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Saturday, October 9, 2010

NHL Preview: Southeast Division Defense

Wrapping up our previews here at BN, I know we cheated a bit, but come on; Tim Brent is not scoring 82 goals this year.  Never trust anyone whose name is two first names.  We're putting this sucker on overdrive, mashing the defensive pairing with the goalies to provide you with a holistic concept of defense.  Sounds philosophical, but we really are trying to wrap it up.  Without further ado, the Southeast Division defense (snicker):

Atlanta Thrashers
Zach Bogosian - Johnny Oduya
Dustin Byfuglien - Tobias Enstrom
Brent Sopel - Ron Hainsey

Chris Mason - Ondrej Pavelec

So, I'm picking the Thrashers first, and you might be thinking this is a joke.  The only joke is that the top defense in this division would be near the bottom in most of the others.  I'm going with the Thrashers because they have a solid mix of potential, awareness, and scoring.  Say what you will about Big Buff, but he has a booming slapshot that automatically gives this team some offense from the point.  Bogosian is a rising two-way player who was 1st in hits and 3rd in blocked shots among rookie defensemen.  He's still susceptible to mental lapses, but at 20 years old and one full season under his belt, he can take the next step this year.  Enstrom and Oduya are quietly two of the better defensemen in this group, and Ron Hainsey has (gasp) added some defense to his skill set (his defensive GVT was ahead of Ed Jovanovski last year).

The goaltending situation was unfortunately complicated by the scary Pavelec incident yesterday, but Chris Mason is an underrated goaltender who, unlike Dan Ellis, can hold his own as the guy.  He plays even better in a time-share, so getting Pavelec back is a priority.  I'm going out on a limb here, but for the first time in Atlanta Thrashers history I might believe in their defense.

Washington Capitals
Mike Green - Jeff Schultz
John Carlson - Tom Poti
John Erskine - Karl Alzner

Michal Neuvirth - Semyon Varlamov

I know, I know, it was risky to put Washington below Atlanta, maybe it will be motivation.  Besides, being the Devil's Advocate can be fun.  In all seriousness, the Capitals have a world-class defenseman surrounded by a supporting cast and a couple of intriguing rookies.  John Carlson and Karl Alzner could develop into excellent players themselves, but I'm not going to jump the gun.  I'll just stick to naming one of them as a sleeper.  If they get a full season of promising play, this group will be tops next year, no doubt.  Another question mark is the young goalie tandem of Neuvirth and Varlamov, which is complicated by an early injury to Varlamov.  We just don't know what to expect of them right now.  In general, there's still too much uncertainty for me to give them top billing, but the potential is so high I can't bear to put them lower than the next team.

Tampa Bay Lightning
Victor Hedman - Brett Clark
Pavel Kubina - Mike Lundin
Randy Jones - Michael Vernace

Mike Smith - Dan Ellis

I've always had a soft spot for the Lightning...when I was a kid I loved their jerseys and Darren Puppa.  In some circles, we called his catch glove the Puppa Scoopa.  Anyways, that hasn't colored my judgment too much, but I have to say that the Lightning improved themselves substantially by bringing back an oldie in Kubina, a voluminous shot-blocker in Clark, and an intriguing talent in Jones.  All three of these guys can make solid contributions when healthy, and I think Ohlund (who's currently injured) can rebound from a bad year if he has support from his mates.  The pairings have holes in them, though, and then there's the question of goalies.

I'm of the belief that the goaltending can work for Tampa this time around.  Both Ellis and Smith have excelled in time-shares in the past, and I think having Clark blocking shots and Kubina clearing creases can help them.

Carolina Hurricanes
Joni Pitkanen - Joe Corvo
Tim Gleason - Jamie McBain
Anton Babchuk - Jay Harrison

Cam Ward

This team will figure it out (again) one day.  Pitkanen, Corvo, and Gleason are all second-pairing defensemen, at best, but in Carolina they swallow a ton of minutes.  I think Carolina's management knows this full well, because when they had the chance to play McBain last year (due to injuries) they gave him all he could carry. Babchuk coming back into the fold improves this unit offensively, but his defensive was unremarkable at best in his season debut and could become a cause for concern.  I'm high on Jamie McBain, of course, and he had a number of stellar plays so far.  That being said, if Carolina continues to give its best minutes with its top line to Pitkanen and Corvo, Cam Ward's going to have his work cut out for him.  And really, this season for the 'Canes rests squarely on Ward's shoulders.  Can he be the guy who's carried them through otherwise-unwinnable games?  Or will he be plagued by injuries and inconsistency?  He looks good so far, but if you are banking on that you clearly don't know the definition of "inconsistency."

Florida Panthers
Bryan McCabe - Dmitry Kulikov
Bryan Allen - Dennis Wideman
Mike Weaver - Jason Garrison

Tomas Vokoun

Florida is nominally rebuilding, but a truly rebuilding team would have found a way to get Erik Gudbranson minutes.  Gudbranson had a solid preseason and deserved better than to get shipped down before a cup o' tea.  That being said, the kid's only 18 so I'll give them a break.  Kulikov, their first-rounder from a couple of years back, is going to get big minutes to help him get experience, and he deserves it, but in general he's the only exciting thing going here.  McCabe is really hitting the age wall these days, though there are moments when you can remember the time he was a Norris-level player.  Wideman can make me laugh sometimes.  Weaver was a sneaky-good add for Florida, as he was an underrated penalty-killer for St. Louis, but it's really a zero-sum gain after the loss of Dennis Seidenberg.

Vokoun, of course, is the hard-hat star on this team, and I think it's a shame that guys like him will never get their due.  If there is justice in the world, the Penguins will flip Marc-Andre Fleury for Vokoun just to make things right.

In general, talking about the Southeast's defense is a painful undertaking, but it gives me an opportunity to hope for the future.  Truth is, I like defense, and I don't think it's good hockey without it.  Let's hope one or more of these teams gives us good hockey this year.

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

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