Matt SitkoffCorrespondent ISeptember 14, 2009

A.J. Bloomquist—contributor to “Pucking Awesome”

Welcome to the Southeast, home of more Chick-Fil-A’s per square mile than hockey fans.  All joking aside, while hockey may still be catching in warm weather markets, this division does have some of the best kept secrets in the NHL.  Two of the previous five Stanley Cup champions reside here (Tampa Bay in 2004, Carolina in 2006).  Though the most recognizable player is Alex Ovechkin, other great hockey players also make their careers south of the Mason-Dixon line.  Just a taste—Ilya Kovalchuk, Mike Green, Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Nicklas Backstrom, Eric Staal, and Cam Ward.  Perhaps the best kept secret of this division is while it usually comes down to Washington or Carolina to finish first, any team has a realistic shot to take the crown this year.  The Southeast is just as competitive as any other division in the NHL.  Here is my take on how the division will shake out this season.

1.       Carolina Hurricanes

Rearview Mirror:
Three years removed from their 2006 Stanley Cup Championship, the Hurricanes returned to familiar territory by playing in the Eastern Conference finals.  Flash backwards to December 3, 2008.  Carolina was destined to be missing the postseason for the 3rd straight season with a 12-11-2 record under Peter Laviolette.  GM Jim Rutherford decides to shake things up by returning former bench boss Paul Maurice to Raleigh.  Re-acquiring Erik Cole (80GP, 18G-24A-42PTS, 73PIM) from Edmonton at the trade deadline seemed to boost Carolina’s offensive numbers.  With all those changes, the team went on a 33-19-5 run to lock up the 6th seed.  After knocking off the New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins in dramatic 7 game series, they lost in four straight to eventual champion Pittsburgh.  Nonetheless, Carolina re-asserted their place as being one of the elite teams in the East. 

Off-Season Ins: F Tom Kostopolous (MTL: 78GP, 8G-14A-22PTS, 106PIM), D Andrew Alberts (PHI: 79GP, 13PTS, 157 hits), D Aaron Ward (BOS: 65GP-3G-7A-10PTS, +16)

Off-Season Outs: F Patrick Eaves (to DET), F Frantisek Kaberle (contract buyout)

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What Makes Them Tick: The Hurricanes have no “bona-fide” superstar, but they do have a cohesive unit of 23 players led by Captain Rod Brind’Amour (80GP, 16G-35A-51PTS, -23).  Eric Staal (82GP, 40G-35A-75PTS, 14PPG) still put up solid offensive numbers, but 37 year old Ray Whitney (82GP, 24G-53A-77PTS, 62 takeaways) has continued to see some of the highest scouring outputs of his 19 year career.  Also up front, Tuomo Ruutu (79GP, 26G-28A-54PTS, 228 hits) established himself as a legitimate two-way presence on the ice.  Tim Gleason (70GP, 171 hits, 133 blocks) and Denis Seidenberg (70GP, 146 hits, 160 blocks) shore up Carolina’s no-name defense corps.  Between the pipes, Cam Ward (68GP, 39-23-5, 2.44GAA, .916 SV %, 6SO) had the best season of his career in re-asserting himself as one of the premiere goalies in the game today.  The addition of Kostopolous, Alberts, and Aaron Ward this past offseason gives the team not much in the scoring department, but gives the Hurricanes more physicality to their game.

What Could Make Them Go Boom: The only major way this team goes boom would have to be if they stop listening to Paul Maurice very early on into the season. Just because he has a new contract in his second go around with the franchise, it doesn’t necessarily mean job security.  He did provide the Hurricanes with that much needed boost when things were looking grim back in December.  Let’s flash backwards a bit.  After Maurice led the Hurricanes to the Cup finals in 2002, he was given a new contract extension but was relieved 20 games into the 2003 season.  The reason—the team stopped listening to him. Peter Laviolette was his replacement at the time.  After he led the Hurricanes to the Cup itself in 2006, he was rewarded with a contract extension.  The result—two (almost three) straight postseason-less appearances before getting the boot for Maurice for his second tour of duty.

Player to Watch: After posting career highs in games played (81), goals (19), and points (31), center Chad LaRose is quickly becoming an unsung hero for the Hurricanes.  Signed in 2003 as an undrafted free agent from the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers, the 5’9” LaRose has proven many scouts wrong that he didn’t belong in the NHL.  However, he had great numbers back in junior hockey (201PTS in 152 career games) to support his cause.  Now, with ever increasing offensive numbers and a new two-year contract to keep him in the Research Triangle, LaRose is destined to take the next step in becoming a prominent small, offensive-minded forward.  Look for him to be among the team’s scoring leaders this season, a 20G-30A output doesn’t seem all that far-fetched.

Prediction: Carolina is one of the more balanced teams in the league.  From a mixture of young guns and veterans, the Hurricanes have depth at scoring, solid defensive play, and outstanding goaltending.  Despite not having the strongest special teams in the game, they find ways to steal wins on a regular basis.  With the team virtually unchanged from their spectacular run a season ago, Carolina is poised to sneak up on Washington and take the division crown away from two-time defending champion, and perhaps more.

2.       Washington Capitals

Rearview Mirror:
After capturing their 2nd straight Southeast Divison crown and the 2nd overall seed in the East, Washington was on the shortlist to contend for the Stanley Cup.  After rallying from a 3-1 deficit to beat the NY Rangers in 7 games, reigning two-time Hart Trophy winner Alexander Ovechkin (70GP, 56G-54A-110PTS, league high 528 SOG) led the Caps into battle against his arch-nemesis – Sidney Crosby and the Pegunins.  While Alexander the Great (14pts in 7 games) and Sid the Kid (13pts in 7 games) held offensive clinics in the 7 game series, Pittsburgh humiliated Washington in the confines of the Verizon Center when it mattered. 

Off-Season Ins: F Mike Knuble (PHI: 82GP, 27G-20A-47PTS, 62PIM), F Brendan Morrison (ANA/DAL: 505PTS in 755 career games)

Off-Season Outs: G Brent Johnson (to PIT), F Donald Brashear (to NYR), F Sergei Federov and F Viktor Kozlov (both signed with KHL-Russia)

What Makes Them Tick: Washington is one of the highest scoring teams in the league, and they have Ovechkin to thank for it.  Last season, he accounted for 19.25% and 20.9% of the Capitals’ total shots and goals respectively.  While the opposition will tend to focus on Ovie, they shouldn’t forget the other offensive weapons the club has.  For starters, Nicklas Backstrom (82GP, 22G-66A-88PTS, 46PIM) and Alexander Semin (62GP, 34G-45A-79PTS, +25) are more than capable to hold their own with Ovechkin.  On the blueline, Norris trophy nominee Mike Green (68GP, 31G-42A-73PTS, 18PPG, 110 blocked shots) is quickly establishing himself as one of the top offensive defensemen of his generation.  While Green provides the offense from the point, Milan Jurcina (79GP, 157 hits, 131 blocked shots) and Shaone Morrison (72GP, 111 hits, 98 blocked shots) provide much of the defensive muscle that allowed a respectable 245 goals last year.  The additions of Knuble and Morrison should give the Caps a bit more offensive punch and lot more size to go along with Ovechkin’s style of play.

What Could Make Them Go Boom: Has goaltender Jose Theodore regained the form that won him the Hart Trophy in 2002 with the Canadiens?  After posting some of his best numbers in almost six seasons (57GP, 32-17-5, 2.87 GAA), he was unceremoniously yanked after one game in the 2009 postseason.  Boudreau has anointed Theodore as his number one starter in training camp, but will have to fend off some still competition from Semyon Varlamov (w/Hershey-AHL: 27GP, 19-7-1, 2.40 GAA, .920 SV%) in order to keep it.  If Theodore holds down that spot, it will be interesting to see if he can still be productive as he was in Montreal.  However…

Player to Watch: If Theodore performs like he did during his Colorado days, all eyes will be watching on the aforementioned Varlamov.  He only had 6 regular season appearances, but his playoff numbers were spectacular (7-6, 2.53 GAA, .918 SV%, 2 SO).  The 23rd overall draft pick in 2006 guided his Russian Super League club to the finals in 2008 before making the transition over to the NHL last fall.  He showed the fans in Hershey and Washington what he is capable of, and is poised to become one of the top Russian goalies on the planet today.  Depending on his playing time, look for him to carry a sub 2.60 GAA and .920 save percentage this year.

Prediction: The Capitals can win the division for the third straight year.  While I believe they can, that’s not the reason why I didn’t pick them to.  While the offense and defense is there, I just have too many doubts about the goaltending.  Theodore is a hot and cold netminder, while Varlamov is still green to the North American style of the game.  I’ve been proven wrong many times before, and I wouldn’t be shocked if I was proven wrong again with my pick.  Yet, one or both of these masked men need to step up in order to do so.  They are still a very sexy pick to go deep in the post-season, but they gotta get through 82 games first.

3.       Tampa Bay Lightning

Rearview Mirror: If a single word could describe last season for Tampa Bay, the appropriate one would be “dysfunctional”.  Let’s play a game of  Beyond the Numbers just to highlight how things were last year in the Bay Area.  First is 200 million, as in the dollar amount that “Saw” producer Oren Koules and Len Barrie ponied-up to purchase the Bolts and lease the St. Pete Times Forum.  Second is 16, the number of games of Barry Melrose’ 2nd tenure behind the bench before getting replaced by Rick Tocchet in November.  Third is 50, for how many players suited up for Tampa last season (22 defensemen alone).  Fourth is 351, for the amount of man games lost to injury last season (and subsequent explanation for why the 3rd number is so large).  Fifth is 46, as in how many points 1st overall pick Steve Stamkos netted in his first season (23G-23A in 79GP).  The final numbers are 24-40-18, the Bolts’ record for a disastrous 2008-09 season.  Bring on the changes by GM Bryan Lawton.

Off-Season Ins: D Victor Hedman (2009 2nd overall draft pick), D Mattias Ohlund (325PTS, 756PIM in 11 seasons with VAN), F Stephane Veilleux (MIN: 81GP, 23PTS, 98 hits), F Todd Fedoruk (PHX: 72GP, 13PTS, 125 hits), G Antero Niittymaki (PHI: 32GP, 13-8-6, 2.76GAA, .912 SV%)

Off-Season Outs: F David Koci (to COL), D Noah Welch (to ATL)

What Makes Them Tick: The Bolts have a very solid forward unit, led by the dynamic duo of captain Vincent Lecavalier (career with TB: 787GP, 302G-367A-669PTS, 561PIM) and Martin St. Louis (career wit TB: 621GP, 234G-331A-565PTS, 226PIM).  Lecavalier missed the final five games last season to undergo wrist surgery that hampered his offensive output from last season (77GP, 29G-38A-67PTS, -9).  He shoul be good to go for this upcoming season.  To help supplement the goal production, head coach Rick Tocchet will continue to look upon Ryan Malone (70GP, 26G-19A-45PTS, 173 hits), and the aforementioned Steve Stamkos.  Acquiring Stephane Veilleux and Todd Fedoruk during the off-season will also provide some much needed grit and contribute to an anemic offense that scored only 210 goals last season, tied for 2nd worst in the conference.

What Could Make Them Go Boom: Things took a major hit last season between the pipes and along the blueline last season.  Out of the 50 players that dressed for Tampa last season, 22 of them were defensemen and four were goaltenders.  The Bolts allowed a massive 3.28 goals last season, 27th in the league.  A major retooling in the off-season led to Mattias Ohlund leaving the Pacific Northwest after 11 successful years and the drafting of Swedish phenom Victor Hedman (more on him in a minute) to strengthen the defensive corps.  Antero Niiittymaki comes in as a proven backup for starter Mike Smith (41GP, 14-18-9, 2.82GAA, .916 SV%) just in case the youngster goes down again with a concussion.  The major question that remains is can the new additions jell together in time to become a cohesive unit in time for the regular season?

Player to Watch: Victor Hedman, thought he hasn’t played a single shift in the NHL, will automatically have his name in the mix for Calder trophy consideration.  According to NHL Director of Central Scouting E.J. McGuire, “Victor Hedman brings…unsurpassed combinations of size (6’6”, 220lbs), explosiveness in his skating, quickness and offensive ability (2009 Rookie of the Year winner with 21pts in 43 games with SEL’s MoDo). He is indeed the whole package."  He most certainly has the proper defensive mentor in fellow Swede Mattias Ohlund to help the young lad from Ornskoldsvik get acclimated to the NHL and life in North America.  Hockey Bay could be seeing the torch passing from one of the present elite Swedish defensemen to the future.

Prediction: A wise man told me “I think Tampa will surprise some people with Stamkos and now Hedman/Ouhland as their defense leaders.”  I did believe that Tampa would be good, but not good enough to earn a playoff berth.  After researching their off-season moves in comparison with the rest of the conference, I will offer a bold prediction to everybody—not only will the Tampa Bay Lightning make the playoffs, they will advance to the conference semi-finals.

4.       Florida Panthers

Rearview Mirror:
Florida and Montreal tied for the 8th and final playoff spot at the end of the season, but the Canadiens made the dance thanks to winning the season series.  The “almost made it” for the 2nd straight year wasn’t good enough to convince Jay Bouwmeester to stick around.  Demanding for a trade since the end of the 2007-08 season, J-Bo finally got his wish near the NHL Entry Draft by getting shipped to Calgary in exchange for Jordan Leopold.  Two points wasn’t enough for GM Jacques Martin either.  Itching to get behind the bench again, he’s now in charge of bringing the Habs back to their former glory.  The main reason why Florida was able to stay in the thick of the playoff hunt last season was of G Tomas Voukoun’s spectacular play (59GP, 26-23-6, 2.49GAA, .926 SV%, 6SO).  But in the end, it just wasn’t good enough yet again.

Off-Season Ins: G Scott Clemmensen (NJ: 40GP, 25-13-1, 2.39GAA, .917 SV%), D Jordan Leopold (CGY: 83GP, 7G-17A-24PTS, 66 hits), C Steve Reinprecht (334PTS in 552 career games), D Ville Koistinen (NSH: 28PTS in 86 career games)

Off-Season Outs: GM Jacuqes Martin (head coach—MTL), D Jay Bouwmeester (to FLA), D Karlis Skrastins (to DAL), C Anthony Stewart (to ATL), LW Ville Peltonen and RW Richard Zednik (both signed with KHL-Russia)

What Makes Them Tick: The Panthers are a very young club up front, let by David Booth (72GP, 31G-29A-60PTS, 11PPG), Stephen Weiss (78GP, 14G-47A-61PTS, 50.9 FO%), Nathan Horton (67GP, 22G-23A-45PTS, 95 hits), and Michael Frolik (79GP, 21G-24A-45PTS, 22PIM).  Add veteran Steve Reinprecht into the mix, and you have some veteran leadership to the stable that is sorely lacking after Olli Jokinen was dealt to Phoenix in 2008.  The aforementioned quartet were all drafted and developed by the Panthers organization, so with each passing season sees these guys improve more and more as a cohesive unit on the ice for years to come. 

What Could Make Them Go Boom: How do you replace the skills of Jay Bouwmeester along the blueline?  The truth is you can’t.  While Bouwmeester (203PTS in 401 career games w/FLA) possessed brilliant offensive numbers during his career, he also had the size (6’4”, 212lbs) and defensive skills that any team could build a blueline corps around.  The man Florida received in return, Leopold, isn’t much of a physical defenseman (6’1”, 200lbs).  Look for Keith Ballard to take on the role as top tier defenseman.  Despite his 5’11” frame, he is a 208lb physical powerhouse that plays like he’s 6’5” (172 hits, 136 blocked shots).  He also did amass 34 points last season. Koistinen also joins a completely rebuilt defense corps for this upcoming season that will be led by veteran Bryan McCabe (457PTS, 1,615PIM in 986 career games).

Player to Watch: Steve Reinprecht (73GP, 14G-27A-41PTS, 20PIM) finally has the chance to increase his offensive output this season.  One of the more underrated players in the game today, the 11 year journeyman veteran was squeezed out of Phoenix do to their young stable of talent (or lack of funding).  Florida gave the man the opportunity to take a more active role as a top six forward and veteran leader that is really needed for such a young franchise.  He has the talent surrounding him to finally crack the 20-goal and 60 point plateau for the first time in his career, and perhaps return to the playoffs since his days with the Avalanche (won Stanley Cup with them in 2001).

Prediction: Losing Olli Jokinen and Jay Bouwmeester the past two season in Sunrise really hurt the Panthers’ chances of making the playoffs, but they still managed to be in the thick of things each year.  While they are still a very competitive club on paper, head coach Peter DeBoer is expecting the goaltending tandem of Vokoun and Clemmensen to carry the team on its back to a playoff berth.  It could happen, but it’s unlikely.  The defensive corps will be severely tested as Florida’s playoff drought will continue for yet another season.

5.       Atlanta Thrashers

Rearview Mirror: The Thrashers celebrated a milestone last season.  The club participated in their ninth full season in the NHL in the city of Atlanta.  It probably doesn’t sound important, but any hardcore hockey fan would know that this isn’t the city’s first NHL team.  The old Atlanta Flames only lasted eight seasons down south before moving to Calgary in 1980.  That was the only celebration for Les Thrash, as they finished with 76 points for the 2nd consecutive season, good for 13th in the East.  Per usual, leading the way was team captain Ilya Kovalchuk (79GP, 43G-48A-91PTS, 50PIM).  Along with Kovalchuk, veteran Slava Kozlov (82GP, 26G-50A-76PTS, 15.8% shooting), and career years by Todd White (82GP, 22G-51A-73PTS, 18:03 TOI/G) & Bryan Little (79GP, 31G-20A-51PTS, 24PIM) contributed towards 257 goals for last season, 41 more scored than 2007-08.

Off-Season Ins: F Nik Antropov (TOR/NYR: 81GP, 28G-31A-59PTS, 12.5% shooting), D Pavel Kubina (TOR: 82GP, 14G-26A-40PTS, 94PIM), D Noah Welch (4th club since lockout), F Anthony Stewart (23rd overall pick in 2003)

Off-Season Outs: D Garent Exelby (to TOR), F Colin Stewart (to TOR), D Clay Wilson (to FLA), D Brett Skinner (to COL)

What Makes Them Tick: Kovalchuk has been the cornerstone of the franchise since being drafted first overall by GM Don Waddell in 2001.  His numbers suggest he hasn’t disappointed (297G-260A-557PTS in 545 career games).  However, the teams that surrounded him have been failures.  To entice the free agent to be that the club is determined to be successful now, Waddell went out and surrounded Ilya with the tools he needs to lead the club back to the postseason.  “Swiss-army” forward Nik Antropov (304PTS in 527 career games) was brought in for his ability to play all three positions up front.  The addition of Pavel Kubina (746 career games with TOR/TB) on the blueline gives the Thrashers a legit top 4 defense corps.  He joins the likes of Ron Hainsey (81GP, 39PTS, 22:22 TOI/G), Tobias Enstrom (82GP, 32PTS, 23:31 TOI/G), and the fourth person I’ll go in depth on a bit later—Zach Bogosian.

What Could Make Them Go Boom: Goaltending woes have doomed this franchise since their inception in 1999.  Names such as Rhodes, Nurminen, Hnilicka, Dunham, and Dafoe have guarded the pipes in Blueland and watched their GAA’s skyrocket in the process.  Last season, Atlanta surrendered 280 goals—only Toronto allowed more (293).  Incumbent starter Kari Lehtonen may be the club’s all time leader in games played (204), wins (94) and shutouts (14), but two groin surgeries in the past four seasons raise several questions about his physical health. Backup netminder Johan “Moose” Hedberg (33GP, 13-12-3, 3.49 GAA, .886 SV%) still gives the Thrashers a proven veteran in case Lehtonen decides to go down with another injury.  However, he has only started 41 games or more in a season twice in his career—last in 2002-03 with Pittsburgh. 

Player to Watch: While all eyes will be on current “face of the franchise” in Kovalchuk and his impending UFA status, I’d be keeping tabs on the next one—D Zach Bogosian.  Selected third overall in 2008 from the Peterborough Petes, Bogosian was having an excellent rookie season before suffering a broken leg.  He did finish up strong after returning from injury by netting 11 points (including six goals) in his final 16 games.  Not only does Bogosian have good offensive skills (47GP, 9G-10A-19PTS, 47PIM), he also has great size.  Listed as 6’2”, 200 lbs., the kid has grown into his body during his time in the OHL.  He has the right combination of assets to become a franchise defenseman, something Atlanta has never had in franchise history.

Prediction: The clock is ticking for Don Waddell. His previous 9 seasons of assembling a team has resulted in only one postseason appearance—a four game sweep at the hand of the NY Rangers in 2007.  With each passing season, the amount of empty seats within the interior of Philips Arena has increased.  Atlanta was the only team to average below 80% capacity last season.  Even with all the random flurry of offseason acquisitions and smart drafting the past few seasons, it won’t be enough to get the Thrashers back into postseason competition.  But will it be enough to keep Kovalchuk in midnight blue after 2010?  Will it be enough for Waddell’s job security?  The clock is ticking.


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