October is almost upon us, and that means one thing: the NHL's 2010 season is upon us. As the Washington Capitals look to four-peat as Southeast Divsion champions, a restocked Atlanta Thrashers squad, a Tampa Bay Lightning squad GM'd by hockey great Steve Yzerman, and the rest will look to knock the reigning Presidents' Trophy winners down a peg. To help set the stage for the upcoming season we thought we would invite some of our favorite hockey blogs to participate in a divisional discussion, much like our Caps bloggers roundtable in August. Before we begin, we'd like to thank the bloggers of Thrashing the Blues, Canes Country, Litter Box Cats, and the Lightning Hockey Blog for their participation. Feel free to leave your thoughts in our comments section, as we'd love to hear your thoughts on the 2010-11 season as well.
Why will your team will be better this season than they were last?
Laura Astorian, Thrashing the Blues- They have to be. No, seriously though, the Thrashers cut a lot of dead weight during the off-season, added players who can be defensively responsible and score as many goals as those lost (save for Max, but his -17 negated about all but seven of his goals), and added Chris Mason in net. I love Johan Hedberg, but Mason's an upgrade, and after watching Pavelec's play Tuesday night, might be a necessity in net.
Bob Wage, CanesCountry.com- They will be younger, faster, and hopefully healthier. But I'm not sure that means they will be better than last year. It depends upon how quickly the youth of the team can mature and contribute.
Donny Rivette, LitterBoxCats.com- Organizationally the Panthers will be light-years better than a season ago; former GM Randy Sexton began the drive to acquire draft picks from deadline trades while signing a number of key prospects. Dale Tallon continued the ball rolling with a mammoth draft effort that included 13 players over seven rounds, while trimming the fat throughout the minor league operations. Whether the Cats can improve upon their recent 77 points is difficult to deduce given the overall improvement within the Southeast Division this summer; a large number of career- and bounce-back years will be required.
Dani, Lightning Hockey Blog- Let me count the ways: new ownership, new GM, new coaching, revamp of players. But really it just comes down to stability and vision that I think the team has received from the ownership change that will help the team be a better team on the ice.
Krafty, RockTheRed.net- Simply put? They've tasted defeat, and will not want to experience it again. You can't coach experience, and the squad is a year older, stronger, and determined to build on last seasons' successes and failures. More tangibly, the promotions of Karl Alzner, John Carlson and Michal Neuvirth will greatly benefit the squad.
What aspect of your team are you concerned about this season?
Laura, Thrashers- Scoring to a degree, just because I'm so used to having the go-to guy on the team to score. We'll probably score as many goals this season as last, but unless Bergfors and Little really unleash hell, it'll appear that we're not, and of course that'll get the publicity - not the fact that the scoring's more well distributed. I'm a bit concerned about half the goaltending tandem. Ondrej Pavelec's (right) got such potential, but I still believe that he was rushed to the NHL out of necessity and that contributes to inconsistent play. Too much inconsistency and not enough of what we saw at the start of the last season'll cost the team until Mason gets put in net for his usual 33 game long march to the playoffs.
Bob, Hurricanes- The defense is inexperienced and is not very physical. After the top three of Corvo, Gleason, and Pitkanen, the rest are pretty much a question mark. Other than Gleason and Harrison, none of the "D" are necessarily known as being physical and can be pushed around in their own end.
Donny, Panthers- Growth among the rookies/prospects. When a club is this deeply entrenched in a serious rebuild, keeping an eye on the up-and-comers will be critical. Allowing them to develop into foot soldiers necessary to haul heavy iron for the better portion of a decade or more will be key to organizational success down the road (read: don't rush them). Erik Gudbranson, Quinton Howden, John McFarland and a gaggle of young talent will be fascinating to watch whereever they may end up this season.
Dani, Lightning- Coaching. With the Lightning having Guy Boucher, who has risen fast as a coach through the QMHJL to the AHL and now to the NHL. There's a lot of questions about whether he will be able to succeed in the NHL or whether his star rose too fast. Lots of new faces on the team as well will either be a blessing or a curse for him.
Krafty, Capitals- Unfortuntely, the offseason came and went with the Caps' doing little to address the laundry list of concerns: finding a strong second line center, bringing in a veteran presence on the blueline, and beefing up a middle-of-the-road Penalty Kill. Also scaring me? The sense of entitlement and complacency the Caps showed heading into the playoffs last season. Only time will tell if last year's reality check will carry over.
Which member of your teams roster can we expect to have a breakout season?
Laura, Thrashers- Watching him play [the other] night, I think it's safe to say that Bryan Little's going to have a much improved year. Craig Ramsay's shifted him back to center, and aside from his faceoffs, he looked outstanding.
Bob, Hurricanes- Brandon Sutter started the season in the AHL last year, and still scored 21 goals. This season he will get more ice time, will have more of a chance on the powerplay, and could break out with a big year.
Donny, Panthers- Shawn Matthias. After a year in Rochester, the highly-touted centerman came to the Big Club last season, appearing lost and several steps behind the game. Something clicked in the final third of the campaign, however, and his demeanor, presence, and confidence soared; as dramatic a turnaround as I've witnessed in some time. Will it spill into 2010-11? He'll get every opportunity to be a major force for the team, should he chose to dial it up.
Dani, Lightning- I don't know if any of the players will have a breakout season compared to Stamkos' season last year. In addition with defencemen, it's always hard to compare them to forwards since their breakout season doesn't necessarily have to do with how many points they get. But with some good direction from the coaches and veterans like Ohlund and Kubina, we'll see the emergence of Victor Hedman (left) as the next defensive rock for the team.
Krafty, Capitals- The easy answer would be Eric Fehr, complete with a new contract and a clean bill of health for the first time in forever. However, I feel the player that will suprise us the most this season will be Michal Neuvirth. He has consecutive Calder Cup championships on his resume, and is primed to battle Semyon Varlamov for the number 1 spot in DC. And if his recent contract extension is any indication, the Caps are expecting big things this season as well.
Which guy on the squad doesn’t get nearly the respect he deserves?
Laura, Thrashers- Jim Slater, bar none. He had a great season last year as far as scoring goes - a career year, if I remember correctly - but he brings a lot more than that. He's the longest tenured Thrasher and a team leader in that respect. He'll also drop the gloves when he needs to (though the outcome's usually not in his favor), make solid hits, and he always brings 110% every single night. He's a good face off guy and a solid PKer, too.
Bob, Hurricanes- Again, Brandon Sutter (right). The kid is a demon on defense and was only called for one minor penalty all season long. He plays very well on the PK and will be counted on at the second line center spot this year. He might also wear an "A". Not bad for a 21 year old.
Dani, Lightning- Martin St. Louis. Maybe it's his short stature that makes people overlook him but his numbers last year with Stamkos shows how much heart he puts into winning. And that's just talking on the ice, off the ice he's thought of as one of the cornerstones to the locker room.
Krafty, Capitals- Boyd Gordon. Although a bad back has perennially plagued Gordo (and limited his play), he's a strong fourth-line grinder that is currently the longest tenured Capital. He is proficient on both sides of the puck, being efficient defensively (providing quality play on the PK) and creating offensive opportunities (having a higher points/minute ratio than Brooks Laich and Tomas Fleischmann)*. Boyd has the fundamentals of a quality hockey player- giving the puck away only three times last regular season, and blocking more shots than any other forward on the team, and winning 61% of his face offs - but is often left in the dust to Washington's other "flashier" players.
* H/T to David Getz of Japers Rink for this little nuggett.
With all the trade/free agency activity this year, who do you see as the biggest threat to your team in the Southeast? The Eastern Division?
Laura, Thrashers- Ourselves. You never can tell if an implosion's going to happen with the Thrash. Last year it did in December, and again in March. Hopefully with a new coaching staff that'll prevent that from happening this season.
Bob, Hurricanes- Obviously, the Caps are the cream of the Division, if not the entire East. They always play the Canes tough. The Lightning and Thrashers have both improved and should be tougher than last year. In the East, I'm not entirely sold on the Flyers goaltending, but I think that team looks very strong. Also, New Jersey will be tough again. While everyone was watching the Ilya Kovalchuk saga, they quietly acquired Jason Arnott (left) and that move could pay huge dividends. The Devils are very dangerous.
Donny, Panthers- Leaving out the Caps for obvious reasons, it's difficult to see, given the upgrades/overhauls which continue in Atlanta and Tampa Bay. Both look far stronger - on paper - than a year ago, and should prove formidable. Paul Maurice always finds a way to squeeze the most out of his boys in Raleigh, and Jeff Skinner could be the Real Deal. Traditionally the Hurricanes have been the sharpest thorn in Florida's side; if the Panthers have a true rival, it'd have to be Carolina. Among the conference? Buffalo is typically good for four headaches.
Krafty, Capitals- With Steve Yzerman at the helm, the Lightning seem to be bringing in the right pieces (Simon Gagne, Pavel Kubina, Dan Ellis) to supplement an already strong corps. In the East, I feel the Devils could give everyone a run for their money. They had an excellent off-season securing Ilya Kovalchuk and bringing in d-men Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder, to back a maturing Zach Parise and healthy Jamie Langenbrunner. It'll all come down to how they respond to first year coach John MacLean.
How would you rank the Southeast Division standings at the end of the season from top to bottom? Who from the division makes the playoffs?
Laura, Thrashers- Washington, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Carolina, Florida. Top two seeds make it and TB barely misses due to their annual revolving door of defensemen problems that we've all come to expect. The East'll be weak again this year, allowing Atlanta to make the cut at 7th or 8th.
Bob, Hurricanes- Caps (playoffs), Lightning (playoffs), Thrashers (borderline playoffs), Hurricanes, Panthers.
Donny, Panthers- Washington (playoffs), Tampa Bay (playoffs), Atlanta, Carolina, Florida- with a caveat...the Thrashers and Panthers have so many new faces on and off the ice that predictions are ridiculously tough; call it a coin flip. Tampa's much the same but their top two scoring lines are superior to anyone but Washington, hence the playoff spot.
Krafty, Capitals- Caps, Bolts both making it to the playoffs, followed by the Thrashers and Canes and then a very distant Panthers club.