We’ve covered the Atlantic and the Northeast so far and today we are going to start on the Southeast Division. We’ll start with the forwards today and man is this division loaded. I’m going to do the best I can to justify each of our selections, but the fact of the matter is that there are a ton of elite forwards in this division. Let’s start with the honorable mentions.
Honorable Mentions (in no particular order): Jordan Staal, Alexander Semin, Stephen Weiss, Nicklas Backstrom, Vincent Lecavalier, Evander Kane
Wow, that’s a strong cast of players that only made the honorable mention category. Jordan Staal is a big strong center who is very responsible defensively, and has found a goal scoring touch. Last year, Staal recorded career highs in goals and points despite missing 20 games last year. Now, Staal gets to join his brother Eric in Carolina and we’ll see if he can keep up his goal scoring prowess in the much more wide open Southeast. Like Staal, Alex Semin also jumped ship to Carolina, making the Hurricanes loaded offensively. Last year, Semin really struggled, scoring the fewest amount of goals in a season since his rookie year (21 goals). However in the playoffs, we saw a new Semin, one that was more committed to defense, more committed to shot blocking, and he played an incredible overall game. Now, we’ll see if the change of scenery allows Semin to relocate his offensive game. Stephen Weiss is a bit of a mystery to most people, but Weiss is Florida’s do-everything player. Weiss finished 2nd on his team in points and +/-, and led all forwards on his team in ice time. Weiss also took the 11th highest percentage of his team’s faceoffs (32.8%) and he won 53.2% of them. Nicklas Backstrom is another tough omission on this list because when he’s at his best, he’s one of the best passers in the game. The last two years really haven’t been great for Backstrom. After having a subpar 2010-2011, Backstrom sustained a nasty concussion last year and only managed to play 42 games. We’ll see if Backstrom can rebound next year and hit the 100 point mark again. Vincent Lecavalier has seen his numbers dropped steadily every year since the lockout ended, dropping from 108 points in 05-06 to just 49 points this past year. However, Lecavalier hasn’t needed to be as big of an offensive force with the emergence of Steven Stamkos and the continued brilliance of Martin St. Louis. Lecavalier has still contributed in other ways, taking 30.4% of his team’s faceoffs, throwing 103 hits, and playing just under 19 minutes a game. His game has dropped off dramatically and there’s a good chance that we won’t see Lecavalier on this list in the next couple of years, but for now he gets an honorable mention. Finally, we have Evander Kane. Each year, Kane keeps getting better and better. He’s jumped from 26 points his rookie year to 30 goals and 57 points last year. We’ll see if Kane’s numbers can keep climbing in the coming years. He’s truly a dynamic player.
Now let’s look at the guys that did crack the top 5.
5. Jeff Skinner, Carolina Hurricanes
This kid is something special. As an 18 year old kid, Skinner scored 31 goals and 63 points to win the Calder Trophy. That year, Skinner was also named an All Star, becoming the youngest All Star in any of the major sports. He also joined Steve Yzerman as the only 18 year olds to ever play in an NHL All Star Game. Last year, Skinner got a derailed by a concussion, but still scored 20 goals and 44 points in the 62 games he did play. Now, Skinner will get to continue his growth while playing with some super talented teammates. The Canes brought in Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin and chances are that Skinner will get to play with at least one of them, if not captain Eric Staal. Skinner is a great goal scorer and he knows how to get to the premium scoring areas with the best of them. Last year, the Hurricanes rarely had possession of the puck, and now they are an offensive dynamo. Skinner should see a big spike in his numbers if he can stay healthy. He’s dynamic on the powerplay, fantastic at even strength, and will see a lot more open ice with his new linemates. Watch out Southeast Division.
Last Year: 20 goals – 24 assists – 44 points
Projection: 34 goals – 35 assists – 69 points
4. Eric Staal, Carolina Hurricanes
Last year, Staal endured one of the toughest seasons of his career, struggling to find his game. Staal also had to deal with the fact that he posted an awful -20, which was good for 879th out of 894 players. Staal has never been a great defensive player, but still those numbers were terrible for him. However, despite all that, Staal still scored 24 goals, 70 points, and was 5th among all forwards in ice time (21:32/game). Staal also took 34.6% of his team’s faceoffs which was 5th best in the NHL, and he won 51.3% of them. With the additions of Alex Semin and brother Jordan Staal, Eric will get a chance to play with some ultra talented teammates and he should see his numbers pick back up. No one will benefit more from Carolina’s offseason moves than Eric and hopefully he rewards them with a strong offensive season. This Carolina team has Stanley Cup aspirations and they will rely on their captain for leadership and guidance.
Last Year: 24 goals – 46 assists – 70 points
Projection: 33 goals – 50 assists – 83 points
3. Martin St. Louis, Tampa Bay Lightning
St. Louis is an absolute marvel. Despite being 5’8″ and 180 lbs, St. Louis is one of the hardest players in the NHL to stop. Last year, St. Louis scored 25 goals and 74 points, the lowest totals for him since 2005-2006. He’s 37 years old and will be playing in the 1000th game of his career, but I still don’t think we’re going to see this guy slow down. Just 2 years ago, St. Louis had 99 points in the regular season and then recorded 10 goals and 20 points as he led the Lightning into the Conference Finals. He’s not too far removed from his grand days and a new year could bring back the old St. Louis. For the Lightning, they’ll need him to have a big season in order to return to the playoffs.
Last Year: 25 goals – 49 assists – 74 points
Projection: 29 goals – 52 assists – 81 points
2. Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals
The Russian dynamo has endured a couple of down years after the brilliant start to his NHL career. In the last two years, Ovechkin has only recorded 70 goals. This coming after Ovechkin recorded 65 goals alone in the 2007-2008 season. Many have argued that Ovechkin has put more of a focus on defense and being a captain, but I think a lot of his struggles have to do with teammate Nicklas Backstrom not playing as much. However with Ovechkin, you know he will still throw hits (215 last year – 15th in NHL) and he will put a lot of shots on goal (303 – 6th in NHL). I don’t know if we’ll see Ovechkin return to his 60-goal ways, but I do think that with a healthy Nick Backstrom, Ovechkin can get back up to the 40 goal mark.
Last Year: 38 goals – 27 assists – 65 points
Projection: 44 goals – 42 assists – 86 points
1. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning
Not only has Stamkos taken away the title of best goal scorer in the NHL from Alex Ovechkin, he’s supplanted Ovechkin as the best player in his division. Stamkos became the 2nd player since 1995-1996 to score 60 or more goals in a season, joining Alexander the Great. We should keep in mind that Stamkos is only 22 years old. That’s insane and the sky is the limit for this kid. He keeps getting better and better each year and probably the next area of improvement for Stammer is the faceoff circle. The Lightning do count on him to take a lot of faceoffs (25.3% of the faceoffs), but he’s only winning a paltry 45.5% of them. Stamkos has to get that total above 50% and we’ll see if he makes a Crosby-like growth. Sidney Crosby was a dynamic point producer when he came in, but over time he’s added the ability to be a great faceoff man and an above average defensive forward. Those are the next two steps for Stamkos and we’ll see if he can continue his maturation next year. But until then, there is no one better at finding the open space, no one with a better release on his shot, and nobody with a better nose for the puck. His one-timer from just below the left faceoff dot is the best in the game and is one of the best shots we have in the game, right up there with the Chara slapshot and the Crosby backhand.
Last Year: 60 goals – 37 assists – 97 points
Projection: 56 goals – 40 assists – 96 points
That’s our wrap on the forwards. This division is an extremely talented one and it was very hard to narrow these down. Disagree with who we picked? Comment below!