The Southeast will definitely be one of the most intriguing divisions this season. For one thing it has the electrifying Alexander Ovechkin and his up-and-coming Capitals, but there is also the dramatically revamped Lightning with the charismatic Barry Melrose behind the bench and top overall pick Steven Stamkos joining forces with the stellar Vincent Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis. It's also easy to overlook the Hurricanes, who are only two seasons removed for a Stanley Cup. And then there are the youth movments in Atlanta and Florida.
Here's a closer look, with teams ranked in my predicted order of finish:
2007-08 RECORD: 43-33-6 --92 points; second in Southeast; ninth in conference; missed playoffs
KEY ADDS: Joni Pitkanen (Edmonton), Anton Babchuk (Russia), Josef Melichar (Sweden),
KEY LOSSES: John Grahame (Russia), Glen Wesley (retirement), Bret Hedican (retirement), Jeff Hamilton (Chicago Wolves), Erik Cole (Edmonton), Craig Adams (Chicago)
STRENGTHS: Experienced forwards
The roster has seen significant change since the Stanley Cup campaign of 2005-06, but the core remains sound. Eric Staal, Matt Cullen and Rod Brind'Amour provide solid depth at center, and there's plenty of competition on the wing with Scott Walker, Tuomo Ruutu, Ray Whitney and, when he comes back at mid-season, Justin Williams. The Canes scored 250 goals last season, a total that trailed just four teams. With virtually the same roster, and a more effective transition game, they should be equally effective this time around.
WEAKNESSES: Team play
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 Peter Laviolette is to get all his horses pulling in the same direction by simplifying the game plan and demanding accountability. If he can't --quickly -- he's likely to pay with his job.
MVP: Cam Ward
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).
ROOKIE TO WATCH: Brandon Sutter
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.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Sergei Samsonov
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 Jim Rutherford. It'll be a stunner if he finishes this season in Carolina, let alone survives that contract.
BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: The Canes may not boast the sexiest lineup in the East, but they are a solid, gritty bunch. Given the benefit of a reasonably healthy season -- already an issue given early injuries to Brind'Amour and Williams -- they'll win the division.
2007-08 RECORD: 43-31-8, 94 points; first in Southeast; lost in first round to Philadelphia
KEY ADDS: Jose Theodore (Colorado)
KEY LOSSES: Cristobal Huet (Chicago), Olaf Kolzig (Tampa Bay)
STRENGTHS: Scoring depth
It's easy to look at the Caps as The Alexander Ovechkin Show, with AO working his magic surrounded by a chorus of faceless sweater-fillers. But a shrewd procurement program has been at work during the past few years that allows Washington to boast of one of the most dangerous offenses in the conference. There's enviable center depth featuring Michael Nylander, Niklas Backstrom and Sergei Fedorov. Alexander Semin and Chris Clark could chip in 70 goals from the wings,and Mike Green is in the process of establishing himself as one of the game's most dangerous point men. Ovechkin's name is still the marquee draw, but this is an ensemble act now.
Ovechkin and coach Bruce Boudreau were the engines that powered the Caps from the basement into the thick of the playoff race, but it was the acquisition of Huet that added a turbo-charged boost down the stretch. GM George McPhee reacted curiously to Huet's free agent defection by signing the enigmatic Theodore. The former Hart-winner enjoyed something of a career renaissance in Colorado, but even while playing behind a more experienced defense he was no more than a middle-of-the-road stopper. Washington's blueline is promising but green, suggesting he'll have to be even better just to maintain his mediocre standing.
MVP: Alex Ovechkin
You were expecting John Erskine? Ovechkin, the defending Art Ross, Rocket Richard and Hart winner, is the game's most dynamic force. At 23, he's years away from hitting his prime. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him break the 70-goal, 120-point mark this season and become the NHL's most compelling marketing tool.
ROOKIE TO WATCH: Karl Alzner
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.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Jeff Schultz
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.
BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: Armed with the confidence that comes from a breakthrough season, the young Caps should be well situated to take the next step forward. But will they? The loss of Huet might not shoot off their wheels, but the margin between success and failure in the East is incredibly slim. It won't take much of a drop-off in netminding to cost them the division title, but the Caps won't be denied a lower playoff berth.
2007-08 RECORD: 31-42-9 -- 71 points, fifth in Southeast; last in conference; missed playoffs
KEY ADDS: Coach Barry Melrose, Ryan Malone (Pittsburgh), Gary Roberts (Pittsburgh), Radim Vrbata (Phoenix), Mark Recchi (Atlanta), Vaclav Prospal (Philadelphia), Evgeni Artyukhin (Russia), Andrei Meszaros (Ottawa), Matt Carle (San Jose), Olaf Kolzig (Washington), Janne Niskala (Milwaukee), Ty Wishart (San Jose), Andrew Hutchinson (Hartford)
KEY LOSSES: Dan Boyle (San Jose), Brad Lukowich (San Jose), Filip Kuba (Ottawa), Mathieu Darche (Buffalo), Craig MacDonald (Columbus), Nick Tarnasky (Nashville), Andre Roy (Calgary), Doug Janik (Chicago), Alexandre Picard (Ottawa)
STRENGTHS: Forward depth
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 Vinnie Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, but otherwise almost completely revamped. Highlight additions include first overall pick Steven Stamkos, Malone, Vrbata and enough NHL experience to ice six front lines. It's impossible to tell how it'll all come together, but with so many possible combinations, Melrose has enough options to rank among the most dangerous offenses in the conference.
WEAKNESSES: From the blueline back
While new owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie opened the checkbook to expedite Stamkos' acclimation to the NHL, they went young and (mostly) cheap in rehabilitating a blueline that waved bye-bye to four of last season's top six. Meszaros and Carle have top-four potential, but are coming off disappointing campaigns that made them expendable to their former employers. Jumbo-sized Vladimir Mihalik could make an impact, but that giant is green. Beyond the injured Paul Ranger, the rest of the crew looks readily exploitable. That doesn't bode well for promising but still learning netminder Mike Smith and his partner Kolzig, who looked like he was ready to hang 'em up last season in Washington.
MVP: Vincent Lecavalier
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.
ROOKIE TO WATCH: Steven Stamkos
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.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Barry Melrose
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 John Davidson as GM in St. Louis demonstrates that years spent in front of the camera can provide a valuable perspective on the game. Melrose inherits a motley bunch in Tampa, so no one should expect miracles. Still, if he's extended a bit of rope by management, Melrose has the charisma and smarts to get the Bolts headed in the right direction.
BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: One of the most comprehensive roster turnovers ever attempted is likely to lead to significant growing pains. The Lightning should score in bunches, but the back end may be more porous than the group that posted a league-worst 3.22 GAA last season. That'll make for some entertaining nights at the rink, but not enough wins to claw their way back into the Eastern playoffs.
2007-08 RECORD: 38-35-9 -- 85 points; third in Southeast; 11th in conference; missed playoffs
KEY ADDS: Coach Peter DeBoer, Bryan McCabe (Toronto), Keith Ballard (Phoenix), Nick Boynton (Phoenix), Cory Stillman (Ottawa), Chad Kilger (Toronto)
KEY LOSSES: Olli Jokinen (Phoenix), Mike Van Ryn (Toronto), Steve Montador (Anaheim), Jozef Stumpel (Russia), Branislav Mezei (Russia)
STRENGTHS: The blueline
What this revamped six-man unit lacks in sex appeal it makes up with experience and versatility. Workhorse Jay Bouwmeester is operating under a one-year deal that's likely to earn him a ticket out of Florida this season. Until then, he'll be the heart of this veteran group, with Ballard and McCabe instantly improving the transition. Boynton, Noah Welch and Bryan Allen round out a group that should make life considerably easier on Tomas Vokoun.
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. Stephen Weiss steps into the first line center role, but he's never topped the 50-point mark. Nathan Horton teases with his All-Star potential, but settles for slightly above average. David Booth seems to have the most upside after his 22-goal sophomore campaign, but beyond him there's little offense that can be counted on.
MVP: Tomas Vokoun
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.
ROOKIE TO WATCH: Shawn Matthias
Stolen from the Red Wings in the 2007 Todd Bertuzzi trade, the 6-2, 213-pound center impressed in a four-game midseason tryout necessitated by a series of injuries in Florida. Now he's winning the battle for a full-time job with a tireless work ethic, a solid defensive game and a decent touch around the net that suggest a long future as a staple of the Panthers' top six.
Matthias might not be the only fresh face in the room. A strong camp has winger Anthony Stewart in the hunt for a roster spot. The former first-rounder is likely to stick or be dealt before the season starts -- he'd have to clear waivers before being assigned to the AHL, and that's unlikely. Michael Frolik, the 10th overall pick in 2006, may also start the season with the club.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Stephen Weiss
Faced with the challenge of spearheading the offense, he responds with a career-best 25 goals and 70 points.
BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: Coming into the season, the Panthers are riding a malodorous string of seven consecutive playoff misses. Despite DeBoer's impressive efforts, count on that streak extending to eight. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though. If they're out of the running early, they'll be able to market potential UFA Bouwmeester at the deadline. After a couple of high profile fleecings, they're bound to win one, right?
2007-08 RECORD: 34-40-8 -- 76 points; fourth in Southeast; 14th in conference; missed playoffs
KEY ADDS: Coach John Anderson (Chicago Wolves), Jason Williams (Chicago), Mathieu Schneider (Anaheim), Ron Hainsey (Columbus), MartyReasoner (Edmonton)
KEY LOSSES: Bobby Holik (New Jersey), Mark Recchi (Tampa Bay), Alexei Zhitnik (free agent), Ken Klee (Anaheim), Brad Larsen (Anaheim)
STRENGTHS: The blueline
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 Garnet Exelby and a steady defensive presence in Niclas Havelid. But the real excitement centers around the long-term potential of Toby Enstrom, who could have muscled his way into Calder contention were it not for a late-season swoon, plus rookies Zach Bogosian and Arturs Kulda. All three hint at better days to come.
WEAKNESSES: Special teams
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 Ilya Kovalchuk. Only the Leafs gave up more short-handed goals-against (77) than Atlanta's 75, and with a move to a younger lineup, the Thrashers are likely to give up more opportunities, further stressing an already over-matched penalty kill.
MVP: Ilya Kovalchuk
What more needs to be said about a winger who scores 52 goals while lining up primarily with Todd White as his center? Kovalchuk is rapidly becoming one of those players who is both pitied for his situation and regarded as the center of hypotheticals that ponder what he could achieve when paired with an elite puck-mover. He may not score 50 again this season, but given his gifts and competitive nature, you can't rule it out. Either way, he's clearly the class of the organization.
ROOKIE TO WATCH: Zach Bogosian
GM Don Waddell (how much longer will he keep that prefix?) has stated that the Thrashers will go with seven defenseman. That plan virtually guarantees an opening night roster spot for Bogosian, the third overall pick last June. Like all young defenders, he'll experience his share of growing pains. His preseason debut against the Wings was highlighted by clever play with the puck as well as glaring giveaways and bad penalties, but it's all part of the process. Along with sophomore Enstrom, he's the future of the club defensively, and as long as he maintains his confidence, he'll play a significant role.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Kari Lehtonen
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 Ondrej Pavelec lurking in the background, this has the makings of an Al Rollins-esque season for Lehtonen.
BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: A team in just its eighth season of existence shouldn't be in rebuild mode, but that's the sorry state of this franchise. A summer of overpaying for second-tier free agents wasn't enough to spackle the gaping holes that dot this roster after years of mismanagement. With another last place finish looming, this season has to be defined more by the progress of the youngsters than the team's place in the standings.Pressing Southeast questions | Pacific preview | Central | Atlantic | Northwest