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2009-10: 54-15-13, 121 points, first in Southeast
FRESH FACES: D.J. King (St. Louis)
OTHER PLACES: Joe Corvo (Carolina), Eric Belanger (Phoenix), Milan Jurcina (N.Y. Islanders), Alexandre Giroux (Edmonton), Kyle Wilson (Columbus)
STORYLINE: Anyone remember which team took home the Presidents' Trophy as the best side in last year's regular season? Here's a better question: does anyone care? Look, the Caps made remarkable strides last year, but when it mattered most, they fell apart as they always have, felled by inconsistent goaltending and too much individualistic offensive play when the checking got tough. That had to be tough to swallow, but for a young team, it also provided a teaching moment. Scoring doesn't always equal winning. That's a hard lesson to impart without a few whacks across the nose, but now that they're smarting, look for these Caps to be the better for it. If they're not, this team may need some significant changes next spring.
MVP:Alex Ovechkin. You think any player had a longer summer than this guy? Embarrassed at the Olympics. Humiliated in the playoffs. This season couldn't come soon enough for a guy who has experienced the heights of individual success but hasn't come close to tasting the rewards that really matter in a team game. Of course, that success will only come if he continues his reign as the game's premier power forward. Expect Ovechkin to regain his perch atop the scoring column and to become more dangerous as he learns to vary his attack options.
KID TO WATCH:John Carlson. Not a bad year for the former first rounder. He scores a couple of game-winning goals at the World Juniors (including the gold medal-clincher against Canada) and then gets a taste of action at the NHL level. The Caps are looking to expose this Mike Green starter kit to a bit tougher sledding this time around, but that won't rattle this kid. Poised, confident and clever, he'll be a game-breaker from the blueline before long.
KEEP AN EYE ON:Eric Fehr. He arrived late to the Caps' 20-goal party, but he did show up ... and he hit the mark while earning a fraction of the ice time given to the team's other forwards. Injuries slowed his progress early on, but now that's he demonstrated his value, he deserves a longer look. Problem is, Washington's forward depth could limit his chances. He'll have to bide his time, but a true breakout is only an opportunity away.
BOTTOM LINE: Not to discount the value of the 82-game regular schedule, but nothing the Caps do between now and April amounts to much more than time-killing entertainment. For this team to live up to its potential, and meet the expectations so many have for it, it is Finals or bust.
2009-10: 35-37-10, 80 points, third in Southeast
FRESH FACES:Joe Corvo (Washington), Bobby Sanguinetti (N.Y. Rangers), Jeff Skinner (draft)
OTHER PLACES:Ray Whitney (Phoenix), Rod Brind'Amour (retired)
STORYLINE: Who are the Hurricanes? Are they the team that stumbled so badly out of the blocks that they were essentially playing out the string by the end of November, or the one that caught fire after the Olympic break and went 24-14-3 down the stretch? Certainly they were a healthier team in the second half and benefitted from the return of Cam Ward. And then there were the kids they brought up to fill in the gaps who gained confidence and began making larger contributions. If that's who these 'Canes can be, they should put last season quickly in the rear-view mirror ... but until they prove themselves, the specter of doubt will loom overhead.
MVP:Eric Staal. Based on his second-half play last season, you could make a decent argument for Brandon Sutter's claim to this title, but for now, this team's offense is so intricately tied in to the personal success of Staal that it's impossible to overlook him. True, he struggled along with the rest of the club early on last year, and even when he is clicking he tends to do it in spurts rather than with consistency. Still, he's a commanding presence who has the potential to land among the top-10 scorers. Without him, the 'Canes would be lucky to outscore the '74-75 Caps.
KID TO WATCH:Jeff Skinner. Two venerable sayings in hockey: you can't teach size, and you can't teach hands. Too bad about the former for Skinner, who is small enough to join the 21 Jump Street crew if hockey doesn't work out. Fortunately, no one has to teach the Kitchener Rangers alum about scoring. Skinner famously lit the lamp 70 times last season, including 20 goals in 20 playoff games. There's a lot of room for improvement in his overall game, but for a kid who can finish like he can, it makes sense to offer on-the-job training.
KEEP AN EYE ON:Cam Ward. He missed two lengthy stints last season, and any time back woes are the issue, you have to be concerned about the potential for a recurrence. If he's healthy, Ward can be one of the better goalies in the league. That's why these 'Canes need him, rather than the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time Justin Peters, in the starting role.
BOTTOM LINE: It says here these 'Canes will more closely resemble last year's second-half squad and that they'll be in the thick of the hunt.
2009-10: 34-36-12, 80 points, fourth in Southeast
FRESH FACES: GM Steve Yzerman, coach Guy Boucher, Simon Gagne (Philadelphia), Dan Ellis (Montreal), Pavel Kubina (Atlanta), Brett Clark (Colorado), Randy Jones (Los Angeles), Mattias Ritola (Detroit), Dominic Moore (Montreal), Sean Bergenheim (N.Y. Islanders)
OTHER PLACES:Antero Niittymaki (San Jose), Zenon Konopka (NY Islanders), Kurtis Foster (Edmonton), Alex Tanguay (Calgary), Andrej Meszaros (Philadelphia), Matt Walker (Philadelphia), Ryan Craig (Pittsburgh)
STORYLINE: The arrival of Yzerman and Boucher has fans justifiably excited about the future of the franchise. No one would be surprised if this dynamic duo morphs the Lightning into legitimate contenders over the next three or four years. The question is, will either of the current goalies be part of those looming glory days? For all the promises of tomorrow, today's success will rely heavily on Ellis and Mike Smith, a pair of would-be No. 1 stoppers who've never effectively held the position before. Riding alternate hot streaks isn't much of a plan. For this year's side to meet expectations, one of them has to grab the job ... and quickly.
MVP:Steven Stamkos. The league's co-goal scoring champ in just his second season, Stamkos has become the face of the franchise ... and the top target of opposing checkers. That might make it difficult for him to build on those numbers, but if the attention he draws frees up some space for the Vincent Lecavalier/Simon Gagne unit, the team might be better served.
KID TO WATCH:Steve Yzerman. Maybe not in hockey years, but in terms of managerial experience, Yzerman's younger than that E*Trade baby and has a lot to learn on the job. To his credit, he's already impressed with the hiring of Boucher and the trade for Gagne, and he just might know something about Ritola that the Wings didn't. But his best move might have been the repatriation of Kubina. The big defenseman should have an immediate impact on the development of franchise cornerstone Victor Hedman, and it won't hurt their already viable power play to have his heavy shot launched from the point. It'll be fun to see how he plays things as needs become obvious and opportunities present themselves.
KEEP AN EYE ON:Vincent Lecavalier. Why beat around the bush? A shadow of what he once was, Lecavalier barely qualifies as a star in this league anymore. The name value and potential are still there but, dogged by injuries and persistent trade rumors, he's barely registered a blip these past few seasons. He says he's over it and ready to get back to his former greatness, but we've heard that before, right? Still, he seems like an ideal fit for Boucher's system, and he could see more time alongside old running mate Martin St. Louis. Maybe this will be his year after all ...
BOTTOM LINE: They're a sexy pick to move back into playoff position. Look for them to live up to the hype.
2009-10: 35-34-13, 83 points, second in Southeast
FRESH FACES: coach Craig Ramsay, Andrew Ladd (Chicago), Dustin Byfuglien (Chicago), Brent Sopel (Chicago), Ben Eager (Chicago), Chris Mason (St. Louis)
OTHER PLACES:Marty Reasoner (Florida), Colby Armstrong (Toronto), Pavel Kubina (Tampa Bay), Johan Hedberg (New Jersey)
STORYLINE: When the Blackhawks put up the For Sale sign, it was the Thrashers, to their credit, who came calling. Atlanta's room will have a distinctly different feel to it this season, and a little more bling, after new GM Rick Dudley managed to get four members of the Cup champs into Thrasher blue. The question now is, what sort of impact will they have? After all, Dudley didn't import Jonathan Toews or DuncanKeith. The players he brought in were support staff, but each could play a larger role with this rebuilding team, especially the hulking Byfuglien. The staff has decided to play him on defense -- his preferred role -- but don't be surprised to see him take the occasional shift up front to take advantage of his net-crashing skills.
MVP:Zach Bogosian. He hasn't played at this level yet, but it's only a matter of time for the third overall pick from 2008. Bogosian's mix of size, speed, skill and aggression makes him the ideal focal point for Ramsay's aggressive system, and the skillful Ramsay -- a former defender himself -- seems like the right coach to guide the young blueliner past the sophomore slump. Instilling a little more confidence could be the key.
KID TO WATCH:Alexander Burmistrov. It takes an exceptional 18-year-old to make an impact in the NHL ... but one that weighs just 165 pounds? The odds were stacked against a kid who makes Keira Knightley look hefty, but he took advantage of an injury-induced opportunity to earn at least a cup of coffee this season. Burmistrov impressed Ramsay and his staff thanks to his uncanny playmaking and willingness to work in traffic. He's going to be an exciting player for someone this year, but he has to make a quick impression in the regular season if he wants to avoid being relegated back to Barrie.
KEEP AN EYE ON:Ondrej Pavelec. It was widely assumed that Mason would assume the starter's role when he was signed over the summer, but don't rule out the incumbent. Just 23, he's still battling to find some consistency in his game, but when he's on the mark, he can be a game changer. At best, the presence of newcomer Mason will spur him to find that level. At worse, he'll have a chance to learn from a cagey vet who knows how to maximize his talent. Either way, this is a pivotal season for Pavelec.
BOTTOM LINE: The new-look Thrashers should be a bigger, meaner, more competitive bunch, but they haven't done enough to pull away from the peloton. Playing well consistently, and avoiding the slumps that plagued them last season, will be the key to success in 2010-11.
2009-10: 32-37-13, 77 points, fifth in Southeast
FRESH FACES:Dennis Wideman (Boston), Steve Bernier (Vancouver), Chris Higgins (Calgary), Marty Reasoner (Atlanta)
OTHER PLACES:Nathan Horton (Boston), Gregory Campbell (Boston), Keith Ballard (Vancouver), Victor Oreskovich (Vancouver), Jeff Taffe (Chicago)
STORYLINE: When a team hasn't made the playoffs in nine seasons, it's probably time to ask for directions from someone who knows the way. The Panthers hope they've found their man in Dale Tallon, the architect, for the most part, of last year's Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks. He's already seen the wisdom of his ways in Chicago, and looks to be on the same path in South Florida. He's relying on the draft (including three first rounders last June) to help him find the pieces he needs. Can't argue the approach, although it'll require something Florida fans ran out of years ago: patience.
MVP:Tomas Vokoun. There's a widely held belief around the league that the shot scorer at the BankAtlantic center can be a little generous, but still, Vokoun faces a lot of rubber. By stopping most of it (check out that .925 save percentage), he kept the Panthers tight in a lot of games where maybe they didn't belong. Now, as the team around him is improving, their need for him is diminishing. With Jacob Markstrom waiting in the wings, this might be his last hurrah in Sunrise. Expect him to go out on a high note.
KID TO WATCH:Dmitry Kulikov. Bryan McCabe is the main man on the power play, and Wideman can eat up some minutes as well. But a team that finished 29th with the extra man can't afford to stick with the comfortable. That means Kulikov should play a larger role this season. He missed most of the preseason with an injured foot, but should be ready before long. With one pro season under his belt, he's capable of showing off more of the slick offensive game that made him the heart of Drummondville's Memorial Cup squad.
KEEP AN EYE ON:David Booth. Coming off a 31-goal season in 2008-09, big things were expected of Booth last year. He might have delivered too, if not for a vicious blindside hit that left him seriously concussed and limited him to just 28 games. Back to good health now -- or at least, as good as can be expected, considering -- Booth has to rediscover that magic touch around the net if the Panthers hope to improve on an offense that ranked a miserable 28th.
BOTTOM LINE: It's baby steps for the Cats. They'll be more competitive, but the spring sidelines streak will extend to 10.
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