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Southeast Division Preview

Southeast Division Preview

Southeast Division Preview
By Judd Hall

The Hurricanes looked like they were going to back into the Southeast Division title in the final month of the 2007-2008 regular season. Nagging injuries and a hot streak by the Capitals thwarted Carolina’s playoff bid at the end of the year. After a frantic offseason by many of the clubs in the division, backing into April won’t be an option.

Washington Capitals

The Caps looked lost for much of last year, but a change to Bruce Boudreau behind the bench and a season ending seven-game win streak made the playoffs a possibility. Many of the pieces of that club return, including Sergei Fedorov, who is more comfortable in his job as a role player and mentor to Alex Ovechkin. Their attack will be bolstered by Michael Nylander (if he stays healthy) and Nicklas Backstrom can live up to expectations.

Washington lost both Olaf Kolzig and stretch run hero Cristobal Huet to free agency. Now that space between the pipes will be fill by Jose Theodore. The cost of the former Colorado netminder is reasonable (two-years for $9 Million), provided he plays at the level that got his old club into the postseason. If Theodore can’t earn his keep, then the Capitals’ porous defense will be an even bigger black eye.

Tampa Bay Lightning

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a team complete such a thorough overhaul. Tampa Bay changed ownership, its front office and head coach over a three month span. Former analyst Barry Melrose has pieced together a fast and aggressive set of rear guards in Andrej Meszaros and Matt Carle. The blue line’s ability to play together will help as the team finds the right mix of playing time in goal for Mike Smith and former Cap Kolzig. Given the new pieces to the team means chemistry could be an issue. And if the defense doesn’t play up to par, then the ‘over’ will come through on a consistent basis.

As far as offense is concerned, we know the puck will be ran through Vincent Lecavalier after signing an 11-year contract. What will interest people more is how No. 1 pick Steve Stamkos handles himself on the ice for his rookie campaign. He’s played well during the preseason in games that mean absolutely nothing. Will that translate into success when Stamkos anchors the second line for the Lightning?

Carolina Hurricanes

The Hurricanes missed the postseason by four points in 2007. Last year, they missed the Southeast title and the final spot in the Eastern Conference Playoffs by two points. So yeah, Peter Laviolette’s team is a little fed up. Carolina is hoping that those disappointments will yield a tougher club mentally to finally get back to playing hockey in April.

Carolina has rebuilt its defense by bringing in Joni Pitkanen and Anton Babchuk. Their additions should help goaltender Cam Ward gain confidence that he seemingly lost over the final month of last season. The offense for the ‘Canes took a major hit when forward Justin Williams went down with an Achilles tendon injury. This means that Eric Staal will have to pick up more of the slack along with Scott Walker.

Florida Panthers

Slow starts and strong finishes have become commonplace in South Florida. That also helped in moving Jacques Martin from behind the bench to the front office for the Panthers. Martin seems energized by the full time role as he dealt captain Olli Jokinen to the Coyotes for defenders Nick Boynton and Keith Ballard. He also signed former Maple Leaf Bryan McCabe to play under less pressure in Florida.

The Panthers’ new head coach, Pete DeBoer, has made the most of young forwards in his time in the AHL. Now he’ll have Nathan Horton, Stephen Weiss and Rostislav Olesz to mold. Plus the signing of former Carolina attacker Cory Stillman is bound to give the veteran leadership that will be missed by Jokinen’s departure.

Atlanta Thrashers

This year smacks of a rebuilding campaign for the Thrashers, but that almost always seems like the case. Atlanta was reeling on offense after losing Marian Hossa at the trade deadline to the Pens. Ilya Kovalchuk still remains the top shot taker for the club, but will need the new additions of Marty Reasoner and Jason Williams to contribute because there isn’t much depth on offense.

Atlanta’s blue line could be its strongpoint for the season as for Blue Jacket Rob Hainsey will team up with Toby Enstrom for the top unit. The Thrashers will be expecting top pick Zach Bogosian to display a lot of the two-way play has displayed in Peterborough, scoring 61 points last season. This trio is bound to elevate Kari Lehtonen’s game in goal as he continues to mature.

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