The NHL season gets underway Oct. 6 with three games scheduled. But before the puck drops on another exciting season, we’ll take one last look ahead at each of the divisions. Monday we previewd the Atlantic and Pacific and today we look at the Central and Southeast. Be sure to check back Wednesday for the remaining two divisions.
Top three fantasy options: Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green.
Key additions: Tomas Vokoun, Roman Hamrlik, Troy Brouwer, Jeff Halpern, Joel Ward.
Key departures: Semyon Varlamov, Jason Arnott, Marco Sturm, Eric Fehr, Scott Hannan, Matt Bradley.
Something to prove: When a player has 100-point potential, plays with one of the league’s top superstars and watches his production dip by an astounding 36 points, a bounce-back year is crucial for team success. Nicklas Backstrom falls into that category, but if Alex Ovechkin recovers from an off year the Swede won’t be far behind.
The big question: Will Mike Green be a prolific scorer? Washington’s attention turned to defense last season and as a result Green’s production was cut by half a point per game. Still, he’s capable of hitting 70-to-80 points and it makes sense to let your best players play the style they’re comfortable with.
Outlook: THN’s pick to win it all next June, the Capitals are no doubt loaded with talent, grit and now goaltending. They have it all from the top of the roster right down to the fourth-liners and black aces. If they don’t put it together this season you can bet on Bruce Boudreau being shown the door so the team has a little something extra to play for this season. THN PREDICTION: First in East.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
Top three fantasy options: Martin St-Louis, Steven Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier.
Key additions: Mathieu Garon, Matt Gilroy, Bruno Gervais.
Key departures: Sean Bergenheim, Simon Gagne, Mike Smith, Mike Lundin, Randy Jones.
Something to prove: The Lightning got stellar performances from a number of players last season, but Marc-Andre Bergeron, a January signing, didn’t bring his patented power play presence. After scoring at least seven PP goals in five straight seasons, Bergeron was shut out in 23 games last year. Improvement in this area is expected.
The big question: Can Dwayne Roloson continue to be effective? The same question is asked of any aging player, but ‘Rollie’ is turning 42 in October, so it’s a legitimate concern for the Lightning. At some point he will wear down, but the smart money is on getting one more good year out of the veteran.
Outlook: With star power at the top of the forward units and a well-rounded defense, the Lightning are once again a popular choice to excel in the East. Coach Guy Boucher’s methods are nothing new anymore and other teams will adapt, but that won’t be nearly enough to slow a potent attack. Unless an unforeseen meltdown occurs in net or injuries take a significant toll the Lightning will once again challenge for the Cup. THN PREDICTION: Sixth in East.
Top three fantasy options: Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner, Tuomo Ruutu.
Key additions: Anthony Stewart, Tomas Kaberle, Brian Boucher, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Tim Brent.
Key departures: Joe Corvo, Erik Cole, Bryan Rodney.
Something to prove: Alexei Ponikarovsky is penciled in on the depth lines for Carolina, but he got time alongside Eric Staal in pre-season. If Ponikarovsky hopes to earn and hold a spot on the top line, though, he has to greatly improve on the moribund 15-point season he had with the Kings in 2010-11 and score at least that many goals.
The big question: Can Tomas Kaberle help improve Carolina’s 23rd-ranked PP? Unlikely. Kaberle had an anomalous 2005-06 season when he put up 51 power play points and isn’t someone who can be counted on to anchor the man advantage. He brings fewer PP goals than Joe Corvo, whom he’s replacing.
Outlook: Like every year, the canes are a difficult team to predict. With Cam Ward protecting the back end anything is possible. One thing is for sure though: if sophomore Jeff Skinner dips off his production from last season the Canes will be in a hole on that side of the puck. Carolina is destined to be a playoff bubble team all season long, taking the fight to the bitter end. THN PREDICTION: Ninth in East.
Top three fantasy options: Evander Kane, Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler.
Key additions: Eric Fehr, Tanner Glass, Kyle Wellwood, Randy Jones.
Key departures: Anthony Stewart, Radek Dvorak, Eric Boulton.
Something to prove: When the organization acquired Nik Antropov two years ago, it salivated over his big-body presence and potential for offense. At first it paid off, as Antropov notched 67 points in 76 games, but he slipped by 26 points in 2010-11, which isn’t good enough for a $4 million-plus player on an offense-starved team.
The big question: Is Ondrej Pavelec capable of lifting the Jets? There’s a lot of youthful promise on this team and Pavelec is one of the hopefuls. He still needs to find the consistency needed to carry a team and has never been a go-to guy. Pavelec is average, so the Jets will ultimately rely on others.
Outlook: OK, so the excitement around the return of the Jets is old news and it’s just about time to hit the ice for real. Will the buzz around the team help its players overachieve, or will the new reality of playing in a hockey-starved Canadian market overwhelm players used to Atlanta? With so many young pieces in the lineup you have to figure most of the individual parts will improve, but that’s far from a guarantee. THN PREDICTION: 13th in East.
Top three fantasy options: Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss, David Booth.
Key additions: Tomas Fleischmann, Jose Theodore, Ed Jovanovski, Brian Campbell, Scottie Upshall, Kris Versteeg, Sean Bergenheim, Tomas Kopecky, Marcel Goc, Matt Bradley.
Key departures: Tomas Vokoun, Niclas Bergfors, Rostislav Olesz, Marty Reasoner, Darcy Hordichuk, Steve Bernier.
Something to prove: The Cats committed four years to Tomas Fleischmann and as their new highest-paid forward ($4.5 million) he has to produce. Fleischmann didn’t have a bad season, scoring 21 points in 22 games after being traded to Colorado, but he did miss 36 games with a blood clot. Can he bounce back from the injury and ensuing time off?
The big question: Will the Panthers get good enough goaltending from Jose Theodore? While the former Hart Trophy winner isn’t as bad as he’s often made out to be, he’s a step below Tomas Vokoun. At least there’s a better team in front of Theodore than there was in front of Vokoun, but you’re rolling the dice if you’re counting on him.
Outlook: With so many more capable NHLers added to the lineup in the summer, the Panthers can’t actually be worse, can they? The team is a mish-mash of veterans, flashes in the pan and question marks. How it will all come together and function is anybody’s guess, but judging from the Panthers’ past, we’re not expecting too much. THN PREDICTION: 14th in East.