As Bob wrote last week, popular sentiment in the media is Atlanta, Florida and Tampa Bay are trending up in the Southeast, with Washington the obvious favorite and Carolina in some kind of nice-weathered purgatory. There's no denying that the Capitals will enter 2010-11 as not only the division favorites, but one of the top contenders for the Stanley Cup, but really how does the rest of the division look?
While Atlanta did add several new faces, Florida was a among the busiest teams at the draft, and the Lightning made a public relations coup by landing Steve Yzerman as their new GM, all three teams are not noticeably better on paper as we slowly inch toward training camp. Yzerman and the Lightning may still have a move or two up their sleeve as free agency re-begins (once As The Ilya Turns ends)*, but otherwise what you see is what you'll get in the Southeast.
Is Carolina dead in the water given that mainstays Ray Whitney and Matt Cullen are gone and there are no big-name replacements to fill the net? Some think yes, but looking at the numbers proves otherwise.
(*Monday afternoon's acquisition of Simon Gagne by Tampa Bay is the first of those moves, and somewhat impacts the statistics in the article. Asterisks in the article show places that the numbers would vary slightly with the Gagne trade completed. He had 17 goals in 58 games last season, but the Lightning still have 10 total goals last season by six of their projected 12 forwards as of right now, even with the acquisition of Gagne. Matt Walker's departure in that deal barely impacts the defensive statistics since he is replaced by Paul Ranger, who had one goal in eight games last season.)
I looked at The Hockey News’ depth charts for all five teams and calculated how many goals the players currently in each team's top 18 (12 forwards, six defenseman) scored last season, plus how many games they played, and then figured out how many goals per game per player each team scored (totals goals divided by total games = goal/game/player).
The numbers show that Carolina is seemingly in much better shape than many — myself included — believe.
Carolina's defense is poised to be the top scoring in the Southeast
If you take the Canes’ top six d-men from THN (and that doesn't even include offense-first Bobby Sanguinetti), no team had more goals from the blue line than Carolina. That number is boosted by the return of Anton Babchuk, who played in Europe last season. (For the purposes of the statistics, Babchuk was assigned the 16 goals he managed in 72 games in 2008-09 since he played in the KHL last year.} Carolina's 35 goals is seven more than second-place Washington (28). Carolina's six defenders only played a total of 301 games last season, the fewest among the Southeast teams, giving them a per player average of .114 goals per game. Washington is second at .090 (28 goals in 311 games), followed by Florida at .068 (23/339). Atlanta is fourth with .061 (25/408) and Tampa Bay is last with a .045 (18/396).*
Only Washington and Tampa’s forwards score better than Carolina’s
Not surprisingly, the Caps’ forwards are the best at scoring goals. Washington forwards scored at a .331 clip (259/782). The Canes were third at .238 (148/623). That number is definitely helped by the fact Carolina has the second fewest games played in the division among THN's projected top 12 due to the influx of inexperienced youth into the lineup. Also benefiting from that is second-place Tampa Bay, who at .286 had 157 goals in just 548 man games.* Tampa Bay's current bottom six (prior to the Gagne trade) played just four games total last season, plus they got plenty of scoring from Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Co. Atlanta was close to Carolina fourth with a .233 (183/891), and Florida was last at .187 (138/738).
What does it all mean?
Granted, Carolina's goals per game per player numbers — particularly on offense — are somewhat boosted by the fact that there will be such an influx of young talent. But the numbers also don't take into account the potential goals a young players like Zach Boychuk could score this season. With the forwards at .238 goals per game (19.51 over 82 games), the Canes would need Boychuk to score 20 goals or more this season to exceed the expectations placed on the forwards. Are those lofty goals for Boychuk? I'm sure the Canes would say no if the young winger indeed plays a full slate of games. That being said, he scored just three goals in 31 games last year.
The defense clearly has amazing offensive potential. Jamie McBain should notch double-digit goals in his true rookie campaign. The return of Joe Corvo, who had a down year with just six goals in 2009-10, gives the team a veteran triggerman on the point. Joni Pitkanen and Tim Gleason should be good for a combined 10 to 15 goals. The big wild card is Babchuk. If he can come close to replicating, matching or exceeding the 16 goals he had in 72 games in 2008-09, the Hurricanes have the potential to have one of the most potent defense corps in the league. The bigger question will be how they fare in their own end.
While Corvo is an underrated defender, his addition during free agency doesn't greatly ease the burden on Gleason to physically handle the skilled forwards throughout the league. Babchuk is immense, but doesn't use his size, and McBain is still learning the ropes when it comes to stopping NHL snipers. Pitkanen is mostly reliable — and underappreciated by most — in his own end, but Jay Harrison is more suited to be a depth defender than a top six NHLer. Sanguinetti and Bryan Rodney are next in the pecking order as of now, and both bring more of the same: offense first, defense second.
So, contrary to the beliefs of many, it looks like the Canes have a chance — with reasonable health — to be proficient at scoring goals in 2010-11. Throw in a goalie who has Vezina Trophy potential and some of the other issues — like the aforementioned lack of defense-first blueliners — could fade to the background and lead to a better-than-expected season.