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2011-12 Southeast Div. Preview

Teams are listed in order of predicted finish.

*Denotes playoff pick

2010-11: 48-23-11, 107 points, first in Southeast

FRESH FACES: Tomas Vokoun (Florida), Jeff Halpern (Montreal), Roman Hamrlik (Montreal), Joel Ward (Nashville), Troy Brouwer (Chicago)

OTHER PLACES: Semyon Varlamov (Colorado), Marco Sturm (Vancouver), Matt Bradley (Florida), Boyd Gordon (Phoenix), Jason Arnott (St. Louis), Scott Hannan (Calgary), Tyler Sloan (Nashville)

STORYLINE: Retooled for the ultimate success, the Capitals are all about moving from legitimate contenders to champions. GM George McPhee kept his core intact and added quality veterans at forward, defense and in goal. Tomas Vokoun provides the proven workhorse stability the Caps haven't had between the piped since Ollie Kolzig hung up his pads.

MVP: Alex Ovechkin. Ovie makes this team go. Despite his "down" totals last season, Ovechkin's 61 even strength points trailed only Corey Perry and Daniel Sedin by one and he was still in on 38.8 percent of the Capitals' offense -- which ranked fourth overall in the league. He's leaner, lighter and needs to be more consistent in his overall approach.

KID TO WATCH: Marcus Johansson. He will continue to build on a credible rookie campaign (13 goals, 27 points, +2) and should take over as the number two center behind Nicklas Backstrom. The Caps are deep and talented and Johansson looks to be a big part of that among their top-six forwards

KEEP AN EYE ON:The impact of three new vets -- Vokoun as Michal Neuvirth's partner/mentor; defenseman Roman Hamrlik as a stabilizing force, and Troy Brouwer as an effective, grinding power forward.

BOTTOM LINE: This team is built to win... now. The Caps are my pick to reach the Stanley Cup Final, where they'll take the chalice by beating another talented team of long unfulfilled promise: the San Jose Sharks.

2010-11: 46-25-11, 103 points, second in Southeast

FRESH FACES: Mathieu Garon (Columbus), Bruno Gervais (NY Islanders), Matt Gilroy (NY Rangers), Tom Pyatt (Montreal), Ryan Shannon (Ottawa)

OTHER PLACES: Simon Gagne (Los Angeles), Mike Smith (Phoenix), Sean Bergenheim (Florida), Mike Lundin (Minnesota), Randy Jones (Winnipeg)

STORYLINE: The Lightning surprised many people last season by leading the division most of the season before being overtaken by the Capitals atop the division standings. Then, as a playoff team, they stunningly swept Washington and were within a goal of going to the Stanley Cup Final. With stability in ownership (Jeff Vinik), management acumen (GM Steve Yzerman) and a brash young bench boss (Guy Boucher), it was a heady 12 months for the Bolts and their fans.

Now, can they do it again? Whereas the Capitals are waiting for the playoffs to prove that they've improved, the Lightning face the challenge of proving that last season wasn't a fluke...that Teddy Purcell really is a top-6 forward...that Martin St. Louis can still be the catalyst at age 36...that they aren't over-reliant on special teams as one of only three teams -- the Canucks and Canadiens were the others -- ranked in the top 10 in both powerplay and penalty short, that Tampa Bay's rise is real.

MVP: Martin St. Louis. He's the sparkplug in all situations. He was involved in over 41 percent of his team's goals, ranking second in the NHL behind league MVP Corey Perry. And St. Louis' importance stretches beyond the numbers as he's a leader, an example of how to go about your business and a veteran presence.

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KID TO WATCH: Steven Stamkos. He's still only 21 and has had plenty of ups and a couple of downs during the course of his three full NHL seasons. He finished the 2010-11 regular season in a terrible slump with just five goals over the last two months. Then he scored six times in the playoffs, so his game returned somewhat. Eventually, this will be his team and he needs to take another step in that direction this year.

KEEP AND EYE ON: Vincent Lecavalier. This used to be his team at one time. He no longer carries that mantle. He did, however, have a fine second half when the Bolts needed it most because Stamkos was mired in a funk, and he had a stellar playoff run as well. A healthy and consistent Lecavalier all season would help the Lightning's reality check.

BOTTOM LINE: This is a good team and a sound organization again. The Lightning will be in the Cup contender mix this season and beyond.

2010-11: 40-31-11, 91 points, third in Southeast

FRESH FACES: Tomas Kaberle (Boston), Brian Boucher (Philadelphia), Alex Ponikarovsky (Los Angeles), Anthony Stewart (Winnipeg), Tim Brent (Toronto)

OTHER PLACES: Erik Cole (Montreal), Justin Pogge (Phoenix)

STORYLINE: The Hurricanes lost badly on home ice on the last day of the regular season and missed the playoffs. They were that close. Maybe without the dramatics, the 'Canes will likely again be in that pool of teams fighting for the bottom couple of playoff berths in the Eastern Conference. Eric Staal is a legitimate number one center. Cam Ward is a topflight goaltender. Tuomo Ruutu and Jussi Jokinen are proven, solid contributors. Youngsters Brandon Sutter and Jamie McBain made impressive strides last season and are now solidly a part of the core group.

The reality in Raleigh is that this group is still developing and evolving. It might not have quite enough to reach the playoffs, unless everything goes Carolina's way on the injury front and development track.

MVP: Cam Ward. The 27-year-old goaltender ranks among the elite at his position. He was the only one last season to make over 2,000 saves. He also faced the most shots in the NHL, which somewhat mitigates his overall impact. Let's just say, the 'Canes cannot do without Cam Ward. He covers many shortcomings and gives them playoff hope.

KID TO WATCH: Zac Dalpe. This 21-year-old center is just what the 'Canes needed -- an infusion of offense in their top six forward mix. He produced nearly a point-per-game in the AHL and got 15 games of experience with the big club last season. This season is all about solidifying his standing.

KEEP AN EYE ON: Jeff Skinner. He surprised everyone as a 30-goal scorer and winner of the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year. Can he avoid the dreaded sophomore slump? The Hurricanes can't afford to see Skinner's production slide.

BOTTOM LINE: Despite some good players and fine prospects, Carolina's depth is sketchy at this point, but the 'Canes will be among the masses vying for a postseason ticket.

2010-11: 34-36-12, 80 points, fourth in Southeast

FRESH FACES: Claude Noel (coach), Eric Fehr (Washington), Randy Jones (Tampa Bay), Tanner Glass (Vancouver)

OTHER PLACES: Radek Dvorak (Dallas), Anthony Stewart (Carolina), Eric Boulton (New Jersey)

STORYLINE: With NHL hockey back in Winnipeg, the sense of local interest and support will certainly be an adrenaline boost for the players. They'll need it playing in the Southeast this season, as the travel will be nothing short of... interesting. So, if you call the enthusiasm-logistics factors a wash, what is this former-Thrashers-now-Jets team all about?

Well, it has a nice core group that's now been together for at least a couple of seasons. That might not sound like a lot, but given the perpetual shuffling that went on in Atlanta, it is a good start in Winnipeg. Evander Kane, Bryan Little and Zach Bogosian are maturing into NHL contributors after cutting their collective teeth -- with some gnashing, I'm sure -- as teenagers. Captain Andrew Ladd, trade deadline acquisition Blake Wheeler and Nik Antropov provide proven production. Is it enough? It might just be if big Dustin Byfuglien provides a positive wild card spin from the blueline.

MVP: No one. There really isn't one, which is OK if you get good minutes through four lines and three D-pairings. That's going to have to be the Jets' approach -- getting a little something from a lot of players. Of course, if goaltender Ondrej Pavelec continues to grow into the number one role and limits his low points during the season, this team might surprise plenty of people -- and opponents.

KID TO WATCH: Alex Burmistrov. This 20-year-old Russian center is a key to the Jets' progress. He showed flashes last season as a teen out of junior that he belonged. If his progress continues as a hard working, two-way pivot, he will fill a big void in the middle where the Jets as the Thrashers really struggled during their truncated history in Atlanta.

KEEP AN EYE ON: Jimmy Slater. He's one of those glue guys who makes a difference on any team, but whose impact is felt even more so on good teams. He missed over half of last season due to a concussion. If he can regain his form as a checking center with value on face-offs, the penalty kill and the forecheck, the middle won't be such a weakness for the Jets.

BOTTOM LINE: It's all about answering questions. What will be the impact of playing in an environment where the team is embraced? How much has their young core, including Pavelec, matured? Is Byfuglien, who has to deal with a drunken boating charge, a sideshow or an All-Star show stopper? More than anything, if the Jets get improved play at the center ice position and are no longer seen as being vulnerable, they will be a playoff team.

2010-11: 30-40-12, 72 points, fifth in Southeast

FRESH FACES: Kevin Dineen (coach), Brian Campbell (Chicago), Tomas Kopecky (Chicago), Jose Theodore (Minnesota), Kris Versteeg (Philadelphia), Ed Jovanovski (Phoenix), Scott Upshall (Columbus), Marcel Goc (Nashville), Tomas Fleischmann (Colorado), Sean Bergenheim (Tampa Bay), Matt Bradley (Washington)

OTHER PLACES: Tomas Vokoun (Washington), Rotislav Olesz (Chicago), Niclas Bergfors (Nashville), Marty Reasoner (NY Islanders), Darcy Hordichuk (Edmonton), Patrick Rissmiller (Colorado), Byron Bitz (Vancouver)

STORYLINE: GM Dale Tallon shredded his roster and boldly put together a collection of players in order to move forward. Brian Campbell comes over from the Blackhawks to anchor the defense.Tallon likewise plucked Tomas Kopecky from his former team and made him a key cog up front for the Panthers. Veteran-now-journeyman Jose Theodore is charged with replacing the consistency of departed go-to goaltender Tomas Vokoun.

Certainly, Tallon acted decisively. The question is: did he move prudently or is this just a random roster that needed any kind of shake-up after a decade of malaise and missed playoffs? Change was in order, but to what degree? Time will tell if the GM merely shuffled the deck or actually dealt a winning hand. If nothing else, Tallon's approach makes the Panthers one of the more interesting teams to follow this season and that was at least part of the thinking.

MVP: Brian Campbell. Because of what he brings from the backend. He will have to provide leadership and offensive punch to cover some of the shortcomings up front.

KID TO WATCH: Erik Gudbranson. He's an all-around defenseman the Panthers can build around. His development will go a long way in shaping the team's new path under Tallon. Campbell's experience will aid Gudbranson's development and shape his season. That's certainly good for the 19-year old and it puts even more value on Campbell's potential impact on this team and franchise.

KEEP AN EYE ON: David Booth. He had a slow start after coming back from his concussion, but ended up a 20-goal scorer anyway. If he reestablishes himself as one of the more robust power forwards in the East, the Panthers might have more punch up front than it first appears.

BOTTOM LINE: The Panthers some bona fide blue chippers and are close to becoming a playoff team again. Is this the year? Probably not. When? Maybe when Rocco Grimaldi is part of the mix in south Florida. It might take that long. Or prospects Jonathan Huberdeau and Jacob Markstrom might be enough. No matter, expecting to win when so many youngsters are holding the key to your improvement process isn't the surest of things in the NHL.