SEASON PREVIEW:  Part 1
EASTERN CONFERENCE

SOUTHEAST DIVISION
 

"Money was never a big motivation for me, except as a way to keep score. The real excitement is playing the game."

- Donald Trump -

     March 13th, 2004.  One year, 5 months, 3 weeks and one day ago today.

     That's the last time I wrote a column on NHL hockey.  Yes, we're talking about pre-lockout.  Many of you have e-mailed me to make sure I was still around, and I thank you all for it.  So why the long silence?  Why did I not chime in with my take on the entire situation?  There are a few reasons, but mainly, because I had nothing new to offer.  The coverage of the lockout by the mainstream media was, for the lack of a better expression, much ado about nothing.  How many times were we expected to read that both sides met behind closed doors, and no deal was announced yet?  I got bored of the whole situation, and found better things to do with my time than wait around, hoping the news would change.  I had the pleasure of discovering that life goes on without hockey (thank you poker home games!).  While life is certainly more fun WITH hockey, the game is not the end-all of all things.  I guess that's the lesson to learn in all this.  The NHL better step up and offer something exciting, because I didn't suffer through the longest lockout in sports history with all the other fans for naught.  We've been patient, we're back on board, but we expect SOMETHING in return.  We expect a game that will get us excited again.  So far, the NHL has delivered, as I can't remember the last time so many fans have been this pumped up and about the upcoming season.  The radio call-in shows are flooded with hockey calls, the internet message boards are ripe with rumors and predictions.  Even  a certain blogger has made a name for himself.  Eklund the blogger is more popular than Eklund the player ever was !  So some good came of all this, with more to come, if we are to believe Gary Bettman.  Judging by the new CBA and the new found parity in the league, I don't see a reason not to.  Teams like Pittsburgh and Edmonton no longer have to be victims to their finances.  Teams like Toronto and the New York Rangers no longer can buy their way out of trouble.  A level playing field... who would've thought it was possible?

     That's all I've got to say on the matter.  Now, let's get down to business!  What can you expect from uLAr Takes this season?  A few things.  First off, a new picture for the column.  While I am still a proud Devils fan, since it's a new era I figure the new NHL logo will never look better than with my mug plastered in front of it!  Also, due to the popularity of blogs, I've decided to borrow a bit from the format and add a few links to each of my columns.  Hopefully they can turn some of you onto some pretty decent related sites out there.  The quote that serves as theme to my column remains, as well as my trademark "Randumb Thoughts", my humorous view on the game.  Since my Quiz was so popular in my last column, I've decided to add some trivia in "Take 5" at the end of each uLAr Takes columns.  Good luck to all of you, they are not going to be easy.

     So with all of that out of the way, let's get on with the Season Preview.  I've decided to take each division one at a time since I want to do a team-by-team account, which requires quite a bit of research and time.  I don't mind putting in the work for my loyal readers, as long as you make sure to check back every Sunday, as I will be posting a new division each week, hopefully by Sunday evening.  And now, allow me to present, the uLAr Take on the 2005-06 Southeast Division teams, complete with new faces, notable losses (including some players that moved during the off-season), and key players that remain unsigned by their respective teams (note, this does not include ALL players teams have left to sign, only key RESTRICTED Free Agents):

SOUTHEAST DIVISION

uLAr's Forecasted Standings
1 TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
2 FLORIDA PANTHERS
3

ATLANTA THRASHERS

4 CAROLINA HURRICANES
5 WASHINGTON CAPITALS

ATLANTA THRASHERS
Key Additions:
Marian Hossa, Greg DeVries, Bobby Holik, Mike Dunham
Notable Departures:
Dany Heatley (OTT), Shawn McEachern (BOS)
Need To Sign:
  Ilya Kovalchuk
THE SKINNY:  Atlanta had an amazing start last season, ran out of gas in the second half and fell short of making their first post-season appearance.  They finished 2nd in the Southeast Division, but that wasn't good enough to make the playoffs.  This year, 2nd in the Division may be good enough to secure a spot, but I'm not entirely sure that's where Thrashers will end up.  The Thrashers lost two of their top scorers in McEachern & Heatley, but they added a dangerous Marian Hossa, who's been amongst the league's top 10 goal scorers the past 2 seasons and is one of the most explosive wingers in the NHL.  Hossa has yet to reach his full potential, and that's just a scary fact to consider!  If Bobby Holik can find his old dominant self, he will play an important role in making a push for the playoffs by keeping pressure for top spot in the division.  Ilya Kovalchuk remains unsigned, but the Thrashers have lots of money available to ink him to a long-term deal, and they are too smart to let him go.  Kovalchuk shared the Rocket Richard Trophy last season and should make the highlight reels on many nights again this year.  Goaltending is solid with Hurme (who missed all of last season recovering from a back operation) and Nurminen (who took the starting job away from Byron Dafoe last season) backing up Mike Dunham.  Dunham was one of the only bright spots on many nights for the Rangers last season, and is a great addition to this team.  The only weakness is on the blue line.  While DeVries was a superb acquisition, the rest of the defensemen are inexperienced and unproven.  As a matter of fact, you'd be hard-pressed to name 3 of them on this roster!  Still, head coach Bob Hartley seems to get the most out of players and should help the Thrashers continue to improve, and perhaps lead them to their first ever playoff appearance.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
Key Additions: 
Sean Burke, Rob DiMaio, Vaclav Prospal
Notable Departures:
  Nikolai Khabibulin (CHI), Brad Lukowich(NYI), Jamie Storr (PHI), André Roy (PIT), Ben Clymer (WSH), Cory Stillman (CAR)
Need To Sign: 
Shane Willis, Eric Perrin

THE SKINNY:  The defending Stanley Cup champions have suffered two notable losses so far.  Let's start with the one that hurts the most: goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin left and signed a lucrative multi-year deal with Chicago.  The Bolts managed to pick up Sean Burke, who joins his 8th team and is hardly Khabibulin's equal.  To put it bluntly, in the last 15 years, Burke has played exactly 15 playoff games.  Ouch !!!  John Grahame could prove to be a worthy starter however, as he's been one of the most consistent backups in the NHL of late.  Grahame's had some success as a starter in his career, as well as experience being a member of a championship team as he successfully backstopped the Providence Bruins to the Calder Cup in 1999.  The starting job is his to lose.
The second notable loss
is Coy Stillman, Tampa's 2nd leading scorer last season with 25 goals and 80 points.  To replace him, the Lightning signed Vinny Prospal, who's best season was with Tampa Bay two years ago.  Prospal is a great fit and has the potential of reaching the 80 points plateau Stillman put up last season.  Everything else remains pretty much the same here, and it's a pretty picture.  Brad Richards, Martin St-Louis and Vincent Lecavalier are all signed, as well as captain Dave Andreychuk.  The offense is young, fast & deadly.  The defense is just as strong with Dan Boyle, Darryl Sydor, Pavel Kubina & co returning.  Tampa Bay should manage to re-capture first place in the division and strongly defend the Holy Grail in the post-season.
CAROLINA HURRICANES
Key Additions:
  Cory Stillman, Ray Whitney, Oleg Tverdovsky, Mike Commodore
Notable Departures:
  Jeff O'Neil (TOR)
Need To Sign:
  none
THE SKINNY:  On paper, this team never looks bad.  On the ice, they are simply awful.  A BIG hole is apparent in goal, as Carolina currently do not have an established goaltender on their roster.  One thinks they don't plan on going with Gerber as a starting goaltender by October 5th!  Scoring is also an issue on this team.  Last season, not a single player reached the 20 goal plateau, and only Erik Cole (18) and Josef Vasicek (19) cracked the 15-goal mark!  O'Neil's 14 goals will be missed, but Ray Whitney and Cory Stillman should more than make up for it.  Carolina boasts a stronger defense than last year, adding Oleg Tverdovsky and Mike Commodore to a D corps that already features strong performers in Glen Wesley, Aaron Ward, Frantisek Kaberle and Bret Hedican.  Good experience there and definitely not a weakness.  Carolina will need to add some scoring punch as well as a strong starting goaltender if they plan on contending for a playoff spot.  Failing to do so will land them right about the same place they finished last season, 11th in the Eastern Conference, out of the playoff picture.
WASHINGTON CAPITALS
Key Additions: 
Andrew Cassels, Chris Clark, Ben Clymer, Alexander Ovechkin, Petr Sykora
Notable Departures: 
none
Need To Sign: 
none

THE SKINNY:  Perhaps someone should call the Capitals and tell them the lockout is over?  Aside from Russian superstar Alexandre Ovechkin, Washington have not added anything significant to a team that struggled for the most part of last season.  Sergei Gonchar and Robert Lang, the top 2 scorers from the last campaign have moved on to other destinations before the season was over.  So have Peter Bondra and Jaromir Jagr (who the Caps are still on the hook for part of his salary).  This leaves a first line of Halpern, Zubrus and newcomer Andrew Cassells.  Ouch !  Brendan Witt will be expected to log many minutes on defense, and Olaf Kolzig will likely face a lot of rubber again this year.  Washington is currently under the cap (pun intended) so they aren't done yet.  Their needs are all over the place, and the list of available players is getting short.  It's going to be a long season for Capitals fans.  This team should finish close to, if not at the very bottom of the Conference.
FLORIDA PANTHERS
Key Additions: 
Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts, Jozef Stumpel, Martin Gelinas, Chris Gratton
Notable Departures: 
none
Need To Sign: 
Jay Bouwmeester, Olli Jokinen, Vaclav Nedorost

THE SKINNY:  Of all the Southeast division, Florida has made the most changes.  Some began before the lockout, as the Panthers picked up ex-Senators head coach Jacques Martin to be head coach of their team.  Martin is a great fit in Florida.  He's always been a good coach at developing young talent, which the Panthers have in abundance.  Before coming to Ottawa, Zdeno Chara was an underachiever, and Martin helped turn him into a force in the NHL.  I'm sure Mike Keenan and the rest of the Panthers' staff hope Martin can do the same with Jay Bouwmeester, who has yet to really reach his full potential.  If he does, look out, as Bouwmeester possesses the size and skill to be a player of Pronger proportions.  It's crucial for Florida to come to terms with him and sign him to a long term deal.  Ditto goes for Olli Jokinen, the team's scoring leader for the past 2 seasons.  Look for the Panthers to lock him into a long-term deal as well.  Goaltending is this team's strength.  Roberto Luongo is arguably one of the top 5 goaltenders in the league.  While early reports suggested Florida may have done themselves a disservice when they became the first team to ever take a player to arbitration, Luongo has recently said he's up to the challenge of helping them get to the post-season.  Strong and consistent goaltending is what eluded Jacques Martin during his tenure in Ottawa.  It'll be interesting to see how far he can take the Panthers now that it won't be an issue.  Florida managed to keep their core players in place and didn't suffer any notable departures.  Nice additions with Nieuwendyk, Roberts and Gelinas.  While those players aren't getting any younger, they will help give the young players direction, and are all proven playoff performers.  Gary Roberts is incredible with conditioning and everyone should benefit from it on the team.  I see a playoff spot opening up for Florida this season.  This would be a remarkable feat, as the Panthers have been cellar-dwellers for the better part of the past 5 seasons.  Along with the Pittsburgh Penguins, they will be one of the most improved teams since we've last seen them.  Hockey will be alive & well in Florida this season!


RANDUMB THOUGHTS

  1. ALEXEI YASHIN is set to lose $2.4 million per season for the next 6 seasons, a total of $14.4 million because of the 24% rollback on salaries.  Add $10 million he lost because he didn't earn a salary last year due to the lockout.  Yashin also missed the entire 1999-2000 season with Ottawa when he chose to sit out for a raise.  His plan backfired and he was forced to play out the 2000-01 season for the $3.6 million he would've earned the year he sat out.  In total, Yashin has lost $28 million during his career, a little bit less than he has earned.  How much more money does he have to lose before firing his agent Mark Gandler?

  2. ALEX KHAVANOV, new Toronto Maple Leaf player, was asked on the radio to describe what kind of player he was.  His reply:" I am a mediocre defenseman"!  You can't make stuff like this up folks!

  3. BRETT HULL, in a classic case of "takes one to know one", calls Mike Keenan an idiot.  When scratched from Team USA in the World Cup, Hull was the player that said he didn't give a (bleep) about the fans.  Who's the idiot Brett?

  4. PETR NEDVED decided to play for the Phoenix Coyotes partly because he wanted to be close to his fiancé, model Veronica Varekova.  Have you seen this woman?  Never mind playing close to where she lives, I'd RETIRE to spend ALL MY TIME with her.

More Randumbs to come, stay tuned ....

Answer to #4

TAKE 5
5 quiz questions to test your hockey IQ.  Only the true hockey minds will be able to score big points here.  Good luck !

  1. Since 1980, only 3 goalies have won the Vezina trophy & the Stanley Cup in the same year.  Which 3 ?
  2. Who was the second player in NHL history to record 1,000 points in his career?
  3. Which player holds the all-time NHL record for shorthanded goals in the playoffs?
  4. Who was the first Stanley Cup-winning player to take the trophy to his native country in Europe?
  5. Who was the first coach to win the NHL's Jack Adams Trophy with two different teams?

e-mail me your answers HERE
Answers will be revealed in my next column.  Good luck !

 

Agree ?  Disagree ?  Comments ?  Questions ?  Hate Mail ?  Mail me here: ular@puckinaround.net