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State of the Southeast Division (First Edition)

Each week, talented bloggers with team-specific daily blogs will write a short synopsis on the state of the team that they follow.  Every week, one of the six NHL divisions will be featured on Illegal Curve, with the cycle continuing in order throughout the remainder of the season.

This week, we are focusing on the Southeast Division.  Teams are appearing in the same order as they currently sit in the standings.

1. Washington Capitals-From pucksandbooks of On Frozen Blog:

The Capitals through the first quarter of the season have ample concerns — health foremost among them — but competing in a weak-again Southeast division, likely they need be only moderately good the rest of the way to win the division. If they heal up and improve their penalty killing, they should win the division going away.

At Thanksgiving the Caps stood at 12-7-3, three points better than the Carolina Hurricanes, with a number of key performers shelved by moderately serious injuries. Early in December the Caps should have Mike Green (shoulder) and Alexander Semin (back) back in the lineup. Sergei Fedorov, who began the season as the team’s best two-way forward, is struggling to overcome a high ankle sprain. It would be wise for the Caps to be patient and perhaps even overly cautious with Fedorov’s recuperation, as he stands again to be a key postseason performer.

Michael Nylander, however, does not. Deep in the autumn it’s become abundantly clear that Nylander is not a good fit for Head Coach Bruce Boudreau’s system, and Nylander’s name has appeared in a frenzy of trade talk throughout November.

The team’s MVP to date has been Semin, who prior to getting hurt was enjoying a breakout season. His 27 points lead the team, and he’s been at or near the league scoring lead most of the fall. He was named the league’s Player of the Month for October. His countryman and reigning Hart Trophy winner Alexander Ovechkin, after a conspicuously slow start, is racing up the scoring list with a torrid November. He’s a strong bet to win Player of the Month for November.  

The Capitals’ success thus far stems from the team’s production at 5-on-5 and from a hot power play. The Caps at Thanksgiving ranked 5th in the league with the man advantage.   Capitals’ players ranked high in the +/- column (Semin at +17; Ovechkin at +14; Green at +10). Still, there’s much improvement needed on the penalty kill, where the team is lodged near the very bottom of the league (25th).

Looking to the second half and especially the playoffs, Caps’ management will have to take a long hard look at the team’s netminding. Jose Theodore (7-4-1, .885 save pct., 3.24 goals-against) had been characteristically hot and cold. Brent Johnson has been impressive (5-3-2, .910, 2.79), but it’s doubtful that an organization with visions of a deep postseason run want the backup as their no. 1 man in net come spring.

2. Carolina Hurricanes-From Bob of Canes Country:

The Carolina Hurricanes are 22 games into the season already, so let’s take a moment to briefly review how they have done so far this year.

The team has a record of 11-9-2, good for 2nd place in the Southeast Division and 8th in the Eastern Conference.  That is a bit worse than last year’s record of 12-7-3 during the same time frame.  The team has scored 60 goals so far while allowing 66, a stat which needs to improve.  Last year after 22 games, they had scored 74 and allowed 63. 

Breaking the club down by position, the forwards would probably be the most disappointing at this point in time.  This team was built for scoring, not necessarily for physical play or defense, and as a group they have not lived up to expectations.  Small, skilled skaters like Ray Whitney, Matt Cullen, Patrick Eaves, and Sergei Samsonov were each counted to score 20 goals or more this season, and so far Whitney is the only player on track.  Eaves has yet to score a single goal while Samsonov has just scored one.

Superstar, Eric Staal has eight goals and is on pace to hit 30 once again, but he has been very inconsistent, as has captain Rod Brind’Amour. On the otherhand, Tuomo Ruutu has usually played very well and Scott Walker has been intense every game, even if his scoring is down from previous years, (probably because of a hand injury).

The defensemen have pretty much lived up to their preseason hype.  They are currently ranked 6th in the NHL for total points scored by team defense.  The Hurricanes are used to being ranked dead last in that category.  Dennis Seidenberg has been a pleasant surprise and is 5th on the team in scoring with 11 points and is near the top of the league in blocked shots.  Nic Wallin has already scored more than he did all last season, (9), and Joni Pitkanen has scored pretty well, even though he is battling injuries.  Add in blueliners Joe Corvo and Tim Gleason, and amazingly all five of those defensemen have equaled or outscored forwards Sergei Samsonov, Matt Cullen, Patrick Eaves, and Scott Walker.

While the defensemen have contributed nicely on offense, their work in their own end needs improvement.  Some games they have looked very good and other games, not so much.   

Goalies Cam Ward and Michael Leighton have also been inconsistent.  Leighton is definitely an upgrade over John Grahame, so that has to be looked upon as a positive.  Ward can be world class at times, but still allows a soft goal or two.  Neither goalie has the best of stats.  Ward – SV% .909 GAA 2.77.  Leighton – SV% .905 GAA 2.84 .

Bottom line, Carolina still needs to improve if they want to avoid missing the playoffs for a record-breaking third consecutive year after winning the Stanley Cup in 2006.    

3. Tampa Bay Lightning-From Cassie of Bolts Blog:

The circus ride that is the Tampa Bay Lightning has slowed down momentarily, but the season has been far from boring so far. Unfortunately, most of the madness has taken place off the ice. And that’s hurt the team on the ice as well.

Since the end of last season, the Lightning have had three head coaches: John Tortorella, Barry Melrose, and now Rick Tocchet. They’ve also since reinstated (he was still on salary) an associate coach that was once with Tortorella, Mike Sullivan. There are only six players on the team that played regularly last February before the big trade with Dallas: Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Paul Ranger, Mike Lundin, Chris Gratton, and Ryan Craig. (Vaclav Prospal finished the season with Philadelphia before coming back to the Lightning this season.) The average age of the defense is 25.9 years old, while the average age of the offense is 29.2 years old (without Recchi (40) & Roberts (42), it’s still 27.5 years old) – which is flipped from how it normally is. The defense is typically older than the forwards since it takes longer to understand that job – but you get the idea.

Tampa Bay currently has a record of 6-9-7 (as of noon November 29th). The biggest problem so far this season has been stability – the players on this team don’t have any. It’s difficult to get adjusted to your teammates and create chemistry when your teammates keep changing every week. It’s hard to settle down into your position when you don’t know if you’ll be traded or not, too. It’s also part of the reason why Melrose was fired. Everyone has a part in the blame for how this team is doing, but the biggest portion of the blame goes to the management/ownership for creating and maintaining a team with no balance, no stability, and no chemistry.

4. Atlanta Thrashers-From maali of Fire Wagon Hockey:

By the time the American Thanksgiving holiday is over, and the frenzy of Black Friday long past, and the month of December bearing down upon us, the Atlanta Thrashers will have played 22 of their 82 games. As of this writing, only 19 of those games were played (7-10-2), and thusly, the State of the Team will be written on the performance thusfar.

To sum up the Thrashers’ so far this season in just one word: Craptacular. There have been some quiet surprises, such as the stellar and steady Ron Hainsey (3-9-12, -2), who is trying his hardest to right the tilted ship that seems destined for the EC basement. There has also been the not-as-unexpected surprise of Ondrej Pavelec (.913%, 2.33GAA), and how well he has stepped up in the absence and injury of oft-maligned and -injured Kari Lehtonen (.903%, 3.44GAA). Which of the two will control the reins as “Franchise Goaltender” is still being fought out, and with Lehtonen on IR indefinitely (and not having skated since 10/30), the chips are stacking quickly in Pavelec’s favor.

But then there have been issues such as the Groundhog Day-esque lack of shots in nearly every game – the most glaring of which was the last game the Thrash played, on 11/22 v CBJ. The SOG count was 31-15. For the 08-09 season, the SF/SA discrepancy is not so large – 524/626. But compared with unproven and oft-unreliable defense, along with a goaltending merry-go-round, the Thrashers are going to have to take large steps in the next 20 games if they want to move out of the basement. However, if they’re content hanging in there for the Tavares lottery, then they’re certainly making great strides in that direction. Look for significant action from the Thrashers management either prior to the 12/19 roster freeze, the 3/9 trade deadline, or both. Whether they’ll be buying or selling remains to be seen.

5. Florida Panthers-From Don of The Litter Box:

Florida Panthers, 20GP  8W  11L  1OL, 47GF – 58GA, 17PTS, 5th in SE, 15th in EC, 29th in NHL.
It’s been a difficult, confusing, and confounding start to the season for the Cats. Unfortunately that is typically the case: moribund first-halfs which ratchet into furious runs in February and March, coming up just short of the playoffs. New head coach Peter DeBoer provided a steadying, positive, yet firm approach to the bench during camp, but after twenty games in the books it’s tough to determine what’s lacking: his developing grasp of the pro game or his players and the “country club” atmosphere some are unable – or unwilling – to shake. The Cats are 4-3 in their past seven leading into tonight’s hosting of New Jersey.
Forward David Booth (10 goals) has been the inspiration for his club up front (and likely would be sharing that title with Cory Stillman had he not been injured). No one else has stepped up, but what should be expected of the likes of Radek Dvorak, Ville Peltonen, Richard Zednik at this point in their careers? The usual suspects (Nathan Horton, Stephen Weiss, and Rusty Olesz) have yet again failed to produce consistent with their contracts (though in Horton’s defense, he was used exclusively as a center until last week. He is now back at right wing.)
Defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, the go-to guy on every rumor site, has been a spectacular flop so far, with 8 assists and a minus-7 (5 points in the past six games, however). As expected, he devours minutes, leading the league once again in icetime. No newsflash here, but he’s a goner by the trade deadline. Hasn’t helped his cause since losing partner Bryan Allen early in the year to injury. Keith Ballard has been very good – not yet great – on a night-to-night basis, and appears to have settled in as a solid multitalented #2 D-man who shoots, hits, whatever. Will he become the number one?
Goaltending has been all over the place, as an 8-11 record will attest, but Tomas Vokoun started slowly last year and improved as the season wore on. Consistently dominant performances became the norm. To this point, T-Vo has five wins, but has been left out to dry on too many nights. Craig Anderson is a terrific 3-1 with a 2.08 / .940. Could be the best tandem in the league, though Vokoun has yet to hit his groove.
Slowly improving, but the Panthers remain rock bottom in the conference. By game 40 we’ll know what they – and their GM, Jacques Martin – are made of.

Illegal Curve wants to thank the above bloggers for taking the time to write their pieces for our first State of the Division post.  If you haven’t already, take a look at their respective blogs.  All of them are extremely well done and informative.