Steven Stamkos and Karl Alzner fight for the puck along the boards. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/NHLI via Getty Images)
THN pre-season prediction: 11th in East.
Scoring leaders: Dustin Byfuglien, 41; Tobias Enstrom, 38; Andrew Ladd, 36.
Key stat: Atlanta is led in scoring by two defensemen and has the second-highest scoring defense corps (112 points) in the NHL behind Detroit (120).
Biggest surprise: Has to be Byfuglien. No one could have predicted he’d become such a dynamic scorer from the blueline. As of right now, he’s the favorite for the Norris Trophy. Anthony Stewart (10-16-26) is surprise No. 2.
Biggest disappointment: Nik Antropov was brought in as a free agent in 2009 to be a No. 1 or 2 center. But his numbers – and his ice time – have plummeted. Recently he could be found playing right wing on the fourth line.
What to expect: Who knows? There has been no bigger overall surprise in the East (excluding New Jersey’s freefall) and with a young blueline and netminder in Ondrej Pavelec, the bloom could come off the rose at any time. A 3-5-2 mark in their past 10 may portend an ominous end to the season, but assuming the Thrashers stay in the playoff race, expect GM Rick Dudley to be shopping for some more scoring punch up front to take the pressure off the team’s young forwards.
THN pre-season prediction: 9th in East
Scoring leaders: Eric Staal, 42; Tuomo Ruutu, 34; Jeff Skinner, 33
Key stat: Carolina’s 43.3 faceoff percentage is the worst in the league, a contributing factor to the NHL’s No. 20 and 24 power play and penalty-killing units.
Biggest surprise: Rookie Jeff Skinner is the favorite along with Colorado defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and San Jose center Logan Couture for rookie of the year honors. Skinner leads all first year players in points.
Biggest disappointment: Center Brandon Sutter looked to be ready for a breakout season after posting 21 goals and 40 points last year. But he’s on pace to take a major step back statistically and has been dropped to third-line duty.
What to expect: More of the same. Carloina is bringing along its younger players slowly. Zach Boychuk, Zac Dalpe, Jamie McBain and Skinner are the future of the franchise and GM Jim Rutherford and coach Paul Maurice are making sure to get them ice time without too much pressure. Goaltender Cam Ward has been healthy all season and is proving himself to be world-class. If the special teams can improve, the Canes could push for a playoff spot. But don’t expect Rutherford to do anything too risky come deadline time. He’s a shrewd judge of talent and not afraid to become a seller when straddling the playoff line, rather than making hasty moves to try to nab the No. 8 spot.
THN Pre-season prediction: 15th in East
Scoring leaders: Stephen Weiss, 29; Michael Frolik, 26; David Booth, 24.
Key stat: The Panthers are nearing historical lows with the man advantage. Operating at just 10.6 percent, Florida has scored just 15 times in 142 extra-man opportunities.
Biggest surprise: It’s not surprising that goalie Tomas Vokoun is playing well, but second in the league in shutouts and top 10 in save percentage despite facing 30 shots per game on a bad team has him in the Vezina Trophy discussion. The UFA-to-be is setting himself up to be the player to watch come trade deadline.
Biggest disappointment: It was hoped Booth would bounce back from his near decapitation at the hands of Mike Richards, but that hasn’t really happened. After 31 goals and 60 points two seasons ago, he’s on pace for about 24 goals and 48 points.
What to expect: Not the playoffs. Despite sitting last in the division with little hope of moving up, there are reasons to smile in Florida. Weiss, Booth and other holdovers from the previous regime may never be the stars Cats fans hoped for, but GM Dale Tallon has a stable of junior prospects – Erik Gudbranson, Nick Bjugstad, Quinton Howden, etc. – and young pros – Jacob Markstrom, Dmitry Kulikov, Evgeny Dadonov – to build around. Players such as Vokoun, Bryan McCabe and even Cory Stillman also should net some futures come deadline day.
THN Pre-season prediction: 7th in East
Scoring leaders: Steven Stamkos, 57; Martin St-Louis, 53; Ryan Malone, 32.
Key stat: Tampa is eighth in penalty killing at 84.5 percent. For all the talk of a lethal power play, the penalty kill has been more important to team success.
Biggest surprise: Simon Gagne’s horrible play. He’s been dogged by injuries, sure, but eight points and a minus-20 mark in 26 games?
Biggest disappointment: The work of goalies Mike Smith and Dan Ellis. GM Steve Yzerman was hoping some friendly competition for starts would spur both to bigger and better play, but the opposite has been true, so much so that Yzerman had to go out and acquire 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson.
What to expect: With the ageless Roloson patrolling the crease, expect Tampa to get back on the right side of the goals-for vs. goals-against ledger (they are currently minus-6 in that category). Yzerman has said he won’t sacrifice the future for the present, so don’t expect too much in the way of deadline acquisitions – another blueliner or two would help, though. But assuming the continued good health of Stamkos and St-Louis, there’s no reason the Lightning won’t continue to push for the division crown and a top-three seed in the East. Don’t expect them to actually win the Southeast - more likely they’re a No. 5 or 6 seed. But if Washington falters, the Lightning will be there to take what’s given to them.
THN pre-season prediction: 1st in East
Scoring leaders: Alex Ovechkin, 45; Nicklas Backstrom, 39; Alex Semin, 35.
Key stat: The Caps have gone from 16th in goals-against per game last season to eighth this year, a sign they’re playing a game more conducive to post-season success.
Biggest surprise: Ovechkin is on pace for the worst statistical season of his career; 27 goals would be 19 fewer than his career low of 46. His bullish approach to the game hasn’t been there this year, which suggests a nagging injury.
Biggest disappointment: Age finally looks to be catching up to Mike Knuble, 38; he’s on pace to miss the 20-goal mark for the first time since 2001-02.
What to expect: Washington is playing a stingier game, but can still bring it offensively. A veteran netminder would be a big help as insurance in case Semyon Varlamov and/or Michal Neuvirth falter, as would another veteran on the blueline to help mentor youngsters John Carlson and Karl Alzner. No matter what, if Ovechkin can regain his health and scoring touch, the Caps are still one of the teams to beat in the East. Expect them to win the Southeast rather handily and be better prepared for the playoffs than in years past.
THN Puck Panel – Breaking down the Southeast and Central Divisions
EDITOR: Mark Gougeon | PRODUCER: Ted Cooper
THN's mid-season reports will run two a day from Jan. 12-14.
John Grigg is the assignment editor with The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his blog appearing on the weekend.
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