Kukla's Korner Hockey
by Jon Jordan on 02/10/11 at 04:40 PM ET
We’ve said it several times this season – that the Southleast is no more. With 308 combined points in the standings, Tampa Bay, Washington, Carolina, Atlanta and Florida comprise the Eastern Conference’s top division by that standard. Only the Pacific Division (321 points) has had more success as a group this season in the entire league. There’s even a fighting chance that four Southeast Division clubs could make the playoffs.
Suffice it to say, anyone still knocking the hockey played down here in this corner of the continent can be officially discredited. Clearly, anyone in that category hasn’t been paying attention this season.
Beyond team accolades, when the book is closed on the 2010-11 season, the Southeast Division has a legitimate chance for representation in almost every major year-end individual award. Some have sturdier ground to stand on than others in that respect but several individuals from Southeast clubs look to at least be in the conversation for some hardware in Vegas in late June.
Since premature awards speculation has started to heat up at a few other media outlets – always fun to keep tabs on ESPN’s Trophy Tracker but no Tampa Bay love in the Adams race, really? – here’s a list of potential trophy candidates from the Southeast Division, in no particular order.
Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay: Obviously, Stamkos benefits at the injury misfortune of Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby but his production for and overall worth to the Lightning this season would have had him in the discussion anyway. His game has improved in several areas since his share of “Rocket” Richard honors with Crosby a year ago, including becoming a more dynamic goal-scorer than he was during last season’s 51-goal campaign. Case in point, “Stamkos’ spot” at the top of the left circle on the power play (where many swore was the only place the kid scored goals) has been utilized, oh, maybe four or five times this season. Lumping in some intangibles, such as budding leadership qualities and consistent accountability – to himself, teammates and to the media – and the face of the new-era Bolts is not only a bona fide star but a candidate for MVP, no doubt.
Martin St. Louis, Tampa Bay: Stamkos may very well be the face of the Lightning these days but St. Louis has long been the team’s heart – and Hart-worthy, perhaps, as well. He’s the driving force in the locker room and on the ice and, in a category that is all about value, that of Marty St. Louis to the Lightning is immeasurable. He’s shined even during recent down times and has played a vital role in the development of Stamkos over the course of his young career. No one can sell short his 65 points either, a pace that projects for 97 at year’s end, his best since 2006-07 (at 35 years old, no less). Granted, so far as Hart Trophy consideration goes, teammates like St. Louis and Stamkos would probably fragment the voting process enough to hurt the cause for each. Still, both most certainly deserve the mention.
Eric Staal, Carolina: Captain, star player, franchise figurehead, team MVP. In a nutshell, and with all due respect to goalie Cam Ward, that sums up what Eric Staal is to the Carolina Hurricanes. This season has been no different. His numbers (26-28-54) speak for themselves and, for a team that from the onset was going to integrate several young players into the mix this year, Staal’s leadership would be relied upon heavily. That the ‘Canes have meddled their way into the playoff picture should be of no surprise to anyone who saw the late season run they managed last season, despite being crippled by injury. Their current standing is a credit to the coaching staff and the club’s leaders, of which Staal is the most vital piece.
Art Ross Trophy
Stamkos, Tampa Bay: He’s the current leader with 73 points to Daniel Sedin’s 72 in Vancouver and, with Crosby out of the picture (at least for now) and seven points behind, it could very well be down to Stamkos and those pesky Canuck twins. (Daniel leads brother Henrik by five points presently.
St. Louis, Tampa Bay: As long as many of his assists continue to go to Stamkos goals, St. Louis’ shot at this particular piece of hardware is probably limited. That being said, with his 65 points being good for fifth in the league to this point, with the injured Crosby to be passed shortly, in all likelihood and Henrik Sedin just two points ahead, a top-three finish for St. Louis in the Art Ross race is not at all out of the question.
Jeff Skinner, Carolina: Probably the current Calder favorite, Raleigh’s fresh-faced rock star has a seven-point lead over San Jose’s Logan Couture in the rookie scoring race, though Couture does have an edge in the goals department with 24 to Skinner’s 20. Still, with 43 points, good for second among his Hurricanes teammates behind Staal, Skinner’s impact this year has exceeded expectations from the start and he could be well on his way to an esteemed piece of hardware in his debut season. (Insert obligatory Justin Bieber reference here.)
John Carlson, Washington: He’s been on many Calder radars since his stretch run debut with the Caps last year but Carlson has arguably been Washington’s best player overall at times this season – one in which the club has struggled mightily in certain stretches. His plus-13 rating is tops among Washington d-men and the 22:12 in ice time he averages ranks second to Mike Green on the Capital blueline. Having shown a penchant for clutch playoff scoring at both AHL Hershey and in last year’s thrilling United States World Junior Championship win, Carlson’s offensive talents only enhance an overall well-rounded game (and wouldn’t Washington just love some of those same heroics in their second season?) Edging forwards Couture and Skinner may prove difficult for Carlson in the end but he’s a Calder contender for sure.
Jack Adams Award
Craig Ramsay, Atlanta: His club has just two wins in their last 13 contests and four, altogether, in 2011 but under Ramsay, Dustin Byfuglien’s oft-questioned move back to defense has paid amazing dividends, Ondrej Pavelec has become a force in goal, young players have shined and the Thrashers are still just a point shy of a playoff position. All of this in their first full season without the services of Ilya Kovalchuk. Imagine that.
Guy Boucher, Tampa Bay: Intense doesn’t begin to describe the Lightning’s first year coach, though that’s usually where one would start. Big improvements were expected in Tampa but few, if any (okay none, at least publicly anyway), would have put the Bolts second in the Eastern Conference approaching mid-February. None, that is, except maybe Boucher, who is self-admittedly never satisfied, explaining the constant push for improvement and repeated assertions that, “We’ll be better”. It was evident that the team bought into Boucher’s system and ideology immediately and the Lightning are now in position to shoot for far more this season than most predicted.
Dustin Byfuglien, Atlanta: Even if he doesn’t crack the list of Norris finalists come awards time, “Big Buff” and Thrashers’ brass have to take some serious satisfaction out of the year he’s having. Byfuglien leads all Eastern Conference defensemen in points with 42 and d-men league wide in goals with 17. Prior to scoring in Toronto on Monday, he had endured a 13-game pointless streak. Before that, however, Byfuglien had only gone more than a game without at least one point twice this year. An even plus/minus rating on a team 21 goals on the bad side of zero this season helps prove it isn’t just offense that has made Byfuglien’s return to the blueline a success.
Tobias Enstrom, Atlanta: It’s a shame that Byfuglien’s Atlanta teammate was unable to make All-Star Weekend in Raleigh because he undoubtedly deserved to be there. Second to Byfuglien among Thrasher scoring leaders, the smallish Enstrom more than holds his own with much larger opposing forwards on a consistent basis. Despite missing some time recently with a finger injury, Enstrom is on track for a career year in points and has already bested his previous career best in goals with eight this season. Atlanta has missed his presence in their lineup but his return is said to be very close.
Stamkos, Tampa Bay: More or less, it’s his to lose and, this time, his to call all his own. Sans a healthy Crosby, Vancouver’s Ryan Kesler is Stamkos’ closest competition in the race for “The Rocket” and, as good a season as Kesler is having, it would be hard to fathom him overtaking the Lightning’s go-to goal-scorer. Projections from #StamkosMath, which appeared so lofty through much of the season, now forecast a goal total of just under 60 for Stamkos. Not bad at all for a kid that just celebrated his 21st birthday.
Some love for the goalies before we wrap, although Vezina and Jennings honors appear to be in the destinies of others:
Tomas Vokoun has been his steady self for Florida, though whether he remains in Sunrise once March hits is still up in the air. The tandem of Semyon Varlamov and Michael Neuvirth has done the job, by and large, for Washington and the latter would probably garner some Calder attention, were his numbers during his counterpart’s absence to injury extrapolated over the course of a full season. Pavelec in Atlanta has answered questions about consistency admirably (helping to coin the term Pavelectric, with an assist to agent Allan Walsh on Twitter). Carolina’s Ward leads all Southeast netminders in wins with 23 and Dwayne Roloson appears, at least for the relative short-term, to be the long awaited answer to Tampa Bay’s goaltending prayers.
Collectively, the performance of the Southeast Division teams this season has been impressive.
With a few things falling in its favor, the division may make its impression felt on individual honors before all is said and done as well.
Filed in: NHL Teams, Atlanta Thrashers, Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, | KK Hockey | Permalink
Tags: craig+ramsay, daniel+sedin, dustin+byfuglien, eric+staal, guy+boucher, henrik+sedin, jeff+skinner, john+carlson, logan+couture, martin+st.+louis, nhl+awards, ryan+kesler, steven+stamkos, tobias+enstrom
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