The Good News: The addition of Stanley Cup Playoff hero Dustin Byfuglien along with grinding teammates Andrew Ladd and Ben Eager completes the team heart transplant which began with the 2009 first round draft pick of LW Evander Kane and continued with the trade acquisition of LW Niclas Bergfors. A Thrasher team which for years seemed perfectly satisfied with losing will now compete every shift, led by the inimitable talents of the huge and fast Byfuglien, at 6’5” 250 pounds a one-man match-up impossibility, who will be moving from the wing to the Atlanta blueline to form a solid core with the offensively talented Tobias Enstrom, the defensively steady Ron Hainsey, and emerging star Zach Bogosian.
The Bad News: The Thrashers are weak in goal, with the unproven Ondrej Pavelec competing for a job with the marginally talented journeyman Chris Mason. The forwards’ collective character has been improved greatly with the recent roster turnover, but the loss of Ilya Kovalchuk leaves them short on skill and goal-scoring talent. With a fan base comprised seemingly of people who like to dress up as empty seats game in and game out, the Thrashers do not have a lot of money to acquire help at the deadline should they find themselves in the playoff hunt.
Fantasy Focus: Evander Kane became a legend among hockey fans at the tail-end of last year with his one-punch (one punch!) TKO of Pittsburgh mega-jerk Matt Cooke (if you haven’t seen it, please watch on YouTube — awesome!), but the fact is this kid has much more to offer than toughness and heart. Kane is super-skilled, fires off a laser wrister, and can skate like the wind. Last year he scored 14-12-26 with limited ice time, but expect him to skyrocket to a top line in 2010-11 and get closer to his upside as an elite NHL power forward. A 30-goal season is not out of the question, and you can probably sleep on Kane until the last few rounds of your draft.
Fearless Forecast: The Thrashers have the makings of a terrific future blueline and have some talent developing on the forward lines with Kane and Bergfors already around and prospects Patrice Cormier and Alex Burmistrov on the way. But questions in goal and on offense will leave the people of Atlanta without a postseason to disguise themselves as empty seats and attend.
Southeast Division: 3rd place
Eastern Conference: 10th place
The Good News: Eric Staal got off to a slow start in 2009-10, but picked it up in the second half to finish with 70 points in 70 games. He’s still an elite center, and should return to the 80 to 90 point range this year. Brandon Sutter returned the fabled Sutter-clan to the NHL ranks with a 21-goal rookie campaign and gritty two-way play and will only improve as he learns the pro game. Cam Ward remains the best goaltender in the NHL no one seems to talk about, but then he has a Stanley Cup ring and you don’t.
The Bad News: Despite Ward, the ‘Canes were 26th in the NHL in goals against last year, due to a collection of forwards who play soft in the defensive zone (this means you, Sergei Samsonov), and a defense core comprised mainly of non-physical mid-tier puck-moving types (Joe Corvo, Tim Gleason, Joni Pitkanen, et al). After Staal, the team’s roster reads like a list of second-to-third liners and third and fourth defensemen.
Fantasy Focus: The ‘Canes have recently reported the signing of 2010 first-round pick LW Jeff Skinner to a professional contract. The 2010 draft was an interesting one. While top two picks Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin received most of the hype, several players drafted later on may turn out to have equal or better offensive upside. The Islanders’ Nino Niederreiter dominated the WJC tournament for Switzerland while Tampa Bay’s Brett Connolly would have been mentioned alongside Taylor and Tyler had injuries not derailed his season. While all of the aforementioned blue-chippers should go on to have tremendous NHL careers, it’s difficult to overlook the offensive upside of Skinner, the undersized C/LW who scored 50 goals for Kitchener in the OHL last season and then went on to score 20 in 20 playoff games. In deeper seasonal leagues, Skinner is a nice sleeper who, if he makes the ’Canes out of training camp, could challenge for the Calder Trophy. In keeper leagues, this kid is a must-have, a sniper with 40 to 50 goal upside.
Fearless Forecast: You have a better chance of a tornado taking you off to Oz to meet up with Dorothy and Toto than you have of these Hurricanes taking you to the 2010-11 playoffs.
Southeast Division: 4th place
Eastern Conference: 14th place
The Good News: The good news is that Panthers are about to break a very impressive NHL record of missing the playoffs for the 10th straight season. Why, you may ask, is this news good? Because it’s all part of the grand plan of new GM Dale Tallon. The architect of the Chicago Blackhawk team which won the Stanley Cup championship in 2010, Tallon has been steadily trading assets for draft picks and prospects in the hopes of building an elite talent base on a par with franchises who built similarly, such as the past two Cup winners in Chicago and Pittsburgh. Already, Tallon has assembled a top goaltending prospect in Jacob Markstrom, a pair of elite young defensemen in Dmitri Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson, and a duo of future top-pairing forwards in RW Michael Frolik and 2010 first round pick Nick Bjugstad. Tallon has no problem with his team going through growing pains for the next two to three seasons if it means accumulating more top-end talent to build around.
The Bad News: Let’s face it: this team is terrible. They have a very good backstop in Tomas Vokoun, but he is likely to be dealt at the deadline. They have one very good force on the blueline in Bryan McCabe, but he is likely to be dealt at the deadline. And they have two very good forwards in C Stephen Weiss and LW David Booth, both likely to be dealt at the deadline. Behind the trade-chips, these Panthers are thinner than Kate Moss after falling asleep in the sauna.
Fantasy Focus: In a seasonal league, there is no one on this squad who should be even looked at in the first ten rounds with the possible exception of Vokoun. In deeper leagues and keeper leagues, however, you might want to take a flier on D Dmitri Kulikov. The 19-year old Russian has phenomenal offensive instincts and could take over the top spot on the Panthers’ power play when McCabe is inevitably dealt. A reasonable expectation would be 30 to 40 points, but Kulikov has the skill set to become an all-star in the future.
Fearless Forecast: The draft lottery can’t come soon enough for these Panthers, who will spend most of the season resembling Apollo Creed at the hands of B.A. Baracus in Rocky III. Oh, the humanity.
Southeast Division: 5th place
Eastern Conference: 15th (last) place
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
The Good News: This team can flat-out score. C Steven Stamkos is one of the rising stars of the NHL, exploding for 51 goals as a 19-year old in 2009-10. If healthy, off-season trade acquisition LW Simon Gagne gives the Bolts four forwards capable of scoring at a point-a-game clip, along with Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier. They don’t lack for toughness either, as Ryan Malone and Steve Downie both had 20-goal seasons and combined for nearly 300 penalty minutes last year. GM/absolute supergenius Steve Yzerman got a coup when Brett Connolly fell to him at sixth overall in the first round, a kid with a skill-set nearly identical to top-overall pick Taylor Hall, and it would not be a surprise to see him make the big squad as an 18-year old.
The Bad News: The goaltending situation for this team is as troubling as for any team in the NHL. Incumbent Mike Smith has been simply awful, a paltry return as the centerpiece in the Brad Richards trade. New acquisition Dan Ellis is a likely candidate to be the latest in a long line of ex-Nashville goaltenders who look decent due to the Predators’ defensive system, but turn out to be mediocre after leaving Nashville. Tampa should at the very least be an exciting squad who both scores and gives up a ton of goals.
Fantasy Focus: Rookies always get all the attention in fantasy leagues and tend to be overdrafted, while it seems sophomores seem to be overlooked. One doesn’t have to look far for an example, as Stamkos had a higher average draft position in Yahoo leagues in his rookie year of 2008-09 when he scored 23-23-46 than he did as a sophomore when he scored 51-44-95. This year the Lightning have another blue-chip breakthrough candidate in D Victor Hedman. The smooth-skating and skilled 6’6” giant played a solid though unspectacular game while learning the NHL grind as an 18-year old last year. This year I expect him to assert himself more on the rush and on the power play, and he should at least double his 09-10 line of 4-16-20.
Fearless Forecast: Everything Steve Yzerman touches seems to turn to not gold but silver – the color of the Stanley Cup. This Lightning team is loaded with young and veteran top-end talent, and while they’re still a goaltender away from barking with the big dogs, they should skyrocket from a lottery team last year to a playoff team this year.
Southeast Division: 2nd place
Eastern Conference: 6th place
The Good News: We all know that Alexander Ovechkin might just be the greatest athlete on the planet earth, but GM George McPhee has done a suberb job surrounding his mega-star with top-end talent. C Nicklas Backstrom broke through with a 33-68-101 line last season and looks like a young Peter Forsberg in the offensive zone. RW Alexander Semin notched his first 40-goal season and has the scintillating talent to improve on that total. D Mike Green led NHL-rearguards in points for the second straight season with 19-57-76 in just 75 contests. The Caps supplemented their superstars with four more 20-goal scorers, Brooks Laich, Tomas Fleischmann, Mike Knuble and Eric Fehr. Often I’d watch the goaltenders facing this Washington juggernaut and be reminded of the hysterical girl with the runny nose in the last scene of The Blair Witch Project.
The Bad News: Coming off two consecutive playoff disappointments, the last one a heartbreaker after blowing a 3-1 lead against Montreal, the pressure is on Ovie and the Caps to finally bring a Cup to the capital. On defense, Green and Tom Poti are often as erratic in their own zone as they are prolific in the offensive zone. Washington will need young blueliners John Carlson and Karl Alzner to really develop over the course of the season if they are to keep the puck out of their nets in the post-season. Most importantly, G Semyon Varlamov has a ton of talent, but has yet to put together a consistent presence over an 82-game season. This must be the year the young Russian netminder steadies the ship if the Caps are to prevail as Stanley Cup champs.
Fantasy Focus: Canadians and Americans alike know John Carlson for his dramatic, game-winning overtime goal which won the WJC for the USA against Canada. Well, 2010-11 is going to be his first full year in the NHL, and we’re expecting plenty of more goals from the 20-year old out of Massachusetts. Like Green, Carlson is an offensive force with an amazing set of wheels. Unlike Green, Carlson likes to hit and is extremely solid in the defensive zone. The Caps like to play one defenseman with four forwards on the power play, so expect to see Carlson as the defensive mainstay on the second power play unit. On this offensive monster of a team, 45-55 points and a sterling +/- is in the cards for Carlson, and you should be able to draft him between the 15th and 20th rounds.
Fearless Forecast: The elite of the Eastern Conference is made up of four teams, and three of them (New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh) have to beat each other up in the same division. Washington should use this fortuitous fact to cruise to the top of the division and the conference, and will be a major player for the Stanley Cup trophy.
Southeast Division: 1st place
Eastern Conference: 1st place
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