13th, 2004. One year, 5 months, 3 weeks and one day ago today.
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.
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?
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.
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):
uLAr's Forecasted Standings
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.
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
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.
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.
Andrew Cassels, Chris Clark, Ben Clymer, Alexander Ovechkin,
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.
Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary
Roberts, Jozef Stumpel, Martin Gelinas, Chris Gratton
Notable Departures: none
Need To Sign: Jay Bouwmeester, Olli Jokinen, Vaclav
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!