Long considered the red-headed stepchild of the NHL (and fittingly since it is the Southeast), this Division has won 2 Stanley Cups in the last 5 years, and have represented the Eastern Conference in 3 of the last 7 Stanley Cup Finals. The Southeast has one of the Top 3 players in the League, one of the Best well rounded teams in the League, and will probably be battling for the Eastern Conference title again, if not the Stanley Cup.
(50-24-8, 2nd in the East, lost to Pittsburgh in 7 in Conference Semi-Finals)
Well not too hard to start here: Alex Ovechkin. Leader in goals and second in points behind Evgeni Malkin. It’s hard not to say the Capitals will go as Ovechkin goes, but most people would agree with that. The good thing for Ovechkin is that he has capable teammates in Niklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, and Captain Chris Clark. And that’s just on the offensive side. I remember a couple of years ago when Kolzig was basically the defense on his own, because the D in front of him seemed like they had all just graduated from High School. Now they have the most offensive minded defenseman in the NHL in Mike Green whose 31 goals and 73 points were both 28th in the League standings. Obviously he was doing better than some teams leading scorers. The question will be in Goal, where Jose Theodore was solid during most of the regular season, but was pulled after the first playoff game for unknown Semyon (formerly Simeon) Varlamov who got the Caps to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. We all know the Capitals will score, but the battle between the pipes will determine how much scoring needs to be done.
As stated before, as Ovechkin goes, the Capitals go. There is no doubt in my mind that the Capitals will be in the playoffs again. The key to their playoff position will be determined by the goaltending. The most exciting player in Hockey and the best offensive defenseman will have many pundits picking the Capitals to once again win the Southeast and assure themselves a top 3 seeding. I would be one to agree with them except for….
(45-30-7, 6th in the East, swept by Pittsburgh in 4 in Eastern Conference Finals)
Call me a Homer. I’ve been called worse. This team was out of the playoffs by a good chunk last year in December, when a coaching change was made, bringing BACK Paul Maurice. I was quick to decry the decision, because after Maurice was let go the first time, the Canes built around speed and offense, vs. the score two goals and hold theory of Maurice. He changed his philosophy, instead of implementing the old one. The Hurricanes are led on offense by Eric Staal, who started slow last season, but once reunited with Erik Cole was able to pick up his game. The Hurricanes don’t have the big name stars, in my opinion, but they have the blue collar mentality, and everyone on offense can contribute. Goaltender Cam Ward, Stanley Cup winner and MVP of the playoffs, had two off years after the cup win, but was stellar again last year, playing most of the games. The weak area of the Hurricanes has been the defense, but I believe that to be because of the mindset of out-scoring the opposing team. They have solid players in Joe Corvo and Tim Gleason, but no superstars. Once again blue collar mentality.
My pick to win the Southeast is the Canes. They won’t run away with it like the Capitals did last year, but they have a more balanced team, and that will make the difference. Of course that could all blow up in the face of injuries. Many man games have been lost over the last couple of years, and Rod Brind’Amour (captain) is 39. 2 seasons ago, the Canes missed the postseason by a couple of points, but were playing with what seemed like mostly AHL players the last third of the season.
(41-30-11, tied for 8th in the East, missed Playoffs)
Florida was tied with Montreal in points after 82 games last season, but missed the playoffs on the head to head tiebreaker. Florida played very well the latter half of the season, but once again came together a little too late. Coach Deboer enters his second season, and is using the assets at his disposal. Unfortunately, those assets aren’t as strong. The Panthers lost Jay Bouwmeester at the end of last season, and yet still have a strong blue line. Captain Bryan McCabe and Jordan Leopold (obtained in a swapping of rights for Bouwmeester) will lead a fairly experienced defense that also obtained former Cane Dennis Seidenberg, a solid skills player. David Booth and Nathan Horton will lead the offense, but will need to show more on the consistency side for a stronger Panther run this season. Goaltending, while not name strong, could be the backbone of this team. Tomas Vokoun and Scott Clemensen are both solid, and if they can find a healthy rotation, and not kill themselves trying to assert a definite number, both could play and rest at the same time, making for a better tandem.
The Panthers could sneak into the playoffs, although I don’t believe the Southeast has ever had 3 playoff teams before. The question to answer is can the offense score enough to win the games, because I believe the Defense and Goaltending will keep them in most games. If not, it might be another long offseason of coming up just short for the Panthers.
(35-41-6, 13th in the East, Missed Playoffs)
This will sound familiar: The Thrashers will go as Ilya Kovulchuk goes. Unfortunately, Ilya doesn’t have the supporting cast Ovechkin does. Nik Antropov and Vyacheslav Kozlov are strong, but won’t be striking fear into most opponents. Maybe if cloning was permitted in Atlanta, they could put a couple of more lines together and be stronger. Although scoring wasn’t a problem (9th of 30 teams last year), they didn’t even sniff the playoffs. That was because of the 3.40 Goals Against Average (29/30). Obviously defense becomes a priority. The addition of Pavel Kubina looks good, but he won’t be playing 60 minutes a game, and tends to find the sin bin at least once a game. Goaltending is not much better. An inconsistent starter (Kari Lehtonen), an aging backup (Johan Hedberg, 36), and an unproven, inconsistent rookie (Ondrej Pavelec) who did not shine in his NHL starts last year (3-7, 3.61 GAA).
Kovulchuk and Kubina can help this team grow, but there is not enough talent or depth to push them over the edge. Expect Kovulchuk to be gone at the trade deadline, and Kubina, even though just acquired, might be trade bait as well if they can get plenty of prospect potential in return. The Thrashers do have young talent, but will probably not see fruition for at least two more seasons.
Tampa Bay Lightning
(24-40-18, 14th in the East, Missed Playoffs)
High hopes were on the list for the Lightning last year with a new coach (Barry Melrose), two of the most exciting playmakers in the league (St. Louis and Lecavalier), and well, the motivation of the year before. Melrose was gone before 20 games, the Lightning had 12 home wins, and man games lost were a problem as well. This year will see the offense pretty close to full strength, and I believe working more consistently after a year of playing somewhat together because of injuries. St. Louis and Lecavalier will lead the way, but Steven Stamkos and Ryan Malone will (read: should) provide the necessary support to lead the way back to respectability. The defense might ruin that. 22 different defenseman played for Tampa last season, and while that in theory averages about 20 games per defenseman, that doesn’t build consistency. Mattias Ohlund is the veteran presence and only player over 30 on the blueline. He will be the leader, and hopefully 2nd overall draft pick Victor Hedman will pay attention. Hedman apparently is giving hope to the Fans during preseason camp. Goaltenders Mike Smith and Antero Nittymaki are adequate when on and once again I think would make a great platoon team, allowing both to stay rested.
Tampa Bay’s season will depend on the health of the offense and the growth of the defense. While not ready for the playoffs this year, they could quietly make some noise (um that sounds oxymoronic) and ruin some seasons at the same time. They have the talent to exceed expectations, let’s hope they disappoint again.
Hskrdave’s Final Southeast Prediction
Carolina Hurricanes: 101 points
Washington Capitals: 97 points
Florida Panthers: 92 points
Tampa Bay Lightning: 75 points
Atlanta Thrashers: 68 points