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Young defensemen could hold key to Southeast

by Brian Compton

With the 2012-13 NHL season ready to begin, teams will be scrambling on a nightly basis to earn points and clinch a spot in what is primed to be a wild 48-game race to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

A condensed schedule means more games in a short amount of time, and teams will be relying on every player on their roster to contribute. takes a closer look at the players who will need to be major factors for Southeast Division squads:

Justin Faulk, Carolina Hurricanes -- The 20-year-old defenseman led all NHL rookies last season by averaging 22:50 of ice time per game, and he certainly didn't look out of place doing so. He contributed offensively too -- Carolina's second-round pick (No. 37) from 2010 had eight goals and 14 assists in 66 games. Now the load gets even heavier as Faulk and the Hurricanes aim for a Stanley Cup Playoff spot after falling short in 2011-12.

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"When you don't make the playoffs, it's not a good feeling, it doesn't sit too well especially when you start seeing all the playoff stuff on TV and the Internet," said Faulk, who spent the work stoppage playing for Charlotte in the American Hockey League, where he went 5-19-24 in 31 games. "You're not too happy about it and I think we're hoping to be in a different position."

Peter Mueller, Florida Panthers -- A history of injuries allowed Mueller to hit unrestricted free agency last summer, but Panthers general manager Dale Tallon didn't hesitate to sign the highly skilled forward. Mueller had 16 points in his final 26 games with the Colorado Avalanche last season and can be a major contributor should he be able to stay on the ice.

"We brought him in here and checked him out from toes to nose, and everything checked out fine," Tallon said. "He's still young (24) and has a lot of good years ahead of him, so if he does well and plays well he's got a great opportunity to stay here for a long time and fit in with our development plan."

Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning -- The 22-year-old showed promise of being a shutdown defenseman for the Lightning last season -- he averaged more than 23 minutes of ice time per game -- but is this the year the 6-foot-6 Swede contributes more offensively? Hedman, the second pick of the 2009 NHL Draft, has 12 goals and 57 assists in 214 NHL games. Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher is hopeful, though, that Hedman is capable of more.

"The one thing about Victor, he's a very dedicated athlete," Boucher said of Hedman, who had a goal and 19 assists in 26 games for Astana Barys (KHL) during the work stoppage. "He's a horse in the gym. He never misses anything. He's always first on the ice and last out. I would certainly bet on [Hedman] to keep getting better."

Mike Green, Washington Capitals -- After two down seasons, now is the time for this offensively gifted blueliner to shine. The first NHL defenseman with at least 18 goals and 70 points in back-to-back seasons since Boston Bruins star Ray Bourque in 1992-93 and 1993-94, injuries have slowed Green immensely. He had three goals and four assists in 32 games last season.

"It's unfortunate that the last couple of years I've suffered from injuries, but I believe I'm over them -- I think I've got them all out of my system," Green told reporters when he signed a new three-year contract this summer. "I think [the Capitals] are happy that I'm committed to the hockey team and doing the things I have to do to be the best I can."

Olli Jokinen, Winnipeg Jets -- The durable veteran isn't the offensive force he used to be, but he'll certainly provide leadership and solid defensive play on a young Jets team that will be gunning for a playoff spot. Now 34, Jokinen appeared in all 82 games for the Calgary Flames last season, tallying 23 goals and 38 assists. He signed a two-year deal with Winnipeg in July.

"We're excited about the opportunity to bring a front-line player, a top-six player into the organization," Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said. "His size (6-2, 210) comes to the forefront right now; he's difficult to handle. When he gets moving, he does move very well. He likes to shoot the puck and he's not afraid to do that."


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