The Southeast will definitely be one of the most intriguing divisions this season. For one thing it has the electrifying
Here's a closer look, with teams ranked in my predicted order of finish:
The roster has seen significant change since the Stanley Cup campaign of 2005-06, but the core remains sound.
If you want to make the argument that injuries derailed the Canes last season, you've got plenty of ammunition. But the bodies left standing seemed to have enough talent to grab a playoff spot. So why'd they fall two points short? Call it a failure to buy into one another. There was no connection between the forwards, defense and goalies, leading to scrambly play where everyone was caught out of position trying to do their job and someone else's. The challenge for coach
For the Canes to realize their potential, they need Ward to take the next step. After leading the team to the Cup, he's struggled at times, victimized by his own inconsistency and the porous defensive efforts of his mates. But with a renewed focus on team play, life should be easier for the 24-year-old who hopes to build on last season's career bests in wins (37), shutouts (4), save percentage (.904) and GAA (2.75).
The Canes' first-rounder is considered a good, though not safe, bet to stick in Raleigh this season. He's likely to have little impact, however, spending most of his time on the fourth line with spot duty on the penalty kill.
With 32 points in 38 games after being plucked off the bottom of the scrap heap, Samsonov's contributions were an unexpected bonus during the late-season swoon. But the bigger shock was that the player who'd loafed his way off four teams post-lockout was rewarded with a three-year, $7.6 million deal by GM
It's easy to look at the Caps as The
Ovechkin and coach
You were expecting
The fourth overall pick from 2007 is a big, bruising blueliner the Caps envision as part of their top pairing with Green...in time, anyway. This season will be about making the jump from junior hockey to the NHL, a transition that will be made easier by Alzner's physical maturity and mental agility. He'll likely be eased in on the third pair, but could be playing significant minutes by season's end.
The rookie blueliner established his credentials as an NHL regular late last season, scoring 18 points and averaging more than 18 minutes, often against the opposition's top offensive unit. But he failed to take full advantage of his 6-6, 225-pound frame, and frustrated fans, if not his coaches, with his timid play. Look for that to change as Schultz becomes a more imposing presence in his own zone and a reliable 20-minute defender.
In one of the oddest spending sprees in memory, the Lightning signed half the free-agent forwards on the market this summer. The end result is an offensive corps still anchored by
While new owners
His point production dropped off significantly from the year before, a victim of the team's defensive struggles and the near season-long absence of transition specialist Boyle. The lack of an adequate replacement for the veteran blueliner means that Lightning forwards will need to generate their own chances. No one in this group is more self-sufficient than Lecavalier, the silky-smooth center with the sandpaper edge. A return to the 100-point plateau is unlikely, but 40 goals and 90 points are a safe bet.
Prior to 2004, a talented but physically immature blue-chipper like Stamkos likely would have been returned to juniors for further seasoning. But the post-lockout era has been defined by the ability of rookies to make immediate impacts. Stamkos is a lock to continue the trend. The prime beneficiary of a splurge on rugged, offensive-minded wingers, Stamkos should net 70 points and establish himself as the lead dog in the Calder race.
The general consensus is that Melrose, more than a decade removed from his last coaching assignment, will struggle to step out of the broadcast booth and do an effective job in today's NHL. Don't be so sure. Although the demands are different, the unequivocal success of long-time mic jockey
What this revamped six-man unit lacks in sex appeal it makes up with experience and versatility. Workhorse
The Panthers played like de-clawed kittens with the puck last season, scoring just over 2.5 goals per game. They'll be hard-pressed to clear even that depressingly low bar this time around, absent the services of Jokinen.
Although he won more than he lost, last season was arguably Vokoun's worst as a starter. At 32, his mechanics and tools are still intact, so he's likely to benefit from improvements in defensive talent and team commitment in front of him, and re-establish himself as a top-10 stopper. Anything less, and the Panthers are out of the hunt by February.
Stolen from the Red Wings in the 2007
Matthias might not be the only fresh face in the room. A strong camp has winger
Faced with the challenge of spearheading the offense, he responds with a career-best 25 goals and 70 points.
A piecemeal hodge-podge of graying vets and fresh-faced kids, this year's group has the chance to be the best ever to patrol the blueline at Philips Arena. Schneider, that rare athlete who seems to be keeping the pace as he approaches 40, will handle a heavy workload after being swiped from the cap-strangled Ducks. If you can ignore the inflated paycheck, Hainsey can be serviceable on the second pair. There's a major physical force in
For a club with its eyes on the first overall pick, this is more like a "Where should I start?" category. The Thrashers' misadventures on the power play and penalty kill make them the most obvious sore spots. The additions of Hainsey and Schneider should bolster the back-end of the PP unit, but the team sorely lacks finishers beyond
What more needs to be said about a winger who scores 52 goals while lining up primarily with
Lehtonen's basically spent the past three seasons whittling away at the hopes and dreams he carried into the league as the second overall pick in 2002. Seemingly always just one split save away from another groin injury -- and maybe just a little too generous with the five-hole as a result -- he's a No. 1 goalie who's yet to prove himself worthy of the job. But it's funny how playing on a one-year contract can bring out the best in a player, and with the gifted