Earlier today, we took a look at how the recently concluded off-season has (minimally) reshaped the Southeast Division as the five teams added new players and said goodbye to others. Continuing our pre-season tour of the Southeast (nominally, not geographically), let's count down the Division's top ten centers:
Honorable mention: Alexander Burmistrov, Marcel Goc, Dominic Moore
10. Mike Santorelli (Florida Panthers)
Caps fans might see Santorelli leading off the list and wonder how he's not higher; playing in his first full season in the NHL, Santorelli scored four times against Washington (in four different games, no less). His 41 points were second on the Panthers, and with some luck he could top his 2010-11 numbers in 2011-12.
9. Brandon Sutter (Carolina Hurricanes)
Sutter followed up a 40-point sophomore season with an 11-point drop-off (in a dozen more games). So what happened? Reality, perhaps, because the reality is that Brandon Sutter is a very good defensive pivot whose offensive game is very much a work in progress. Sutter's power-play time dropped last season, and his offensive production followed along. But if he can play a defensive role and lead the team in plus-minus (as he did in 2010-11), the 'Canes will probably be just fine with it.
Antropov had a brutal 2010-11, low-lighted by 41 points (after three seasons topping 55 and a career-high 67 in 2009-10) and a woeful minus-17 rating. But those numbers can be chalked up in large part to off-season hip surgery... we think. If he's healthy, he should be worlds better.
7. Bryan Little (Winnipeg Jets)
Little was second among Thrashers forwards in scoring last season (behind Andrew Ladd) and had the team's best plus-minus. He played both special teams units and took the 12th-most faceoffs in the League (though he only won 46.3% of them). He'd look good centering the second line in a number of NHL cities, but he's likely still a first-liner in the 'Peg.
6. Marcus Johansson (Washington Capitals)
Throw out the first half of the season (when Johansson was fighting for ice time while acclimating to North America) and the Caps' speedy Swede had ten goals, ten assists and a plus-five rating over his last 40 regular season games. He still needs to get better in the face-off circle and along the boards and improve his defensive awareness some, but if he continues on his current trajectory, he's just about the last thing the Caps will have to worry about.
5. Stephen Weiss (Florida Panthers)
After back-to-back 60-point seasons, Weiss couldn't top 50 in 2010-11. But his 49 points were enough to lead the lowly Panthers, so let's see what the former fourth overall pick can do now that he's got a bit more talent around him.
4. Vincent Lecavalier (Tampa Bay Lightning)
Lecavalier's best days are behind him, but he's still an impact player, especially in the second-line role he now occupies. Don't be fooled by that low point total (or rate) - over his last 28 games of the regular season, he scored 17 goals and added 13 helpers (and Caps fans don't need to be reminded of how he performed in the second round of the playoffs). Vinny's still got gas in the tank.
3. Eric Staal (Carolina Hurricanes)
No one in the NHL took more draws than Eric Staal did in 2010-11 and no forward skated more shifts. And while each passing season now seems to corroborate that his 100-point 2005-06 was a fluke, he's still managing to lead a decent team in just about every offensive category and has only missed 14 games in his seven-year career.
2. Nicklas Backstrom (Washington Capitals)
To put Backstrom's 2010-11 in perspective, add Johansson's or Sutter's goals and assists from 2010-11 to Backstrom's and the totals are still a few short of what Backstrom delivered in 2009-10. But he's too good (and the players around him are too good) not to bounce back in a big way in 2011-12. His 101-point season may have been a once-in-a-career campaign, but another 65-pointer seems almost equally unlikely, health permitting.
1. Steven Stamkos (Tampa Bay Lightning)
No one has scored more goals over the past two seasons than Stamkos and, since the lockout, only one player had more 90-point seasons in his first three years in the League than the two Stamkos has posted over the last two campaigns. Until the rest of the NHL figures out how to stop him on the power-play, expect the big numbers to continue.