Kukla's Korner Hockey
by Jon Jordan on 12/08/10 at 03:54 PM ET
We’re past the quarter pole, so maybe this is a bit late but it still seems like a good time to me to hand out some assessments to all five Southeast Division clubs. Besides, what’s this quarter pole anyway? Divide the NHL season in equal fours and the resting #StamkosMath calculator tells me that we’d have to stop things at the ten-minute mark of each team’s 21st game of the year to truly be one quarter of the way through. And that just seems troubling.
We’ll go with JJ Ratings rather than the standard report cards because one, everyone else seems to do the report card thing and two, handing out school-type grades gives me terrible nightmares. (Trust me.) Instead, each club’s JJ Rating will reflect their performance on a scale of one to ten (and, since I’ve become a big fan of complicating things, we’ll allow for partial points as well).
Here we are, anywhere from 26-29 games into the 2010-11 slate for the Southeast squads – as good a time as any (maybe just because I say so) to see where we are versus where we thought we’d be, as well as where we might be headed.
We’ll tackle this alphabetically (Ooh… Suspense!)
15-10-3, 33 points
3rd, Southeast Division; 7th, Eastern Conference
Surprises: Along with many others, I questioned the Thrashers’ decision to return Dustin Byfuglien to his natural position on defense. After last year’s playoff production at forward Chicago, it just didn’t seem like Atlanta would be best utilizing his size and skill set in doing so. Assured by those in the know early this year that the move was no short-term experiment – that Thrashers’ brass had every intention of making this work for the long haul – “Big Buff” on defense was accepted as reality and, man, has it ever worked out as Byfuglien’s 10 goals and 29 points lead all NHL defensemen. (Yet another in a long series of “What the hell do I know?” moments for yours truly.)
Saw This Coming: In my season preview for Atlanta, I called Evander Kane their breakout player and thought 20+ goals this year would be a reasonable target. With nine tallies in 26 games already, he’s on pace for about 27.
Lean on Me: After a scary fainting incident on opening night, goaltender Ondrej Pavelec has rebounded in fine fashion, giving Atlanta the consistency in goal they had hoped for from him. A 1.71 goals-against average and .947 save percentage rank only behind the superhuman efforts of Tim Thomas in Boston to this point in the season.
Trouble Spots: If this was supposed to be the year that Nik Antropov proved his mettle as a true first-line center, it hasn’t exactly gone as planned. With 14 points in 27 games, he’s on track for a 40-something finish – nowhere near top-line production. And Bryan Little, who had 31 goals and 51 points in 2008-09, is looking only slightly better than the 13-21-34 player from a year ago.
Last Year at This Time: 15-10-3, 33 points; 2nd, Southeast Division; 6th, Eastern Conference
Long Term Outlook: Atlanta seems to be on the upswing, 8-2 in their last ten and, seemingly, really buying in to what head coach Craig Ramsay is selling after somewhat of a slow start. Of course, they were without Pavelec early on and his phenomenal goaltending has been a real spark for the team. If that keeps up and if they can get some more production from a few struggling forwards, they’ll make the playoff push I expected before the season – a few breaks here or there and they might just make the dance outright.
JJ Rating: 8.2
11-12-3, 25 points
4th, Southeast Division; 11th, Eastern Conference
Surprises: Rookie forward Jeff Skinner has been outstanding from the start and, while he was expected to contribute, his eight-goal, 20-point performance has him in the thick of the race for Calder Trophy honors and, here anyway, that wasn’t expected from the league’s youngest player.
Saw This Coming: In my ‘Canes season preview, I spoke of their reliance on youth forecasting both promise and peril and that’s pretty much what’s happened thus far. Carolina has had moments of greatness amid inconsistency, which is what growing with youngsters is all about. Skinner’s been great but others have struggled. That Drayson Bowman, for instance, has spent twice as much time in AHL Charlotte as he has with the parent Hurricanes and Zach Boychuk (who I targeted for a breakout), the entire year thus far is disappointing, to say the least.
Lean on Me: The face of the franchise, Eric Staal, has been his dependable self. As captain, that’s exactly what he should be. And, as the club’s leading scorer, he’s primed for a 30-goal, 80-point season for the first time since 2007-08.
Trouble Spots: Last year’s bugaboo – a crippling rash of injuries – has not been a major issue so far, as Carolina has managed to stay relatively healthy as a group. Instead, it’s the lack of consistency that comes with a young squad that keeps the Hurricanes from gaining any ground in the standings. They’ve put together no more than two consecutive wins through 26 games. The flip side to this, however, is that they’re treading water sufficiently, as opposed to drowning – a very good sign for a team that proved capable of hanging in there far longer than most expected them to just last year.
Last Year at This Time: 5-16-5, 15 points; 5th, Southeast Division; 15th, Eastern Conference
Long Term Outlook: For me, that the Hurricanes have avoided any lengthy losing streak to this point is a good sign, as I said before, that they’re likely to hang around once again, as they did last year despite 300+ man games lost to injury. That’s a credit to their coaching staff and to the leaders on their club. Still, I’m not seeing enough to get this team up and over Atlanta in the division, and certainly not beyond that, where one could start talking playoff potential. It’s a building year and there’s much to be excited about down the road.
JJ Rating: 7.0
12-14-0, 24 points
5th, Southeast Division; 12th, Eastern Conference
Surprises: Forward Mike Santorelli, plucked from the Nashville Predators in the off-season, has contributed seven goals for Florida this year, good for a share of the team lead with David Booth. Folks in the organization might tell you differently, but I don’t think many were expecting a 22-goal pace from Santorelli, despite the Northern Michigan alumnus going 20-plus at the AHL level three times. The defense corps has been far better than I expect, personally, helping their goaltenders keep the Panthers consistently competitive.
Saw This Coming: They’re not at the bottom of the barrel, offensively, as my pre-season prediction suggested, but Florida still isn’t scoring enough on a regular basis. Eastern Conference playoff clubs are averaging about 86 goals-for at present, and the Panthers have tallied just 68 times. In my season preview, I spoke of reclamation projects in Steve Bernier and Chris Higgins having to regain prior form to boost Florida’s offensive production and, to this point, they’ve managed six goals combined. (In fairness, Bernier’s been hurt but I’m sure Panther management was expecting more than a goal shy of Santorelli’s totals so far from these two – together.)
Lean on Me: Goaltender Tomas Vokoun remains Florida’s backbone, though the defense in front of him has done a better job of keeping shot totals down than in years past (averaging a tick less than 30 per game). That said, it still seems only a matter of time (as in the trade deadline) before Vokoun ends up between the pipes for some other NHL club, with an expiring contract and Jacob Markstrom waiting in the wings at AHL Rochester. To his credit, when asked to spell Vokoun, Scott Clemmensen has also been steady.
Trouble Spots: It’s all about the offense. No Panther has reached double-digit goal numbers yet and Booth’s 16 points (a 50-point projection) is a paltry pace for a team’s leading scorer. Credit the defense and goaltending for keeping the goal differential to just minus-1 but it’s hard to imagine that lasting forever.
Last Year at This Time: 10-12-4, 24 points; 4th, Southeast Division; 13th, Eastern Conference
Long Term Outlook: I hate to be that guy but, to me, Panther fans should be more interested in what GM Dale Tallon might get in return for Vokoun and others (Bryan McCabe and Cory Stillman come to mind) than what their playoff potential might be. This year, the latter isn’t promising. In the years ahead, however…
JJ Rating: 6.4
Tampa Bay Lightning
15-10-3, 33 points
2nd, Southeast Division; 7th, Eastern Conference
Surprises: Grinding forward Nate Thompson is becoming a fan favorite in Tampa and it’s been said that he so closely resembles what head coach Guy Boucher looks for in a player that teammates have taken to calling him “Nate Boucher”. What’s surprising about Thompson this season, however, is not that the fans and the coach have become so enamored with the player – the hardhat type, which Thompson epitomizes, is often well-liked – but the offensive contributions the former Islander has been able to make thus far. He won’t win any scoring titles but four goals and 11 points this season are already career highs. [Side note, on the negative side of things: While researching, the defensively reliable Dominic Moore’s team-low minus-15 rating surprised the hell out of me. So, there you go – impartiality at its best.]
Saw This Coming: We’ll keep this simple, with a snippet from my Lightning season preview: “… Goaltending is a weakness until proven otherwise. In an ideal situation, each netminder finds their ‘A’ game early and hangs onto it for the long haul. Waiting around for one or the other to rise to the top for any length of time is no recipe for success.” While the Bolts have had their fair share of success despite shakiness in net, it’s the whole waiting around for one or the other to rise to the top thing that remains a concern. Neither Dan Ellis nor Mike Smith has been able to overtake the other as a clear-cut number one and the statistics alone dictate that the 1/1A scenario isn’t panning out. More on that later…
Lean on Me: Last season, Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos carried the Tampa Bay offense. This year, it’s much of the same, with these two accounting for roughly 37% of the Lightning’s goals through 28 games. They’re getting contribution throughout the lineup, with only three full-timers sans a goal on the season – and all of them defensemen – but a jolt in the secondary scoring department could send this team into the offensive stratosphere and, with Simon Gagne now back in the lineup and Steve Downie and Vincent Lecavalier returning eventually, maybe that happens somewhere down the road. Until then, it’s all about 26 and 91 for the Bolts and, with a combined 74 points so far, no one’s complaining.
Trouble Spots: It starts with the goaltending and the argument against, as I hear incessantly on The Bolts Beat from my staunch-defender-of-the-team-at-all-costs co-host, Mike Corcoran, is that Ellis and Smith have been good enough to this point to have the team in a playoff position. Mehhh… My quick response is that their 86 goals-for has far more to do with their current standing than does their league-high (league-high!) 98 against. Down the stretch, it will simply have to be far better if a playoff spot is to be any sure thing. (And certainly, if this team does get into the post-season, 3.5 goals against per game won’t do.) Problem is, there’s little that can be done in this department. Neither Cedrick Desjardins nor Dustin Tokarski at AHL Norfolk is NHL-ready and it looks as though trade options for a netminder will be limited at best. (High-dollar adds such as Vokoun – a division rival, remember – aren’t likely.) Patience has been preached with Ellis and Smith and that will remain the course as far as these eyes can see. Elsewhere, how about a goal from the defense every now and then? Brett Clark has five (four from a rover-esque position on the power play), Victor Hedman two and Pavel Kubina one but, after that, zilch… And Mattias Ohlund, though it isn’t exactly his forte, has now gone 94 regular season games without a goal.
Last Year at This Time: 11-9-8, 30 points; 3rd, Southeast Division; 8th, Eastern Conference
Long Term Outlook: This team has enough firepower alone, especially when everyone is healthy, to get into the playoffs. That, on its own though, should never be the goal. And even with the idea of significant improvement at season’s end in mind, when the potential for more is there, it would be a shame not to reach out and grab it. That being said, goaltending issues need to rectify themselves at some point. Aside from that, the eventual return of Lecavalier will have my undivided attention. It seems like forever since the Lightning captain was a dominant player in this league and how much he contributes in the latter half of the season could be a key leading indicator as to where his career is headed. Lightning brass can talk until they’re blue in the face about how well-rounded his game has looked at times this season and how they want to change the way he plays (perhaps, as some have suggested, similar to GM Steve Yzerman’s transformation from a dominant goal-scorer into a premier two-way pivot during his career). Call me crazy but I’m just not seeing that sort of evolution for Vinny. To get anything even close to value out of his mammoth contract, to me, the Lightning need Lecavalier to produce goals and points – and a lot of them. But, again, “What the hell do I know?”
JJ Rating: 8.3
18-8-3, 39 points
1st, Southeast Division; 2nd, Eastern Conference
Surprises: Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov have been very good in goal for Washington and that I’m calling as much a surprise shouldn’t be taken at any sign of disrespect toward the pair. By and large, the young goaltending tandem was looked at as a potential weakness for the Caps and, to their credit, they’ve done a fine job in dispelling just that. Whether that holds true in the long run (and, especially, in the playoffs) remains to be seen. Now then, as I say, “What’s up with Alex Ovechkin?” realize, Caps fans, that it’s probably a good thing to wonder what’s wrong with your team’s superstar player when he’s on a 99-point pace. Still, Ovechkin’s 12 goals are lagging significantly behind his traditional 55-goal expectations. In and of itself, that’s surprising, no?
Saw This Coming: Simply stated, where the Capitals are right now in the standings, at least in terms of the division, is where most of us thought they’d be. Where they’ll be at year’s end is just the same, in all likelihood. The big question marks for this team loom thereafter, when the playoffs hit. No one in the division (sorry, Tampa) has shown enough to pose a threat to Washington’s reign at the top… And that wasn’t very difficult to predict either.
Lean on Me: Defenseman Mike Green has lost five games to injury this season and, quite frankly, his team is not the same without him. Their power play, especially, looked lost at times without its undisputed quarterback. Green has taken his share of criticism over his defensive prowess through the years but his value to the Caps cannot be understated. Alexander Semin has stepped up as a go-to goal-scorer this season and has been a force against the Tampa Bay Lightning, in particular, scoring a natural hat trick in each of the two meetings between the Southeast’s top two teams this year.
Trouble Spots: As dominant as Washington is at home (12-2-2), they’re pretty drab on the road (6-6-1). For now, settled in comfortably at second in the conference, this is no major cause for concern but as the season wears on, the Capitals will want to impose their will away from Verizon Center as well. (And, again, in the playoffs… Well, you get it…)
Last Year at This Time: 18-5-6, 42 points; 1st, Southeast Division; 1st, Eastern Conference
Long Term Outlook: The Lightning may push them at times (though they have much to prove head-to-head after being outscored 12-3 in two games so far), as might the Thrashers, drastically improved as they appear to be lately but, as we’ve said all along, the Capitals are still the division kings. The Southeast is theirs and the conference could still be too, though the Pittsburgh Penguins clearly have something to say for that. Their focus must remain throughout the regular season, however, because if it’s as easy as it is for folks like me to realize that, for the Caps, it’s all about playoff performance after last season’s disappointment, you can bet they have that firmly implanted in the back of their own minds as well.
JJ Rating: 9.1
Santa Claus is now following me on Twitter.
I just thought everyone should know that.
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