Way Down in Dixie: The NHL in the South, Part One

J DCorrespondent IDecember 11, 2008

The South.

These two words conjure up images of plantation mansions with giant white pillars, alligator-infested swamps, oppressive humidity, and men dressed like Boss Hogg.

Not exactly the environment one would picture hockey players thriving in.

But, much to the surprise of some, the NHL has a strong presence in the region with the Southeast Division. Two of the past four Stanley Cup Champions have come out of this division (Tampa Bay '04 and Carolina '06), and Atlanta had the privilege of hosting the 2008 All-Star Game.

So in Part One, let's take a look at the Atlanta Thrashers and Carolina Hurricanes.


Atlanta Thrashers

ATL. Hotlanta. The pride of Georgia.

Atlanta is the most populated city in Georgia, with almost 5 million people in the greater metro area. When the NHL decided to bring a franchise back in 1997, some people scoffed at the idea.

But the city had a history of hockey. The Atlanta Flames, who became the Calgary Flames in 1980, played in the city from 1972-1980. There was great exciting swirling around the return of hockey in the ATL.

In October of 1999, the Thrashers played their first game. But after a series of lackluster seasons (they have only made the playoffs once in their history, and were swept by the Rangers in four games), ownership issues, and internal controversy and tragedy (See Dan Synder), the team is losing steam.

Despite having some of the most talented players in the NHL come through their system, including Marian Hossa—who was traded away to Pittsburgh for Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, prospect Angelo Esposito and a first-rounder last season—it hasn't worked out.

With Dany Heatley, who asked to be traded after his involvement in the death of teammate Dan Synder and is now with Ottawa, and Marc Savard, signed by Boston in 2006, the Thrashers could not piece it together.

The only true superstar still on the Thrashers roster is Russian sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, who was drafted first-overall in 2001. Kovalchuk has carried the weight of the team with 87 points last season and 27 points in 27 games this season.

They did manage to lure a few moderate free agents this summer in Marty Reasoner (four goals and five assists after 27 games) and Jason Williams (seven goals and seven assists). They have also received strong play from Todd White (22 points) and Slava Kozlov (23 points) but the team is in turmoil.

Season-ticket sales are virtually non-existent and a lack of community support has led to sagging attendance. To make things worse, Kovalchuk is soon to be a free agent and is unlikely to re-sign with the Thrashers.

The outlook is grim. The only positives the Thrashers have are youngsters Tobias Enstrom, a stellar defenseman (64 points in 109 career games) and Bryan Little (38 points in 75 games) continue to make strides.

There has been questions as to the longevity of the Thrashers franchise in the Atlanta, but the NHL has said that it is committed to keeping the team in the city. So, we just have to sit back and watch as the Thrashers will likely implode and finish near the bottom of the East—again. This season they are 9-14-4 for 22 points. In the weakest division in the NHL, they are near the bottom. 


Carolina Hurricanes

Admit it. As a true hockey fan, you followed in my footsteps and let out a huge sign of disappointment when the beloved Hartford Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes.

Let those words sink in for a minute. The Whalers became the Hurricanes in 1997, when the Whalers were moved to Raleigh, North Carolina. With a booming population and an open market, the NHL believed that Raleigh would be an ideal place for a new team.

However, with the construction of their new arena not slated to be finished for two years and no suitable arena for ice hockey, the team was forced to play in Greensboro, NC for their first two seasons. From the get go, the attendance sagged and little community support was to be had. The Hurricanes faced a series of challenges that ownership and management did not account for before the move.

Oddly, however, the Hurricanes made progress.

Led by Captain Ron Francis, an icon of the old Whalers, the franchise was rebuilt. Since their inception, the 'Canes have won their division three times, and made the playoffs four times, and won the ultimate prize, the Stanley Cup in 2006.

With legitimate superstars Eric Staal (299 career points in 355 games), Tuomo Ruutu (134 points in 270 career games), and Rod Brind'Amour (1,130 points in 1,352 games), the Hurricanes have a future in the South. In the 2007-2008 season, the 'Canes were on the cusp of making the playoffs but were edged by the Washington Capitals by one point. 

The Hurricanes have a legitimate future in the NHL, as a solid fan-base has been built up over the years. A series of young players, like Staal, forward Brandon Sutter, and goalie Cam Ward, have paved the way for progress. Recently, the Canes fired coach Peter Laviolette and replaced him with their former coach Paul Maurice.

The Hurricanes have started the 2008-2009 season off with a 13-12-3 record for 29 points, putting them six points behind the Washington Capitals. It remains yet to be seen how well the players will respond the challenge of a new coach, but my guess is that they will miss the playoffs again.

(Part two tomorrow!)