The NHL is like a desert, an ever-changing landscape where what was solid and static one day can literally vanish overnight and be replaced by something starkly different the very next.
Take the Southeast division for instance. For the past few years, the Washington Capitals were the dominant team: the leaders of the pack, the alpha dogs.
Last season though, the Caps faltered and the Florida Panthers rose from nowhere to claim the division for their own.
As we now head towards (hopefully) the 2012-2013 season, the Southeast division looks poised to change yet again. For the first time in years, it is anyone's guess who will come out on top. All five teams have made moves and choices designed to give themselves a leg up.
The Winnipeg Jets went out and acquired Olli Jokinen (NHL.com) although most would agree that the Jets simply have too many holes to fill for them to make a serious challenge for the divisional title this year.
The defending champion Panthers really did not do too much, although rumors of a trade for Roberto Luongo continue to be reported in places such as the Sun Sentinel. For whatever reason, the Panthers seem to be getting overlooked by many as being a real threat to repeat as Southeast division champions this coming season.
No, it is the other three teams—the Carolina Hurricanes, Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals—who have made the most noise in the offseason and all of whom seem determined to gain a leg up on the other.
The Hurricanes first went and made a huge draft day deal with the Penguins to acquire Jordan Staal to bring him to Carolina and play with his brother Eric (NHL.com): an immediate upgrade for the Hurricanes on offense.
Not satisfied, the Canes then went and snagged Alexander Semin from their division rivals via free agency (NBC Sports). As any Caps' fan knows, Semin has a huge amount of talent and potential, but he has a tendency to come up small when it counts most.
Meanwhile, the Lightning went in the other direction trying to shore up a defense that was a train wreck a year ago.
First they signed free agent defenseman Sami Salo (The Canadian Press via The Hockey News). They then signed perhaps the best defenseman on the market whose name was not Ryan Suter when they inked Matt Carle for six years (USA Today).
They then sought to perhaps find a new starting goalie as they acquired Anders Lindback from the Nashville Predators (ESPN).
The Capitals, perhaps the most balanced of the three teams, took a different approach and instead addressed the biggest need the team has had the past few years—finding a second line center—by executing their own draft day trade with the Dallas Stars for Mike Ribeiro (Washington Times).
Perhaps the biggest move the Caps made was taking a gamble that Mike Green would remain healthy, and that he could return to his prior form that resulted in consecutive 70 plus point seasons, as they signed Green to a new three year deal (Washington Post).
Oh and of course there is a new head coach in Washington as the Caps have brought in Adam Oates to take the reins (ESPN).
The question that Caps' fans everywhere have to be wondering—aside from whether there will be a season at all—is whether the team has done enough this offseason to counter the moves made by both the Hurricanes and Lightning? Can they compete with the Hurricanes and Lightning for the Southeast division title—or have they been passed by their rivals from Raleigh and Tampa?
It is a difficult question to answer or analyze. So let's break this down, piece by piece, to see if the Caps still have what it takes to reign supreme in the Southeast.
As Alex Ovechkin goes so go the Caps
From an offensive standpoint, the Caps compare rather well against the Lightning. The loss of Alexander Semin to the Hurricanes is, to a great extent, offset by the acquisition of Mike Ribeiro.
The Lightning, on the other hand, really only added Benoit Pouliot, acquired in a trade with the Bruins (ESPN). As such, things look to be status quo for the Lightning this season. Of course, when you have the likes of Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Ryan Malone, Vincent Lecavalier and Teddy Purcell to roll out—yeah, I think Tampa Bay is just fine on offense.
The Hurricanes, on the other hand, are a different story. The Canes were already decent on offense. But the additions of Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin looks like they have put the team over the top.
Last season, Stall had 25 goals and 25 assists for the Penguins. Semin had 21 goals, 33 assists and 54 points for the Caps. While that certainly does not mean the Canes are guaranteed an extra 46 goals this season, it is very reasonable to assume that the Hurricanes' production will see a sharp increase.
The Hurricanes ranked 16th in the NHL in total goals scored last season with 212. If, for the sake of argument, Staal and Semin are actually able to generate 40 additional goals for the Canes in 2012-2013, which is quite possible, then the Hurricanes goal total would go up to 252.
That would have been good enough for fourth in the NHL a year ago and a good 20 goals better than Tampa Bay produced.
The Capitals scored 218 goals a year ago, good enough to be ranked 14th in the league. By losing Semin, they could give up as many as 21 goals. But Mike Ribeiro scored 18 goals with the Stars a season ago so there should not be much of a decline in this area.
With the Caps, one also has to figure that Alexander Ovechkin might just return to form and, if he does, he could very well have a 50-goal season. This is particularly true as Adam Oates figures to bring a more up-tempo and offensive style of play to the Caps.
If things go really well, we can pencil in the Caps for an extra 20 goals this season, which would give them 238. That would have been good enough for eighth in the NHL this past season and would put the Caps just ahead of where the Lightning can reasonably be expected to be this year.
That would be good. In fact, considering the talent the Lightning have, that would be very good.
But not good enough. Can the Caps compete offensively with the Hurricanes and the Lightning this season? Yes they can.
But the Hurricanes will be the best offensive team in the Southeast division.
Karl Alzner may hold the key to the Caps defensive success this season
Between the Lightning, Hurricanes and Capitals, the Caps were probably the best defensive team of the three.
As for goals-against average, the Caps ranked 21st with a 2.76 goals-against average. The Hurricanes ranked 25th with a 2.89 and the Lightning ranked dead last with a horrid 3.39 goals against average.
As for plus/minus ratings, the Caps ranked 15th with a plus/minus of 0, while the Hurricanes ranked 24th with a minus-25 and the Lightning ranked 27th with a minus-28.
In sharp contrast to their offense, the Hurricanes made no true attempt to bolster their defense, other than bringing Joe Corvo back for a third go round in Raleigh (hurricanes.com). Corvo is a solid player and had a plus-10 rating a year ago. That will help the Canes, but probably not enough to make a real difference.
The Lightning needed all the help they could get and, obviously, their free-agency moves reflected this.
Sami Salo will be a good addition. He does not take many penalties, had a plus-7 rating a year ago and should give Tampa a top-four defender to add to the mix.
Matt Carle is the bigger prize for the Lightning. Statistically, he did not appear hugely impressive as he only had a plus-4 rating last season, significantly down from the plus-30 he enjoyed in Philadelphia during the 2010-2011 season. Carle's penalty minutes were also up last season. But his durability was excellent as he played in all 82 games for the Flyers a season ago and led the Flyers in ice time.
Of course, as we all know, stats are not everything and what Carle will bring to the Lightning cannot solely be measured by plus/minus ratings or ice time or any of that. Carle is a gamer and he will bring a ton of energy, talent and enthusiasm to a Lightning team in desperate need of it on their back line.
But I would still consider the Caps to be the best defensive team of the three. When you look at what the team accomplished in the playoffs against the high-powered Bruins and Rangers, it makes you believe that the team can only improve on their numbers from a season ago.
It must also be noted that of the three teams, the Caps were the only one to gain actual playoff experience. They learned how to play defense the hard way, by battling for their playoff lives every night. That is something the Lightning and Hurricanes did not do last year.
But it was that playoff run that may have taught the Caps the very important art of playing defense well. Three men who learned this very well were Karl Alzner, John Carlson and Mike Green. Alzner and Carlson, in particular, became shut down artists for the Caps. They were the men most responsible for stymieing the best the Bruins and Rangers could throw at them.
As good a line as Carle and Salo might make, I believe Alzner and Carlson will be just as good, if not better.
And one cannot overlook how well Mike Green played defense during the playoffs. In addition to his blistering slap shot, Green played stout defense and became very adept at shot blocking.
If the Caps can continue to play defense the way they played it during the playoffs, improve upon it, and get some further contributions from players like Dmitri Orlov, Roman Hamrlik and Jack Hillen, then they are the best defensive team in the Southeast division.
Is Braden Holtby the future for the Caps in net?
On the goaltending front, the Capitals and Hurricanes look to be in pretty good shape. The Lightning are hoping to join them thanks in large part to the aforementioned acquisition of Anders Lindback.
For the Caps, things did not work out well at all with Tomas Vokoun last season. Things got so bad that just before the playoffs started, they had to turn their fortunes in net over to a rookie netminder, Braden Holtby.
Anyone who followed the playoffs last spring knows just what Holtby accomplished as he outplayed Tim Thomas and led the Caps to a stunning series victory over the defending champion Boston Bruins. He then followed that up by getting the Caps to a Game 7 against Vezina trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist and the top-seeded New York Rangers before the Caps ran out of steam.
Not bad. Not bad at all. So good in fact that Holtby has been hailed by everyone in DC as the Caps future in net and Caps fans everywhere are hoping that Holtby turns into Washington's version of Jonathan Quick. No athlete in DC, other than Robert Griffin III or perhaps Stephen Strasburg, probably has higher expectations placed on him than Braden Holtby.
And if he falters, the Caps have a solid backup goalie in Michal Neuvirth, who had a decent playoff run of his own a couple of years ago.
What is unknown about Holtby is how he will do over the course of an entire season. He only played in seven regular season games a season ago and had a .922 save percentage with a 2.49 goals against average. The playoffs was where he shined, though; he had a .935 save percentage and a 1.95 goals against average.
Let's assume, again for the sake of argument, that over the course of the season, Holtby falls somewhere in between those two numbers and posts a 2.22 goals against average. That would not be too bad at all and is a reasonable expectation to make.
Compare that to Neuvirth, who played in 38 regular season games a year ago and posted a .903 save percentage and a 2.82 goals against average. If Holtby does end up with somewhere around a 2.22 goals against average, and Neuvirth can improve on his own numbers some, then the Caps will be very solid in net.
For the Lightning, the arrival of Lindback should help immensely. True, there is not a huge body of work on Lindback from which to compare. Playing in Nashville a season ago and backing up the phenomenal Pekka Rinne did not offer much in the way of opportunity.
When he played though, Lindback made the most of his opportunities. In 16 regular season games last year, Lindback had a .912 save percentage and a 2.42 goals-against average.
Compare that to the Lightning's starting goalie from a year ago, Dwayne Roloson. Father time, it appears, may have caught up with Roloson a season ago as he got clobbered by the rest of the NHL. In 40 games, he had a save percentage of .886 and a goals against average of 3.66. Nope...you won't win many games with numbers like that.
With a full season with which to work, and assuming Lindback can keep his goals against average pretty close to that 2.42 mark, the Lightning will yield, at a minimum, one goal less per game this year. That would be a big improvement for this club and will immediately make them a threat to win the Southeast. Throw in that revamped defense and you almost have an entirely different team out there.
Then you have Cam Ward for the Hurricanes. Ward is one of those guys who just does what he does. And what he does is win hockey games. Let's face it—the Hurricanes were not really that good last year. Nevertheless, Ward still had a solid winning record with a mark of 30-23-13.
In 68 games played a year ago, Ward posted a .915 save percentage and a 2.74 goals-against average. Those numbers were a bit off from the 2010-2011 season—but then again the Canes, as a team, were off as well.
What Ward does have that Holtby, Neuvirth and Lindback do not is experience. He has been playing in the NHL since the 2005-2006 season. Plus, he is the only one of the goaltenders mentioned who has won the Stanley Cup. That counts for a lot. Unlike the Caps and Lightning, who are both hoping they have found a consistent net minder who can win games for them, the Hurricanes already know that they have one.
From the Caps' perspective, the question remains can they compete with the Lightning and Hurricanes from a goaltending aspect? Absolutely. Holtby has the potential to be a superstar in the NHL and Neuvirth is an excellent goalie as well.
As to which team has the real advantage in net this coming season—well it is an election year so...
Advantage: Too Close To Call
As most hockey fans are well aware, special teams can make or break a game, sometimes even a season.
As far as the power play is concerned, one of the main reasons Adam Oates was brought to Washington was so that he could revitalize a Capitals power play that had been rather uninspiring the past couple of seasons. There were good reasons to believe this, as well as hard data in support of it.
When Oates took the reins of the Devils' power play, New Jersey's power play was a mess. It ranked 28th in the NHL in power play percentage, clicking on just 14.4 percent of their opportunities.
By the end of last season, the Devils power play was ranked 14th in the NHL with a 17.2 percent success rate. In no time at all, Oates had increased the Devils' success rate by 2.8 percent and gotten them into the top half of the league as far as their power play success rate.
For the 2011-2012 season, the Caps power play ranked 18th in the NHL with a 16.7 percent success rate. If Oates is able to repeat the success he had in New Jersey with the Caps, then the Caps power play success rate could go up to somewhere in the neighborhood of 19.5 percent.
That would have been good enough for seventh in the NHL a season ago. With the offensive fire power the Caps have, and a healthy Mike Green quarterbacking the power play, those are very attainable numbers indeed.
The Hurricanes had the same power play success rate as the Caps a year ago and with the additions of Staal and Semin, one has to figure that the Canes numbers will improve as well. Perhaps not as much as a 2.8 percent increase. Then again, they might do even better. I believe it is safe to say the Hurricanes will not be ranked 18th in the NHL on the power play again this season.
The Lightning on the other hand, who did not do much to revamp their already potent offense, just need to buckle down and work on technique. With all that talent on offense, there is no way the Lightning should rank 25th in the NHL in power play percentage, with a 15.2 percent success rate. Yet, that is exactly where they were a year ago.
I believe the addition of Matt Carle will help the Lightning some in this area. While Carle is not the offensive threat that Mike Green is, he sees the ice well and will help to create some better opportunities for the Lightning. Still, I think Tampa Bay will be a good rung lower on the power play ladder than either the Caps or Canes.
On the penalty kill, all three teams ranked rather low. The Caps were the best of them, having a penalty kill percentage of 81.6 percent. Still, they ranked 21st in the league for their efforts, hardly anything to be too excited over.
The Hurricanes came in just behind the Capitals, ranked 22nd in the NHL with a 80.6 percent penalty kill percentage.
The Lightning struggled in this area as well as they ranked 26th in the league with a 79.2 percent penalty kill percentage.
I suspect that the Lightning will improve in this area with the addition of players like Salo and Carle. The improvement may not be extreme, but there will some improvement.
Like the Lightning on the power play, the Hurricanes need to work on their technique and discipline to improve on their penalty killing this season. The team just did not make enough moves on defense to make me think a significant improvement on the penalty kill will be coming this season.
The Caps are probably the hardest team to figure out here. What should be noted is that during the Caps' good playoff run last spring, when their entire team focus shifted to defense, their penalty kill percentage increased substantially, rising to 87.5 percent. For those not doing the math, that is a 5.9 percent improvement during crunch time.
If that improvement and style of play carries over to this season—and some of it should—then the Caps should see some improvement in their penalty kill numbers. Moving into the upper half of the NHL's team penalty kill leaders is very doable.
The Hurricanes and Lightning will see some improvement with their special teams. But the Caps have the best balance of any of them.
What will Adam Oates' first year in Washington be like?
By now it should be evident to anyone reading this that not only can the Capitals compete with the Lightning or Hurricanes, they might very well still be better than either team.
In the end, the difference may be in the most important area—coaching.
For the Caps, all that is known is the unknown as Adam Oates takes control of the team. One of the newest members of the Hall of Fame, Oates gets his first head coaching gig with the hopes of a Stanley Cup-starved city weighing heavily on his shoulders.
As an assistant coach, Oates has done wonders with rejuvenating the power play of first the Lightning during the 2009-2010 season and then with the Devils last season. There is no questioning his knowledge of the game, his heart or his desire to win. That should carry Oates and the Caps pretty far.
But exactly how far? Who really knows. Oates has the unenviable task of trying to balance making the Caps more up-tempo without sacrificing the tough, physical, defensive style of hockey the team played so well in the playoffs. If he succeeds, the Caps can make a very deep playoff run. If not, then Caps' fans will be in for more of the same old song and dance.
Oates can probably look at the Hurricanes' coach, Kirk Muller, as an example of what he may be in store for this season. Like Oates, Muller is a former longtime veteran of the NHL wars. Like Oates, Muller got in some practice as an assistant coach when he assumed that position with the Canadiens in 2006.
Muller was brought in to be the main man in Raleigh at the end of November of 2011. By then, the Canes' season was already in a downward spiral. Not much has been said about the job Muller did with the Hurricanes last season and that is too bad.
In 57 games coached last season, Muller had a winning record of 25-20-12. By any standard of measurement, that has to be considered a successful campaign, despite the fact that the Canes did not make the playoffs.
It will be interesting to see what Muller can do with a full season, especially now that he has some real weapons with which to work on offense.
Then you have the Lightning and head coach Guy Boucher. With all of two years of head coaching experience, Boucher is the elder statesman of this threesome. But, without question, he has been the most successful.
Boucher, in his rookie season, led the Lightning to the playoffs. Only the Capitals, who were the No. 1 seed in the East that season, prevented Boucher from being a division champion in his rookie season. He would have the last laugh, though, as the Lightning swept the Caps out of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
From there Boucher would guide the Lightning to the Eastern Conference finals where only an unreal performance by Tim Thomas prevented the Lightning from defeating the eventual champion Bruins in a classic seven game series.
Last season, the wheels fell off a bit as the Lightning failed to make it back to the postseason. As demonstrated earlier, the biggest problem for the Lightning was their defense, or lack thereof. The other issue is that too often last season, Tampa Bay seemed to be going through the motions as though they expected to win but were not willing to put in the effort to do so.
Even so, Boucher still guided Tampa Bay to a winning record last season (38-36-8). I fully expect Boucher to gain control over his team and reinstate a sense of discipline and hard work with the Lightning.
While Oates and Muller will be interesting to watch, to see how they do, Boucher is the coach with more experience and, thus far, more success. With an improved defense, look for the Lightning to take a significant step forward.
Advantage: Tampa Bay
Can the Caps win the Southeast this year? You bet they can.
Can the Caps compete with the Lightning and Hurricanes this year? Absolutely.
In all phases of the game, the Caps compare well to any team in the Southeast division. They may not be the elite offensive team in the division any longer, but I expect to see the team continue to evolve defensively. I also expect their special teams to take a big jump forward.
If Adam Oates can get Alexander Ovechkin back on track; if Braden Holtby is, in fact, the real deal and if Mike Ribeiro is the answer as far as a second-line center is concerned, there is no reason to expect anything less than a return to the top of the division for the Washington Capitals.