NHL Team Previews: Southeast Division

September 27, 2010, 5:36 PM

The wait is over.

Beginning today and leading in to opening night on Oct. 7 sportsnet.ca NHL analysts Mark Spector, Mike Brophy get you ready for the season by asking a few of the burning questions surrounding each team.

In addition, Hall of Fame writer Jim Kelley presents five features that examines the top prospects to watch, top rookies, coaches on the hot seat, season storylines and narrowing down who has a shot at supplanting Henrik Sedin as league MVP.

It all starts Monday with the Southeast Division.

So enjoy and be sure to come back tomorrow for the next installment.

 THRASHERS   

Hockey in Atlanta, Phase II, is hanging by a thread.

This organization has been in existence for 10 seasons and has made the playoffs just once: losing out in four straight games in 2006-07. There seems to be very little fan interest in the team and its biggest star, Ilya Kovalchuk, refused to sign a contract extension with the team.

So he was traded.

Now it’s up to new general manager Rick Dudley and new head coach Craig Ramsay to save the day.

Good luck boys.

On to the Burning Qs:

Who is the face of the organization?

Nobody. And that may not be a bad thing. When you think about the Pittsburgh Penguins, you automatically think about Sidney Crosby. Washington Capitals? Alexander Ovechkin. Atlanta Thrashers? Nik Antropov?
Here’s the deal: the Thrashers don’t have a superstar on the club, but they do have lots of hard-working and talented players who, under the tutelage of Ramsay, just might band together and become a winning unit. Antropov actually had a very solid first season in Atlanta while Bryan Little, who slumped last year, is capable of 30-plus goals when he’s on his game. Add former Chicago Blackhawks Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager, Dustin Byfuglien and Brent Sopel to the mix and you now have four players who know exactly what it takes to win. Eventually this team should belong to one or both of Zach Bogosian and Evander Kane.

What will the Thrashers do with Byfuglien?

Although he played defence most of last season, Byfuglien proved in the playoffs he is quite a scoring threat when he’s moved up to the wing. The 6-foot-3, 250ish-pound Minneapolis native scored 11 goals and 16 points in 22 post-season games with Chicago and was a big reason why the Blackhawks were able to win their first Stanley Cup since 1960-61. Plans are to start him on defence, but if the Thrashers have trouble scoring, don’t be surprised if he joins the forward ranks.

What kind of an impact will Ramsay have?

A dependable defensive star in his playing career, Ramsay has had great success both as a head coach and also an assistant coach in the NHL, most recently with the Boston Bruins. Having played and studied under the late Roger Neilson, you know defence will be paramount. You know the old joke about Neilson preferring to lose 2-1 than win 10-9? Well, the same can be said about the Thrashers new bench boss.

Is Chris Mason the answer to the Thrashers never-ending goaltending woes?

Two years ago Mason looked like a bona fide NHL starter with the St. Louis Blues, but both he and the team took a bit of a tumble last season. Still, he was worth the gamble and the Thrashers, who have never had consistent goaltending over the years, feel he can help the club sharing the crease with youngster Ondrej Pavelec. Mason is a real competitor whose work ethic should rub off on his younger teammates.

How will the Thrashers do this season?

With Ramsay running the bench, the Thrashers could find themselves in the hunt for a playoff spot. It’s a long shot, to be sure, but Atlanta should not be taken lightly.

 HURRICANES

Good year, bad year, good year, bad year.

That has been the pattern the Carolina Hurricanes have followed in recent memory and since last year was a dud, it only follows to reason that this year will be much better. The Hurricanes, who lost in the conference final in 2008-09, slipped to 11th in the East last season. It was a year in which a number of veterans had lousy years including captain Rod Brind’Amour who was talked into retiring. His leadership will certainly be missed.

If there were any lingering doubts, this is now Eric Staal’s team. He is only 25-years-old and had already led the Hurricanes to a Stanley Cup championship. With the Hurricanes vowing to cut payroll, he will have a host of other youngsters to lead. It will certainly help matters if veterans Chad LaRose, Sergei Samsonov and Erik Cole have bounce-back years.

On to the Burning Qs:

Can goalie Cam Ward find the magic that helped him win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP the year the ‘Canes won the Cup?

To answer that question correctly would require the Hurricanes getting back to the playoffs. If you look at Ward’s numbers last season, you might conclude he had an awful year. His 18 wins ranked 28th in the NHL while his goals-against average (2.69) was 25th and save percentage (.916) was 14th. Yet you could make the case he was the only reason Carolina was able to stay in games. With so many skaters all picking the same season to falter, and then the team moving veterans at the trade deadline, he was a victim of circumstances.

Who will emerge this season?

Without question, the most likely candidate is centre Brandon Sutter. Having recovered from a devastating hit to the head by Doug Weight in his rookie season, the 6’3, 190-pound Sutter managed 21 goals and 40 points in his sophomore season. He is big, strong, understands the game (hey, he’s a Sutter!) and should be a dependable two-way force for the Hurricanes this season.

Where does this team’s strength lie?

On the blueline. With Tim Gleason, Jini Pitkanen and the return of Joe Corvo from a failed experiment in Washington, the Hurricanes have some dependable veterans to count on. If Bobby Sanguinetti, who has enjoyed two relatively productive years in the American Hockey League, can find his NHL legs, he’ll give Carolina a bit more scoring punch from defence.

How will the Hurricanes do this season?

As much as we joke about the good year, bad year thing, the Hurricanes should be better this year than they were a year ago. If the players who struggled last year find their form, Carolina will challenge for a playoff spot.

 LIGHTNING

Stability.

That, in a word, describes what the Tampa Bay Lightning accomplished in the off-season following a tumultuous year that saw the team miss the playoffs and change owners. Jeff Vinik rescued the team from the clutches of bickering partners Oren Koules and Len Barrie and hired Steve Yzerman to be the club’s GM replacing Brian Lawton.

One of Yzerman’s first moves was to hire Guy Boucher as the team’s new coach to replace Rick Tocchet.

Let the new era begin.

On to the Burning Qs:

Is Yzerman ready to run an NHL franchise?

Having spent the past few years in the front office of one of the NHL’s best-run franchise, the Detroit Red Wings, Yzerman has most definitely been exposed to some of the greatest minds in the game, namely Ken Holland, Jim Nill and Jim Devellano. Yzerman has always presented himself very professionally and based on the bold moves he made his first summer running the Lightning it appears as though he is prepared to accept the challenge of being a big league GM.


MUST READ: Mark Spector catches up with Steve Yzerman to discuss first-year expectations in Tampa Bay | Full Article


Will Vincent Lecavalier return to the form that prompted the Lightning to sign him to an 11-year, $85 million contract?

Hard to believe Lecavalier is in comeback mode, but that is indeed the case after he slipped to 24 goals last season, down 28 from his league-leading 52 that he scored in 2006-07. In fact, since winning the Rocket Richard Trophy that year, Lecavalier has scored 40, 29 and 24 in the three seasons that followed. The 30-year-old centre has endured injuries and constant trade rumors, but he needs to put all that behind him and find his game for the Lightning to get back to the playoffs.

Do the Lightning have the defence and goaltending to be successful?

This is clearly an area of concern since Tampa Bay finished 27th in goals-against last season. Antero Niittymaki has been replaced by Dan Ellis in net and Yzerman signed unrestricted free agent defenceman Pavel Kubina who was a big part of the Lightning’s championship team in 2003-04. Ellis should get the nod as the starting goaltender based on Mike Smith’s inconsistent play last season, but Yzerman is hoping the pair will push one another to form a dependable goaltending tandem. With Kubina, Mattias Ohlund and sophomore Victor Hedman as the club’s top three defenceman, the Lightning could have a pretty solid blueline. Hedman was okay as a rookie, having been the second overall draft choice in 2009, but needs to be more of an impact player for the team to take a step forward.

Is Steven Stamkos the real deal?

Darn right he is. There is a reason why Stamkos was the No. 1 pick in the 2008 NHL entry draft and he proved it last season when he scored 51 goals as a 19-year-old and led the Lightning in scoring with 95 points. He had the good fortune to play with underrated Martin St-Louis and there is every reason to believe that duo will continue to work magic moving forward. Stamkos is young, skilled and enthusiastic – a great combination for a budding superstar.

How will the Lightning do this season?

This should be a huge bounce back year for a franchise that was in trouble on and off the ice a year ago. The Lightning should be able to challenge Washington, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia for the Eastern Conference title.

 CAPITALS

Watch out for the Washington Capitals.

One of the NHL’s most entertaining teams got a huge dose of reality last season when it finished first overall in the regular season and then were summarily bounced from the playoffs in the first round by the Montreal Canadiens.

Ouch!

It was a bitterly disappointing end to what had been an otherwise great season. Now the pressure is on for the Capitals to prove they have what it takes to be successful at the most critical time of the year.

On to the Burning Qs:

Can Alexander Ovechkin lead the team to glory?

For starters, no team wins a championship because of one player. Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby all needed a strong supporting cast before they sipped champagne from the Stanley Cup. There is no denying Ovechkin is one of the best and most electrifying individuals in the NHL, but thus far he has not been able to deliver a championship in Washington. Not only that, his Russian team was a huge disappointment at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. All in all, a disappointing year for Ovie. That said, you’d have to be nuts to suggest he cannot deliver the goods. Ovechkin had five goals and 10 points in Washington’s seven playoff games last season. If there’s one flaw in his game, it’s that he takes on too much by himself when things aren’t going well. Getting him to change that may be coach Bruce Boudreau’s greatest challenge.

Do the Capitals have good enough goaltending to win a championship?

The Chicago Blackhawks won with Antti Niemi last season. Semyon Varlamov, 22, is a work in progress, but he has given pretty good indication he’s capable of being a solid No. 1 goalie in the NHL. If he falters, the crease will likely be turned over to Michael Neuvirth who has guided the Hershey Bears to back-to-back American League titles.

Will Mike Green show up in the playoffs?

Over the past two seasons Green has been the NHL’s best offensive force from the blueline scoring 50 goals and 149 points in 143 games, but in the playoffs he has pulled a disappearing act with just one goal and 12 points in 21 games. He was injured during the playoffs two years ago, but last year’s no goals, three assists in seven games is not acceptable. Green seems to go into a bit of a shell at crunch time and that needs to change for the Caps to go deep into the post-season.

Can Alexander Semin take his game to the next level?

Based on last season’s sorry output of just two assists in seven playoff games, you’d have to think there’s plenty of room for Semin to improve. Like Ovechkin, he tends to want to fly solo when things aren’t going well and he becomes decidedly predictable and, therefore, easier to shut down. The 26-year-old gifted right winger has an abundance of skill, but needs to find his focus.

How will the Capitals do this season?

The Capitals will once again be in contention for the President’s Trophy and this time they’ll carry over their regular season success into the playoffs. With last year’s failure still fresh in their minds, the Capitals should be the NHL’ most motivated team this year. Anything short of a trip to the eastern Conference final will be a failure.

 PANTHERS

If it’s true championship teams are built from the net out, then the Florida Panthers might be okay this season.

They had better be because they certainly don’t have much in the way of goal-scoring.

With Nathan Horton departed for Boston, the Panthers have precious little in the way of bona fide scoring. Luckily they have solid goaltending in Tomas Vokoun and a veteran defence that features Bryan McCabe, Dennis Wideman, Bryan Allen and Dmitry Kulikov. Come to think of it, maybe the defence isn’t that much of a strength.

Regardless, coach Peter DeBoer is going to have to pull a rabbit out of the hat for this team to be successful.

On to the Burning Qs:

Who will score goals for the Cats?

Horton averaged 26 goals a year playing with Florida, but even he wasn’t a feared marksman. That leaves Stephen Weiss, who had a decent year last season, and rising star Michael Frolik to lead the way. David Booth had a breakout season two years ago with 31 goals, but two concussions limited him to just 28 games last season. Veteran Cory Stillman can still find the net, but he’s 36 and his best days have passed.

Did Panthers new GM Dale Tallon do enough in the off-season to improve the club?

Give Tallon credit, he was very active during the off-season bring in forwards Chris Higgins, Marty Reasoner and Steve Bernier as well as defencemen Wideman and Nathan Paetsch. All five can play in the league, though it is debatable how effective they are on an individual basis. If Bernier can somehow find the consistency that has eluded him thus far in San Jose and Vancouver, he could help out on offence. Tallon still needs to bump up the basic talent level of his club.

Can Vokoun single-handedly carry his team to the playoffs?

No. In 10 years in the league Vokoun has been mostly a very good goaltender predominantly with Nashville and Florida. But as well as he has played, he has only been to the post-season twice and has never won a round. Even if he works his magic, the Panthers, as they are now, will not make the playoffs.

How will the Panthers do this season?

It will be a miracle if this team manages to climb out of the basement in the eastern Conference. Tallon had his finger prints all over the championship team in Chicago, but he has his work cut out with this low budget operation.

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