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Coach: Adam Oates
2011-12 record: 42-32-8, 7th in East, lost to Rangers in second round
Vital signs (stat ranking): goals-for (14th), goals-against (21st), power play (18th), penalty kill (21st), PIM (25th)
Notable adds: Coach Adam Oates, C Mike Ribeiro RW Joey Crabb, D Jordan Henry
Notable losses: RW Alexander Semin, G Tomas Vokoun, D Dennis Wideman, C Jeff Halpern, Coach Dale Hunter
Outlook: Adam Oates has work to do and not a lot of time to do it as he succeeds Dale Hunter, whose defensive philosophy stifled the Caps' offensive creativity. Oates, the newly-minted Hall of Famer, was a sublime playmaker, one of the best passing forwards of his generation, and one of his most important tasks is getting Alex Ovechkin fully back on his offensively potent game. The Caps will also need to generate supplemental scoring after the loss of enigmatic winger Alex Semin to Carolina. Nicklas Backstrom, the shifty, skilled center, is a question mark as he comes off a concussion-marred season (14 goals, 44 points in 42 games) and recovers from a neck injury suffered in December while playing in the KHL. Of the rest of the returning lineup, only one (other than Ovechkin) was a 20-goal scorer: left wing Jason Chimera. So to help boost the scoring, GM George McPhee added veteran forward Mike Ribeiro from Dallas, where he was consistently good for 60-70 points per season. Oates also needs to goose the power play, which declined from the league's best three seasons ago to 16th and then 18th last season. Quarterback Mike Green, who had successive 70-plus point campaigns (2008-09, 2009-10), has been dogged by injury and was limited to just three goals and four assists last season. If Oates can restore Washington's formidable offense, he'll make life easier for 23-year-old goalie Braden Holtby, who'll be trying to build on his impressive playoff performance of last spring.
Key player: Alex Ovechkin. The Capitals will rely on Ovie for goals, hits, inspiration and direction, and they won't win the Cup unless he lifts them. Though it seems as if he's been around forever, the Russian left wing is still only 27. But questions abound as to whether he's making a permanent drop from superstar to All-Star. After scoring 65, 56 and 50 goals, his production slipped to 32 and 38 in each of the last two seasons. His total of 65 points in 78 games last season was well off the four 100-point campaigns he enjoyed earlier in his career. What happened? For one, former coach Dale Hunter reduced his minutes. Beyond that, theories ranged from trouble with a new set of sticks to injuries that made it harder for him to shoot. (He recorded just 303 shots on goal last season compared to his career-high of 528 in 2008-09.) There was also speculation that he reined himself in after being called "reckless" by former coach Bruce Boudreau. Ovie's typically fearless, irreverent game still had its moments of big hits and collisions, but his penalty-minutes dipped to just 26 last season. If he can revert to his old high-powered, hell-bent-for-leather form, the Capitals should be a tough out come playoff time.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Coach: Guy Boucher
2011-12 record: 38-36-8, 10th in East, did not make playoffs
Vital signs: Goals for (9), Goals-against (30), PP (25), PK (26), PIM (20)
Notable adds: D Matt Carle, G Anders Lindback, D Sami Salo, LW Benoit Pouliot, RW B.J. Crombeen
Notable losses: G Dwayne Roloson, D Bruno Gervais
Outlook: Tampa Bay failed to reach the postseason after surrendering more goals (281) than any team in the league last season. Goaltender Dwayne Roloson's decline surely didn't help. There were offensive woes, too. Despite a group of skilled forwards, the Lightning finished 28th in shots-generated and tied for last in the league with just two shorthanded goals, while allowing 12 shorties. To help remedy the team's defensive woes, workhorse backliner Matt Carle was signed away from the Flyers and Sami Salo, 37, was brought in from Vancouver. Salo's veteran presence should help highly-regarded young backliner Victor Hedman (the second overall pick of the 2009 draft), who is expected to make significant strides in his development this season. There will be a question mark in net: Anders Lindback, who was imported from Nashville, has great potential but is short on experience, having appeared in only 38 NHL games. Is he ready to reliably handle the starting role? On the plus side, the Lightning led the NHL in overtime goals (10) and had the league's fifth-best shootout record (13-8). With the short schedule, every point will be precious, so clutch is a very good intangible to have.
Key player: Steven Stamkos.Martin St. Louis remains the team's heart and soul, but Stamkos is the heart of Tampa Bay's offense, the game's premier sniper. With seasons of 51, 45 and 60 goals, he's become the Mike Bossy or Brett Hull of an era that grudgingly produces prolific goal scorers. And if anyone thinks Stamkos is soft, he's been working with conditioning maven Gary Roberts and contact rarely keeps him away from the danger zones he wants to enter. He'll hover and linger, then get there when it matters and on his terms. His 12 game-winners were seven more than any other member of the team. Another big season from him should put the Bolts back in the playoff picture.
Coach: Kevin Dineen
2011-12 record: 36-26-18, 3rd in East, lost to Devils in first round.
Vital signs: goals-for (27th), goals-against (12th), power play (7th), penalty kill (25th), PIM (23rd)
Notable adds: D Filip Kuba, F George Parros, C Peter Mueller
Notable losses: D Jason Garrison, RW Mikael Samuelsson, RW Krys Barch
Outlook: These Cats made an impressive jump of 22 points in the standings over its previous showing in 2010-11, won its first division title, made a playoff appearance for the first time since 2001, and came within an overtime goal of dismissing the eventual Stanley Cup finalist Devils. And they did it all with 10 new players and a new head coach, Kevin Dineen. Still, their success camouflaged the fact that they scored just 203 goals during the season, while surrendering 227. Their -24 differential was worse than that of the non-playoff teams in Dallas (-11), Buffalo (-12), Montreal (-14) and Winnipeg (-21), and only three better than the totals posted by also-rans Anaheim and Edmonton. Quite simply, there is still a good deal of improvement needed. Though Carolina had a lower shootout percentage, Florida's 18 losses, against seven wins, were the most in the league and the Panthers scored just one OT goal all season. Perhaps no other team relied on its top line more heavily than the Panthers. Stephen Weiss, Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann combined for 172 points. (The club's fourth-leading scoring forward, Tomas Kopecky, had just 32.) The top line also combined for 15 power-play goals, but two of the club's most proficient man-advantage workers, defenseman Jason Garrison (9 goals) and forward Mikael Samuelsson (7), are gone. The club brought in Alex Kovalev to training camp, hoping he can crank some more magic out of his stick and 39-year-old legs. Otherwise, the club will need to find another source of offense. Prized prospect Jonathan Huberdeau could be a Calder Trophy candidate, but he'll need to crack the lineup first. And unless a trade for veteran goalie Roberto Luongo comes about, the combination of Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen will have to suffice in net. The Panthers got a lot more out of their roster last season than many people expected. They'll need even more this year to get back to the postseason.
Key player: Brian Campbell. Few players enjoyed a resurgence as much as Campbell did last season. A year after playing himself out of Chicago, the 32-year-old defenseman had a super rebound season in Florida, posting career-highs of 49 assists and 53 points after a pair of puzzling 38- and 27-point campaigns with the Blackhawks. A fluid skater who sees the ice extremely well, Campbell revitalized Florida's foundering power play, which had been the club's chief weak point. The Panthers were dead last in the league in 2010-11, the year before Campbell arrived. Last season, they finished seventh, the greatest jump of any team in any special-teams category. He became an All-Star again, representing Team Chara in Ottawa. And he became the first blueliner to win the Lady Byng Trophy since 1954. What's more, Florida coach Kevin Dineen raved about Campbell's leadership, a vital contribution on a team that's trying to build a winning identity after years of mediocrity. Last season, he led the league in ice time (26:52 per game).With the loss of his semi-regular defense partner, Jason Garrison, who scored 16 goals last season before signing a free-agent deal with Vancouver, the Panthers will need to find a new foil for Campbell, who has reaffirmed his place among the game's more effective defensemen.
Coach: Kirk Muller
2011-12 record: 33-33-16, 12th in East, did not make playoffs
Vital signs: goals-for (16th), goals-against (25th), power play (20th), penalty-kill (22nd), PIM (26th)
Notable adds: RW Kevin Westgarth, Alexander Semin, C Jordan Staal, D Joe Corvo, G Dan Ellis
Notable losses: RW, Anthony Stewart, D Brian Dumoulin, C Brandon Sutter, D Bryan Allen, G Brian Boucher
Outlook: Say this for the 'Canes: they didn't stand pat after a poor season that saw a slow start lead to missing the playoffs. Even though new coach Kirk Muller sparked the team down the stretch, GM Jim Rutherford went out and snared two-way center Jordan Staal in a trade with the Penguins, uniting him with brother Eric, who led the team with 70 points, 24 more than any other Hurricane. Carolina also took a one-year gamble on ex-Capital Alex Semin, who can be a major scoring threat when he's right (and a major aggravation when he isn't). Often skating with Alex Ovechkin in Washington, the shifty Russian netted 187 goals over the past six seasons, but fell to 21 last season and pulled maddening disappearing acts during stretches of play. Defensively, the 'Canes were simply terrible in close games, allowing the most overtime goals (10) of any team in the league, and posting a 4-16 mark, the worst percentage in the NHL, in games that went to shootouts. (That could be where Semin helps.) To make up for the loss of defenseman Bryan Allen, who signed with Anaheim, the 'Canes brought in 35-yer-old Joe Corvo, who, in his third stint with the team, should steady a backline that boasts the promising Justin Faulk and solid veteran Joni Pitkanen. Muller is a smart hockey man with a puzzle to put together. At least now he has some new pieces to play with.
Key players: Cam Ward and Jeff Skinner. Simply stated, Ward is the cornerstone. He's logged at least 60 games in net in five of the last six seasons, but since winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as a rookie while leading Carolina to its unlikely 2006 Stanley Cup, he's become the poster boy for good goalies on bad teams. (Since that milestone year, the Canes have reached the playoffs only once.) Last season, he posted a respectable 30-23-13 mark, .915 save percentage and five shutouts on a struggling team, but now that the Canes have been fortified, he must continue his solid play. The Canes have some long-term hopes for 26-year-old Justin Peters, but Ward is still the man in net. As for Skinner, who is only 20, the 2011 Calder Trophy winner suffered through concussion issues and dropped to 20 goals and 44 points from 31 and 63, in 64 games last season. The Hurricanes surely need the return of his scoring touch and continued health.
Coach: Claude Noel
2011-12 record: 37-35-10, 11th in East, did not make playoffs
Vital signs: goals-for (12th), goals-against (26th), power play (12th), penalty kill (24th), PIM (15th)
Notable adds: LW Alexei Ponikarovsky, C Olli Jokinen, G Al Montoya
Notable losses: LW Tanner Glass, G Chris Mason
Outlook: Enthusiasm is not a problem in Winnipeg. After rallies to get NHL hockey back into Manitoba, fans responded to the Jets' return by filling the MTS Centre for each of the team's 41 home games. After a .500 mark in apathetic Atlanta the season before, the club went 23-13-5 in front of the boisterous crowds in its new home. But the Win left Winnipeg when the Jets went on the road, where they were just 14-22-5. GM Kevin Cheveldayoff tried to address the club's scoring needs by getting veteran forwards Olli Jokinen and Alex Ponikarovsky during the off-season. They join a workmanlike roster that includes Blake Wheeler (last season's top playmaker, with 47 assists), Andrew Ladd (28 goals), Bryan Little (24) and defenseman Dustin "Big Buff" Byfuglien. Meanwhile, the Jets are waiting for their crop of talented prospects to blossom. Evander Kane (30 goals) is well along, and Mark Schiefele's arrival is eagerly anticipated, as is defenseman Jacob Trouba, who shined to Team USA at the recent World Junior Championship. The Jets are unlikely to make the playoffs, but their fans will be more than happy to watch them again, and hopefully watch them make some solid progress.
Key players: Ondrej Pavelec and Evander Kane. With Chris Mason gone, the heat is squarely on Pavelec, who was given a five-year contract even though his numbers (29-28-9; .906 save pct.; 2.91 GA) were so-so last season as he faced 2,036 shots and surrendered more goals (191) than any netminder in the league. The 25-year-old Czech has some holes -- like the fiver he sometimes finds hard to close -- in his game and can be streaky. If the Jets find they can't rely on him, they may have to hope that Al Montoya (a former first-round pick -- 6th overall by the Rangers in 2004) displays the promise he showed during a 52-game stint with the Islanders. On the offensive side, Kane, at 21, is already a 30-goal scorer with a seemingly greater upside. The trick is finding a supporting cast that can complement his skills. Kane is the type of player a franchise can build around. The Jets would do well to give him the tools he needs to reach his full potential. Perhaps Schiefele and Trouba will play prominent roles in that regard.
Southeast's biggest surprise (for better or worse)
Three teams will make the playoffs. Since the NHL went to a six-division format in 1998-99, the Atlantic and Northeast Divisions have each placed three or four clubs in the postseason on multiple occasions. The Southeast never has. This season looks like a first because the division is so well balanced. Best bets: Washington, Carolina and Florida or an improved Tampa Bay.
Southeast breakout player
Braden Holtby, Capitals. After multiple tries at finding a No. 1 goalie, the answer seems to have been right under the Capitals' noses: fourth-round pick who was toiling at AHL Hershey. With just 21 games of NHL experience spread out over two seasons, Holtby was thrown to the lions during last spring's playoffs. He performed superbly, leading Washington to within a game of the conference finals, while posting a robust .935 save percentage in 14 games. Now with a chance to be a full time No. 1, the 23-year old won't sneak up on anyone during his first regular season as a starter, but he's shown flashes of what it takes to be a good one.
Southeast's unsung hero
Andrew Ladd, Jets. He was a strong support player for Chicago when the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, and he's been a good fit everywhere else. After leaving Chicago, Ladd scored 29 goals in Atlanta and then 28 after the club moved to Winnipeg, slipping under the radar each year. He's a responsible backchecker and very durable forward, having missed only one game during the last four seasons. The Jets captain hasn't and will likely never make an All-Star team, but few who haven't are as respected by his peers.
Hottest seat in the division
Guy Boucher, Lightning. What a difference a year can make for a hot coach. In the spring of 2011, Boucher was being touted as a genius for his system of patience and counter-punching that frustrated opposing teams into turnovers and blunders. Tampa Bay lost a 1-0 squeaker in Game 7 of the conference finals to eventual Cup-winner Boston, but seemed to be on its way to years near the top of the league. Then the bottom dropped out last year. Maybe opponents, surprised by Boucher's innovations, figured him out. The Lightning have been retooled by GM Steve Yzerman, but if they sputter, highly-touted Syracuse (AHL) coach Jon Cooper is on the runway. Last season, Cooper led Tampa Bay's affiliate (then in Norfolk) to the Calder Cup and a record 29-game win streak.
All five teams in the Southeast ranked among the bottom 10 in penalty killing last season. Their rankings: Washington 21st at 81.6; Carolina 22nd at 80.6; Winnipeg 24th at 80.1; Florida 25th at 79.5; and Tampa Bay 26th at 79.2. This is one division where trips to the box can mean trouble on the scoreboard.