This is the final edition of "The Clash" as Cory and I break down the Southeast.
- Tampa Bay
- Tampa Bay
While it pains me to do it, the injury troubles the Hurricanes have already run in to lead me to give the Caps the first spot in the division. Obviously, Alexander Ovechkin is the linchpin to the entire Washington locomotive — if he were to go down, there's not a Evgeni Malkin to step in like Pittsburgh had last season when Sidney Crosby was injured. There are good complimentary players for AO, too. Mike Green emerged as one of the league's top point-producing blueliners in 2007-08, while sniper Alexander Semin and crafty Nicklas Backstrom return. On top of that, Michael Nylander is back from injury, though there are rumors the Capitals are looking to move the veteran center. But there are questions in net, where streaky Jose Theodore replaces Cristobal Huet. But at the end of the day, Washington's best players are still on the rise, and if they improve on last season, they'll be tough to contain.
The Hurricanes are poised to reclaim the Southeast title, but injuries have already hit hard: Justin WIlliams is out long-term again, this time with a torn Achilles tendon; Rod Brind'Amour had preseason knee surgery, but managed to skate the final preseason game; Ray Whitney and Tuomo Ruutu are already battling nagging injuries; and the latest victim is Scott Walker, who is out six weeks with an injured left hand. The good news is the rebuilt defense seems healthy entering the season, and the addition of Joni Pitkanen and maturation of Tim Gleason should anchor a group that is the team's best since coming to Raleigh. If Carolina is to contend for the division, they need to avoid more injuries and see Cam Ward return to his 2006 playoff form.
Florida is gaining steam as a darkhorse playoff contender, but I don't know of too many teams that trade away their best player in the offseason and are better off for it. Cory Stillman rejoins the Southeast and will try and replace some of the points lost to the Olli Jokinen trade. Speaking of the trade, it was one part of the rebuilding of the Panthers' blueline. In the deal, defensemen Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton came to South Florida. They then dealt Mike Van Ryn to Toronto for the much-mailgned, but talented, rearguard Bryan McCabe. But the key will be Jay Bouwmeester — will his impending unrestricted free agency hover over the Panthers like Marian Hossa's did in Atlanta last season? Tomas Vokoun is the division's most consistent netminder, so Florida will be able to keep the puck out of their net. But they may need help scoring.
I didn't need to see Tampa Bay's first two regular-season games to confirm what I suspected — the Lightning are loaded up front but the lack the defensemen to keep the puck out of their own end. Their offense — led by holdovers Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, the returning Vaclav Prospal and Evgeny Artyukin, and newcomers Ryan Malone, Radim Vrbata and top pick Steven Stamkos — will be potent on nights when they can control the puck. But the defense, while talented, is young and lacks the poise to handle the high-octane offenses of their division foes. The goaltending duo of Mike Smith and Olaf Kolzig are a good mix of youth and experience, but facing 40 shots a night will wear on any netminder.
The Thrashers have completely unraveled and are destined for the bottom of the division. They lack a top-line center for Ilya Kovalchuk, and their secondary scoring options are either third-tier talents (Todd White, Jason Williams) or over-the-hill shadows of their former self (Slava Kozlov). The defense, however, is intriguing. Led by last season's rookie surprise Tobias Enstrom, Anaheim cap castoff Mathieu Schneider, free agent newcomer Ron Hainsey and 2008 first-round pick Zach Bogosian, the Thrashers blueline offers plenty to be curious about. Kari Lehtonen will again patrol the nets as Atlanta's No. 1, and for the Thrashers to have any shot at the postseason he'll need to live up to his enormous potential. Johan Hedberg is a very good backup, but prospect Ordrej Pavelec — a possible future starter — has refused assignment to the team's AHL affiliate in Chicago and leaves the team in a precarious position.
Well Cory, I could easily agree with you on every point that you make, but what would be the fun in that? I was once told that a good debater can pick either side of an issue, and still be able to present a plausible argument. That is exactly what I am going to try to do right now.
I admit, Carolina has already been hit with injuries. Justin Williams is out for a few months. Scott Walker is out for a few weeks. Rod Brind'Amour is just returning from knee surgery. Tuomo Ruutu has yet to skate a single minute during the preseason. But let's look again at last year. Williams was out. Brind'Amour was out. Cullen was out. Whitney was out. Walker was out at times as well. They were hit with two bouts of the flu bug. But what happened? The Hurricanes still managed to hold on to first place in the division for all but two weeks. They would have taken the division if they could have won, just one more game. And what happened in that final game against Florida? Two players were on the ice who probably shouldn't have been, and after playing for over a solid month without a break, Cam Ward had a bad game. The Caps were arguably the hottest team in the league during the later part of the year, and still couldn't pass the Canes until the very end.
If Carolina could come so close last year, especially after facing so much adversity, there is no reason why they can't win the division this year. The defense is younger and quicker. The goaltending is stronger. The forwards should be hungrier. Coach Laviolette is the most experienced NHL coach and is the class of the division. I'll pick Carolina to come out on top this year. And before some of you start calling me "Homer", here are a couple of national sources that back me up, SI.com and Inside Hockey.
Most of the experts are choosing Washington to be the toast of the Southeast. The Caps are certainly the logical pick. But again let's examine last year just a little closer. They were one of the hottest teams in the league. They had a huge shot in the arm from a hot, talented goalie at the trade deadline. They had the highest scoring player in the league, who couldn't seem to do anything wrong most nights. And what happened? They barely were able to over-take a Carolina team which was overcome and almost decimated by injuries. Then what? They ended up losing in the first round of the playoffs. So, what exactly did they accomplish? If you just look at last year, they have not proven a thing.
It's going to be very tough for Ovechkin to duplicate last season. Jose Theodore will have a difficult time filling Huet's shoes. Most importantly there are huge expectations in Washington, and success is much more difficult to attain when everyone is watching and expecting it, than when you are sneaking up on everyone from last place. Is Washington good? Yes, they are very good. Are they infallible? Of course not. It wouldn't surprise me if Caps fans were wishing that they had Olaf Kolzig back at some point this season.
As you mentioned Cory, Florida's defense is better than Tampa Bay's offense. There is no comparison in goal. Vokoun is world class and Smith is unproven, to put it nicely. The kitty-kats will have a tough time scoring goals, but new coach Peter Deboer is "run and gun" which is something new for them. If Jacques Martin can keep his nose out of things, the Panthers should finish in third while the Lightning finish fourth.
The Thrashers will finish below the Leafs. Yes, they are that bad.
I really think the keys to Washington finishing ahead of Carolina are Nylander, Backstrom and Carolina's injuries. It's easy to forget how good a player is when he's gone for most of the season, and Nylander's return to the nation's capital is going to bolster the Caps' top six. Couple that with Backstrom and his immense talent — I think we just saw a sliver of what he's capable of last year — and that's a pretty ferocious offense.
Carolina's injuries are already cropping up, to the point that Jim Rutherford has mandated a change in how the team trains. Does that mean the Canes are already dead in the water? Of course not — I think they'll battle the Caps right to the end, but it will be tough to overcome early season injuries to Justin Williams and Scott Walker.
Florida and Tampa Bay are both being overhyped. I think it's possible the division, as a whole, could be really bad again this season, with Carolina and Washington the only playoff-contending teams. I'm not buying into the new-look Lightning — and like you said, Mike Smith is unproven and definitely erratic handling the puck — and I can't think of one team that's traded their best player (Olli Jokinen shipped to Phoenix) for smaller parts and come out of it significantly better.
The Thrashers will be bad — and they won't look good doing it in their new alternates, " article " — and Don Waddell will lose his job. Welcome to hockey hell, John Anderson.
There's no doubt that Washington has a very good team and has a great shot to win the division. But do I think they will be injury free this year? Nope. Do I think that everything will fall perfectly into place for them like it did in the second part of last season? Nope. They will face their share of adversity and will need to prove that they can overcome it. If they can, they deserve to be champions.
Carolina's injuries are a valid concern. A repeat performance of last year in the training room could spell disaster.
If Florida can score goals, they can make the playoffs. That's a big "if" though.
Tampa Bay will break through for some awesome games. They have too much talent not to. But in the long run, they won't be good enough in their own end to make a difference.
Agree with you about Atlanta. Waddell is a good man, but should have been relieved of his duties by now.