Commentary

2008-09 Southeast Division fantasy preview

Updated: October 3, 2008, 5:15 PM ET
By Sean Allen | Special to ESPN.com

Key additions: Jason Williams, RW (free agent); Mathieu Schneider, D (trade); Ron Hainsey, D (free agent)

Key losses: Mark Recchi, RW (free agent); Bobby Holik, C (free agent); Jason Krog, C (free agent); Darren Haydar, RW (free agent)

Atlanta Thrashers depth chart
Left wing Center Right wing
Line 1 Ilya Kovalchuk Bryan Little Jason Williams
Line 2 Brett Sterling Erik Christensen Slava Kozlov
Line 3 Colby Armstrong Todd White Chris Thorburn
Line 4 Brad Larsen Eric Perrin Junior Lessard
Eric Boulton Angelo Esposito Jim Slater
Defenseman Defenseman
First Pairing Tobias Enstrom Mathieu Schneider
Second Pairing Niclas Havelid Ron Hainsey
Third Pairing Garnet Exelby Zach Bogosian
Boris Valabik Grant Lewis
First power-play unit
Forwards Ilya Kovalchuk Bryan Little Jason Williams
Point men Tobias Enstrom Mathieu Schneider
Goalies
Starter Kari Lehtonen
Backup Johan Hedberg
Third string Ondrej Pavelec

Sleeper: Bryan Little, C -- Last season was a strong experience and was filled with tons of learning for Bryan Little. Even though he appeared lost at times, the Thrashers smartly kept him up with the big club to make sure he was completely immersed at the NHL level. Little plays strong hockey and is a two-way center, and coach John Anderson likely knows that Little is his best chance of having a No. 1 line that is defensively responsible despite also featuring Ilya Kovalchuk and Jason Williams.

Bust: Slava Kozlov, LW -- Hopefully he isn't going in many shallow fantasy leagues, as last season's performance should be top of mind for potential owners, but it's worth hammering down the point that Kozlov is done for fantasy purposes. Most of his value came from chemistry with Marian Hossa, so pending a miracle trade to Detroit, make sure Kozlov doesn't end up on your team.

Fantasy outlook:

Atlanta is as Atlanta does. This still doesn't look like a playoff club on paper, but there are pieces that can be salvaged for fantasy purposes. First and foremost would be the Thrashers' power play. The addition of Mathieu Schneider gives Atlanta all the elements for a successful man advantage: a powerful point shot (Schneider), puck-moving defenseman (Tobias Enstrom), super sniper (Ilya Kovalchuk), corner mucker (Bryan Little) and crease junkie (Jason Williams). All five players should be drafted almost entirely for their expected production on the power play. Kovalchuk is obviously the shining star of the bunch, making Williams, Little, Schneider and Enstrom late-round steals.

For forward depth, Erik Christensen and Brett Sterling are the other interesting commodities. Christensen has a solid shot, but that might prevent him from playing with Kovalchuk very often as the team doesn't need two snipers roaming the ice together. Sterling has been a phenom in the AHL and would step in opposite Kovalchuk if Williams suddenly remembers he is a chronic injured-reserve visitor.

On defense, Enstrom is the puck mover and Schneider is the physical point shot. Both are no better than a No. 4 defenseman because of the anticipated troublesome plus/minus in Atlanta, but they're serviceable as No. 3s if you decide to ignore plus/minus. Of note as well is that this year's No. 3 overall draft pick -- Zach Bogosian -- may break camp with the club. There is a good chance he doesn't hang around more than nine games (so he can be returned to junior), but you'll want to pay attention. Bogosian could be the puck mover and point shot on the blue line, allowing the Thrashers to slide Kovalchuk back on the line and play four forwards with the man advantage.

In net, Kari Lehtonen let so many people (fantasy and reality) down last season, it's hard to look at him as anything but an afterthought in fantasy drafts. Lehtonen still has talent and he might be in a situation now where if he doesn't succeed this season, he'll need a change of scenery. Still, drafting him on what looks like an Eastern Conference cellar dweller is ill-advised. Ondrej Pavelec, a talented prospect, could even begin challenging Lehtonen this season if the latter struggles to begin the year. If you insist on waiting until the very end of your draft for goaltenders, Lehtonen is your man though. He has a better chance to succeed than the other 'tenders who will be left.


Key additions: Joni Pitkanen, D (trade)

Key losses: Erik Cole, LW (trade); Glen Wesley, D (retired); Jeff Hamilton, C (free agent); Keith Aucoin, C (free agent)

Carolina Hurricanes depth chart
Left wing Center Right wing
Line 1 Ray Whitney Eric Staal Sergei Samsonov
Line 2 Tuomo Ruutu Rod Brind'Amour Patrick Eaves
Line 3 Ryan Bayda Matt Cullen Scott Walker
Line 4 Chad LaRose Brandon Sutter Bobby Hughes
Zach Boychuk Drayson Bowman Justin Williams
Defenseman Defenseman
First Pairing Joni Pitkanen Joe Corvo
Second Pairing Frantisek Kaberle Niclas Wallin
Third Pairing Tim Gleason Anton Babchuk
Casey Borer Tim Conboy
First power-play unit
Forwards Ray Whitney Eric Staal Sergei Samsonov
Point men Joni Pitkanen Joe Corvo
Goalies
Starter Cam Ward
Backup Michael Leighton
Third string Justin Peters

Sleeper: Joni Pitkanen, D -- Pitkanen potted 46 points in 56 games in the season after the lockout. He disappointed the following season and then disappeared in Edmonton. Pitkanen could come back this season with a vengeance. Carolina is a great place for a puck-moving defenseman to call home. The Canes have talented players up front who can work the power play. Matt Cullen and Jeff Hamilton were placed on the point with the man advantage last season because the team didn't have someone like Pitkanen on defense. When Carolina finally landed a defenseman with some puck skills, Joe Corvo, he managed 21 points in 23 games to end the season. At his peak, Pitkanen is a better talent than Corvo, so the cheap investment could have a significant payoff.

Bust: Rod Brind'Amour, C -- Nothing against the skills that old Rowdy Roddy possesses, but two knee surgeries in a year on a 38-year-old have to be concerning. The depth of the Hurricanes' roster has also been tested with the injury to Justin Williams. The concerns over how Brind'Amour holds up to yet another season and the fact that Tuomo Ruutu and Patrick Eaves might be the best linemates the team can offer him are legitimate concerns.

Fantasy outlook:

Eric Staal is a No. 1 center who could work his way back toward the 100-point threshold this season. Ray Whitney is consistently underestimated, but will provide value as a No. 2 left winger. Sergei Samsonov finished the season strong as a member of the Hurricanes and looks to open the season as the winger for the first line since Williams tore his Achilles tendon. He should be considered a sleeper to be a regular on even shallow league rosters.

Rod Brind'Amour appears to be left in the lurch by the Williams injury as he is left with reclamation project Tuomo Ruutu on one wing and either youngster Patrick Eaves or bruiser Scott Walker on the other. It's not a strong second unit and there are concerns over its overall fantasy relevance. Going even deeper, Matt Cullen should see his value decrease significantly with the arrival of Joni Pitkanen, who will assume puck-moving duties on the power play. Rookie Brandon Sutter could rise through the ranks quickly, and if he moves over to the wing to play alongside Brind'Amour, it would help both their stocks.

Pitkanen and Joe Corvo are the defensemen you want to own. Consider Corvo a No. 2 defenseman and Pitkanen a No. 3 with plenty of upside from there. The rest of the defense isn't all that appealing for fantasy purposes.

Cam Ward is a bit of an enigma in net. Last season was actually the first time in his career (three seasons) that he managed to finish with a save percentage better than .900, and it wasn't that much better (.904). A 2.75 goals-against average is also nothing to write home about. He may not get an exceptionally long leash this season as backup Michael Leighton was the best goaltender in the AHL last season, finishing second in goals-against average (2.10) and first in save percentage (.931). If I were investing in Ward as my goalie this season, I'd be backing him up with Leighton.


Key additions: Bryan McCabe, D (trade); Cory Stillman, LW (free agent); Keith Ballard, D (trade); Nick Boynton, D (trade)

Key losses: Olli Jokinen, C (trade); Mike Van Ryn, D (trade); Jozef Stumpel, C (free agent)

Florida Panthers depth chart
Left wing Center Right wing
Line 1 Cory Stillman Shawn Matthias Nathan Horton
Line 2 Rostislav Olesz Stephen Weiss Richard Zednik
Line 3 David Booth Kamil Kreps Radek Dvorak
Line 4 Ville Peltonen Brett McLean Anthony Stewart
Gregory Campbell Michael Frolik Wade Belak
Defenseman Defenseman
First Pairing Jay Bouwmeester Bryan McCabe
Second Pairing Keith Ballard Cory Murphy
Third Pairing Bryan Allen Noah Welch
Nick Boynton Karlis Skrastins
First power-play unit
Forwards Cory Stillman Shawn Matthias Nathan Horton
Point men Jay Bouwmeester Bryan McCabe
Goalies
Starter Tomas Vokoun
Backup Craig Anderson
Third string Tyler Plante

Sleeper: Anthony Stewart, RW --

Bust: Jay Bouwmeester, D -- The arrival of Bryan McCabe will be a disaster for Bouwmeester's value. McCabe immediately becomes the top option on the Florida power play, as he has the booming slap shot that Bouwmeester lacks and is comparable when it comes to passing skills.

Fantasy outlook:

The Panthers have a mix of veterans and rookies that could prove to be disastrous if they don't bond properly, but could also have them on the brink of the playoffs if they do. Without leader Olli Jokinen, it's time for Nathan Horton to put up or shut up. His 62 points in each of the past two seasons are good, but now that he's the offense's best weapon, he has to get closer to 80. He could very well be a No. 1 right wing, but shouldn't be drafted as one if at all possible.

Shawn Matthias, a rookie straight out of the Ontario Hockey League, and veteran Cory Stillman look to make up the rest of the first line, and it could be an above-average unit if all goes according to plan. Still, Matthias profiles as a deep sleeper for owners who need a high-reward option at the end of drafts, and Stillman should be viewed only as a No. 3 left winger. Also vying for time on the first line will be Stephen Weiss and Rostislav Olesz. The key will be paying attention to who actually plays with Horton, as those will be the skaters who have value. Michael Frolik, David Booth and Anthony Stewart are also players to watch as they are young, talented and would play an up-tempo game that coach Peter DeBoer encouraged when he helmed the OHL's Kitchener Rangers.

On defense, Bryan McCabe becomes the player to own, as his mix of penalty minutes and power-play points is quite enticing. He is also out of the harsh Toronto spotlight and may thrive in the relative anonymity of Florida. Look for McCabe at a bit of a discount as a No. 2 defenseman, but his potential is certainly greater than that. McCabe's arrival is bad for Jay Bouwmeester's value since he no longer has the Panthers' power play all to himself. Bouwmeey should still provide decent assist totals and could still manage No. 3 defenseman value. There is upside to Cory Murphy's and Keith Ballard's games, but it would take an injury to another player for them to make good on it.

The Panthers need to play defense first to be successful, and there was a concern that they would concentrate too much on offense, but when they re-upped with Bouwmeester and traded for McCabe it became apparent that they will be preventing goals before scoring them. Ballard, Nick Boynton and Bryan Allen are also formidable on the blue line. Given such a strong rearguard, Tomas Vokoun may improve upon his numbers from last season and make himself a strong No. 2 goaltender in fantasy.


Key additions: Ryan Malone, LW (free agent); Olaf Kolzig, G (free agent); Steve Stamkos, C (drafted); Mark Recchi, RW (free agent); Gary Roberts, LW (free agent); Andrej Meszaros, D (trade); Matt Carle, D (trade); Radim Vrbata, RW (free agent); Vaclav Prospal, LW (trade); Ty Wishart, D (trade); Andrew Hutchinson, D (free agent)

Key losses: Dan Boyle, D (trade); Marc Denis, G (free agent); Filip Kuba, D (trade); Alexandre Picard, D (trade); Brad Lukowich, D (trade)

Tampa Bay Lightning depth chart
Left wing Center Right wing
Line 1 Ryan Malone Vincent Lecavalier Martin St. Louis
Line 2 Vaclav Prospal Steve Stamkos Radim Vrbata
Line 3 Gary Roberts Chris Gratton Mark Recchi
Line 4 Jussi Jokinen Ryan Craig Evgeny Artyukhin
Zenon Konopka Nick Tarnasky Michel Ouellet
Defenseman Defenseman
First Pairing Andrej Meszaros Matt Carle
Second Pairing Paul Ranger Shane O'Brien
Third Pairing Mike Lundin Janne Niskala
Ty Wishart Andrew Hutchinson
First power-play unit
Forwards Steve Stamkos Vincent Lecavalier Martin St. Louis
Point men Andrej Meszaros Matt Carle
Goalies
Starter Olaf Kolzig
Backup Mike Smith
Third string Karri Ramo

Sleeper: Olaf Kolzig, G -- Three-headed goalie monsters are usually something to stay away from, but in this case all three goaltenders are being taken late enough to make backing the right one worth the gamble. Kolzig stands out for a couple reasons, the most important of them being the fact that Mike Smith and Karri Ramo both look like backup goaltenders at best for this stage of their careers. There is also the fact that Kolzig probably feels like he has a lot to prove. He spent the better part of the last decade on a losing franchise and just when it looked on the verge of being a contender, he is shipped off. He is still in the same division as his old squad and that may motivate him to play with an extra something to his game all season.

Bust: Vaclav Prospal, LW -- Did Prospal break his up-and-down curse last season by being traded midseason and not cracking the 80-point barrier? Maybe, but maybe not. Dating back to 2001-02, Prospal has finished with approximately 55 points and then followed it with approximately 80 points in consecutive seasons. Last season was supposed to be an 80-point year, but a midseason trade to Philadelphia may have interrupted his flow. He finished the year with 71, but note that he was on pace for 75 as a Bolt. That means this season is a 55-point year. On top of that, Ryan Malone is a better fit than Prospal as the Lightning's top left winger and that means Vinny will have to fight for time with Steve Stamkos instead of just enjoy his role alongside Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis.

Fantasy outlook:

The Bolts are loaded this season … on offense anyway. We know that Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis will perform no matter what and that Steve Stamkos will be an asset and Calder candidate. But what of Radim Vrbata, Mark Recchi, Jussi Jokinen, Vaclav Prospal, Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts and Michel Ouellet? All of them have legitimate top-six talent if put on the right line; trouble is, there are enough players here for three lines. It looks as if Malone or Prospal will end up with the most coveted spot on a line with Lecavalier and St. Louis, and the one who doesn't would likely finish the line of Stamkos and Vrbata. It really comes down to who is performing and who isn't, and a veteran presence like Recchi or Roberts might be good for a rookie like Stamkos. Either way, expect the forwards who get the most ice time on this club to have plenty of fantasy value as a run-and-gun offense is almost assured.

As for Stamkos himself, there's nothing wrong with taking him as a No. 2 center, though he is usually going as a borderline No. 3 in ESPN drafts. Someone with his skating ability on an offense that is sure to be wide open is a recipe for success. Throw in enough talented forwards to surround him two times over and he is bound to make his owners happy this season.

The Lightning are a bit weaker on defense with several players vying for the role of offensive defenseman for the team. Andrej Meszaros and Matt Carle have the inside track and both should be drafted as No. 3 or 4 defensemen in fantasy as they have the upside to be much better than that as the power-play quarterback for an explosive first unit. Paul Ranger and AHL star Andrew Hutchinson could also win such a role and should be considered dark-horse candidates when filling out your defense in deep leagues.

In net, the Bolts boast a hydra that consists of a disgruntled veteran and two young guys trying to prove they aren't destined to be backup goaltenders. Olaf Kolzig, Mike Smith and Karri Ramo will have to fight for the starts. The winner of the job is likely to come away with plenty of victories, but considering that many of them will be 5-4 decisions, you don't want to come away with one of these goaltenders as a fantasy starter to start the season, regardless of the sleeper endorsement for Kolzig.


Key additions: Jose Theodore, G (free agent); Keith Aucoin, C (free agent)

Key losses: Cristobal Huet, G (free agent); Olaf Kolzig, G (free agent)

Washington Capitals depth chart
Left wing Center Right wing
Line 1 Alexander Ovechkin Nicklas Backstrom Viktor Kozlov
Line 2 Alexander Semin Sergei Fedorov Eric Fehr
Line 3 Keith Aucoin Michael Nylander Chris Clark
Line 4 Donald Brashear Brooks Laich Matt Bradley
David Steckel Chris Bourque Tomas Fleischmann
Defenseman Defenseman
First Pairing Mike Green Tom Poti
Second Pairing Shaone Morrisonn Milan Jurcina
Third Pairing Jeff Schultz John Erskine
Karl Alzner Brian Pothier
First power-play unit
Forwards Alexander Ovechkin Nicklas Backstrom Alexander Semin
Point men Mike Green Sergei Fedorov
Goalies
Starter Jose Theodore
Backup Brent Johnson
Third string Semen Varlamov

Sleeper: Eric Fehr, RW -- Cascading injures have derailed Fehr's development since his days of dominating the WHL. Coach Bruce Boudreau knows him well from their days in Hershey and knows how powerful Fehr can be working in the corners. A healthy Fehr gets top-six minutes and could even unseat Viktor Kozlov as the winger opposite Alexander Ovechkin.

Bust: Michael Nylander, C -- Nylander will not be a factor if he is indeed pushed down to the third line. After being traded to Washington last season, Sergei Fedorov looked more inspired than he has been since his days as a Red Wing, and he should get every opportunity to secure the second-line center role behind Nicklas Backstrom. That leaves Nylander on the outside, waiting for an injury, before he can get in on the offensive action. Nylander might help make his linemates relevant in deeper leagues, but won't contribute enough himself to be an option in standard formats.

Fantasy outlook:

The Caps are, of course, home to the most valuable skater in fantasy hockey, Alexander Ovechkin. Naturally, a lot of the other players make fantasy rosters thanks to value-osmosis from No. 8. Nicklas Backstrom has to be considered a No. 2 center with enormous upside as he will begin the season as the unquestioned set-up man for Ovy. Viktor Kozlov gets a boost to his value as the opposite winger to Ovechkin, but shouldn't be considered that high a choice, as all Kozlov's value stems from his role on Ovechkin's line, and any change would deem him virtually worthless.

On the second unit, a resurgent Sergei Fedorov will center the underrated Alexander Semin and up-and-coming Eric Fehr and all three could vastly exceed their draft positions. In deeper leagues, there is some value to be had on the third line, which features Michael Nylander and Chris Clark (who is always good for his mix of points and penalty minutes). Keith Aucoin, who was a leader on Carolina's AHL affiliate last season, and Chris Bourque, son of Ray, can both be put into your "watch" category as they could emerge given an opportunity in the top six.

Mike Green is where the fantasy value on defense in Washington begins and ends. A speedy, smart defender, Green has more offense than the rest of the Capitals' defense combined and it's not ridiculous think he could approach 25 goals this season. Tom Poti is a name to know only if Green is injured. Poti would then have to serve as power-play quarterback.

Then, there is Jose Theodore. We have caught a lot of flak for ranking him in our top 10 players for this coming fantasy season, but that may still prove to be accurate. He's being drafted with the 12th pick on average, which shows that most owners haven't forgotten his woes since leaving Montreal. But Theodore has a nice, shiny young offense in front of him and a coach who focuses his team on both ends of the ice. Theo has also recaptured his form from his time in Colorado with goalie coach Jeff Hackett. Could he wind up as the seventh-best fantasy player this season? If you at least pause, and consider Theodore as a much more attractive option than you would have before seeing our rankings, then we've done our job. Remember, you shouldn't be blindly following any rankings of any kind, except maybe your own.

Sean Allen is a fantasy hockey and baseball analyst for ESPN.com.

Sean Allen is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He was the 2008 and 2009 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Hockey Writer of the Year. You can tweet him @seanard.