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Top 9 Time: Southeast Division

Peter Maingot

Peter Maingot

Peter has been covering fantasy sports for Rotowire for over 10 years. He's covered hockey, football and basketball over the past decade but now focuses strictly on the frozen game. From the Great White North, Peter is a strong proponent of physical, up tempo hockey.

Top 9 Time - Southeast Division

This is the fifth in a series of articles in which we will attempt to accurately project the top three lines for each team in the NHL's Southeast Division factoring in all the offseason activity as well as players that might be changing roles or moving up from the minors, college or junior ranks. As most would agree, offensive output virtually always equates to opportunity. The players on the top two lines usually get significantly more ice time and power-play ice-time which leads to better output. Opportunities will come for third-line forwards when injuries, trades, and/or slumps occur. That's why it's imperative to know who's on the third line and which of those third-liners have the requisite upside should second-line duty call.

The final section for each team will include a ranking of their top four fantasy forwards (TFFF) in addition to the most attractive seventh forward fantasy-wise for each team if/when injuries hit.

(All stats for the 2009-10 NHL season unless otherwise noted)

Atlanta:

*This assumes that Dustin Byfuglien will be moved back to play defense this season.

Evander Kane - Nik Antropov - Niklas Bergfors
Andrew Ladd - Rich Peverly - Bryan Little
Fredrik Modin - Jim Slater/ Patrice Cormier/Alexander Burmistrov - Fredrik Pettersson/Nigel Dawes

With Byfuglien playing D this year, an opportunity exists to play left wing on the first line. Kane played with Peverly and Little at times last season and also on Canada's entry into last spring's World Championships in Germany and has the most upside of any projected left wing on the Thrashers' roster and should get first crack. Andrew Ladd, another ex-Hawk now in Atlanta, figures to play left wing on the second line while Fredrik Modin should pair up with fellow Swede Fredrik Pettersson to form a potentially potent third line. Pettersson, who scored 20 goals in 54 games last season in the Swedish Elite league, has experience playing on North American ice. The 23-year-old played two seasons of junior hockey for the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL between 2005-07 and showed scoring ability despite the smaller sized ice and increased physical play with 43 goals and 93 points in 111 games. Should he not be ready for the NHL, the Thrashers just signed former the Flame Nigel Dawes, who scored 14 goals last season for Calgary.

The third line center spot is undecided and the candidates include holdover grinder Jim Slater, former junior checking centre Patrice Cormier and skilled Russian Alexander Burmistrov - taken 8th overall in the draft last June. While Burmistrov has the best skill set, he'll be only 19 in October and may not be big enough yet (he's 6-0/170) for the rigors of an 82-game NHL season. He did however compete effectively in the OHL last season, bagging 22 goals and 65 points in 62 games and another 8 goals and 16 points in 17 playoff games. Cormier has some talent but his head is the major question, as he was suspended for most of last season in the Quebec Major Junior league for a vicious and gutless elbow that left the victim in convulsions on the ice. Slater offers little upside but could get the gig by default if the two kids aren't NHL ready.

TFFF: Antropov, Bergfors, Little, Kane

Best 7th forward: Modin

Carolina Hurricanes:

Zach Boychuk - Eric Staal - Jussi Jokinen
Jiri Tlusty - Brandon Sutter - Tuomo Ruutu
Sergei Samsonov - Jeff Skinner/Patrick Dwyer - Erik Cole 

Top-9 Candidate: Patrick O'Sullivan

The youth movement is in full swing in Carolina, as greybeard forwards Ray Whitney (Phoenix) and Rod Brind'amour (retired) are no longer around. The replacement for Whitney as a top six left winger is expected to be Boychuk, who was a prolific scorer in the WHL (110 goals/271 points in 237 games. The soon-to-be 21-year-old played his first years in the pros last season for the Canes' farm team and registered 15 goals and 36 points in 52 AHL games.

Speaking of 21-year-olds, Sutter had his coming out party last season when he bagged 21 goals and 40 points in 72 games. Amazingly, Sutter never scored more than 26 goals in any season of junior hockey. His left wing will be either 22-year-old Jiri Tlusty or the veteran Sergei Samsonov. While Tlusty has not started his NHL career off with great numbers, only 11 goals and 26 points in 92 career games, he does have the pedigree and skill level that comes with being chosen 13th overall in his draft year (2006). Moreover, he's proven that he can score in the AHL (49 goals and 118 points in 125 games). Tlusty is, however, rehabbing a torn ACL that he suffered in last spring's AHL playoffs. Though he had successful surgery and is expected to be 100 percent for training camp, knee injuries of that nature can take longer than the typical 4-to-6 month prognosis.

The other remaining battle figures to be for the third line center spot. Skinner, taken 7th overall in last June's draft, had a tremendous rookie camp and the team expects him to make the team as an 18-year-old. Skinner has been called a smaller version of Mike Richards, for he has an excellent two-way game showing leadership, scoring ability (50 goals/90 points in 64 OHL games last year), and a willingness to play physical despite his less than ideal pro size (5-10/193). Dwyer is a 27-year-old who has spent most of his pro career in the AHL (170 points in 296 games) but played 58 games last season for Carolina scoring seven goals and 12 points.

An interesting X-factor has emerged on the verge of the opening of training camp, as the Canes have signed O'Sullivan. O'Sullivan is still just 25 and has top-6 skills. However, there is a lot of baggage attached to him. His father played semi-pro then became a hockey dad from hell, and Patrick eventually had to get a restraining order and they no longer communicate. The youngster eventually became an NHL'er but priced himself out of a promising future in Los Angeles then suffered through a terrible season in Edmonton last year, finishing with a brutal minus-35 rating. Scoring-wise he only had 11 goals and 34 points in 73 games. By signing him to a two-way contract, Carolina will have a very motivated player on their hands and one who has managed to score 54 goals and 95 assists for 149 points in 280 career NHL games.  Moreover, O'Sullivan can play any of the three forward positions and, as a former 22-goal scorer in the league, he conceivably can play on any of the top three lines so he's an excellent low-cost insurance policy if any of the many young Carolina prospects aren't quite ready for top-9 duty this season. Should O'Sullivan be able to make the team out of camp it would represent a sort of homecoming as he spent the first eight years of his life in Winston-Salem, NC, after initially being born in Toronto. If you're looking for a very deep sleeper with a legitimate shot at 20-goal/50-point upside (if he lands in the top-6), look no further than O'Sullivan.

TFFF: Staal, Jokinen, Ruutu, Sutter

Best 7th forward: Cole

Florida Panthers:

David Booth - Stephen Weiss - Mikael Frolik
Chris Higgins - Stephen Reinprecht - Michael Grabner
Cory Stillman - Rostislav Olesz - Steve Bernier

This is without a doubt the least inspiring group of top-9 forwards in the NHL. The Cats have to hope that they can generate some offense this season from their talented backline trio of McCabe, Wideman, and Kulikov. 

Having Booth back after a lost season due to concussion should help the offense, as would a possible Year 3 breakout from Frolik. Frolik should see ample ice time both at even strength and on the power play, for former No. 1 RW Nathan Horton was traded during the summer for Wideman. The Cats also traded defenseman Keith Ballard for a pair of RW's in Grabner and Bernier. Grabner, 23, has been a 30-goal scorer in both junior (WHL) and the pros (AHL) and possesses great speed. Another Michal, Repik, is getting close to being NHL ready after the 21-year-old scored 22 goals and 53 points in 60 AHL games last year. Bernier projects to play the right side of the third line while former Hab/Ranger/Flame Higgins tries to resurrect a once-promising career and provide a physical presence for the second line. The third line center is the ever-disappointing Olesz, who, incredibly, failed to score a goal between Jan. 17 and April 10 - a span of 31 games played. Olesz scored but two miserable points in those 31 games. Florida has to hope that he picks up his game or that 22-year-old Shawn Matthias finally puts his game together and pushes Olesz for his spot.

TFFF: Booth, Weiss, Frolik, Grabner

Best 7th forward: Stillman

Tampa Bay:

Steve Downie - Steven Stamkos - Martin St. Louis
Simon Gagne - Vincent Lecavalier - Ryan Malone
Teddy Purcell/Sean Bergenheim - Dominic Moore - Nate Thompson/ Richard Panik

The Lightning had an excellent offseason where new GM Steve Yzerman filled several holes in the forward ranks. The addition of Gagne is expected to jumpstart Lecavalier, who should be over the shoulder issues of last season and the knee scope of a few weeks ago. The Bolts will essentially ice two No. 1 lines this coming campaign.

However, the roster tinkering didn't end there as they also signed two third liners in Moore and Bergenheim. Moore will take key face-offs, play the PK and shadow the enemy's top pivot on a nightly basis. Bergenheim, a former first round pick in 2002, has some skill despite posting modest numbers over the past two seasons - 25 goals/47 points in 122 games- for the dreadful NY Islanders. Bergenheim, 26, will have to beat out Teddy Purcell for the third-line left wing job. Purcell, 25, has been a big time scorer in the AHL (41 goals/121 points in 105 games) but has yet to score much in the big league (11 goals/34 points in 110 games). Nate Thompson and Richard Panik are the leading contenders for the third-line right wing spot. Thompson, who will be 26 by the start of the season, is more of a tough guy while the 19-year-old Czech native Panik is skilled but raw, with just 5 AHL games under his belt.

TFFF: Stamkos, St. Louis, Lecavalier, Gagne, Downie (bonus pick!)

Best 7th forward: Moore

Washington:

Alexander Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - Mike Knuble
Tomas Fleischmann - Brooks Laich - Alexander Semin
Jason Chimera - Boyd Gordon/Mathieu Perreault/Marcus Johansson - Eric Fehr

Only Philadelphia can come close to matching the depth of talent that Washington will ice on a nightly basis this coming season. Ovechkin, Backstrom and Semin will all be drafted in the first 30-40 picks of any worthwhile fantasy league, with the first two going in the top 10. There are few open spots left on the top 9, though there is a slight chance that Fehr could push Knuble for a top-6 spot.

The real battle could be for the second and third line center positions, as Laich could move back to left wing, thereby dropping Fleischmann to the third line. In such a scenario a pair of youngsters - Mathieu Perreault and Marcus Johansson - could push for the second-line center spot and another could snag the third line center gig. Perrault, 22, had 5 goals and 9 points in 21 games for the Caps last season. He's put up 100 points in 133 career AHL games after racking up 285 points in 194 career games in the Quebec junior league. Johansson, at 6-2/195, is five inches taller and 25 lbs heavier than Perreault but he's just 19, having been drafted 24th overall in 2009. Despite his age Johansson has already played two full seasons in the Swedish Elite league. Last year, in his second season with Farjestad he scored 10 goals and 20 points in 42 games. Both of these prospects have a good chance at a top-9 role this season whereas Anton Gustafsson (taken 21st overall in 2008 and the son of former Cap great Bengt Gustafsson) and Francois Bouchard (younger brother of Minnesota's Pierre-Marc Bouchard) are likely a year or two away. One thing's for sure, Boyd Gordon better have a great training camp and exhibition season because there's some talented youth vying for his job.

TFFF: Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin, Laich

Best 7th forward: Fehr