the team finished eight points out of a playoff spot.
Steven Stamkos became the first player since Alex Ovechkin in 2007-08 to
score 60 goals.
2013 Outlook:
Few teams fell off the map in 2011-12 quite like the Lightning, who
were never really in the thick of the playoff hunt a season after
qualifying for the Eastern Conference Final. Goaltending was the main
culprit. Dwayne Roloson has left to tend to the red-light sunburn on the
back of his neck, giving way to first-time No. 1 Anders Lindback.
Acquired over the summer from Nashville when other options – Roberto
Luongo? Jonathan Bernier? – were available and a deep talent pool could
support a trade, the 6-foot-7 behemoth who has made 28 career starts is
the biggest question mark on an improved team capable of a rebound.
He’ll be aided by a reinforced defense, led by free agent signee Matt
Carle. Carle won’t necessarily make the goalie’s job any easier
defensively, but he’s a minutes-eater who puts up points and can
resuscitate last year’s 25th-ranked power play. Veteran Sami Salo will
be deemed a worthy investment if he stays healthy, while Victor Hedman
had a terrific experience in Kazakhstan as one of the KHL’s best
defensemen and is eager to take an elite step in his development as a
22-year-old. There is a lot to be excited about in Hedman’s 2013 season.
Eric Brewer provides toughness and character to a defensive corps that
appears to be vastly upgraded. Up front, Steven Stamkos is coming off
the league’s first 60-goal season in four years and is at the point of
his career where he’s a perennial Hart Trophy candidate if healthy. With
Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Teddy Purcell and
perhaps sophomore Brett Connolly benefiting from the improved power play
personnel, Tampa could improve on its eighth-ranked 2.83 goals per game
from a season ago. The Lightning’s AHL affiliate Norfolk at one point
won 29 games in a row on the road to a Calder Cup title and should be a
fountain of valuable reinforcements – consider Binghamton’s Calder Cup
influence on Ottawa a season ago. Because of the shortened season,
Lindback must avoid some early spotty play that puts the Lightning in a
position to have to fight from behind to make the playoffs. There have
been improvements made defensively to cushion him with enough support so
that they probably won’t have to. This is a playoff team.

2011-12 Record: 42-32-8 (7th place). Defeated Boston (4-3) in quarterfinals. Lost to New York Rangers (4-3) in semifinals.
Additions: F Mike Ribeiro, F Joey Crabb, F Wojtek Wolski, D Jordan Henry, C Zach Hamill, F Ryan Stoa
Subtractions: F Alex Semin, G Tomas Vokoun, D Dennis Wideman, F Jeff Halpern, F Chris Bourque, F Keith Aucoin, F Cody Eakin
Where We Last Left Off:
Midseason coaching replacement Dale Hunter led the Capitals within one
game of the Eastern Conference Final before stepping down to return to
the Ontario Hockey League. Former New Jersey Devils assistant coach Adam
Oates takes over for a team that has won four divisional titles in five
2013 Outlook: Any
success in the nation’s capital rests on whether Nicklas Backstrom is
able to return from a December neck injury sustained in the KHL during
the lockout. If he returns, Washington may be the slight favorite to
with the Southeast. If he misses any substantial time, the Capitals will
be in a struggle. Alex Ovechkin, down to a career-low 65 points last
year – numbers reduced because of Backstrom’s head injury – certainly
needs him. Mike Ribeiro is an excellent pickup, having averaged 67.8
points over his last six seasons; he shouldn’t find much trouble in
surpassing the production lost from Alex Semin’s departure. Forward
depth is filled with role players and experienced character types like
Troy Brouwer and Jason Chimera. On defense, the Caps showed in the
playoffs that they were a better team than the regular season outfit
that allowed 2.76 goals per game. John Carlson had a better postseason
than regular season. Mike Green was inked to a three-year, $18.25
million dollar contract and, if healthy, is an able replacement for the
offense produced by Dennis Wideman, who left for Calgary. Dmitry Orlov
is out with an upper-body injury and unlikely to be ready for the start
of the season, while Tom Poti is in the final year of his contract and
attempting to return from a hip injury that gravely threatened his
career. Roman Hamrlik, still ticking at 38, is a veteran of three NHL
lockouts who still has plenty to offer in his own end. The goaltending
situation will be interesting in Washington, as always, and it is
expected that playoff hero Braden Holtby will earn the right to lead the
team out of the locker room on most nights. If he’s able to immediately
seize the starting job out of the gates and forge some consistency out
of what has largely been a platoon situation, the Capitals have the
pieces for a division title. They’re still probably closer to last
year’s team than the dominating regular season teams of recent seasons,
but there’s enough here to contend for a mid-level playoff spot . . . if
Backstrom is able to play.

2011-12 Record: 33-33-16 (12th place)
Additions: F Alex Semin, F Jordan Staal, D Joe Corvo, D Marc-Andre Gragnani
Subtractions: F Brandon Sutter, D Bryan Allen, D Brian Dumoulin
Where We Last Left Off:
One of the league’s poorer defensive teams, Carolina allowed a
league-worst 32.4 shots per game and made life awfully difficult for a
besieged Cam Ward. They finished in the Southeast Division cellar and
12th in the Eastern Conference, 10 points out of a playoff spot.
2013 Outlook:
Encouraging progress was made over the summer in Raleigh, and if the
Canes can further the development of their young studs, this could be a
dangerous team in the East. Plenty of defensive questions remain, but
this should be a capable offensive outfit led by Jeff Skinner, who
wasn’t always fully healthy in his sophomore campaign and should be
counted on to have his scoring prowess return. The addition of Jordan
Staal is an upgrade over Brandon Sutter and reinforces Carolina down the
middle. Jiri Tlusty took a step forward last season and is ready for
his first career 20-goal campaign, while Marc Staal rebounded well after
a disastrous first half. He may skate with free agent signee Alexander
Semin, who comes of back-to-back 54 point seasons. Tuomo Ruutu is out
indefinitely following hip surgery, but there are still plenty of pieces
up front for Carolina to feel good about itself offensively. Questions
remain on the blue line. Having allowed the most shots in the league,
Carolina let its leading shot blocker, rugged 6-foot-5 defenseman Bryan
Allen depart for Anaheim. Tim Gleason remains the physical, stay-at-home
pillar, but Carolina needs another player to emerge from the mix.
Immense promise lays in Justin Faulk, whose 22:50 average ice time was
the most on a well-rotated blue line. He played the way one would expect
a 19-year old rookie defensemen who led his team in ice time to play.
He made mistakes. Since then, he’s been blasting away shots for the
first-place Charlotte Checkers and appears immediately ready to step in
and continue his trajectory as an elite, well-rounded young defenseman.
Carolina can’t afford for him to take a step back. Joe Corvo returned
via free agency and brings high-risk offensive production. Cam Ward
should be prepared to see a ton of rubber again, though the Hurricanes’
offensive improvement should stem the flow of offense in his direction.
They’ll hang around the mix for the Southeast Division title, though
it’s likely that their results over the final week of the season will
determine whether they’ll be a playoff team or not.

2011-12 Record: 38-26-18 (3rd place). Lost to New Jersey (4-3) in quarterfinals.
Additions: D Filip Kuba, F Peter Mueller, F Casey Wellman, F Jean-Francois Jacques, F Andre Deveaux
Subtractions: D Jason Garrison, F Mikael Samuelsson, F Wojtek Wolski, F Bill Thomas, F Krys Barch, F Bracken Kearns, D Sean Sullivan
Where We Last Left Off:
Playoff hockey – and the celebrated rat infestation – returned to South
Florida for the first time in 12 years, bringing scores of Panthers
fans out of the woodwork. Adam Henrique ended the party in the first
round with a double overtime, Game 7 goal as New Jersey advanced.
2013 Outlook:
The Panthers were a tough team to figure out a year ago. They were
middle of the road in most statistical categories, had a minus-24 goal
differential, won as many games as 10th place Tampa Bay, and still came
within a deflection of upending the eventual Eastern Conference champs
in the first round. They’ll hang a divisional banner at the BB&T
Center, a testament to the culture and confidence coach Kevin Dineen
instilled in a locker room that required jigsaw puzzle assemblage in his
first year. Florida has a good work ethic and skates well, though
there’s no enormous upside amongst a forward corps mostly comprised of
second-line types. The line of Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss and Kris
Versteeg carried the scoring a year ago and should be expected to
maintain its production. The much more interesting (and pivotal) line is
the second line, which should feature some combination of Peter
Mueller, Scottie Upshall, Marcel Goc, Sean Bergenheim and 19-year-old
rookie Jonathan Huberdeau, who may need to add weight. Though Mueller
has plenty of speed and untapped goal scoring ability, it’s not a good
sign if too much bearing is placed on an oft-injured winger yet to
replicate a 22-goal rookie season five years in the past. Defenseman
Brian Campbell is the most important player on this team. He hardly left
the ice for Florida, appearing in all 82 games and averaging 26:53 of
ice time, tying former Chicago teammate Duncan Keith for the most in the
league. If he misses any extended time due to injury, the Panthers are
in trouble, especially considering Dmitry Kulikov’s up-in-the-air status
as an unsigned RFA. Filip Kuba was signed to replace Jason Garrison’s
16-goal, 33-point contribution, which will not be possible. The power
play, one of Florida’s strengths a season ago, will suffer, while Kuba
will experience post-Karlsson syndrome after leaving his Ottawa
defensive partner and Norris Trophy winner. In net, promising prospect
Jacob Markstrom can beat out either Jose Theodore or Scott Clemmensen,
can’t he? Can’t he? Probably not. For an organization as committed to
limiting expenses as Florida, it isn’t likely that Theodore or
Clemmensen (curiously re-signed to a two-year deal in the offseason)
will be moved. Theodore is a serviceable veteran starter who has seen
his goals against average drop every year since 2008-09 and is in the
final year of his contract. Tampa Bay and Carolina should improve in
2013, making Florida’s defensive questions and offensive mediocrity
alarming. We still have faith in Dineen’s ability to get the most out of
his Panthers, who will be in a major dogfight to make the playoffs.

2011-12 Record: 37-35-10 (11th place)
Additions: C Olli Jokinen, F Alexei Ponikarovsky, G Al Montoya
Subtractions: D Brett Festerling, F Tanner Glass, G Chris Mason, F Tim Stapleton
Where We Last Left Off:
The Jets put on a show for the home fans in their return to Winnipeg,
posting a 23-13-5 home record amidst the cacophony of the NHL’s most
intimidating home ice advantage. They also had to play 41 games on the
road, lost most of them, and sputtered down the stretch before finishing
eight points out of a playoff spot.
2013 Outlook:
Now that the honeymoon has wound down in Winnipeg, the 2013 season will
provide a better window into the direction of a franchise that has
experienced more lockouts than playoff berths. Anything is possible in
the shortened season, but this doesn’t appear to be a Jets team capable
of making any noise outside the walls of the raucous MTS Centre. There
are reasons to be optimistic up front, where Evander Kane has seen his
goals, assists and points rise in each of his three NHL seasons; the
21-year old was a 30-goal scorer a year ago. Blake Wheeler shook off
some early-career inconsistency and impressively led the team in scoring
with 64 points. Alexander Burmistrov had a respectable 20-year-old
season but never really broke out last year and returns as one of the
league’s most pristine breakthrough-worthy candidates. Olli Jokinen had a
fine year last season and strengthens the Jets down the middle. This
team will struggle again defensively. There are plenty of puck-moving
and offensive types on the blue line – Dustin Byfuglien tied for second
in league defensive scoring and combined with Tobias Enstrom to generate
86 points – but Zach Bogosian is likely to miss the early part of the
season as he recovers from offseason wrist surgery. Winnipeg lacks a
collection of stay-at-home defensive stalwarts, so more pressure will
fall on the shoulders of Ondrej Pavelec, who has to prove that he’s a
quality starting goaltender, not a mediocre one. He was unimpressive
during the lockout while playing for HC Liberec of the Czech Extraliga.
Though the Southeast Division is fairly wide open, a playoff berth will
be a longshot for Winnipeg in 2013. And with the compacted schedule, how
will travel to and from Winnipeg affect this team? There is some skill
here, but not enough depth to challenge for anything above of the East’s
last playoff spot. The Jets are still a year or two away – which may as
well be this franchise’s battle cry.