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

J DCorrespondent IDecember 17, 2008

After a few days of rest and relaxation and watching the latest coverage of Sundingate, I am back in the swing of things and writing the third and final installment of my series about the NHL Southeast Division. As the previous two entries detailed, the Southeast is a division of contradictions with some of the best and brightest players, but the worst records and attendance.

Since we have already taken a deeper look at the Thrashers, Canes, Panthers and Lightning, that leaves us with, in my opinion, one of the more interesting teams in not only the Southeast, but also the entire league. That's right kids, the...

Washington Capitals

The Capitals are the oldest team in the Southeast (founded in 1974) and the current Southeast Division Champs. But things did not start that way. Their first season, the Caps posted the worst record in NHL history, 8-65-5. And their second season? 11-59-10. Not much of improvement. By 1982, there were serious talks about moving the team out of DC. 

But in 1982 something else big happened to the Capitals. And by big, I mean Scott Stevens big. The hulking 6'2'' defenseman helped rebuild the Capitals franchise from the blue line up and continued to be a force on the team for seasons to come.

The Capitals also had the services of Brian Engblom, Mike Gartner, Doug Jarvis, and Rod Langway. Led by a high scoring offense and a defense anchored by Stevens and Langway, the Caps made the playoffs in the 1983 season. Following that season, the Capitals made the post-season a stellar 14 consecutive years.

But still, Lord Stanley did not find his way to the Capitals Organization. The Capitals rode a wave of inconsistency in the mid '90s and early part of this decade. Even a trip to the Finals after the 1997-98 season could not sustain them.  Fast forward to the 2006-2007 season.

The Caps worked on a rebuilding process and brought in veteran players like Donald Brashear and Richard Zednik with the hopes of getting some solid leadership for players like the young Russian superstars Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin.

But the 2006-2007 season was disappointing yet again, with the Capitals posting a record of 28-41-14. This was not the rebuilding process or the season management had anticipated. Zednik was dumped after 32 games after he posted only 18 points. And Brashear? Well Brashear did what he does best earning 156 PIMs.

2007-2008 was a major turnaround as the Caps won the Southeast Division by just one point over the Carolina Hurricanes. The Capitals made an impressive late season push, anchored by solid play from Ovechkin and Semin, youngster Nicklas Backstrom, and late-season pick ups Cristobal Huet (Montreal), and Sergei Federov (Blue Jackets). 

The late season rally, orchestrated by Jack Adams winner Bruce Boudreau, helped the Capitals make it to the playoffs where they ultimately were eliminated by the Flyers in seven games in the first round. 

But I'm going back for a minute. How can I so casually pass over such players as Ovechkin, Semin, and Backstrom?  So I won't.

Last season, Ovechkin was in the running for MVP. In 82 games, "Alex the Great" put up 112 points and scored an astounding 65 goals. Over four seasons, Ovechkin has a been better than a point per game posting 352 points in 275 games. He truly is one of top players in the league; a real superstar. Alex the Great is not only good for the Capitals, but for the league as well. He will win a Stanley Cup before his career is over.

As for Semin, he is another son of Russia playing in nation's capitol. The usually soft-spoken left winger has posted 168 points in 212 career games. However, his remarks earlier this season about Sidney Crosby have drawn some criticism. But he has backed up those words. This season he has 31 points in 20 games (14 goals, 17 assists).

Which brings us to Niklas Backstrom, one of the best prospects to come out of Sweden recently. In 114 games with the Capitals over two seasons, Backstrom has put up 102 points. The Capitals are extremely happy with his development.

Obviously, the Capitals have a talented young core of players who they can develop and count on for seasons to come. But they also have veterans like Federov, who shined during the push last season with 13 points in 18 games.

When Huet and long-time Caps' veteran goalie Olaf Kolzig left this off-season via free agency, the team signed free agent Jose Theodore, a one-time MVP who has struggled at times so far this season and is currently out with a hip pointer.

The other goalie is veteran back up Brent Johnson, who has already matched his win total in any previous season in Washington.

With character players like Brashear, Chris Clark, Tom Poti, Michael Nylander, and Viktor Kozlov, the Capitals have a quality roster with a solid mix of veterans and young players to make a run for the Cup. Expect to see them back in the playoffs this season and seasons to come.

So, in conclusion, the Southeast Division is quite an interesting division. Despite two recent Stanley Cups and and a slew of superstar quality players, the future of hockey in the South is controversial.

Some teams, like the Thrashers, have immediate and long term questions to answer. Other teams, like the Tampa Bay Lightning, are left scratching their heads. Carolina is looking to recapture it's playoff hopes. The Panthers are rebuilding a team around veteran free agents and the Capitals have a hopeful future with guys like Ovechkin, Semin, and Backstrom.

So there it is, my closer look at the Southeast Division. Love it or hate it, hockey is here to stay in the Dixie.