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Southeast: Washington on a mission, others look to improve

by | CBSSports.com Staff Writer
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Atlanta Thrashers: Unfortunately the dawn of a new era for the Thrashers has looked better on paper than on the ice so far.

That could change because there are a lot of new ingredients in the stew. Rick Dudley didn’t waste much time restructuring things when he replaced Atlanta’s original general manager Don Waddell in the spring, especially when it came to raiding several players from his previous team, the Chicago Blackhawks, but the team has struggled and lost its first five preseason games, getting outscored 14-7.

Alexander Ovechkin and the Capitals have only one goal in mind this season -- the Stanley Cup. (Getty Images)  
Alexander Ovechkin and the Capitals have only one goal in mind this season -- the Stanley Cup. (Getty Images)  
Dudley took advantage of Chicago’s salary cap problems to acquire four members of the Stanley Cup champs and signed free agent goalie Chris Mason. Dudley inherited some good young talent, both up front with Bryan Little, Evander Kane and Niclas Bergfors, and along the blueline with Tobias Enstrom, Zack Bogosian and Johnny Oduya. His choice for behind the bench is long time assistant coach Craig Ramsey, a teacher type with a defensive-minded philosophy.

Ramsey though has already raised questions in training camp by moving Dustin Byfuglien, one of the Blackhawks’ playoff stars on right wing, back to the blue line. There may be more to come.

Carolina Hurricanes: The 'Canes are on their way to Russia, where they will try to defend the NHL’s honor in an exhibition game before getting down to business in Helsinki against the Minnesota Wild. Then they’ll come back to North America and play five consecutive games on the road, keeping themselves hidden from their own fans until Oct. 27.

Maybe by then, no one will need a scorecard to know the players. The key faces are still around with center Eric Staal in his first full season as captain and Cam Ward in goal, but the transition from the team that won the 2006 Stanley Cup is now almost complete. It's a youth movement actually began last season when Staal became captain and continued during the off season when Rod Brind’Amour retired and Ray Whitney was allowed to leave as a free agent.

Obviously Carolina won’t be devoid of veterans, although you can put that in the context of the team keeping its payroll near the salary floor. But the ‘Canes have developed some talent in recent years with the likes of Brandon Sutter and Jamie McBain, and they’ll be among several younger players asked to take on bigger roles. The team’s top draft pick last June, right wing Jeff Skinner, has been mesmerizing in training camp and will make the trip to Europe, although the jury is still out on whether the team thinks the 18-year-old is ready to remain all season. Meanwhile Patrick O’Sullivan, who was bought out a few months ago by Edmonton at age 25, has impressed the brass enough to stick around.

He’s been a 20-goal scorer in the past, something the Hurricanes could use this season. They are headed in a more practical direction with the youth movement, but for this season, they are likely to go only as far as Staal and Ward can carry them.

Florida Panthers: Here’s a bright side -- the Panthers killed off the first 32 power plays they faced in preseason action. That was big and actually quite critical to Florida winning three of those five games because the Panthers managed to score only 13 times.

That tells you that the offensive challenges the Panthers face haven’t really been resolved. Their top scorer, David Booth, has returned from his concussion symptoms, looks healthy and has been finding the back of the net in the preseason. Stephen Weiss, a 60-point type has produced as well, but there’s not much coming from anyone else. And if it doesn’t change, Florida will have even bigger problem this season since Nathan Horton was shipped to Boston for defenseman Dennis Wideman.

Wideman is a very good puck mover, and a power play quarterback who can make things happen, but what Florida needs is more from youngsters like Michael Frolik and Shawn Matthias. New GM Dale Tallon added some depth at forward with Chris Higgins, Steve Bernier and Marty Reasoner, but his style really is to build through the draft. Mind you Tallon had a great one in June, with his first pick, Erik Gudbranson very likely to be on the opening night roster.

2010-11 Season Preview

Overall, it figures to be another very long and frustrating season for the Panthers and especially goalie Tomas Vokoun, who will give them more of a chance to win than they probably deserve.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Any way they set things up the Lightning are going to have two big-time scoring lines. Steven Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier will be together on many power plays, but at regular strength they’ll be the centers for wings Martin St. Louis, Simon Gagne, Ryan Malone and Steve Downie.

Tampa Bay’s rookie coach Guy Boucher has been mixing up the combos in preseason action and probably will continue to do so into the start of the regular schedule, which should make life tougher on opposing defenses and goaltenders. In the meantime, right wing Teddy Purcell has made an impression on Boucher and may get more playing time than a third-liner usually would.

Boucher also is pushing his team to be more attack-minded, which should mean a big improvement because of its natural firepower. Having Pavel Kubina back as a power play quarterback won’t hurt, either, and his return solidifies a defense that could see a breakout year from sophomore Victor Hedman and has gotten some unexpectedly solid work from defenseman Mike Lundin in the preseason.

Tampa Bay’s starting goaltending job is still up for grabs because one of the candidates, Mike Smith, was sidelined for the first four preseason games with an injury. Dan Ellis, a free-agent signing last summer, has been sharp, but Smith looked very good in his first outing after returning and leaves Boucher with a decision to make for opening night.

Washington Capitals: If you have any doubt about this team being on a mission, check out early preseason returns. The Caps won their first five games, outscoring opponents 17-7, and all without some guy named Alex Ovechkin getting a goal.

OK, so he played in only two of those games, but Ovechkin did make his presence known with five assists which is unusual for someone known for finishing plays rather than starting them. What it suggests is that this year is about one thing and one thing only in the nation’s capital, winning the Stanley Cup the team felt it should have captured last season.

But we all know what happened then, although for Washington, any reminder of its collapse in the opening round against Montreal is only another motivator. The organization didn’t hit the panic button after it blew a 3-1 series lead, although it decided to cast its lot once and for all with either Semyon Varlamov or Michal Neuvirth by letting veteran goaltender Jose Theodore walk. But there have been a few other roster changes, with newer and younger blood coming up from the system to replace veterans who no longer fit.

A couple of the fresh faces will be John Carlson and Karl Alzner, who will join a blue line that was, and still is considered Washington’s Achilles Heel. Thing is with Mike Green creating so much offense from back there, and Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alxander Semin among others producing in droves up front, the Caps tend to get away with it. At least in the regular season.

In Washington though, that will be of little consolation unless it results in a Stanley Cup parade next spring.

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