Wednesday, October 04, 2006

2006-2007 Washington Capitals/ NHL Preview Part III: The Southeast Division

NHL Part I looked at the Western Conference. NHL Part II looked at the Atlantic and Northeast Divisions. Caps Part I looked at the Caps Defensemen and Goaltenders. Caps Part II looked at the Caps forwards. Now in this post, we tie it all together and wrap it up but because I am not too artistically inclined, there will be no neat little bow. Sorry....

In alphabetical order.

Southeast:

Atlanta Thrashers: Hockey pundits claim that the Thrashers would have made the playoffs last season if their goaltending situation had worked out better than it did. Atlanta's goaltending situation was pretty bad and it is hard to imagine it being much worse. However, in spite of that, the Thrashers still had a chance to make the playoffs, which is why the pundits are so high on them. But I offer a contrarian view. Yes Atlanta had a ghastly goaltending situation. Yes, the Thrashers did well to stay in the chase as long as they did. However, it was not the goaltending situation that cost Atlanta a playoff spot. It was a lack of heart that cost Atlanta their first trip to the playoffs. The only Southeast Division team to have not appeared in a Stanley Cup Finals in the last ten years needed to win out their schedule when they came to Washington on April 17th. They took a 4-3 lead into the third period and had Washington on the ropes. The Caps stormed back in the third period, scored three goals, won 6-4, eliminated Atlanta, and backed Tampa Bay and Montreal into the playoffs. That third period was a gut check and Atlanta gagged. Big time. The Thrashers problem was a lack of leadership. It should be a clue that the genius of Lou Lam in the swamp let Bobby Holik walk away. Red flags should have flown when the Rangers bought Holik out after the lockout. But Atlanta is still praised up and down the street for grabbing this guy. For the life of me, I'll never figure that one out. Holik played about 11 seconds of that fateful game and that was it. He's considered a leader on that team and he failed to lead. Ilya Kovalchuk is also considered a leader on that team and I almost assembled a search party for him during that game. Better goaltending will get Atlanta into the playoffs despite the lack of leadership. But better goaltending won't get them anywhere in the playoffs.

Carolina Hurricanes: After appearing in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2002, the Carolina Hurricanes stood pat. They didn't make any moves and they missed the playoffs the next two seasons. That combined with ticket price increases and the lockout just about killed hockey in Raleigh. The Canes surprised everybody winning the Southeast Division and the Stanley Cup last year. The advent of the salary cap makes it hard for teams to stand pat but the Canes tried to improve anyway. They have a good starting goaltender in Cam Ward and John Grahame is a more than capable backup goalie. The issues that the Canes have on the blueline hurts their Power Play more than anything else, but it can be lived with. Their forward are solid but unspectacular. The Stanley Cup hangover can be long and painful; I don't think the Canes will repeat simply because they cannot sneak up on anybody anymore. But in their division they are the top dogs until somebody unseats them.

Florida Panthers: So let me get this straight. You trade one of the best goaltenders in the league and replace him with a 41 year-old has-been and a 25 year old still learning the game and you're supposed to be better? You trade one of the best goaltenders in the league for a thug forward who almost killed somebody on the ice who needs a change of scenery and you're supposed to be better? Well, the Panthers had better hope that Todd Bertuzzi returns to form and goes on a rampage that doesn't include attempted murder. Florida has some good young players but the rest are totally non-descript. The Panthers however are going to have to adopt a new style of play that suits them now because they don't have Roberto Luongo stealing standings points for them anymore. That transition is likely to take a good amount of time. Florida will not be improved this season because of it.

Tampa Bay Lightning: The Ning won the Cup in 2004 and since then they've made curious personnel decisions. The Ning set the bar high with that Cup win and Head Coach John Tortorella went from merely a maniac coach to downright psycho. He may not be the first head coach to go this season, but I don't believe Tortorella lasts until the end of the season. He'll be an easy scapegoat because of the curious decision to lock up $20 million of cap space among three forwards. What, the rest of the team isn't important? The goaltending is odd as well. They picked up Marc Denis from the Blue Jackets because Tortorella ran Grahame out of town. Is Denis an upgrade? Not bloody likely. The Ning could maybe use a change of pace behind the bench, but this is a team in partially in cap jail right now. The Ning backed into the playoffs last year and went out in one round. I can't see how this year will be much different for them.

Washington Capitals: I've already written a lot about what the Caps are bringing into this season so I'll try to keep this short. The Caps have too many rookies, too many sophomores, and too many players coming off of some sort of career year to be considered a contender this season. This is year #2 of the rebuilding project. I wouldn't be surprised at all to see the Caps take a step back this season. Our fortunes will rise and fall on Olie Kolzig's goaltending. A.O. will be fun to watch. And if the team can maintain the intensity it had down the stretch last season, they could finish as high as 10th, maybe, just maybe 9th. Talk about the playoffs is nice, but too much has to go right for this team to even make the playoffs. If the plan holds together, the Caps are two more years away from being a serious threat to make the playoffs again.

Now let's drop the puck and get the season started already.

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