Youth and speed will highlight the battle for the Southeast Division title as the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes field two of the most formidable lineups in the Eastern Conference. On their opening night rosters, Carolina will have 15 players under-30 and Washington will have 14 players under-30.
Both teams boast a potent offense, solid defense, and good goaltending. The race may be decided by the Capitals’ offseason acquisitions and how each team integrates youth from within. The defending Eastern Conference champions made no new acquisitions this offseason.
The Caps signed two-way center Robert Lang to a 5-year, $25 million deal on the first day of free agency. Contrary to popular belief, Lang was not brought in to center Jaromir Jagr’s line, but will open the season as sniper Peter Bondra’s center.
The team made another key acquisition, just days prior to the opening of the season, when they dealt second and third round picks in the 2003 draft to the Edmonton Oilers for gritty 27-year-old right wing Mike Grier. The addition of Grier, a former two-time 20-goal scorer, compensates for the loss of Ulf Dahlen and restores the Caps’ checking line to elite status. The Capitals also acquired physical defenseman Rick Berry, 24, from the Pittsburgh Penguins in the waiver draft.
The two rookies joining Washington’s roster—defenseman Steve Eminger and forward Mike Farrell—showed that they belong in the NHL with very strong play in the preseason. The team also has three other rookies—goalie Sebastien Charpentier, forward Brian Sutherby and defenseman Nolan Yonkman—who are candidates to be called up and could soon stick with the big club. Carolina added physical rookie forward Jesse Boulerice and will have forward Jaroslav Svoboda on the top club for a full season. Carolina also has slick-skating forward Jeff Heerema waiting in Lowell for his chance to play in the NHL.
The rest of the division is somewhat improved and features some of the best young talent in the league, including two of the top four picks from the 2001 entry draft, but the Lightning, Panthers, and Thrashers are highly unlikely to compete with the Hurricanes and Caps for the division title.
Here’s a look at the Southeast Division’s 2002-2003 rookie class:
Francis Lessard, 23, D; 6-3, 225 lbs.
Lessard is a physical specimen. While playing for the AHL’s Philadelphia Phantoms, he periodically showed signs of offensive skill, but his game is primarily as a mean stay-at-home defenseman. Lessard never hesitates to drop his gloves in defense of a teammate and is a devastating hitter, but still has much to learn about defensive positioning. His fierce competitiveness is his biggest strength. Lessard has clearly improved much as a defenseman over the last few months, at least enough to impress Thrashers management, earning him a spot on the big club’s blueline.
Pasi Nurminen, 27, G; 5-10, 210 lbs.
The Thrashers drafted Nurminen in the sixth round of the 2001 entry draft. The diminutive netminder has consistently put up impressive numbers in the Finnish Elite League and in international competition. He was named Finland’s top goaltender in the 1999 to 2000 season, in 2001, was named a Second Team All Star at the World Championships and last year, was named the AHL’s Playoff MVP. Nurminen will pressure Milan Hnilicka for the starting job all year, but he has not proven that he will be able to adequately adjust to the North American game.
Kirill Safronov, 21, D; 6-2, 215 lbs.
Drafted by the Phoenix Coyotes in the first round of the 1999 entry draft, Safronov may have found a home in Atlanta. He is a very strong, physical two-way defenseman and is widely considered one of the Thrashers’ top prospects. The Russian-native’s strength is his clutch play in pressure situations. Throughout his junior and professional career, his coaches could trust him in any situation.
Jesse Boulerice, 25, F; 6-2, 218 lbs.
Boulerice is a strong, and fearless enforcer. He will start the season serving as a spare skater, spending time on the team’s fourth line and as a healthy scratch, but once he establishes himself, he could earn a bigger role on the team. Boulerice had 284 penalty minutes last season while playing for the AHL’s Philadelphia Phantoms and Lowell Lock Monsters. Many of his penalties were fighting majors.
Jaroslav Svoboda, 22, F; 6-2, 190 lbs.
Svoboda is entering his second season with Carolina. He played in just ten regular season games and 23 postseason games last season with the Canes. Having Svoboda for a full season will be very beneficial for Carolina. Svoboda made a significant contribution when he joined the team late last season, helping them to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. Svoboda is a very good playmaker and scorer. He is an excellent skater, possesses good stickhandling skills, and has a hard, accurate shot and very creative passing capabilities. Svoboda is a little undersized as his body has not filled out its frame yet, but of the less-experienced Carolina players, Svoboda should have the greatest impact.
Eric Beaudoin, 22, F; 6-5, 225 lbs.
The left-handed shooting wing will provide the Panthers with some much-needed grit. Last season’s team lacked intensity and was weak when playing in the corners. Outside of Peter Worrell, Florida did not have adept fore-checkers and two-way players. In Beaudoin, the Panthers add a very strong, hard working two-way forward who not only will play in the corners and chip in defensively, but also has the ability to score. Beaudoin’s contributions should lead to his spending the whole season with the NHL club.
Jay Bouwmeester, 19, D; 6-4, 210 lbs.
When he was drafted first overall in the 1998 WHL Bantam Draft, Bouwmeester was projected to be selected first overall in the NHL draft four years later. It did not happen that way as the Columbus Blue Jackets selected forward Rick Nash after some wheeling and dealing with the Panthers and Thrashers. Florida was still very pleased to select the huge two-way defenseman with the third overall pick. Bouwmeester is a rare talent as he is a great skater, a smart offensive player and not much is lacking defensively. Bouwmeester could develop into the NHL’s finest skater and will soon be a perennial Norris Trophy candidate. He may be the best skating defenseman since Paul Coffey.
Ivan Majesky, 24, D; 6-5, 225 lbs.
Majesky, one of Slovakia’s top defensemen, was one of only a few over-age players selected in the 2001 entry draft, picked in the ninth round by the Panthers. Florida does not expect Majesky to contribute much offensively, but he will contribute in the defensive end. Majesky represented Slovakia at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. While playing in the Finnish and Slovakian Elite Leagues, Majesky has traditionally been among team leaders in penalty minutes, a trend that should continue while playing for the Panthers. Majesky gives Florida another solid defensive defenseman. On most teams, he would probably serve as a depth defenseman, but his size and strength will be a welcome addition to the Panthers’ blueline.
Stephen Weiss, 19, F; 5-11, 180 lbs.
The Panther’s 2001 first round pick will enter his first full professional season in Florida. Weiss possesses impressive skating ability in speed and acceleration and is one of the best offensive talents in Florida’s system. He lacks size, but with Weiss’ tremendous work ethic, offensive instincts and scoring touch, his size will be a non-factor. Weiss was an excellent pick for the Panthers and will eventually challenge to be their top center. This season, he should split time between the second and third lines while he adjusts to the speed of the NHL.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
Alexander Svitov, 19, F; 6-3, 217 lbs.
One of two 2001 first round picks playing their first professional season in the Southeast Division, Svitov will quickly show that he deserves to be there. Svitov is the big, physical center the Lightning have been missing. He is strong and is not afraid to use that strength away from the puck. Svitov is a hard hitter with good defensive capabilities. His offensive talents are adequate as he has a good shot, above average passing abilities, and is a fluid skater. Svitov may have trouble early with the speed of the NHL, but once he adjusts, as he has at every level at which he has played, he will become the team’s top checking center, giving the Lightning three very good young centers in Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, and Svitov.
Steve Eminger, 18, D; 6-2, 200 lbs.
Eminger shocked the Capitals organization by outplaying proven defensemen Sylvain Cote and Rick Berry as well as young hopefuls Jakub Cutta and Nolan Yonkman to earn a regular spot on the Washington blueline just months after being selected 12th overall in the entry draft. Eminger is one of the best skaters in the Capitals’ organization, which factored into his winning a roster spot as an 18-year-old. He is a steady, hard-working player and has the potential to be a very good two-way defenseman. Early on, he will struggle with the speed of the NHL game, but the team will ease him in slowly and his minutes will gradually increase as he makes the adjustment. Capitals assistant coach Randy Carlyle, a former Norris Trophy winner, should play a big role in helping Eminger make the adjustment and to become the solid NHL defenseman that he has the potential to be.
Mike Farrell, 23, F; 6-0, 222 lbs.
The third time is the charm for Mike Farrell as for three straight years, he has challenged for a roster spot, but this year was the first time he won a spot out of training camp. Coach Bruce Cassidy was most impressed with Farrell’s speed for a skater with his above average size, but Farrell also is a very solid defensive player. He is a converted wing from defenseman, who is a hard hitter and a very hard worker. He drives to the net well and as he gains experience, he will learn to use his offensive talents more efficiently. Farrell will spend the majority of the season on the fourth line, but could also earn some time on the penalty killing unit and may spend some time alongside Peter Bondra and Robert Lang if Cassidy decides to add a more physical presence to the second line.