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Saturday, September 11, 2010

NHL Preview: Southeast Division Forwards

We're blowing the dust off the blog a bit as the NHL season's wheels get a-turning here at BN.  The summer has crept by, sowing seeds of sensational stories (that's alliteration) in its wake.  I pretty much agree with Battle of California that they were mostly lame, though I somewhat enjoyed poking fun at Dan Ellis before everyone (on both sides) decided they were offended by the charade.  I think it's closely related to the phenomenon I call "reverse-pissed," where my wife gets angry at me for being angry at her.  Anyways, it's all double rainbows for me now; he joins elite company with Sean Avery, Mike Commodore, Alexander Semin, and Jiri Tlusty as the butt of the occasional joke.  Welcome.

I'm taking on the Southeast Division today in part because nobody else sounded very excited about it, and Forsberg's Foot straight out said he wanted to have nothing to do with the division.  And I'll admit, figuring out the forward lines and defensive pairs is a little exhausting for teams that almost perennially have no depth.  But someone has to do it, so here are the teams in my order of the top set of forwards to the bottom:

Washington Capitals
Alexander Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - Alexander Semin
Tomas Fleischmann - Brooks Laich - Mike Knuble
Jason Chimera - Dave Steckel - Eric Fehr
D.J. King - Boyd Gordon - Matt Bradley

As we'll likely do with the other teams, I took a few liberties in making all the lines fit: Yahoo! and CBS have Fleischmann on the 3rd line, but that's not really his spot.  Look for Fleischmann on the second line as either he or Laich will move over and take faceoffs.  Laich was better than Fleischmann on the draw last year and the year before, so it's the more logical choice.  Steckel is a superior faceoff taker than either, but he lacks the skill-set for 2nd-line duty and is a better fit on the 3rd line.

The song remains the same with the Caps, as the top line is the most dominant line in the league.  While it would benefit the Capitals to spread their best forwards among the top 2 lines, Semin's production drops substantially when that happens.  Unlike other teams, the top-heavy forward lines don't seem to be a major problem (except when you are playing the Canadiens in the playoffs).  The second line is solid (literally, try to move Laich or Knuble), and even if Knuble experiences a decline because of his age, Eric Fehr is more than capable to take over.  I loved the Chimera addition last year, and if he stays healthy this team has a great 3rd line complement to the top 2.  Keep an eye on Mathieu Perreault, a speedy little center with little left to prove down in the AHL.  He posted 9 points in a 21-game cup-o'-tea last year, and could sneak onto the 2nd line if Fleischmann is inconsistent (again).

Tampa Bay Lightning
Martin St. Louis - Steven Stamkos - Steve Downie
Simon Gagne - Vincent Lecavalier - Teddy Purcell
Ryan Malone - Dominic Moore - Sean Bergenheim
James Wright - Niklas Persson - Marc Pouliot

One of the stories of the year was Stamkos's jump from promising rookie (he ended 2008-09 strong) to full-blown star in 2009-10.  Forcing his way ahead of Lecavalier, the expectations are huge for this season.  On his right side will be another player that has a lot to live up to.  Steve Downie's 22 goal season last year was a surprise to many who assumed he was beginning a slow descent to goon-dom.  As a former first-round pick, nobody will be surprised to see another 20 goal season, though Lightning fans shouldn't get too excited.  It will be hard to sustain the 19% shooting Downie experienced a year ago.  What's much easier for him to sustain is the high number of boneheaded minor penalties, something that could land him in the doghouse and cause the Lightning to find a way to get expensive Ryan Malone off the 3rd line.

I like the top 2 lines and I like the addition of Gagne, but let's not forget that Gagne has a.) not scored more than 40 goals since 2007, b.) never scored more than 79 points, and c.) never played a full season.  He's a potent addition to an already-good power play unit, but he's not likely to break any records as, at best, the fourth forward option on this team.  The third and fourth line are bit-parts, with the exception of Malone who might find his way back onto the top 2 lines this season.

Carolina Hurricanes
Jussi Jokinen - Eric Staal - Tuomo Ruutu
Jiri Tlusty - Brandon Sutter - Chad LaRose
Zach Boychuk - Riley Nash - Erik Cole
Sergei Samsonov - Patrick Dwyer - Tom Kostopoulos

Now, before you get up in arms, I'm merely posting the depth chart as it is shown on the 'Canes web site.  Yahoo and CBS have completely different renderings, both with Ruutu on the left side, but we'll just pretend. The big changes are the losses of two older players, Ray Whitney and Rod Brind'Amour, one of which was still pretty good, the other really bad.  Sorry Rod the Bod.  Distinct drop-offs from Ruutu (injury) and Samsonov (some say age, but I think he's shrinking) made this a really poor offense last year, and there will need to be a rebound for 2010-11 to be any better.

Jokinen's success last year needs to be sustained, even if his 18.8% shooting likely won't be.  He will always be pretty good in shootouts, which is worth a win or two every year.  I like the idea of Erik Cole on the third line, because I think he could legitimately re-invent his career by focusing on defense.  The 2nd line here projects atrociously, but the potential is there for Sutter to at least match his 20 goals from the previous year.  If LaRose can't hack it on the 2nd line, expect Cole and maybe Kostopoulos to be bumped up, and I'm almost certain that Riley Nash will not get regular 3rd line duty.  The reserve players aren't pretty either, though Oskar Osala is good at not winning fights.

Atlanta Thrashers
Evander Kane - Nikolai Antropov - Niclas Bergfors
Andrew Ladd - Rich Peverley - Bryan Little
Fredrik Modin - Jim Slater - Chris Thorburn
Ben Eager - Jared Ross - Spencer Machacek

The Thrashers took a couple of major hits in 2010, losing Ilya Kovalchuk and Maxim Afinogenov.  Add that to losing Kari Lehtonen, and these aren't your mother's Thrashers (which is a joke, because they haven't been around that long, get it?).  Reports have Dustin Byfuglien playing defense at camp, which further thins out an already-spotty set of forward lines.  Andrew Ladd and Fredrik Modin were added so that Atlanta could have both the biggest eyebrows and the strongest jaw on the planet.

Like the 'Canes, the Thrashers are relying on players getting back to form and others realizing their potential.  Bryan Little had a lot of hype in last year's previews because of his 31-goal sophomore campaign, but failed to follow it with a strong third year.  Antropov and Peverley were the lone bright spots that should continue their solid production; Antropov played surprisingly well even when Kovalchuk left town (11 goals, 14 assists in 25 games after the trade).  We all love Evander Kane for obvious reasons, but now is his chance to justify his draft position and build upon the 26 points in 66 games and a +2 he posted last year.  Even though he's a dickhead and nobody likes him, Patrice Cormier might sneak onto the big club before the year's out.  Overall, the fact that this team doesn't even boast one complete, solid forward line puts them a notch below Carolina.

Florida Panthers
David Booth - Stephen Weiss - Michael Frolik
Cory Stillman - Steven Reinprecht - Radek Dvorak
Rotislav Olesz - Shawn Matthias - Steve Bernier
Christopher Higgins - Marty Reasoner - Michael Grabner

Like a lot of people, I have the Panthers pretty low on my 2010-11 expectations, but I think they are closer to the Thrashers and 'Canes than others might think.  There is a lot of youth on the table in Florida, and I truly think they benefit in leaving behind the unfulfilled potential of Nathan Horton.  Rather than waiting for a "click" that never came, they can give full-time minutes to up-and-comers like Frolik, Grabner, and (hopefully) Michal Repik.  If Booth can fully recover from his concussion this year (a big "if"), he is the right person to get a primary-shooter role.  Weiss is more of an in-the-shadows good, and Reinprecht and Stillman are solid-if-unspectacular veterans.

The biggest concern I have of the Panthers is the lack of a true 3rd line.  Bernier isn't bad on a 3rd, but I see few other players that you could trust in a shut-down role.  This was the same problem last year, hence why Weiss logged so many minutes against opposing teams' top lines.  This year might not be the year for the Panthers, but down the road there may be reasons to believe the rats can come back.

This is still the Capitals' division to win, and true development on any of the other four teams is going to require the young players developing a thick skin.  Ultimately, don't expect a lot of surprises out of the Southeast this year.

Southeast Division Forwards Ranking
1. Washington Capitals
2. Tampa Bay Lightning
3. Carolina Hurricanes
4. Atlanta Thrashers
5. Florida Panthers

P.S.  Today, we commemorate a great tragedy in the United States, one that changed many (if not all) of our lives.  While debates, investigations, wars, and showy, overblown rhetoric have profoundly changed the event and our recollection of it, I hope we can all just pause and give our regards to those who have passed.  R.I.P.

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