Ovechkin and the Rest: NHL Southeast Division Preview

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Ovechkin and the Rest: NHL Southeast Division Preview
(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

The shortest offseason in professional sports is over and it’s time to try to figure out what went on in the offseason and how it’ll effect what’s happening going forward in the NHL this year.

I’m starting with last year's worst division in hockey: the Southeast. I’m looking at the teams in the order they finished last season and predicting how they’ll finish in the division and the Eastern Conference this year.

 

SOUTHEAST DIVISION

The Southeast features some of the most flawed teams in the league. Shaky ownership makes you wonder if many or any of these deficiencies will ever be addressed.

Washington has a good owner and needs depth. Unfortunately, they’ve spent right up to the limit of the cap.

Carolina had a great year and a great run last season, but their veteran lineup needs an infusion of fresh, young talent.

The Atlanta owners have stopped suing each other, but spending money on a first rate talent to play with their star doesn’t seem to be a priority.

The NHL is struggling to get one of the Tampa Bay owners to buy out the other. Does either one of them have any money? Which one wants to build around their core and which one wants to start over again with Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman?

Florida was in the process of being sold as the economic crisis hit. It certainly hasn’t sped up the process. How much are they willing to spend to get the first line center they lost when they traded Olli Jokinen away?

With unresolved issues for all five of its teams, the Southeast will once again be a weak division this season.

 

Washington Capitals 

Washington won the division by a comfortable margin last year, beating Carolina by 11 points and finishing second in the East. Their record was inflated by playing 24 Southeast games. Their 50 wins were the fifth-best total in the league.

The interesting aspect of all this is that they managed this success with a goaltending tandem of Jose Theodore and Brent Johnson.

Theodore had a .900 save percentage in a league where .910 is the median. Theodore ranked 35th out of 43 in save percentage among those goalies who played at least one-third of their team's minutes. His goals-against average placed him 34th.

More damning still was the fact that after running with Theodore in net all season long, Washington decided after only one playoff game to go with the untested Semyon Varlamov.

There’s not much faith in Washington for Theodore, with good reason. Varlamov was a huge upgrade. He should get a chance to start in goal for Washington this year.

Youngsters often fall apart under that pressure, so a veteran backup will be needed. Arturs Irbe has been brought in as a coach for Varalamov to help acclimate and stabilize him. Theodore will probably start to begin the season, and he can perhaps fill the veteran backup role.

Unfortunately, at $4.5 million a year, Theodore's an expensive backup. If they trade him, they would address their lack of offensive and/or defensive depth that’s been a problem in Washington for the last few years. In that case, young prospect Michael Neuvirth would be probably called upon to back up Varlamov.

The defense is led by Mike Green. The offensive phenom with 31 goals and 73 points had one of the best years by a defenseman in recent memory. He had some iffy moments in his own zone in the playoffs, but so did Paul Coffey.

Tom Poti is still a stabilizing veteran who can move the puck, but his offensive numbers have dropped in recent years. He had just 13 points in 52 games last year. 

Shaone Morrison is in his prime as an able hitter and shot blocker. Young and smooth-skating blue-liner Karl Alzner should get a shot at playing 80 games while providing a huge talent upgrade for a Washington defensive corps that drops off abruptly after the first couple players.

Milan Jurcina is a 233-pound shot blocker that brings little else to the table. Brian Pothier, back from a concussion, and the purely defensive John Erskine will likely fill out the Capitals' blue line.

John Carlson, Tyler Sloan and Sean Collins might be expected to be the first call-ups in case of injury.

The most important part of the Washington Capitals is, of course, the offense and the most important part of that is Alexander The Great, Alex Ovechkin.

Ovechkin won the Rocket Richard Trophy for most goals scored in the league with 56 and was second in points behind Evgeni Malkin of Pittsburgh. He was given the Hart Trophy as the league's MVP.

Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom, and Green helped Washington score the third-most goals in the league last year. After those four, the drop-off in offense is precipitous.

Too much of the team is dependent on a healthy Ovechkin. His reckless style will eventually see him getting hurt, which will signal a death knell for Washington. His huge salary also makes it tough for Washington to add supporting cast members.

Washington will be flat against the cap this year and can be expected to play a lot of youngsters in the hope that some of them will bloom.

As long as Ovechkin stays healthy, I see them winning their division handily and perhaps improving defensively and offensively over last year. The Bruins might beat them into second place this year.

 

Carolina Hurricanes

Carolina had a successful season last year. They were sixth in the East and second in the Southeast with 45 wins and 97 points.

They won two seven-game playoff series as underdogs and finally succumbed to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in four games.

The goaltending was handled by Cam Ward, who played almost 80 percent of his team's minutes. His .916 save percentage and 2.44 GAA placed him near the top 10 in the league in both categories. His 39 wins were the third-most in the league behind only Miikka Kiprusoff and Evgeny Nabokov.

Ward had an .897 save percentage as a follow up to their Stanley Cup run in 2005-'06. A similar dip this year would be disastrous for Carolina, especially with no proven backup in sight.

The defense looked good last year, but seems to be built mostly from spare parts and journeymen.

Frantisek Kaberle and the concussed Dave Tanabe were bought out of their contracts. Aaron Ward has been brought in at 36 to provide a veteran physical presence. It will be interesting to see how the former Bruin and Scott “sucker punch” Walker get along.

Offensively, Eric Staal carried his team through the playoffs last year.

Chad Larose, hot off a great playoff performance, and Walker look to provide more offensive depth this year along with Eric Cole, Matt Cullen, Sergei Samsonov and Jussi Jokinen.

Rod Brind'Amour looks to be at the end of his career and may only play in limited situations.

I’m expecting injuries to dog this team and for Cam Ward to wear down and have a worse year than last.

I see them finishing last in the Southeast and 13th in the East.

 

Florida Panthers

The Panthers missed the playoffs for the eighth consecutive season last year by the slimmest of margins. They lost out based on their record against the Montreal Canadiens.

Team ownership is still in flux at a time when they need management input desperately. Florida began last year by trading Olli Jokinen to Phoenix for defensive skill and depth.

Those additions combined with supposed “all-world” defenseman Jay Bouwmeester playing 25 minutes a night, still produced a team that gave up a league-worst 34.9 shots per game.  

How Florida, with that leaky defense, even managed to get close to a playoff spot is a mystery to me.

Two factors have to come in to play.

One, of course, is their weak division. They were 13-11-4 against the Southeast last season.

The other is goaltending. Tomas Vokoun and Craig Anderson had the second- and third-best save percentages in the league.

Despite all the shots, Florida was ninth in the league in goals against at 2.72. Vokoun and Anderson kept them in games and in the playoff hunt.

The defense is led by Keith Ballard, the sole remainder from the Jokinen deal. He’s a responsible, hard-skating youngster with some offensive upside.

Next on the depth chart is probably Bryan McCabe. He’s a big guy with a big shot who’s often in trouble in his own end. He can play the point on the power play and in a perfect world, he plays on your third defensive pairing.

He can be frightening when confronted with speed in his own zone. If he can duplicate the 15 goals he scored last year, he’s useful and he can supply a physical presence.

Florida has a roster full of young, talented players. Unfortunately, they have no veterans around to lead them.

Cory Stillman is the last remaining veteran forward on the team. He still has skills and can make himself useful on the power play, but this team could really use a big, solid, veteran center.

The 26-year-old Stephen Weiss looks to be the first line center this year. If he and some other young forwards improve this year, Florida could be scoring a lot more goals.

Rotislav Olesv had a horrible first year after signing a long-term contract. He’s got to get healthy and approach and surpass his earlier career numbers.

David Booth had a great year in Florida with 30 goals and 30 assists. If he can maintain that, he’ll be the perfect second-line left winger.

This team has spent $51 million and still needs a veteran scoring center. If they could add that player they could be a playoff team (and with Vokoun in net, a good one).

Unfortunately, I’m sure they won’t. I’m hoping a good season from Horton, Frolik, et al will let Florida’s ownership know they’re close to having a very good, young team.

I see them finishing 12th in the East, fourth in the Southeast.  

 

Atlanta Thrashers

After their first trip to the playoffs in 2006-'07, Atlanta had a dreadful season. Last year they finished 13th in the East, 17 points out of a playoff spot.

They re-signed former first-round pick Kari Lehtonen to a one year, $3 million contract. This will be his year to prove he’s worthy of that first-round pick.

The goalie made 32.7 saves per game last year, second-best in the NHL. But his .911 save percentage was average.

His numbers need to improve and Atlanta’s improved defense should allow that to happen.  

Atlanta has been working on their defensive shortcomings over the last two years. Pavel Kubina has been added to quarterback the power play. He’s another experienced, puck-moving defenseman in the mix.

Ron Hainsey also provides a strong skating and reasonably physical presence, albeit for too much money. Zach Bogosian, last year's first-round pick, should provide some young, quality minutes. 

Atlanta's active defense should help Lehtonen’s numbers and let him grow into becoming the top 10 goalie he was projected to be.

Offensively, it begins and ends in Atlanta with Ilya Kovalchuk. In a contract year, expect him to score 50 goals.

Brian Little and Slava Kozlov are also both in the last year of contracts while big, slow Nik Antropov has been signed as Atlanta’s free agent acquisition, supposedly at Kovalchuk’s behest. His methodical style wouldn’t seem to mesh well with Kovalchuk's frenetic one, but perhaps they’ll complement each other.

Marty Reasoner, Rich Peverley and Eric Boulton give them a nice mix of experience and exuberance to try out on a shut down line.

Meanwhile, former can’t-miss junior standout Angelo Esposito had a good World Junior tournament last Christmas. He deserves a shot with the club and might just manage to bring some offense from within the organization. 

I see the Thrashers finishing second in the Southeast this year and sneaking in to the playoffs as the eighth seed. Hopefully they make a better account of themselves than they did in their last appearance.

 

Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning embarked on a brave experiment last year. It’s something no other team has ever tried.

The new ownership decided that defense was superfluous for playing hockey. They ran with Andrej Meszaros and Paul Ranger as their only experienced NHL defensemen to start the season.

There's a reason no other team has ever tried it. Tampa Bay finished last in the weakest division in hockey and ahead of only the New York Islanders in the entire Eastern Conference.

The team giving up 32.9 shots per game, good for third-worst in the NHL. Tampa's goals-against average was 3.28, fourth-worst in the league.

Goalie Mike Smith had a good .916 save percentage while playing roughly half his team's minutes.

Meszaros and Ranger have returned on defense. Meszaros is a big defenseman with some offensive skills. Ranger is a fair defender who earns his $996,000 a year.  

Acquisition Mattias Ohlund us coming off an 82-game season and he represents a huge upgrade on defense for Tampa Bay. He’ll also be mentor for second overall draft pick Victor Hedman.

Hedman has NHL speed and NHL size. Unfortunately, most GMs confuse that with being NHL-ready, so Hedman will suffer through some growing pains when he’s thrust into the center of Tampa Bay's defense and power play. 

This defense should look like a collection of Norse Gods in comparison to what hit the ice last year. 

Vinnie Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis are aging, but they still lead the Tampa Bay offense. 

Sophomore Steve Stamkos should be better this year while Ryan Malone and Alex Tanguay round out the Lightning's talented offense. 

I think Tampa Bay will take a huge jump forward this year. In the end, Mike Smith will probably not be the franchise goalie they’ve needed since Khabibulin left, but I see them passing Carolina and Florida. They'll finish 10th in the East and third in the Southeast.

 

2008-'09 Southeast Standings                               

1. Washington             108 points                       

2. Carolina                  97 points                        

3. Florida                    93 points                        

4. Atlanta                   76 points                      

5. Tampa Bay              66 points                         

 

2009-'10 Southeast Prediction

1. Washington             105 points

2. Atlanta                   90 points

3. Tampa Bay              86 points

4. Florida                    85 points

5. Carolina                  84 points

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