Carolina Vs. Southeast Division: Forwards

I got the defensemen covered the other day, so now it’s time to see how Carolina’s forward corps matches up against the Southeast Division. The Canes have one of the best centers in the league in Eric Staal and an extremely promising rookie in Jeff Skinner but the rest of the cast looks kind of weak, especially compared to Washington and Tampa Bay. To compete in this division, you need to have top-level forwards up front and Carolina is kind of lacking in that area. Aside from Staal, Skinner and possibly Ruutu and Jokinen, most of the forward corps is depended on for secondary scoring, defensive forwards and unproven younger players. How does that look compared to the rest of the Southeast? Well, they might look weak compared to Tampa and Washington but the Canes should at least be a little stronger than Florida and Winnipeg for now. One thing the Canes forward corps has their their defense doesn’t is a good set of young talent that should be ready to produce within the next year or two. The big question is whether or not some of those young, promising prospects will get their shot this season or not.

Comparing forwards is going to be tougher than defensemen because you have to consider the different roles certain players have, position changes (Tuomo Ruutu, Brooks Laich) and how a lot of goal-scorers are depended on for defense. In the end, I decided to separate the forwards by which ones get top-six minutes (aka guys who are relied upon for scoring) and those who are third and fourth liners who are generally depended on for defense, penalty killing, etc. It’s a bit rough but I think it works.

 

Top-Six Forwards

Carolina Florida Tampa Bay Washington Winnipeg
Eric Staal Stephen Weiss Steven Stamkos Alex Ovechkin Andrew Ladd
Tuomo Ruutu David Booth Martin St. Louis Nicklas Backstrom Blake Wheeler
Jussi Jokinen Scottie Upshall Steve Downie Alexander Semin Bryan Little
Jeff Skinner Kris Versteeg Vincent Lecavalier Mike Knuble Nik Antropov
Alexei Ponikarovsky Mike Santorelli Ryan Malone Troy Brouwer Alex Burmistrov
Zach Boychuk Tomas Fleischmann Teddy Purcell Marcus Johansson Evander Kane
Anthony Stewart Tomas Kopecky Brooks Laich

*More than six players were included for some teams because it’s not certain who will play in their top-six at the moment.

Spreadsheet of all forwards is here.

Carolina’s lack of a first line winger is what will lower them in the rankings here. They have one of the best centers in the game in Eric Staal, but he might have to do a lot of the work himself with his current options at wing being Alexei Ponikarovsky, Zach Boychuk and Anthony Stewart. I’m assuming that they will keep the Jokinen-Ruutu-Skinner line together to start the year because they were Carolina’s most efficient line last season and get the benefit of playing easier zone starts compared to others. Keeping this line together will also help out the team’s much needed scoring depth, so it’s best to keep those three together for now. I’ve also taken a closer look at Staal the past few weeks and determined that he is good enough to carry his linemates like he did with Cole, Samsonov and Stillman, so I’m hoping he can do the same with whoever he is paired with this season. He is coming off a down year at even strength but at 26, he is entering his prime so I do think he will rebound.

What concerns me the most is that Staal may struggle to find consistency with any of his possible linemates this year. That and Boychuk, Stewart and Ponikarovsky are all inferior to Erik Cole in terms of goal-scoring. You could certainly do worse than these three, though. I do think we’ll get a better season out of Ponikarovsky because he will see more ice-time with better teammates in Carolina and that 6.6 shooting percentage will go up. If he can at least have a season similar to his days in Toronto then I will be pleased, especially for the contract Rutherford signed him to. Filling the other winger spot appears to be more of a challenge, but I think it presents a great opportunity for young Zach Boychuk. He has loads of potential and played well with Staal in limited ice-time so I think he get his chance to earn a full-time spot to start the year. He appears to have a bigger upside than Anthony Stewart, who saw top-six in Atlanta last season and had decent box-car stats but the underlying numbers show that he is a below-average top-six forward and isn’t good enough defensively to play on the third line, but he will likely have a spot on the team due to his contract. Like I said, the Canes have an elite center and one very solid line, but the lack of a proven goal-scoring winger on the first line could do a number on their offense.

What Florida has in their top-six is a logjam of players who would be second or third liners on most teams but they will be heavily depended on for points on the Panthers. I examined Stephen Weiss a couple weeks ago and determined that his production does not equal that of a first-line center and he’s constantly burdened with tough assignments which has made it more difficult to be the driving force for this team. I still have some hope left for David Booth, though. I know the guy has the potential to be a 30 goal scorer, but he has fallen on some tough luck the last couple of seasons. His 2009-10 was shortened by Mike Richards and he had a paltry 6.92% on-ice shooting percentage last year. That number is going to go up and I think he has a few more great seasons in him before his production begins to tail off. The right wing spot on the first line will either go to Kris Versteeg or Scottie Upshall, who are both pretty similar players who can play tough minutes but Upshall has the edge when it comes to goal-scoring. I don’t know if he can be classified as a first line winger, though which kind of reiterates my earlier point. 

A good question for the Panthers is what will they do with Tomas Fleischmann, seeing how he’s their highest paid forward but he isn’t that good at driving the pace of play, sees mostly sheltered ice-time and has benefited from high shooting percentages the last two years, especially in Colorado. It’s doubtful that he’ll play on the first line despite his contract. He could be a good fit with Mike Santorelli and Versteeg on the second line, though. Those three got the benefit of easier zone starts and are able to take advantage of them. It’s not too bad of a second line but I wouldn’t expect them to set the world on fire, which describes Florida’s whole top-six pretty well, too. There’s a lot of GM’s who would like to have Weiss, Upshall, Versteeg, etc. but Dale Tallon decided to give all of these guys long-term deals instead…which isn’t what you want to do if you’re a team in rebuild mode like Florida is.

Tampa Bay might have the best first line in the division. It’s hard not to get behind a unit that features two of the best goal-scorers in the league right now. Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis proved to be a very dangerous combination last season and they didn’t benefit from getting soft ice-time either. Neither were that impressive territorially but they put up a lot of points and that’s what matters here. Steve Downie has also provided a nice compliment to this line too as he keeps getting better every season.The Bolts’ second line is pretty great too even with Vinny Lecavalier’s downward spiral. Ryan Malone’s also aging but he’s still managed to be a productive player in this system. The biggest concern in their top-six is replacing Simon Gagne, but they are putting a lot of hope in Teddy Purcell, who saw a lot of playing time with Lecavalier last year, to fill his role in the top-six. You could say that Purcell’s success in Tampa is due to him playing with a strong forward corps but he’s posted very promising underlying numbers, too. His strong balanced corsi rating of 10.81 compared to some of his linemates (Lecavalier, Gagne) show that he is capable of creating offense on his own. I’d look for him to have another good season. There’s definitely a lot of firepower here but whether or not Downie can replace Gagne’s production is a good question.

Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom had down seasons for their standards last year and both of them suffered from very low shooting percentages and Ovechkin’s was at the lowest of his career. It’s very possible to see another OV-like year for #8. What about Backstrom, though? He actually shot the puck a lot less, especially compared to his 100-point season so I think better days are ahead for him, too but I don’t think he’ll ever put up that many points again. Bruce Boudreau has a few options for what he can do to fill the RW spot on the first line. Crease-crasher Mike Knuble is the usual guy for the job but he’ll see some competition from Troy Brouwer, who played a similar role in Chicago playing with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Brouwer also has a similar skill-set to Knuble and appears to be a better possession driver than him (granted he played heavily sheltered minutes in Chicago) so I could see him getting some time on the first line.  He may stick to the second line with either Marcus Johansson or Brooks Laich for now, though. Speaking of which, Johansson had some impressive moments last season but he sure got dominated territorially and was really poor in his own zone. I also think that Laich may start the year centering the second line based on the contract they gave him but Washington’s second line generally gets the easiest zone starts, which would help Johansson a lot more than Laich. Then there’s Alex Semin. You can attribute his inconsistent play to not having a “real” center but I beleive that Semin’s struggles start and end with himself. Last season, he led the Caps in scoring chance percentage, had fantastic possession numbers and looked like the team’s best player at times. This shows what he’s capable of doing…sometimes That’s why he was only re-signed for one year instead of being given a long-term deal. Whether his struggles come from him being unmotivated or playing with weak teammates is a good question but his inconsistencies and the team’s lack of a “true” second line center are the Caps only holes in their top-six for now.

Winnipeg faces a similar problem to Florida; their top-six consists of a few great players but zero stars. Evander Kane and Alexander Burmistrov have the potential to be top-tier players but aren’t quite there yet. The Jets best line consists of Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler for now, which is a pretty excellent two-way line on any team. All three take on a lot of tough assignments, play well territorially, are defensively responsible and can score.After that, they have Nik Antropov, who is moving over to the wing this season to allow young Alex Burmistrov to center the second line. Putting up points is really all Antropov can do, so playing on a line that will get the most protection may help him. The question is whether or not Burmistrov can center the second line because he had some atrocious possession and face-off numbers last season. It is never good when a player is sheltered and still gets dominated territorially like he was, so I’m skeptical of how he will play on the second line. A year of NHL experience may help him, though. Evander Kane’s sophomore season was pretty disappointing, and while he did have a low shooting percentage, he also gave up a lot of chances in his own end, so he’ll have to be better for this line to be effective. The difference between Atlanta and Florida is they are giving their young, high-end talent more ice-time instead of clogging their top-six with bad contracts. Despite that, I don’t think this unit will score a lot unless Burmistrov can drastically improve on his rookie season.

Ranking
1. Washington
2. Tampa Bay
3. Carolina
4. Winnipeg
5. Florida

Bottom Six/Depth

Carolina Florida Tampa Bay Washington Winnipeg
Chad LaRose Evgeny Dadonov Dominic Moore Joel Ward Chris Thorburn
Brandon Sutter Marcel Goc Nate Thompson Jason Chimera Ben Maxwell
Jiri Tlusty Michal Repik Adam Hall Jeff Halpern Eric Fehr
Tim Brent Sean Bergenheim Ryan Shannon Matt Hendricks Tim Stapleton
Patrick Dwyer Jack Skille Dana Tyrell DJ King Jim Slater
Drayson Bowman Shawn Matthias Mattias Ritola Jay Beagle Patrice Cormier
Jerome Samson Matt Bradley Tanner Glass
Ryan Carter

One thing a lot of recent Stanley Cup champions have showed us is that you need forward depth to be a contending team and win in the playoffs. That’s something the Bruins had that the Canucks didn’t in last year’s final. Does Carolina have the advantage here compared to other teams? Well, they have a solid third line with Brandon Sutter, Chad LaRose and one of Alexei Ponikarovsky, Anthony Stewart and Drayson Bowman. Next to Staal, Larose and Sutter sees the toughest assignments on the team and both are fantastic players when it comes to getting the puck into the offensive zone, as evidenced by their solid OZ finish rates. LaRose also had a very unlucky season when it came to scoring (5.71 on-ice shooting percentage) so I would expect his box-car numbers to improve a little bit. Ponikarovsky playing on the third line will depend on what the team decides to do with Staal’s line but Poni is a good fit here because he can kill penalties, prevent chances and play defense. Getting him to do that and score at the same time is an issue, though. Bowman is someone who I would like to see get a chance here out of camp because he played well to end the season but he may see himself in Charlotte to start the year due to his age. Either way, this third line is one of Carolina’s stronger areas.

The fourth line is a similar story but much less offense is expected from them. Patrick Dwyer is what you would expect from your typical fourth liner; he kills penalties, takes tough draws and he can counted on to work hard and play defense if nothing else. Jiri Tlusty will likely find himself on the fourth line because he doesn’t score enough to play anywhere else and at the very least, he doesn’t give up a lot of chances in his own end. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Bowman or Jerome Samson challenge for his roster spot, though. Centering this line is newcomer Tim Brent, who appears to be a “face-off specialist.” Meaning winning face-offs are his best asset and not much else. Carolina was one of the worst face-off teams in the league last season so he addresses a need there, but it would be even more helpful to the team if he could establish himself as a defensive forward. The Canes have plenty of forward depth but they are putting a lot of faith in younger players and luck for scoring, which could be a problem. They did bring in some forward who are solid defensively and at penalty killing, which was something they really needed.

Florida’s in a weird situation because they have a few young players who would probably do better with top-six minutes but they are stuck on the third and fourth lines because Tallon opted to sign a bunch of guys to play in the top-six instead of letting the young talent on the team grow. I’m confident that Evgeny Dadonov would have had a better rookie season if he was given more consistent ice-time, but it’s looking like he’ll have naother sub-par season due to being buried with defensive zone starts with weak linemates. One positive thing from this is that Florida’s built what looks like a strong third line with Marcel Goc, Sean Bergenheim and Dadonov. You can expect this line to handle a lot of tough draws and take some heat off Weiss’ line. Goc did a lot of heavy-lifting in Nashville and was one of the best forwards at driving possession there along with Joel Ward and Bergenheim essentially did the same thing in Tampa Bay. I don’t think he will be as effective as he was on the Bolts, though. Could possibly return to his Islander days where he was a solid third liner but didn’t make nearly as much of an impact. Florida’s fourth line is probably going to be sheltered the most considering their options are Matt Bradley, Jack Skille, Michal Repik, Shawn Matthias and Ryan Carter. None are spectuaclary defensive players and have been fourth liners for most of their careers, with the exception of Repik who is a similar player to Dadonov. He could do well with more ice-time but he’s stuck on the fourth line now. Florida’s third line might play well territorially but they are not going to score much and I don’t think any of their possible fourth line players will put up a combined 15 goals this season, showing that they will be heavily relying on their top six for offense and well…I already addressed how bad of a situation that is earlier.

Aside from locking up Stamkos, the Lightning’s biggest challenge this off-season was replacing Sean Bergenheim on the third line with Dominic Moore and Adam Hall. The one signing they made was Ryan Shannon, who is both similar and different from Bergenheim. He is similar because he can create chances and drive possession with his quick skating. He’s different because Shannon was one of Ottawa’s most protected forwards and that’s the opposite of how Bergenheim was used in Tampa Bay. Tampa Bay’s bottom-six is full of players who can replace Bergenheim’s tough zone starts, though so putting Shannon on a line with Moore and Hall might work out. Shannon is a very good skater and can essentially do the same things Bergenheim did even if he is a downgrade defensively. Thompson and Tyrell can also handle tough minutes so Tampa appears to be in good shape here as far as depth goes. They can also be relied on for secondary scoring, which fits perfectly into Boucher’s system.

Washington’s forward depth has undergone a bit of reconstruction this off-season. They lost Boyd Gordon, Matt Bradley and Eric Fehr but they brought in Joel Ward and Jeff Halpern to replace them. Halpern is a great face-off man but he can’t do the heavy-lifting that Gordon did so that does pose a problem, but I think that’s where Joel Ward comes in. He constantly handled the toughest assignments among forwards in Nashville and created offense out of them. That skill is huge, especially on the penalty kill. Him on a line with Jason Chimera and Brooks Laich could do a number on opposing team’s third pairing defense. On the fourth-line, they have Jay Beagle stepping into a full-time role but I don’t know how long that will last considering the only thing he’s proven so far is that he’s an average defensive forward and not much else. I would not be surprised to see McPhee make a trade for a depth forward sometime this year, especially since I think Matt Hendricks is due for some major regression. DJ King is mostly there to keep the press box warm.

I mentioned that hte Jets have a severe lack of depth in their defense and that statement is true for their forwards, as well. They did trade for Eric Fehr at a low cost and I am interested to what Patrice Cormier can do but the rest? Yuck. Fehr is a player who does well against easy assignments so I think he’s glued to the third line in Winnipeg but this line getting a lot of protection could be a good thing with Cormier centering it. The question is who plays the other wing? None of the options are too appealing but I could see Chris Thorburn playing here, as terrible as that sounds. The fourth line is going to get a ton of defensive zone starts due to other lines getting protection, so that likely means Tanner Glass, Jim Slater and possibly Ben Maxwell play on this line since they’ve played in roles like this in their careers before. Like I said, Winnipeg’s lack of depth is pretty concerning but there’s a lot of potential here.

Ranking:
1. Tampa Bay
2. Washington
3. Carolina
4. Florida
5. Winnipeg

Carolina ranks in the middle of the pack here because they have a little more proven talent than Florida and Winnipeg but not nearly as much as Washington and Tampa. The gap between the Canes and those two teams is pretty big, actually. Carolina does have one elite player and two very solid lines, so that will at least keep them in the mix for a good part of the season but they just don’t have the horses up front to compete in the division. Hopefully that can change in a year or two once Skinner keeps developing and Boychuk and Dalpe are on the roster full-time. I’m also putting a lot of faith in some younger players and for guys that had down seasons (LaRose, Poni) to rebound. I also think the defensive improvements the Canes made up front will go a long way.

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