Training Camp Battles: Southeast Division

With training camps starting late this week or early next, we at Pro Hockey Talk couldn’t help but wonder: what are the biggest position battles going in? To give you the most specific answers possible, we asked team bloggers to give their take. After all, these men and women follow their teams almost as much as general managers, so they would know better than us.

(Actually, some of them might watch their teams more closely than GMs, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Previous entries: Northeast Division, Pacific Division, Central Division.

Current entry: Southeast Division

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for studlydudley.jpgAtlanta Thrashers

Contributor: Laura Astorian from Thrashing the Blues.

The battle for who’s going to be the best third liner on the team’s a big one. No, I kid. I kid. The Thrashers are a bit stacked with grinders, and defense… but regardless of who makes the cut there we’re ok. It’ll be goal again – if Pavelec can play consistently like he did at the start of last season, we’ll be solid. Instead I think that we might be relying on Mason to be SuperBeard yet again.

Defense’s under some competition that no one expected. There’s a log jam there now since Buff’s been moved to D, so now the question is about who’ll be our 7th defenseman – Valabik or Kulda? Kulda could play in the NHL this year, and Boris was looking much better last year before his leg exploded.

Our biggest weakness is a lack of a big scorer, though I broke it down the other day on SB Nation Atlanta and realized that scoring in general isn’t an issue – just having that one go-to guy. Honestly, after watching everyone predict the Thrashers’ offense when we had Kovy, maybe not having a big guy isn’t a bad idea.

Not sure about having a player come out of nowhere, but Patrice Cormier’ll come out of camp ready to make an impact. He won’t score a bunch, but he’ll be a solid checker who will intimidate and lead the youth by example – he took charge at prospect camp. Alex Burmistrov could stand a little bit of a chance – the kid is fast and has wonderful aim – but I wonder if he’ll be up to snuff as far as Dudley’s size standards go. He was about 180 at camp, so he needs to add a little bit more.

Thumbnail image for truutu.jpgCarolina Hurricanes

Contributor: Carolyn Christians from Canes Country.

Unlike last preseason, the Carolina Hurricanes depth chart is completely wide open among forwards, with only two of twelve positions etched in stone. Beyond Eric Staal and Brandon Sutter who are locked in as the top two centermen, we have no idea how the lines will be sorted out by the opener in Helsinki. The pressure’s on Coaches Paul Maurice and Ron Francis to find the right mix of wings to complete the top six and optimize the talents of Staal and Sutter. And then finish the job by assembling the bottom six from scratch. GM Jim Rutherford has made it clear that the Canes are in “transition” and going younger. Two familiar 31-year- old veterans, Erik Cole and Sergei Samsonov, are facing contract years. These two wingers, each with up-and-down careers, will be in a battle for top ice time, competing with a hungry pack of youngsters (e.g. Zach Boychuk, Jiri Tlusty, Jeff Skinner, Zac Dalpe, Drayson Bowman, shall I go on?) pushing hard to grab their spots. With six pre-season games before heading to Russia, we can expect some entertaining hockey over the next couple weeks.

The most intriguing position battle at camp this year? Easy: Third-line center. The contest seems to be between two rookies, Ohio State’s Zac Dalpe and Cornell’s Riley Nash. Though the consensus is that sniper Jeff Skinner, the Canes 2010 draft 7th overall pick, will be moved to wing “If and When” he joins the fray at the NHL level, I can’t eliminate the possibility he might also stay at center, and compete for the job. Among the veterans, Jussi Jokinen, Patrick
Dwyer or even Tuomo Ruutu’s names have been mentioned. Could AHL All-Star Jon Matsumoto challenge the field at camp, after three full seasons with the Flyers’s affiliate Adirondack Phantoms without a single NHL call-up?

The Canes have a ridiculous number of quality right shooting offensive defensemen (Joe Corvo, Anton Babchuk, Jamie McBain, and Bobby Sanguinetti), but I’m concerned they’re missing enough back-end muscle to preserve Cam Ward’s view of the action. The only reliable stay- at-home type is Tim Gleason, who, at 27, emerged last season as the team’s heart and-soul (and on occasion, blood-and-guts) strong man. Will the league’s top minute-muncher Joni Pitkanen, known for his stellar, albeit risky, breakout passes, take up some of the slack and be a consistent power in the D-zone? Perhaps big man, and Nic Wallin look-alike, Jay Harrison, hampered by injuries last season, then re-signed to a barebones one-year deal in April, will finally become a NHL force to be reckoned with. My money is on young Brett Carson, who I expect will continue to quietly develop, and will earn a place as a regular in the top-four, with the right size and attitude to get the job the done.

While Rutherford’s preseason stump speech repeatedly suggests there is a roster spot waiting for first round pick Jeff Skinner if he shows he wants it, I expect Skinner will have his 9-game tryout, but beyond that, I’d give him a 60% chance of sticking it out the whole season. What’s the point of rushing?

After the jump, The Litter Box covers the Florida Panthers, Raw Charge forecasts the Lightning and Storming the Crease underlines the Capitals’ biggest battles.


Thumbnail image for vokounstays.jpgFlorida Panthers

Contributor: Donny Rivette from The Litter Box.

Florida is in a rather unique position in that no real “battles” are being waged for an opening day roster spot. Given the large number of new and existing contracts involved, a prospect will really have to knock socks off of GM Dale Tallon and coach Peter DeBoer to earn placement so quickly. Fortunately, the majority of those deals are of the single-year variety: no less than seven veterans – from captain Bryan McCabe to Cory Stillman to Chris Higgins and so on – are staring at unrestricted free agency in 2011, and logic suggests most will be dealt at or before the trade deadline.

The most serious competition probably rests in goal, surprisingly enough. Veteran netminder Tomas Vokoun – still one of the league’s best, and a pending UFA – is secure in his job, at least until the deadline. Florida has a wealth of talent at the position, first and foremost of which is Sweden’s Jacob Markstrom, widely accepted as the best goaltender outside the NHL. Though he’ll start in AHL Rochester, he’s now a trade away from what’s certain to be a long career in the bigs, and few prospects have shown the hunger he has for the starters’ role. Scott Clemmensen has two years remaining on his deal, so barring a bizarro offer thrown Florida’s way, he’s with the organization for that length. And that’s not a bad situation…he’s an older backup with tremendous success as a Devil. Took some time to adjust to the Panthers’ odd All For One and One For Me motto of last year, but when he became comfortable it was lights-out on the competition. Same with his time at the World Championship. Another A-List blue-chipper, Marc Cheverie has a drive similar to Markstrom, which will make life for current Amerks’ goalie Tyler Plante more than interesting. Brian Foster is a bit down the ladder, but owns an impressive resume himself. Long story shortened: All are under contract, and one will be left in the dirt. Florida already loaned out Rochester’s Alex Salak to the SEL, so something has to give.

A glaring weakness is the Panthers players’ lack of familiarity with their own organization. Been a lot of turnover, as Tallon weeded the minors of deadwood and accumulated 13 picks in seven rounds during this summer’s Entry Draft. Such a coup must eventually be balanced for, and the younglings among the ranks have little to no experience working alongside each other, along with a clash of cultures as the “Dale” boys are weaved among the “Keenan/Martin/Sexton” clan. This can be remedied over time, and employing a club liason in the form of ex-Cat captain Brian Skrudland can only improve the working relationships of all involved. Also: we’re talking about 19-year olds; a little slack, please.

Fans are unquestionably hoping to see 2010 3rd overall pick Erik Gudbranson make the club out of camp. Having seen him personally several times in the past week, I’ll stand by the stereotype: dude’s an exceptional specimen of size, strength, and maturity. And a wicked – but effective – mean streak. Does he pull a Kulikov and play himself into the lineup? Perhaps, but Tallon wisely built on defensive depth through the summer just in case the Kingston behemoth isn’t quite ready for prime time, effectively placing promotion in the hands of the 18-year old himself. Not to worry…this kid will be the face of the Panthers for a decade.

Thumbnail image for simongagne6.jpgTampa Bay Lightning

Contributor: John Fontana from Raw Charge.

Key position battle: Lower line wings

With the grand revamping of the Lightning this offseason – additions of Simon Gagne, Dan Ellis, and Pavel Kubina among others – there are still things yet to be settled on the Lightning roster. While the high-profile battle may be on goaltending, or the absolute makeup of the Lightning defense (which will have eight players carried on the roster), the clear battle is in the makeup of the bottom six forwards – specifically on the wings.

While the Bolts should be set with their third and fourth line centers (Dominic Moore and Nate Thompson), the question needs to be asked just who plays next to them? A total of eight forwards (Teddy Purcell, Sean Bergenheim, Chris Durno, Adam Hall, Eric Perrin, Marc-Antoine Pouliot, along with European imports Johan Harju and Niklas Persson) are in a battle for what will likely be four rosters spots. This doesn’t include on-the-cusp prospects (Ashton Carter, Dana Tyrell) or longtime organizational depth (Paul Szczechura, Blair Jones) who will also be in camp.

Who, of these names, fits best alongside Moore and Thompson is anyone’s guess. Settling these lower line slots is the first challenge of Guy Boucher’s coaching career in Tampa.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for georgemcpheecapsgm.jpgWashington Capitals

Contributor: Rob Yunich from Storming the Crease.

The Washington Capitals, after a first-round exit that followed a President’s Trophy-winning regular season, hardly made any changes. The biggest question mark is the center position on the second and third line. Otherwise, Mathieu Perrault and Tomas Fleischmann seem to be the favorites to fill those roles, with uber-rookie Marcus Johansson making a strong push to be occupy a spot on the opening night roster.

On defense, the other big question mark, the top five spots seem to belong to Tom Poti, Mike Green, Jeff Schultz, John Carlson and Karl Alzner. John Erskine and Tyler Sloan have contracts for this season, but they hardly will scare anybody.

GM George McPhee is notoriously tight-lipped, but with many low-priced free agents still out there for the taking, a defenseman might be added with the approximately $5 million of available room under the salary cap (according to capgeek.com). Otherwise, the Caps will depend on the roster of the two-time defending Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears to fill any vacancies.

Note: Rebecca from Japer’s Rink also submitted a Capitals piece, which can be found here.

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    This might be Alex Ovechkin’s most impressive goal scoring season yet

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    It is the middle of December and Alex Ovechkin is in a familiar spot at the top of the NHL’s goal scoring leaderboard.

    After scoring in each of the Capitals’ past two games, he finds himself tied with Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning for the top spot with 23 goals.

    He is trying to win what would be his seventh goal scoring crown (something only Bobby Hull has done) and is on pace to top the 50-goal mark for the eighth time.

    Only Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy (nine each) have more.

    Even for Ovechkin, a player that has made a habit out of scoring 50 goals and winning goal scoring crowns, it is a standout performance for two big reasons.

    The first being that he is rebounding from what was (by Ovechkin’s standards) a “down” year in 2016-17 when he finished with the second lowest goal output of his career (33) and the lowest even-strength goal performance (16). Remember the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons when his goal-scoring slumped to a more human level and everyone freaked out that he was done as an elite player or goal-scorer? Same thing kind of happened a season ago, even if to a lesser extent. He rebounded then, and he is rebounding now.

    The second is that he is defying age and not only besting the rest of the league when it comes to scoring goals, but also father time.

    So far this season Ovechkin has already topped his even-strength goal total from a season ago (17 as of Monday) and is on a pace to score 55 goals.

    [Is Alex Ovechkin clutch?]

    The second number is the big one because if he is able to maintain that pace (do you want to bet against him maintaining it? I don’t) it would be a pretty historic performance for no other reason than the fact almost nobody scores goals at this level at this age.

    Ovechkin turned 32 years old just before the start of the 2017-18 season and is still the most dominant goal scorer in the league.

    This is almost unheard of in an era of the NHL.

    A few things to consider, just for historical context here

    • Only four players in league history have scored at least 50 goals in a season in their age 32 season or older. John Bucyk (51) did it during the 1970-71 season at age 35. Bobby Hull (51) did it during the 1971-72 season at age 33. Phil Esposito (61)  did it during the 1974-75 season at age 32. Jaromir Jagr (54) did it during the 2005-06 season at age 33. That is it. Esposito is the only one to score at least 55.

    • Going back to the start of the league (1917-18) the average age of the NHL’s goal-scoring leaders in each season is 26.1. That number lines up with when players typically hit their peak performance as goal scorers (usuallybetween the ages of 22 and 26). Ovechkin is currently on a pace to do it (or at least share it) at age 32.

    • If he is able to win the goal-scoring crown this season he would be just the eighth player in league history to lead the league (or share the lead) in goal scoring at age 32 or older. Only one of them has done it in the post-Original Six era. The other six: Cy Denney did it at age 32 during the 1923-24 season. Bill Cook did it at ages 35 and 36 during the 1931-32 and 1932-33 seasons. Maurice Richard did it at ages 32 and 33 during the 1953-54 and 1954-55 seasons. Gordie Howe did it at age 34 during the 1962-63 season. Esposito did it during the 1974-75 season.

    • Aside from potentially leading the league at an age when most players do not accomplish that, let’s also not lose sight of the fact he is currently on pace for the third best goal scoring season of his career. Let’s just, for comparisons sake, look at the top-10 goal scorers in league history and how old they were during the top-three goal-scoring seasons in their careers.

    Wayne Gretzky: 21, 23, 24
    Gordie Howe: 24, 23, 28
    Jaromir Jagr: 23, 33, 28
    Brett Hull: 26, 25, 27
    Marcell Dione: 27, 29, 31
    Phil Esposito: 28, 31, 29
    Mike Gartner: 25, 31, 21
    Mark Messier: 21, 22, 35
    Steve Yzerman: 23, 24, 27
    Mario Lemieux: 23, 22, 27

    There are only five seasons out of that group where one of them was over the age of 30, and only two (Jaromir Jagr at 33 and Mark Messier at 35) where they were over the age of 32.

    Obviously a lot of this for this season is based on projections.

    He would not only have to remain healthy (something that has not been an issue for him in his career) but also maintain his current pace to make the history he is chasing here. Obviously we can not project injuries, but as long as he stays healthy this season there is no reason to believe that he can not maintain the pace he is currently on. His shots per game numbers have increased by more than a full shot per game versus a year ago. His shooting percentage has rebounded a little. He is scoring more regularly during even-strength play. Put it all together and you have one of the NHL’s all-time greatest goal-scorers putting together one of his most impressive seasons yet.

    Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

    Szabados backstops Canada’s women to 2-1 OT win vs U.S.

    The Canadian Press via AP
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    EDMONTON, Alberta (AP) — Goaltender Shannon Szabados says the 2-1 overtime win Sunday against the United States ranks high on her list.

    The 31-year-old made 34 saves in her hometown for the national women’s hockey team. Jennifer Wakefield scored the winner on a loose puck in the crease with 27 seconds remaining in overtime.

    Canadian captain Marie-Philip Poulin scored a power-play goal with 2:45 remaining in the first period. Hilary Knight tied it for the U.S. with 5:58 left in the second on an assist from Kendall Coyne.

    Szabados was the goalie for Olympic gold-medal victories against the U.S. in 2010 and 2014. She held Canada in the game on Sunday when her team was outshot 25-10 over the second and third periods.

    ”This is probably for sure in my top five,” said Szabados, who estimated she had about 300 friends and family in the stands. ”I feel like I’ve played in some pretty big games. This was pretty incredible.”

    Maddie Rooney had 24 saves in the loss at the Rogers Place, home of the Edmonton Oilers, where the announced attendance was just short of a sellout at 17,468. It’s also shy of the record for a women’s hockey game set in Ottawa at 18,023 in 2013.

    ”We’re a highly skilled team and we need to make sure that we go out and play fast,” said U.S. coach Robb Stauber, whose team was outshot 5-2 in the first period. ”The goal for us is to be hitting on all cylinders in February.”

    Canada wrapped up their six-game exhibition series with a 5-1 record against the Americans. The rivals won’t meet again until their pool game Feb. 15 at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

    ”These are great games for us to tune up against each other,” U.S. captain Meghan Duggan said. ”Obviously, it’s the best competition playing against them, we feel.”

    How much the results in the pre-Olympic series will matter in February is debatable. Canada lost four in a row to the U.S. in exhibitions before earning gold in overtime at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

    Canada opens defense of its gold on Feb. 11 against Russia, which recently had six players banned by the International Olympic Committee for doping violations and had its sixth-place result in 2014 stripped.

    The Americans won the inaugural women’s hockey event at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. The Canadians have won four straight gold medals since then, with the U.S teams finishing with three silver and a bronze.

    The 23-player U.S. roster will be announced on Jan. 1.

    Fight Video: Austrian League players drop the gloves before intermission interview

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    Here’s something you don’t see every day.

    A pair of Canadian players playing in the Austrian league dropped the gloves on Sunday. Okay, that’s not the crazy part. The timing of the fight is what makes this moment unique.

    Right before the start of an intermission interview with Zagreb Medvescak’s Tom Zanoski, Chris DeSousa of Bolzano HC decided to crash the party.

    Both players delivered a few shoves before the situation escalated in the hallway of the rink they were playing in. Eventually, players, staff and security intervened.

    Both players received game-misconducts for the incident, while six other players received two-minute roughing penalties.

    Stick-tap Aivis Kalnins

    Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

    Fantasy Adds & Drops: Flyin’ Fiala

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    Every week, this column will aim to help guide you through the rough waters of your fantasy league’s waiver wire. We’ll tell you which players that are owned in less than 50 percent of Yahoo leagues you should consider picking up.

    We’ll also try to help you cut ties with guys that don’t need to be owned right now.

    If you have any specific fantasy hockey questions, feel free to write me an e-mail at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

    Here we go:

    Adds:

    Tyler Myers-D- Winnipeg Jets (49 percent)

    Myers is right on the cusp of being owned in half of Yahoo’s leagues, but he technically still qualifies for the list. After missing most of last season, Myers has been solid for the Jets in 2017-18. He’s on pace to hit the double-digit mark in goals and he’s nearly on pace to score 40 points. Myers has also seen his ice time increase over the last couple of weeks.

    Alex Stalock-G- Minnesota Wild (39 percent)

    Finding a goalie on the waiver wire isn’t easy at this time of year, but the injury to Devan Dubnyk has made Stalock an intriguing fantasy addition. Dubnyk is considered “week-to-week” for now, so you know that Stalock will have a decent chance of making an impact on your lineup. He’s a solid short-term add.

    J.T. Miller-C/LW/RW-New York Rangers (39 percent)

    Miller has enjoyed a very successful run of late, as he’s picked up at least one point in nine of his last 12 contests. The Rangers forward has also scored in each of his team’s last two games. He has six goals on and 24 points in 33 games, which puts him on pace to score 60 points in 2017-18. The fact that he’s eligible to play all three forward positions in Yahoo leagues makes him even more of an interesting pick up.

    [More Fantasy: RotoWorld’s Waiver Wired column]

    Kevin Fiala-LW/RW- Nashville Predators (36 percent)

    Fiala’s post-season came to an end prematurely last spring, as he fractured his left femur. After picking up just two points in his first eight games of this season, he’s really started producing of late. The Preds forward is currently riding a seven-game point streak. The 21-year-old is now on pace to score 60 points in 2017-18. He’s definitely worthy of an add in a good chunk of fantasy leagues.

    Jakob Silfverberg-LW/RW- Anaheim Ducks (35 percent)

    The Ducks forward missed five games because of an upper-body injury earlier this month, but he’s scored twice in three games since being back. Silfverberg got off to a slow start this year, but his team needs him to step up because of all the injuries they’ve gone through. Expect him to get a good amount of ice time going forward.

    Drops:

    Brent Seabrook-D- Chicago Blackhawks (61 percent)

    It might be time for us to admit that Seabrook’s better days are behind him. The 32-year-old has scored one goal all season and he has just four assists in his last 14 games. Depending on the categories you’re playing, it could make plenty of sense to drop Seabrook for Myers.

    [Check out the RotoWorld Hockey Podcast]

    Anthony Mantha-LW/RW- Detroit Red Wings (54 percent)

    It’s still a little too early to drop Mantha, but he’s definitely someone to keep an eye on. Even though he’s still on pace to surpass the 30-goal mark, Mantha hasn’t registered a point in six straight games. He also appears to be playing fewer minutes than he was earlier in the season.

    Nino Niederreiter-LW/RW- Minnesota Wild (52 percent)

    Niederreiter’s on pace to score a solid 28 goals this season, but his fantasy owners certainly don’t appreciate his recent stretch of one goal in 11 games. What’s even more concerning, is that he isn’t even shooting the puck as much lately. In his last three games, the Wild winger has just two shots on goal.

    Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.