The NHL's former punching bag has found a new identity.
Long a distant sixth in hockey's divisional totem pole, the revamped Southeast Division is prepared for a breakout season in 2012-2013.
Since the Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes' respective 2004 and 2006 Stanley Cup victories, the the five-team group has produced just 10 playoff berths in six years, the lowest of any of hockey's six divisions.
Moreover, only the Washington Capitals (five berths) have made more than a mere two postseason appearances over that time period.
But even more embarrassing are the seasonal averages—each Southeast Division squad has averaged just 87.4 points per season since '06-'07, the lowest mark in the league by quite a bit (the Northwest Division falls second-lowest at 89.3).
In four of the past six years, the Southeast has accumulated the fewest net points over the course of the season, and finished second-fewest in both of the other occasions. The division, in addition, never totaled more than 453 points (90.6 average) in any of those seasons—while, conversely, the mighty Northeast Division never netted fewer than 458 points (91.6 average).
The Southeast is also the only division to experience a franchise relocation in the NHL's past decade.
And the only division without a single Stanley Cup Finals appearance since '06.
And you can see the pattern here.
But that's all about to change, following the division's most high-profile, headline-grabbing offseason ever.
The Carolina Hurricanes, blessed with a rare spending spree from frugal owner Peter Karmanos, made arguably the NHL's biggest summer splash, landing top-tier forwards Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin to add to an already-impressive offense.
Backed by underrated, former Conn Smythe Trophy-winning goaltender Cam Ward and still loaded with consistent cornerstones Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner, Tuomo Ruutu and Tim Gleason, the 'Canes could explode into Cup contention next season.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, now entering Steve Yzerman's second year as general manager, improved their goal-defending capacity by leaps and bounds. Young netminder Anders Lindback was brought in from Nashville to take over the starting job, and defensive newcomers Matt Carle and Sami Salo were signed off of the free agent market.
If the Bolts can improve on their 30th-place standing in goals against from a year ago, Steven Stamkos & Co. will go far in 2012-13.
Competing with Carolina and Tampa Bay for the division crown will be the ever-present Washington Capitals, who have served as the Southeast Division's only stalwart for the past six seasons and counting.
The Caps are coming off of a disappointing seventh-place finish and early playoff exit last spring, but increased stability behind the bench (with new Hall of Fame coach Adam Oates) and in goal (with promising youngster Braden Holtby) should help the Caps get back into a winning routine.
The NHL's biggest 2011-12 surprise squad may well have been the Florida Panthers, who ended their 11-year postseason drought with a shocking division title.
The no-name Panthers, now competing in a much more talent-laden division, may be unexpected to repeat their triumph, but the Cats' balanced forward corps will keep them lurking behind the Caps, 'Canes and Bolts.
Further, even the Winnipeg Jets, cursed with a hopelessly travel-filled schedule and dismal Atlanta-inherited roster, could become a legitimate 'dark horse'.
Riding their intimidating home-ice advantage, the Jets' plethora of up-and-coming stars—Alexander Burmistrov, Bryan Little, RFA Evander Kane and even currently-injured Zach Bogosian—makes Winnipeg a club that certainly cannot be overlooked.
The Southeast Division could, all in all, produce upwards of three or four playoff clubs in the coming season—an absolutely stunning feat after the eternity of bottom-feeding that has long plagued the division.
Don't be surprised when it happens, though, because the Southeast's years as a laughingstock are undoubtedly over.
Ice hockey in the south? It's not an oxymoron anymore.
Mark Jones has been a Bleacher Report featured columnist since 2009. He has written more than 415 articles and received more than 700,000 reads.
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