7.07.2011

Season Preview: Southeast Division

Nicklas Backstrom tries to score on Cam Ward. (Getty Images)
The Southeast Division has gone from being the punching bag of the NHL to one of the most dynamic divisions in a matter of seasons. In just the 2007-08 NHL season, the Capitals were the only team in the Southeast to make the playoffs, and they only managed to make it by 2 points. Thought they had the 3rd seed (due to being first in the division) they were tied with the Bruins and Senators for the fewest points for playoff-bound teams in the East. The Hurricanes finished 9th in the conference, the Panthers 11th, and the Thrashers & Bolts finished 14th & 15th respectively. Even as recently as the 2009-10 season, the Caps were the only team in the “SouthLeast” to make the playoffs, while every other division had at least 2 teams play in the post season.

However, last season as well as this off season has seen a resurgence in the Southeast division teams. The Capitals, once again, dominated the regular season, though not nearly as convincingly as 2009-10 - mainly due to a system change that will hopefully pay dividends this coming season and in the playoffs. The Tampa Bay Lightning, under the guidance of new head coach Guy Boucher and with the roster built by new GM, hockey legend Steve Yzerman, not only made the playoff for the first time since the 2006-07 season, but made it past the first round for the first time since winning the Stanley Cup in the 2003-04 season, the last before the lockout. The Bolts were arguably one of the NHL’s biggest surprises last season, as they actually lead the Southeast division standings for much of the year before faltering late. The Hurricanes missed the playoffs in their last game of the season, coming oh-so-close yet again. The Thrashers (now the Winnipeg Jets) finished out of the playoffs again, though they had promising runs during the season, their catastrophic January and February (6 wins in 22 games) effectively ended their playoff hopes. Meanwhile, the Panthers were never aiming for the playoffs in the first place (due to their ongoing rebuild), so they had a successful season in that regard.

This off season has completely changed the outlook of the Southeast. Every team has gotten better, or at least hasn’t gotten terribly worse. The Lightning and Jets are perhaps the least improved, though they both had fairly strong (more so in the Bolts’ case) rosters to begin with. The Panthers spent like crazy during free agency, resulting in a decent but very well payed roster. The Hurricanes remained relatively the same, keeping most of their impact UFAs. The Capitals improved more than anybody this off season, making them scary good. Here’s a rundown of the changes, in order of division standings from last season...

Washington Capitals, 1st in the East, 48-23-11 record, 107 points
IN: Jeff Halpern (C), Joel Ward (RW), Roman Hamrlik (D), Ryan Potulny (C), Chris Bourque (LW), Tomas Vokoun (G), Danny Richmond (D), Troy Brouwer (LW)
OUT: Boyd Gordon (C), Marco Sturm (LW), Steve Pinizzotto (RW), Jason Arnott (C), Brian Willsie (RW), Semyon Varlamov (G), Scott Hannan (D)
OUTLOOK: Overall, the Capitals have gotten better at pretty much every position. Their depth down the middle is a bit better due to the swap of Boyd Gordon for Jeff Halper, who is a better scorer than Gordon and less injury prone. Marcus Johansson will also have another year of experience to work on. On the wings, the Caps have gotten tougher with the additions of Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward. On defense, the veteran Roman Hamrlik looks to slot in with Mike Green and provide a calming presence, allowing Green to do his thing in the offensive zone. In net, George McPhee made perhaps the biggest improvement yet, snagging elite goalie Tomas Vokoun with an inexpensive 1-year contract. Vokoun is top-10 in the NHL, and can steal games or even playoff series for the Caps.
SEASON PREDICTION: For the regular season, the Caps are the clear favorites to be Southeast Division champions for the 5th time in a row, as well as likely the favorites to be top in the East for the 3rd year in a row. This season, however, the challenge will be playoff success - the expectation is a trip to the Stanley Cup finals. This roster is likely the best shot the Capitals have had at that goal for a long time, if not the best in franchise history.

Tampa Bay Lightning, 5th in the East, 46-25-11 record, 103 points
IN: Mathieu Garon (G), Matt Gilroy (D), Tom Pyatt (C), Bruno Gervais (D)
OUT: Mike Smith (G), Sean Bergenheim (LW), Simon Gagné (LW), Randy Jones (D)
OUTLOOK: The Tampa Bay Lightning have in no way gotten noticeably better this off season. There goaltending, which was an issue for much of last season, has not improved - they now rest their chances in net in the old hands of Dwayne Roloson, who turns 42 this October. Roloson was a revelation in net for them during the playoffs, but can he have a repeat performance?
SEASON PREDICTION: The Bolts contended for the division title last season, and will likely do so again. However, their goaltending could become a serious issue, and they have lost some depth especially at the forward position. Also, Steven Stamkos and Teddy Purcell, two key offensive cogs, still need to be re-signed. The Bolts will almost certainly make the playoffs but, with less depth, questionable goaltending, and teams having another season to figure out Guy Boucher’s system, having as good a season as they did last year will be challenging.

Carolina Hurricanes, 9th in the East, 40-31-11 record, 91 points
IN: Tim Brent (C), Brian Boucher (G), Tomas Kaberle (D), Anthony Stewart (RW), Alexei Ponikarovski (LW)
OUT: Erik Cole (LW), Joe Corvo (D)
OUTLOOK: Little has changed in Carolina Hurricanes land. The goaltending has been given an upgrade with veteran Brian Boucher backing up Cam Ward, and the defense has been given, if anything, a slight upgrade. Erik Cole’s 20+ goals will likely be missed. The pressure will also be on Jeff Skinner to repeat his Calder winning performance on offense again.
SEASON PREDICTION: The Hurricanes will probably fight for a playoff spot again this season, but with the Eastern Conference seemingly getting more competitive, will the finally be able to make the cut after missing out the last two seasons? Carolina will probably once again finish 3rd in their division, unless Atlanta improves enough to overtake them or the new Florida Panthers free agent signings play as well as they are paid.

Winnipeg Jets, 12th in the East, 44-36-12 record, 80 points
IN: Winnipeg (City), Derek Meech (D), Tanner Glass (LW), Randy Jones (D), Rick Rypien (C)
OUT: Atlanta (City), Radek Dvorak (RW)
OUTLOOK: The Thrashers Jets are mostly the same from last season, save for a rather dramatic change in scenery. Captain Andrew Ladd was re-signed to a 5-year deal. The All-Star defense pairing of Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom, along with Zach Bogosian, anchor the blueline. Ondrej Pavelec was a revelation in net last year, and will likely be just a good this year. Alexander Burmistrov will have another year of experience under his belt, hoping he improves on his 6 goals from last season to become more of an offensive threat.
SEASON PREDICTION: The Thrashers will likely fight for a playoff spot yet again, though how close they come will largely depend on how much the team can improve from last year (with the same players but a new coach) and their ability to avoid large cold streaks, like the one from January to February this year that ultimately killed their playoff hopes.

Florida Panthers, 15th in the East, 30-40-12 record, 72 points
IN: Jose Theodore (G), Scottie Upshall (RW), Ed Jovanovski (D), Marcel Goc (C), Tomas Fleischmann (LW), Sean Bergenheim (LW), Brian Campbell (D), Tomas Kopecky (RW), Kris Versteeg (RW), Matt Bradley (RW)
OUT: Marty Reasoner (C), Darcy Hordichuk (LW), Tomas Vokoun (G), Niclas Bergfors (RW)
OUTLOOK: Dale Tallon had a challenge this off season, and that was to spend to the salary cap floor. Well, mission accomplished Dale, mission accomplish. Tallon signed numerous free agents to, in some cases, very lucrative deals. Tomas Fleischmann for $4.5 million a season? Yeah, that’s lucrative. Tallon has completely redone the roster, but has likely spent too much money doing it - it probably won’t matter, as the minute this roster becomes an unmanageable mess, Tallon will probably get the boot.
SEASON PREDICTION: I honestly have no idea. This is such a large group of new people playing in a totally new environment, that I have no clue as to how well they will work together. Maybe this team makes the playoffs, but most likely they spend most of the season building chemistry will languishing around the bottom of the standings for another season. One thing is for sure - the Panthers won’t be the pushovers they were a few seasons ago, and will likely challenge every team that they play next season, elite or not.

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