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What key questions face Southeast Division teams?

Friday, 01.18.2013 / 3:00 AM

The wait for the 2012-13 season is nearly over. What questions do each NHL team need to answer to be successful, and do they have the resources to provide said responses? Well, let's take a division-by-division look at some of the key quandaries for each NHL franchise as the campaign beckons. Next up is the Southeast Division, which has a new defending champion and a couple of teams expected to make serious leaps forward.

CAROLINA HURRICANES

After failing to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third straight year, Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford made several bold moves. He started by acquiring two-way center Jordan Staal from the Pittsburgh Penguins and followed with the signing of unrestricted free agent left wing Alexander Semin, in an attempt to alter the landscape of the Eastern Conference.

1. How will coach Kirk Muller use Jordan Staal?

Don't be surprised to see Jordan join forces with Eric Staal. Jordan is embracing his new role with the Hurricanes as an opportunity to become one of the League's top performers.

Despite the fact both Staals are natural centers, Eric has spent time on the wing for Canada during international stints. Jordan had been the customary third-line center behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin the past six seasons for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

2. Where does Alexander Semin fit in?

The addition of Semin in late July really opens up several options for coach Kirk Muller. Though he will probably give the Staals an opportunity to play together, there's the chance Eric could be flanked by Semin and Zach Boychuk.

That would allow Jordan to play on the second line between Jeff Skinner and Chad LaRose. Furthermore, Rutherford doesn't envision there being any issues with Semin's work ethic once he becomes acclimated to how the organization operates both on and off the ice.

3. Do the acquisitions of Staal and Semin make Carolina a Cup contender?

Staal's one of the best two-way pivots in the League, capable of producing on offense while consistently shutting down the opposition. The Hurricanes ranked 16th in the League with 212 goals scored last season, so both players will certainly aid in that department.

The additions of Staal and Semin should at least keep Carolina in the thick of the Southeast Division race all season. Both players might also help improve the team's lackluster overtime mark. The Hurricanes played 20 OT games last season and finished 4-16, including 3-10 in games ending in the five-minute overtime period.

4. How will Muller fare in his first full season behind the bench?

From the moment he was hired, Muller spoke of getting his players believing in his system and being accountable for each other. He guided the Hurricanes to a 25-20-12 record in 57 games, including a 15-9-7 mark after the All-Star break.

The Hurricanes earned points in 16 of their last 23 games (11-7-5), and were 7-4-1 in their final 12 games of 2011-12. The Canes went 35-for-179 (19.6 percent) on the power play under Muller. With even more weapons, the coach should have his players motivated and raring to go.

5. Do the Hurricanes have enough depth on defense?

There's a nice blend of young talent and experience on the back end. The experience comes in the form of Joni Pitkanen, Joe Corvo and Tim Gleason, who led the team with a plus-12 rating in 2011-12. Jay Harrison surprised by scoring nine goals and 23 points while logging more than 20 minutes per game. He also ranked second among Carolina defenders in hits (117) and blocked shots (153).

Justin Faulk showed plenty of promise as a rookie, and Jamie McBain, who should be able to handle 22-plus minutes a game, will be entering his third full season with the club. The Canes also signed 25-year-old Marc-Andre Gragnani, who is expected to battle for a roster spot, along with top prospect Ryan Murphy, the team's first-round draft pick in 2011, and Bobby Sanguinetti, who signed a two-year deal in May.

6. Will Dan Ellis ease Cam Ward's workload?

The Hurricanes signed veteran Ellis to a one-year contract out of the American Hockey League soon after the work stoppage ended, likely to have him serve as Ward's backup.

Ward started 142 of the 164 games the past two seasons with Justin Peters as his primary relief.

Ellis, 32, played 10 games for the Anaheim Ducks last season before being injured. He was 21-10-6 during the 2010-11 season playing 44 games for the Ducks and Tampa Bay Lightning.

Peters, who signed a two-year contract on April 1, split time in the AHL with Ellis. One of them needs to earn Muller's trust to relieve some of the workload placed on Ward.

-- Mike Morreale

FLORIDA PANTHERS

Entering last season, the Florida Panthers faced one overriding question: "Who are these guys?"

General manager Dale Tallon remade the roster last summer, adding 10 new players to a core of Stephen Weiss and little else. Entering this season, "these guys" are the defending Southeast Division champion, and the questions now involve a team on the rise that could be a player or two (from inside or outside) from entering Stanley Cup contention.

1. Do the Panthers really need Roberto Luongo?

The Vancouver Canucks seem prepared to trade their franchise goaltender. Luongo has said he'd be willing to return to the Panthers. Tallon has not ruled out making the deal.

So what's the holdup?

The Canucks' asking price (this summer it was reportedly starting with prospect Nick Bjugstad) is too high for the Panthers' liking. Plus, with Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen established as NHL goaltenders, and prospect Jacob Markstrom waiting in the wings, the Panthers' need at the position is not overwhelming -- or even whelming.

2. Can the Panthers' top line repeat its success?

Stephen Weiss, Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann combined for more points with each other on the ice than any trio of forwards in the NHL last season (according to DobberHockey.com, the Weiss-Versteeg-Fleischmann trio totaled 108 points).

The Panthers rode their top line as long as they could, and maybe a little too long. In 39 games prior to Jan. 1, they combined for 105 points and were plus-40. In 43 games during calendar year 2012, they combined for 67 points and were minus-38.

But the line responded in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, scoring nine of the team's 17 goals and getting seven assists against the New Jersey Devils, whom the Panthers led 3-2 in the series before losing Game 6 in overtime and Game 7 in double OT.

3. Who will provide secondary scoring?

The first line was great offensively -- lines two through four, not so much. Top prospect Jonathan Huberdeau is expected to help; he had 45 points in 30 games for Saint John of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League this season. And if free-agent signees Peter Mueller and Alex Kovalev can contribute, the Panthers should be able to count on two lines of scoring, at least.

The defense can chip in too. Jason Garrison (16 goals) is gone, but Brian Campbell, whose 53 points tied for second among NHL defensemen (and ranked fourth on the Panthers) returns Dmitry Kulikov (28 points in 58 games), however, has not yet signed as a restricted free agent.

4. Who will play alongside Brian Campbell?

Garrison signed with his hometown Vancouver Canucks as a free agent after having his best NHL season playing on the top pair with Campbell. Tallon is confident free-agent signee Filip Kuba can fill the gap. He had 32 points and was plus-26 last season for the Ottawa Senators playing with Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson.

Kulikov could move up to the first power-play unit if available. But Garrison did as much for Campbell as Campbell did for him. After two below-his-standard seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks, the 33-year-old had his second-best season in points, averaged almost 27 minutes per game, and became the first defenseman to win the Lady Byng Trophy in 58 years.

5. Can a team ever have too many prospects?

From 2009-11, the NHL draft put 28 players into the Panthers system, which is recognized now as one of the deepest and most talented in the NHL. When to bring them up, whose places they will take, who to keep, and who to use in trades -- those could be some of Tallon's most difficult, and scrutinized, decisions.

"There's no sense drafting all these kids and having no place for them to play," Tallon said. "... We have to open up some space for these guys when they're ready. We've got some guys who are going to be ready this year, one or two, and we'll have two or three ready next year, and three to five the following year, so we need places for them to play."

6. Can the Panthers win the division again?

The Panthers won a division title for the first time in their history last season. Their Southeast Division rivals noticed.

The Washington Capitals added Mike Ribeiro. The Tampa Bay Lightning traded for Anders Lindback. The Winnipeg Jets signed Olli Jokinen. And the Carolina Hurricanes traded for Jordan Staal, signed Alexander Semin, and got Jeff Skinner's name on a long-term contract extension.

The Southeast was the closest division in the NHL last season -- Florida held off Washington by two points for the title, and finished 12 points ahead of last place Carolina. The average spread first-to-last in the other five divisions was 30 points.

-- Mike Battaglino

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman reacted to the disappointment of missing out on the Stanley Cup Playoffs as any top decision-maker within an organization would -- with a few big changes. Not surprisingly, the retooling began with some significant moves in goal and along the blue line. Considering the Lightning finished last in the League with a 3.39 goals-against average and 26th on the penalty-kill with a 79.2-percent efficiency, it's no wonder he decided to begin upgrading his club from the goal cage on out.

1. Who will be the starting goalie to open the season?

Offseason acquisition Anders Lindback is the favorite to be Tampa Bay's starter. He has 38 games of NHL experience over the past two seasons with the Nashville Predators and has plenty of upside.

The Lightning acquired his rights from the Predators in the hope he'd become their starter for the foreseeable future. In the interim though, Lindback may battle for playing time with Mathieu Garon or 23-year-old prospect Dustin Tokarski.

2. Does veteran forward Martin St. Louis have another high-scoring season in the tank?

Let's put it this way: At 36, St. Louis ranked second in the League in average ice time (22:37) among forwards while extending his franchise record streak for most consecutive seasons with at least 70 points to six. He played in 77 games and ranked first on the team with 49 assists, and second in both goals (25) and points (74).

Though St. Louis saw his consecutive games played streak snapped at 499 after being struck in the face with a puck during a morning skate at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 8, there's no question the 5-foot-8, 176-pound wing has the goods to come close to a point-per-game again. It doesn't hurt having Steven Stamkos on your line either.

3. Can Steven Stamkos get any better?

Why not? Of the Lightning's 232 goals scored last season, Stamkos connected for a League-best 60 of them, accounting for nearly 26 percent of the team's offense. He became the 20th player in League history to score 60, and finished second to Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin in the scoring race with a career-best 97 points. He won his second Rocket Richard Trophy, but lost out to Malkin for the Hart Trophy.

Stamkos connected for a League-leading 12 game-winning goals, including an NHL-record five in overtime. In a season where the Lightning lost 321 man-games to injury, he proved it really didn't matter. An improved supporting cast is another reason for optimism.

4. Is the defense good enough?

Yzerman was focused on upgrading the blue line for the upcoming season, not only following his blueprint of developing players from within the system but acquiring a few big names via free agency. He signed Brendan Mikkelson, Brian Lee, Keith Aulie, Artem Sergeev and Evan Oberg, all of whom are under the age of 25. Yzerman also signed unrestricted free agents Matt Carle, Matt Taormina and Sami Salo.

The GM is undoubtedly looking to develop a young defensive core around Lindback in attempt to make certain his young goalie is given plenty of support. The defense has been given an upgrade over last season, though veteran Mattias Ohlund might not return after enduring major knee surgery last winter.

5. When will prospect Vladislav Namestnikov be ready?

The 2011 first-round draft pick (No. 27) had two productive seasons in the Ontario Hockey League with the London Knights, producing 30 goals and 68 points as a rookie and 22 goals and 71 points in 2011-12, and Yzerman signed his prized prospect to a three-year, entry-level deal in March.

Namestnikov missed two months this season with a shoulder injury and remains with Syracuse in the American Hockey League. He has two goals and five points in 12 games and will wait to make his anticipated NHL debut.

6. Where will the secondary scoring come from?

Believe it or not, Tampa Bay did have five different players with 20 or more goals last season, which tied three other clubs for second most in the League behind the Boston Bruins (six players). The list included Stamkos (60 goals), St. Louis (25), Teddy Purcell (24), Lecavalier (22) and Ryan Malone (20) -- quite an accomplishment for a team decimated by injury and without the services of departed Simon Gagne and Sean Bergenheim from the previous season.

Without Namestnikov, perhaps Cory Conacher can add more depth to the offense. Conacher scored 80 points in 75 games for Norfolk in the American Hockey League last season, and the 23-year-old had 28 points in 36 games this season. Conacher started training camp alongside Lecavalier and Purcell.

-- Mike Morreale

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

From the time coach Bruce Boudreau arrived in November 2008 until the 2010 playoffs, the Washington Capitals wowed with their offense while at times the defense and goaltending proved less than satisfactory.

In two of the past three postseasons, offense has become the problem for Washington. First it was goalie Jaroslav Halak and the Montreal Canadiens' penalty-killers in 2010, then it was a wide-range of issues from player performance to team philosophy with new coach Dale Hunter in 2012, but as the Capitals' ability to prevent goals has improved, they have struggled to score enough when it counts.

Much of the intrigue with the 2012-13 Capitals again, almost strangely, revolves around offense.

1. Can Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green return to previous production levels?

Washington's "Young Guns" -- the three names listed plus Alexander Semin -- combined for 370 points in 2009-10. Ovechkin and Backstrom each passed 100, Semin scored 40 goals, and Green led all NHL defensemen in goals and points.

Ovechkin has slipped from 109 points that year to 85 in 2010-11 then 65 last season. Backstrom went from 101 to 65 to 44, though he was limited to 42 games last season because of a concussion. Green has played 81 games in the past two seasons limited by multiple injuries, and has 31 points in those contests.

Semin is gone to the Carolina Hurricanes, with Mike Ribeiro arriving from the Dallas Stars in a trade to play on a line Backstrom doesn't center. For Washington to become an elite offensive team again, Ovechkin, Backstrom and Green need to stay healthy and produce at a level at least close to what they once did.

2. Who are the two wings in the top six besides Ovechkin and Troy Brouwer?

Backstrom and Ribeiro will center the top two lines, with Ovechkin and Brouwer as locks to be alongside them. The other two wings are far less certain.

Brooks Laich, who scored 69 goals in three years as the No. 2 left wing behind Ovechkin but transitioned to center, could miss the start of the season with a groin injury. Jason Chimera, whose 20 goals were three more than he had in any of his eight previous NHL seasons, is another candidate but a fallback option in an ideal situation. A pair of players who never really nailed down the No. 2 center job, Marcus Johansson and Mathieu Perreault, could be audition for the spots. Free agent signee Wojtek Wolski is also a possibility.

3. Enough about the forwards, what about the offense from the defense?

Washington entered the 2011-12 season with potentially the top set of offensive defensemen in the League -- Green, Wideman and John Carlson all could be the No. 1 offensive option for some teams. Green's season was again derailed by injury, Carlson scuffled at times but looked like a top-pair defenseman again late in the season, and Wideman made the All-Star team because of his offensive numbers, slumped in the second half, was a mess in his own end in the postseason, then signed with the Clagary Flames as a free agent.

The Capitals will eventually replace Wideman with Dmitry Orlov, who has some offensive potential but hasn't played for Hershey in the American Hockey League since early December because of an injury. Karl Alzner, Roman Hamrlik and Jeff Schultz aren't going to fill up the scoresheet, but Green and Carlson could be among the top offensive tandems in the League.

4. Can Adam Oates revive the power play?

After producing a top-two power play in 2008-09 and 2009-10, Washington has finished tied for 15th and tied for 18th in the past two seasons. Enter Oates, who was an assistant coach in charge of the power play for the New Jersey Devils. Granted, the Devils (at 14th) barely finished above the Capitals, but Oates didn't have as much talent to work with (particularly from the defense and with forward Travis Zajac out most of the season).

Whatever Ovechkin's relationship was with Boudreau at the end of his tenure or during Hunter's brief regime, there is a good chance Oates could curry favor with his captain by showing him video of those 12 postseason power-play goals the Devils had in the first three playoff rounds (one in particular against the rival New York Rangers was majestic). Ovechkin had at least 36 power-play points in his first five seasons before 24 and 23 in the past two.

5. Is Oates ready to be a coach in the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

It might be less of a certainty that Washington is a playoff team in 2012-13, but it will be expected. For a franchise that hasn't reached the Eastern Conference Finals despite all its regular-season success in the past five seasons, hiring someone with no head coaching experience at any level is a curious move.

Oates was a great NHL player, and starred in Washington, but he has three years of coaching experience at this level as an assistant and none as the lead guy. What's more, neither of his assistants (Calle Johansson, Tim Hunter) have head coaching experience. General manager George McPhee's track record is clear -- he's not afraid to hire someone without NHL head coaching experience, but an entire staff having never been a head coach, at any level of professional hockey, could be risky even by his standards.

6. Will Braden Holtby keep the No. 1 job in net?

Holtby was a revelation in the postseason, showing poise and confidence far beyond what would be expected of a 22-year-old with 21 NHL games before the 2012 playoffs started. Washington played 13 games that were decided by one goal, and Holtby was fantastic throughout.

It seems obvious he would be the No. 1 goaltender as the 2012-13 season beckons, but assuming such would mean ignoring the past five years of history at the position in Washington. Simply put, the player who was the team's No. 1 goaltender during the previous postseason has not held that same distinction by the time Game 1 of the next postseason arrived four years running. Since Olaf Kolzig ceded the No. 1 job to Cristobal Huet near the end of the 2007-08 season, no one has kept the title for very long.

-- Corey Masisak

WINNIPEG JETS

Though the Winnipeg Jets didn't make the playoffs, they were one of the NHL's feel-good stories of 2011-12. The return of hockey to Winnipeg was greeted by a packed house every night, and the Jets dominated the local sports scene in a way they never did while playing as the Atlanta Thrashers.

But the novelty of having a hockey team back in Winnipeg has faded, and the fans who welcomed the Jets so warmly a year ago are going to want to see more progress from a franchise that hasn't made the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2007 -- and has qualified for the postseason once in its history.

1. Is Evander Kane ready to become a star?

Kane emerged as a 30-goal scorer in his third NHL season, showing the combination of skill and power the franchise envisioned when he was taken by the Thrashers with the fourth pick in the 2009 NHL Draft.

The 21-year-old was a restricted free agent this summer, and signed a six-year, $31.5 million contract extension minutes before the lockout began. He's had his share of off-ice controversies, and there might be some uneasiness about whether or not Kane can be the team's "face of the franchise" player moving forward.

2. Will Ondrej Pavelec play up to his new contract?

General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff gave the 25-year-old Czech goalie a lucrative five-year deal after a season in which his goals-against average went up (to 2.91, from 2.73) and his save percentage went down (to .906, from .914). Pavelec didn't get a lot of help from his teammates -- he faced more than 34 shots per 60 minutes of ice time, a horrendous total in this era -- but he's going to have to take a few steps forward to give the Jets the kind of goaltending they'll need to be a playoff team.

Pavelec was arrested for a DUI in the Czech Republic in May and convicted in June -- all before signing the five-year extension and without notifying the club before inking the deal. Whether or not there are any residual effects on his relationships with the team or his teammates will need to be monitored.

3. What kind of impact will Olli Jokinen have?

Winnipeg's biggest offseason acquisition had 61 points with the Calgary Flames last season; the Jets didn't have a 50-point center on their roster. Jokinen undoubtedly will get top-six ice time; he could wind up on the first line if Bryan Little proves he's not up to the job.

The Jets are optimistic Jokinen will be at least as good as he was last season. They're banking on him to provide size and leadership as well as offense. If he does, they could take several steps forward. If not, the Jets figure to be grounded again.

4. Will the penalty-killing improve?

The Jets did not address one of their biggest failings last season: the inability to kill penalties. Winnipeg allowed 58 power-play goals, more than all but two teams; gave opponents 292 power-play chances, seventh-most in the NHL; and managed three shorthanded goals (the League low was two).

Neither of the two forwards acquired this summer (Jokinen and Alexei Ponikarovsky) figures to spend a lot of time on the PK, so the Jets will have to get better from within, using largely the same cast that struggled last year.

5. Can Dustin Byfuglien improve in his own end of the ice?

There's no question Byfuglien is one of the NHL's most productive defensemen when it comes to generating offense -- his 53 points in 66 games were tied for second in the League. His booming shot is a weapon, especially on the power play.

But Byfuglien isn't nearly as good in his own zone -- he's been a minus player in each of the past three seasons, including back-to-back years when he's put up 53 points. Byfuglien is an offensive force, but he's got to pay more attention to defending for the Jets to be able to turn more of those points into wins.

6. Will the honeymoon in Winnipeg last?

Having NHL hockey again was enough for fans last season. They began cheering during warm-ups on opening day and didn't stop until the final horn on April 7. The Jets responded to the support by going 23-13-5 in front of the home folks as opposed to 14-22-5 on the road.

But for all the love and support they received, the first-year Jets were only four points better than the 2010-11 edition of the Atlanta Thrashers and came up short of a playoff berth again. The 15,004 fans who pack MTS Centre every night, and the thousands more who live and die with the team, are going to want more this season than merely having the NHL back in town. Missing the playoffs a second time could do a lot to take the bloom off the rose of this love story.

-- John Kreiser

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