November 24, 2014

CAPS: 2012-13 Southeast Division Preview

With the lockout-shortened season upon us, there have been a few additions and subtractions to a Washington Capitals roster that finished second place in the Southeast Division a season ago. Similarly, there are a few new faces elsewhere in the division, and new expectations for each team. District Sports Page provides a primer for the remainder of the Southeast Division and offers its predictions for how things will pan out.

Carolina Hurricanes
Last season: 33-33-16, 82 pts, 5th Southeast Division, 12th Eastern Conference
Head Coach: Kirk Muller
Key Additions: Alexander Semin, Jordan Staal, Marc-Andre Gragnani, Joe Corvo
Key Losses: Brandon Sutter, Bryan Allen

Last year, a slow start doomed the employment of then-Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice and were never able to recover, finishing last place in the Southeast Division, 12 points out of the division lead.

Nonetheless, under new head coach Kirk Muller the ‘Canes played inspired hockey. Captain Eric Staal (24 goals, 46 assists, 70 points) overcame a horrendous +/- to lead the team in goals, assists, and points. The veteran Staal had as many assists as the next highest scorer, Jussi Jokinen, had total points.

For many years, Staal has been a one-man show in Raleigh. The development of young phenom Jeff Skinner has improved things, and this season GM Jeff Rutherford has added a pair of offensive studs: Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin. Washington Capitals fans are well acquainted with Semin, who plied his trade in D.C. for seven seasons before signing a one-year, $7 million deal in Carolina. In recent years Semin has disappointed, but Rutherford is hoping to get the 40-goal scorer of 2009-10, not the 21-goal scorer of 2011-12.

Jordan Staal, formerly of the Pittsburgh Penguins, is also a familiar face in Washington. Due a huge contract, Staal was dealt over the offseason to the Hurricanes, who inked him to an extension for 10 seasons and $60 million. Both Staal and Semin are top six forwards, adding legitimate scoring options to a roster that finished in the bottom half of the NHL in goals and power play percentage last season.

In general, Carolina looks to be a much stronger offensive team in 2012-13, swapping out steady defensive-minded players in Brandon Sutter and Bryan Allen in favor of Semin, Jordan Staal, and defensemen Joe Corvo and Marc-Andre Gragnani. If goaltender Cam Ward plays well the Hurricanes will certainly qualify for a playoff berth, and a return to potential by both Ward and Semin will see the ‘Canes in the top half of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket.

Florida Panthers
Last season: 38-26-18, 94 pts, 1st Southeast Division, 3rd Eastern Conference
Head Coach: Kevin Dineen
Key Additions: Filip Kuba, Peter Mueller
Key Losses: Jason Garrison, Wojtek Wolski, Mikael Samuelsson

Chances are few people even in the Panthers organization expected this squad to win a division title in 2011-12. After years of mediocrity GM Dale Tallon completely overhauled the squad, and his ragtag bunch captured the Southeast Division on the strength of the shootout. Florida only won seven games in overtime or the shootout, but the 18 games they lost after the end of regulation provided just enough of a margin to keep them ahead of the Caps when the season closed.

Florida’s biggest revelation on the ice was Tomas Fleischmann, the erstwhile Capital whose four-year, $18 million dollar contract was mocked until he responded with a 27 goal, 34 assist campaign was a career best. More importantly, after missing significant time for blood clots in his legs, Flash played in all 82 games for the first time in his career.

Also surprising on the ice for the Cats was the emergence of perhaps the best offensive defense pairing in Brian Campbell (4 goals, 49 assists) and Jason Garrison (16 goals, 17 assists). Garrison has since departed for a hefty free agent contract in Vancouver, and shootout specialist Wojtek Wolski is now on Washington’s roster.

In free agent signing Peter Mueller, Tallon hopes to strike gold again with a new addition to the roster. After missing all of 2010-11 and 50 games of 2011-12 with a concussion, Mueller likely benefited from the extra recovery time due to the lockout. He scored 22 goals in his rookie season with Phoenix but has only potted 33 goals in 173 games since.

On paper, this squad looks like a marginal playoff team, not a division winner. Then again, the same was true last season. There’s no way they get quite so lucky when it comes to the loser point from extra play in 2012-13, so look for them to be a bubble playoff team come April.

Tampa Bay Lightning
Last season: 38-38-8, 84 pts, 3rd Southeast Division, 10th Eastern Conference
Head Coach: Guy Boucher
Key Additions: Anders Lindback, Sami Salo, Matt Carle
Key Losses: Dwayne Roloson

Shrewd offseason moves position the Lightning to be a Southeast Division contender in 2012-13. Adding two defensemen and a goalie aren’t particularly flashy pickups, but combined with no losses of note, this is a dangerous roster. Tampa Bay returns its top 12 point scorers from last year, including the best goal scorer in the league, 22-year-old Steven Stamkos (60 goals, 37 assists).

Tampa Bay finished ninth in the NHL and tops in the Southeast in goals, averaging 2.83 goals a game. That was more than offset, however, by allowing a league-worst 3.39 goals/game. In 2010-11, 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson was a revelation in net, backstopping the Lightning to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Finals. In 2011-12, 42-year-old Roloson (3.66 GAA, .886 Sv%) was a trainwreck, finishing in 45th place, dead last, in Goals Against Average and Save Percentage for goalies who played at least 25 games. By the end of the season he ceded the job to Mathieu Garon, whose 2.85 GAA and .901 Sv% were both outside the top 37 for goalies.

This season Roloson is still an unrestricted free agent and reinforcements have arrived in the form of 24-year-old goalie Anders Lindback, whose massive 6’6” frame was stuck behind workhorse netminder Pekka Rinne in Nashville the past two seasons, as well as defensemen Sami Salo and Matt Carle. At this point in his career Lindback is mostly potential with very little proven, but at the least he represents a new direction for Tampa’s netminding.

Salo, formerly of Vancouver, brings necessary pop to Tampa Bay’s stagnant power play, which was 25th in the league at 15.2% rate. He slots into the Lightning’s second defensive pairing, while Carle, a 28-year-old who was part of Philadelphia’s dominating defense the past four seasons, should form a stifling shutdown pairing that will rival Washington’s Karl Alzner and John Carlson for effectiveness.

Of the three teams stuck in the bottom of the Southeast last year, Tampa Bay is most likely to make the leap to the top of the division. If Lindback or Garon can prove to be serviceable NHL starters, the Lightning will be sitting pretty in the division. If not, it’ll be another wasted season for Stamkos down in Florida.

Winnipeg Jets
Last season: 37-35-10, 84 pts, 4th Southeast Division, 11th Eastern Conference
Head Coach: Claude Noel
Key Additions: Olli Jokinen, Alexei Ponikarovsky
Key Losses: Chris Mason

At one point in the CBA talks, rumor was that the league would swap Winnipeg out of the Southeast Division in favor of Columbus, just for 2013 season, to alleviate travel concerns. Sadly for Ted Leonsis’s pocketbook that never came to pass, so the Caps will be making at least a handful of cross-country flights to play the Jets.

For almost the entire 2011-12 season Winnipeg battled Washington for one of the last spots in the Eastern Conference playoff field, the Jets falling just short while the Caps snuck into the seventh spot. Forward Evander Kane built a reputation as a new Cap-killer, with three goals and one assist, including a game-winning goal, in six games.

The Jets, like the Lightning, made a significant addition without much in the way of subtraction. Olli Jokinen was the top center available from an admittedly weak class at that position, and the Caps are well-acquainted with him from his time with the Panthers. Backup goaltender Chris Mason is gone, putting more pressure on the shoulders of Ondrej Pavelec, who inked a five-year contract extension over the summer prior to becoming a restricted free agent. Last season Pavelec played a career high 68 games, recording a 29-28-0-9 record.

Former Cap Eric Fehr, who had a disappointing two-goal, one-assist season cut short by continued shoulder injuries. Fehr, a Manitoba native, was the type of good-vibes story the Jets were looking for last season in the NHL’s return to Winnipeg. With a year under their belt the team is now just an organization with a five-year playoff drought. The Jets got a little bit stronger this offseason, but so did the rest of the division. Most importantly, the shortened season and therefore the division-only schedule will crush Winnipeg, who will have to fly across the continent for every road game this season. That will be too much to overcome and will see the Jets finish at the bottom of the Southeast, though not in the dregs of the Eastern Conference.

Abram Fox is the Washington Capitals Page Editor for District Sports Page.  He has been covering the Capitals from the press box since the 2007-08 season.

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